America Observed

Christopher Colles, A survey of the roads of the United States of America. [New York, 1789]  Acquired 1946 (A 1789 .C655)

Foreign travelers eager to explore the world’s new experiment in democracy faced challenges of poor roads, indifferent accommodations, and unpredictable manners. In 1789 surveyor Christopher Colles sought to remedy the first by issuing the first American road atlas. Its eighty-three engraved strip maps delineate almost 1,000 miles of road. Each sheet covers twelve miles, with symbols denoting useful way stations: Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, town houses, grist mills, taverns, blacksmith shops, bridges, and the local “gaol,” with the names of various persons dwelling by the road. This copy includes its original portfolio with printed advertisement detailing the guide’s uses.

James Barclay, The voyages and travels of James Barclay, containing many surprising adventures, and interesting narratives. [London]: Printed for the author, 1777.  Acquired ca. 1950 (A 1777 .B37 no. 1)

Born in an Aberdeenshire village in 1752, Barclay journeyed to London in 1770 and then set sail for South Carolina to seek his fortune. He found employment as overseer of a rice and indigo plantation near Charleston manned by 60 slaves, but ill health forced his return to Scotland in 1772. Barclay’s very rare narrative is invaluable for documenting the persistence of African culture among Carolina slaves and the development of Gullah, their creole language. In describing their music, Barclay makes early reference to the “Bangier,” or banjo. 

Ishuree Dass, A brief account of a voyage to England and America. Allahabad: Presbyterian Mission Press, 1851.  Acquired 1974 (A 1851 .D37)

Dass was born near Allahabad in 1826 and raised by Presbyterian missionaries after being orphaned. To further his education, Dass embarked on an eight-month journey in 1846 to attend Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. This rare travelogue relates his impressions of New York, Philadelphia, the unexpectedly pleasant experience of American college life, and a holiday sojourn in Winchester, Va. Fascinated by various American customs, in particular those concerning the female sex (“Young ladies here do not tell their age”), Dass was disheartened by others, having made the faux pas of inviting a free African American to join a social gathering. Ill health prompted his early return to India in 1847.


William Kingsford, Impressions of the West and South during a six weeks' holiday. Toronto: A. H. Armour & Co., 1858.  Acquired 1959 (A 1858 .K564)

A prominent Canadian civil engineer, Kingsford undertook a two-month tour of the United States in 1857. Starting in Chicago, he then traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then overland to Mobile, Montgomery, Charleston, and Washington, D.C. His impressions of Chicago include amazement at urban real estate prices and bemusement at the few outward signs of economic distress during the Panic of 1857. In Washington Kingsford is nauseated by the relentless mythologizing of George Washington and his fellow patriots: “The Americans are … justly proud of the deeds of their sires … But why parade them for ever?” This book gathers the letters Kingsford published in a Toronto newspaper during his travels.


Kanagaki Robun, Bankoku jinbutsu zue [Pictures of people of other nations]. Edo: Yamadaya Shōjirō, 1861.  Acquired 1954 (A 1861 .K36)

As their country was opened to the West during the 1850s, the Japanese developed an intense fascination with the United States. Their curiosity was heightened in 1859, when large numbers of Americans began to visit, and reside in, the treaty ports newly opened to foreigners. This children’s book offers biographical sketches of famous Americans, including Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, with woodcut portraits by famed ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Yoshitora. Although the portraits are imaginary, as is this fanciful view of balloons floating over an American city, they are informed by Yoshitora’s observations of visiting Americans.

Charles Dryden, War in the midst of America from a new point of view. London: Ackermann & Co., [1864]  Acquired 2013 (A 1864 .D79)

Officially neutral, Britain nonetheless viewed the American Civil War with great interest. Slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833, hence most Britons supported the Emancipation Proclamation. On the other hand, Britain’s textile industry relied heavily on Southern cotton, its economy benefited from Confederate trade, and a Confederate victory would check the United States’ expanding influence. Britain’s detached yet conflicted stance permeates this delightful cartoon history of the Civil War. Events up to late 1864 are presented chronologically in this lithographed panorama, which unfolds to form a continuous 36-foot-long strip. The McGregor Library’s significant Civil War holdings will be featured in an upcoming exhibition.