“The Whole Country Is One Vast Forest”

Deep Forest

A French Visitor Describes a Very Different America

Among foreign visitors to the young United States around 1800 was one Constantin Volney, who was lucky to escape the Reign of Terror and the guillotine in his native France. His The Ruin was one of some seventy volumes of travels in the New World by French visitors during that time.

“Compared with France,” wrote Volney, “we may say that the entire country is one vast forest.” In the year 1796, he had traveled from Pennsylvania through Virginia and Kentucky to Detroit and back by way of Albany. During his travels, he wrote, “I scarce traveled three miles together on open and cleared land.”

This was at a time when Philadelphia was the largest city in the United States, with a population of some 70,000 inhabitants, followed by New York, with 60,000; Boston, with 25,000; and Baltimore, with 13,000. In 1800, these were the only American cities with more than 10,000 population.

I got these facts from Van Wyck Brooks’s The World of Washington Irving, which is showing me a far different picture of my country some two hundred years ago.