Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 1

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VII - Chapter 1
Journey from Philadelphia to New-York and Boston - Mackenzie

London, April to September 1822. (Revised December 1846)

I was impatient to continue my journey. It was not Americans I had come to see, but something totally different from the men I understood, something more in accord with the customary nature of my ideas; I longed to throw myself into an enterprise for which I was equipped with nothing but my imagination and courage.

When I framed the idea of discovering the North-West Passage, it was not known whether North America extended towards the Pole joining itself to Greenland, or whether it terminated in some sea contiguous with Hudson Bay and the BehringStraits. In 1772, Hearne had discovered the sea at the mouth of the Copper Mine River, in latitude 71 degrees 15 minutes North, and longitude 119 degrees 15 minutes West of Greenwich (Both latitude and longitude are now known to be too great by four and a quarter degrees: Note, Geneva 1832).

On the PacificCoast, the efforts of Captain Cook and other later navigators had left certain doubts. In 1787, a ship was said to have entered an inland sea of North America; according to the narrative of the captain of this vessel, what had been taken for an uninterrupted coastline to the north of California, was really just a closely-linked chain of islands. The British Admiralty sent Vancouver to verify these reports, which proved false. Vancouver had not yet made his second voyage.

In the United States, in 1791, there was growing talk of the route taken by Mackenzie: starting from FortChippeway on MountainLake, on the 3rd June 1789, he descended the river to which he gave his name and reached the Arctic Ocean.

This discovery might have made me change direction and head due north; but I would have had scruples about altering the plan agreed between myself and Monsieur de Malesherbes. So I decided to travel west, so as to strike the north-west coast above the Gulf of California; from there, following the trend of the continent, and keeping the sea in sight, I hoped to explore the Behring Straits, double the northernmost cape of America, descend by the eastern shores of the Polar Sea, and return to the United States by way of Hudson Bay, Labrador, and Canada.

What means did I possess to execute this prodigious peregrination? None. Most French explorers have been solitary men, abandoned to their own resources; only rarely has the Government or some company employed or assisted them. Englishmen, Americans, Germans, Spaniards and Portuguese have accomplished, with the support of the national will, what in our case impoverished individuals have attempted in vain. Mackenzie, and others after him, have made conquests in the vast expanses of America, to the benefit of the United States and Great Britain, which I dreamt of making in order to extend the possessions of my native land. If I had succeeded, I would have had the honour of giving French names to unknown regions, of endowing my country with a colony on the Pacific Ocean, taking the rich fur trade from a rival power, and preventing that rival from opening up a shorter route to the Indies, by putting France herself in possession of that route. I have recorded these plans in my Essai historique, published in London in 1796, the plans being taken from my manuscript account of my travels in 1791. These dates show that I was ahead of the latest explorers of the Arctic ice-fields in my intentions and my writings.

I found no encouragement in Philadelphia. I recognised then that the object of this first voyage would not be achieved, and that my journey was only the prelude to a second, longer voyage. I wrote to this effect to Monsieur de Malesherbes, and while awaiting future events, I dedicated to poetry whatever would be lost to science. Indeed, if I failed to find in America what I sought, the Polar world, I did find a new Muse there.

A stage-coach, like the one which had brought me to Baltimore, carried me from Baltimore to New-York, a lively, crowded, commercial city, which was nevertheless far from what it is today, far from what it will be in a few years time: for the United States grows faster than this manuscript. I went on a pilgrimage to Boston to salute the first battlefield of American liberty. I saw the plains of Lexington; I sought there, as since at Sparta, the tomb of those warriors who died in obedience to the sacred laws of their country. A memorable example of the links between human affairs! A finance bill, passed in the English Parliament in 1765, engendered a new power in the world in 1782, and caused the disappearance of one of the oldest kingdoms of Europe in 1789!