The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796–1800 ed. by Louise V. North (review)
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Henrietta Marchant Liston, Travel, Robert Liston, Native Americans

The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796–1800. Edited by Louise V. North. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2014. Pp. 161. Appendix, map, illustrations. Cloth, $80.00.)

Some travel accounts don’t have much to offer, except as testimony to the banality of travel. Your aunt Connie’s slide show of her trip to [End Page 826] Disneyland is a good example. If you were polite enough to sit through it, you probably didn’t get much out of it, except points for good behavior. Henrietta Marchant Liston’s account of her travels throughout the eastern parts of North America in the years of the Washington and Adams administrations is not like that. Liston is the best kind of traveler for the historian: smart, witty, well-connected, curious, and opinionated. She was married to Robert Liston, who in 1796 was named British minister to the United States. He was born and raised in Scotland; Henrietta was born in 1752 in Antigua but traveled widely in Britain and France before marrying Robert the same year they sailed for the States. An educated, well-traveled woman, used to her independence, and married to a man who valued her opinion, Henrietta Liston participated actively in her husband’s embassy to the United States. The Listons were keen to see the country in which they served, and got out of Philadelphia frequently. Her journals describe trips to South Carolina, upper New York state, New England, and Virginia. Inevitably, they were surrounded by famous and powerful people, but Liston’s journals also abound with details about her encounters with innkeepers, farmers, Indians, Shakers, and other ordinary people. Henrietta Liston wanted to get to know the United States, and her adventurous spirit led her to experience it, not merely to observe it. Thanks to her journals, we are with her as she descends to the base of Niagara Falls, dines on raccoon and rattlesnake, and enjoys the songs of French Canadian boatmen rowing her and Robert to Quebec.

This edition of Liston’s short journals is good reading on its own, but is especially enlightening on several themes of interest to early Americanists. The first is the experience of travel itself in the early republic. As Will Mackintosh describes in a recent JER article, long-distance travel before the development of the mid-nineteenth-century travel industry was an exhausting, bone-crunching, ad hoc, and sometimes dangerous affair.1 In their quest to see the new nation for themselves, the indefatigable Listons suffered the States’ infamously bad roads, filthy inns, swarms of mosquitoes, lame horses, and vile “coffee.” The commodification of tourism, which was soon to transform the experience of travelers through the very areas the Listons visited (the Niagara Falls region, especially) [End Page 827] may have made the experience of travel less authentic, and less of an adventure, but it also made it more accessible to people less privileged— and adventurous—than the Listons.

Once in the States, Henrietta and Robert traveled exclusively on land or via lakes and rivers. The short distances they covered day by day forced them to spend many nights in local “inns,” which, more often than not, were merely the homes of people willing to shelter travelers for a little money. Particularly in the South, small planters seem to have supplemented their income by taking in travelers for the night. But oftentimes the Listons took shelter in the homes of people who provided it and shared what food they had. As a result, Liston’s journals provide considerable insight into the lives of the rural poor along the eastern seaboard, and it is not a pretty picture. They found indifferent home construction (especially in the South); undue familiarity; isolated, uneducated families; and wretched poverty amidst the unattractive beginnings of economic development. In the South, especially North Carolina, and in the regions just to the west of the developed areas of the northern seaboard, the Listons found people with plenty of land and food (especially pork and corn) but little in the way of comforts, and no gentility at all. Liquor...


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