1805 - William Cooper
Western Counties of New York
You have desired to know the causes of so many failures by enterprisers in new lands, and I have, under their respective divisions, pointed out several. I shall now take a more general view of that subject, and conclude my correspondence with a relation of the principal absurdities which have fallen under my observation, and which have been the causes of bad success.
An Irish Gentleman, of fortune, purchased a large tract. Full of ideal superiority, and high-minded enterprise, he cast his eyes around him, and interpreted all he saw into proofs of the weakness of our uncultivated minds. His plans were instantaneously formed, and he enjoyed, by confident anticipation, the pleasure of selfaggrandizement; the glory of rescuing a people from the empire of ignorance, and, I dare say, the generous pride of doing good. He sent home for such objects as he conceived instrumental to his success; he got a supply of tackles, blocks, windlasses, and capstans, with other mechanical auxiliaries. With these, and a number of men, he went to work - he pulled down the trees by force of men and machines - some he broke, some he overturned by the roots; but in order to effect this, he often spent five times more labor, independent of his mechanic powers, in barely chopping through the spreading roots, than would have served at first to have hewn down the tree. His pride forbade him to recede, and he succeeded in clearing a few acres at an enormous expense. I foresee that you will applaud him at least for having got rid of those stumps and roots which encumber, and in the eye of a European, so much disfigure the face of the soil; but I can assure you, that the deep caverns made by this violence, and the great quantities of cold and barren earth which these roots brought up with them, burying and impoverishing the rich layer of mould and ashes which are the encouraging reward of the settlers' first toils, were a much greater evil than all the stumps and roots, if suffered to remain; besides it is next to impossibility to roll those monstrous roots together, so as to be consumed by fire, damp as they must be, and covered with masses of earth. You are more puzzled how to get quit of them, after laboring to bring them above ground, than you were before to dispose of the whole tree; and that especially in a country where the poorest laborer will, in the shortest day, receive half a dollar for his work, over and above his provisions. At length this gentleman found out that it was one thing to dress his pleasure grounds in Ireland, and another to clear the Wilderness in America, and finished by admitting that in matters of husbandry experience was a better guide than either fancy or philosophy, and that none were more capable than those whom practice had made proficients.
Another Irish gentleman purchased a larger tract, and brought with him a number of his own tenants, his patent kitchen, his huntsmen, his hounds, his fishing apparatus, with workmen, and all that he supposed fit provision for founding a large establishment. He did not forget hampers of good claret, so necessary to give wisdom to a young beginner; perhaps, sir, this latter failing is not that for which you will be inclined to censure him too severely. During three summers he toiled in this manner, and never raised ten bushels of grain, nor one hundred weight of hay; but he expended in the country about twelve hundred pounds of Irish money and then bid adieu to his farm, and to the Western hemisphere.
An Englishman by the name of Ockley purchased a farm of me - he scoffed at our Yankee mode of clearing away the trees - he also sent for his ropes, his tackle-falls, and his pulleys; he sent moreover for leathern girdles, with buckles and straps, and furnished his workmen with mallets and polished chisels. Either he or his man would climb to the top of the highest tree and there fix his purchase; then another man below girded himself round with a girth that had stirrup leathers and stirrups attached to it, and was hoisted up by a rope; to this rope was also fixed a basket of tools, and the workman and his tools were thus pulled up about a hundred feet high. There he began his operations by sawing off the top of the tree above the seizing of his block; this done he was lowered down from limb to limb, sawing away branch after branch. When, however, the branches encumbered each other, so that his saw would not work, he took out his mallet and chisel, stood up in his stirrups and chiseled away. So he proceeded for one entire summer, and during the time that the heat was on him it would have been impertinent, if not dangerous, to advise him. He had come from a country distinguished for agricultural improvement, and could not look but with disdain upon our infant arts. Our counsels he considered as the lessons of a school-boy to his preceptor. He did not break his neck, but he destroyed his fortune, and bade farewell to the woods, leaving no other representatives behind than thousands of bare poles, resembling nothing so much as the masts of dismantled shipping in a harbor.
There was another English Gentleman who would not condescend to cut down a tree but with an English axe, nor plough but with a heavy English plough. He would not sow seed till every stump was first grubbed up; and if seemed his chief maxim to do nothing as the Americans did; of this he was so punctilious an observer that he shocked his wheat with the heads downward, because, he said, the ground would take the rankness out of the grain. The crop of several acres stood in shock, in wet weather, during ten or twelve days, and in that position began to grow, more to the amusement of his neighbors, than to his profit, and he remains to this day obstinate and poor.
Whilst I make free with the errors of others, let me not be supposed to glorify in myself. I have committed follies which I have not forgot. When I went first into the woods I was as bigoted to the methods I had been used to observe in Pennsylvania, as these Europeans were to theirs. I would not sow till the saplings were first grubbed up, and I ploughed the ground for the first crop, not considering that the immense quantity of timber to be burned consumed all the small roots and of itself prepared the ground for seed; and I thought that those who did otherwise must do so from ignorance. I found fault with their fences -I caviled at the construction of their wagons, and their gear -I condemned their tools and farming implements - I talked much and to little purpose - they continued their own practices, and I found, after some time, that I had nothing better to do than to conform ; and am every day more convinced, that wherever men's minds are uncontrolled they will in a short time discover what is for their interest better than strangers can instruct them; and that in countries where their actions are free, what is most in use will be found to be pretty nearly what is best; and chiefly in what concerns husbandry, and all its instruments. I can say little of other countries, having not been a traveler in them, but my own practice and observation have taught me that the people without the aid of philosophers and projectors understand their business pretty well.
Gradual improvements are made, and will grow out of experience, and certainly I am not an enemy to ingenious speculations, nor even to theories, provided they be the result of long and attentive observation, and grounded upon facts well ascertained. I only mean to say that, within the scope of my observation, I never could see that the practical farmer had derived much advantage from the meditations of the closet; and whatever experiments it may be thought useful by the learned to make, I should not wish them made at the expense of any one whose bread depended on their success. As yet I think it safer that the philosopher should learn from the farmer, than the farmer from the philosopher.
Your remarks upon those authors who have treated of the agriculture of our country are probably well founded, and were I to judge from the few specimens I have happened to see, I should say they were very just. Before a man attempts the history of any subject, he ought to know it well; and those who undertake to write upon the economy of a country would do well to wait till they had been long enough in one place to forget the many prejudices they had brought with them; and if their object be truly to instruct, they should endeavor to do it by example, which is the strongest lesson; and they will be readily followed if they can once show to those in whose interest they take concern, that they have known how to manage their own.
As to those western counties of New York, which I have been describing, they are chiefly peopled from the New England states, where the people are civil, well-informed, and very sagacious; so that a wise stranger would be much apter to conform at once to their usages than to begin by teaching them better.
A Guide in the Wilderness or: The History of the First Settlements in the Western Counties of New York with Useful Instructions to Future Settlers
Dublin 1810; Reprint 1936