Front Page Titles (by Subject) appendix 1: Journey to Lake Oneida a - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4
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appendix 1: Journey to Lake Oneida a - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 4.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Journey to Lake Oneidaa
On July 8, 1831, at sunrise, we left the small village called Fort Brewerton, and we began to advance toward the northeast.
About one mile from the house of our host, a path opens in the forest; we hastened to take it. The heat was beginning to become uncomfortable. After a windy night had followed a morning without any cool breeze. Soon we found ourselves sheltered from the rays of the sun and in the middle of one of these deep forests of the New World whose somber and wild majesty grips the imagination and fills the soul with a sort of religious terror.
How to paint such a spectacle? On a marshy terrain where a thousand small streams, not yet imprisoned by the hand of man, run and are lost in liberty, nature has scattered pell-mell and with an incredible profusion the seeds of nearly all the plants that creep on the earth or rise above the soil.
Over our heads was spread as it were a vast dome of greenery. Under this thick veil and amid the humid depths of the woods, the eye saw an immense confusion; a sort of chaos. Trees of all ages, foliage of all colors, herbs, fruits, flowers of a thousand species, intermingled, intertwined in the same places. Generations of trees have followed each other there without interruption for centuries, and the earth is covered with their remains. Some seem struck down yesterday; others, already half settled into the earth, present nothing more than a hollow and flat surface; others finally are reduced to dust and serve as fertilizer for their last shoots. In the midst of them a thousand diverse plants hasten to emerge in their turn. They slip between these immobile cadavers, creep along their surface, penetrate beneath their withered bark, lift up and scatter their powdery remains.b It is like a struggle between death and life. Sometimes, we happened to encounter an immense tree that the wind had uprooted, but the rows are so close together in the forest that, despite its weight, it was not able to make it to the ground. It still balanced its dry branches in the air.
A solemn silence reigned amid this solitude; you saw only a few or no animated creatures, man was missing and yet it was not a desert. Everything, on the contrary, showed a productive force in nature unknown elsewhere; everything was activity; the air seemed impregnated with an odor of vegetation. It seemed as if you heard an internal noise that revealed the work of creation and as if you saw sap and life circulating in always open channels.
It was amid this imposing solitude and in the light of an uncertain day that we walked for several hours, without hearing any noise other than that made by our horses trampling underfoot the leaves piled up by several winters or pushing with difficulty through the dry branches that covered the path. We kept silent ourselves, our souls were filled with the grandeur and the novelty of the spectacle. Finally we heard the echo of the first blows of an ax which announced in the distance the presence of a European. Felled trees, burned and blackened trunks, some plants useful to the life of man sown amid a confused mixture of a hundred various remnants, led us to the habitation of the pioneer. At the center of a rather narrow circle drawn around it by iron and fire arose the crude house of the forerunner of European civilization. It was like the oasis in the middle of the desert.
After conversing a few moments with the inhabitant of this place, we resumed our course and a half-hour later we arrived at a fisherman’s cabin built on the very shores of the lake that we were coming to visit.
Lake Oneida is situated in the middle of low hills and at the center of still respectable forests. A belt of thick foliage surrounds it on all sides, and its waters moisten the roots of trees that are reflected in its transparent and tranquil surface. The isolated cabin of a fisherman rose alone on its shores. Moreover, no sail appeared on its entire surface; you did not even see smoke rise above its woods, for the European, without having completely taken possession of its banks, had already approached closely enough to exile the numerous and warlike tribe that had once given the lake its name.
About one mile from the shore on which we stood were two islands, oval in form and of equal length. These islands are covered by a wood so thick that it entirely conceals the earth that supports it; you would say two clumps of trees floating peacefully on the surface of the lake.
No road passes near this place; you do not see in these regions great industrial establishments, or places famous for their picturesque beauty. Yet it was not chance that had led us close to this solitary lake. It was on the contrary the goal and the end of our journey.
Already many years ago, a book entitled Journey to Lake Oneida had fallen into my hands.c The author told about a young Frenchman and his wife, chased from their country by the storms of our first Revolution, who had come to seek a refuge on one of the islands that the lake surrounds with its waters.d There, separated from the entire universe, far from the tempests of Europe, and rejected by the society that gave them birth, these two unfortunates lived for each other, consoled each other in their misfortune.
The book had left a deep and lasting mark on my soul. Whether this effect on me was due to the talent of the author, to the real charm of events, or to the influence of age, I could not say; but the remembrance of the two French inhabitants of Lake Oneida had not faded from my memory. How many times had I not envied the tranquil delights of their solitude. The domestic happiness, the charms of the married state, love itself mingling in my mind with the image of the solitary island where my imagination had created a new Eden. This story, told to my traveling companion, had deeply moved him in turn. We often happened to talk about it, and we always ended up repeating either with laughter or with sadness: happiness in the world exists only on the shores of Lake Oneida. When events that were impossible for us to foresee posted us both to America, this memory returned to us with more force. We promised ourselves to go to visit our two French compatriots if they still existed, or at least to travel over to their dwelling-place. Admire here the strange power of the imagination over the mind of man; these wild places, this silent and immobile lake, these islands covered with greenery did not strike us as new objects; on the contrary, we seemed to see once again a place where we had passed part of our youth.
We hurried to enter the fisherman’s cabin. The man was in the woods. An old woman lived there alone. She came limping to greet us at the doorway of her house. “What do you call this green island that arises a mile from here in the middle of the lake?” we said to her. “It is called Frenchman’s island,” she answered. “Do you know why it has been given that name?” “I am told it was named this because of a Frenchman who, many years ago, came there to live.” “Was he alone?” “No, he brought his young wife with him.” “Do they still live in this place?” “Twenty-one years ago, when I came to settle in this place, the French were no longer on the island.”e I recall that I had the curiosity to go to visit it. This island that appears so wild to you from here was then a beautiful place; its interior was carefully cultivated, the house of the French was placed in the middle of an orchard, surrounded by fruits and flowers. A large vinestock climbed up its walls and then surrounded it on all sides, but without an inhabitant, the house had already fallen into ruins. “So what became of the two French?” “The woman died, the man abandoned the island, and we don’t know what became of him since.” “Could you entrust us with the boat that is tied by your door in order to cross the part of the lake that separates us from the island?” “Very willingly, but it is a long way to row and the work is hard for men who are not used to it, and besides what could you see of interest in a place that has become wild again?”
Since we hastened, without answering her, to put the dingy in the water, she said, “I see what it is, you want to buy this island; the soil is good and land is not yet expensive in our district.” We answered her that we were travelers. “Then,” she started again, “you are undoubtedly relatives of the Frenchman, and he charged you with visiting his property.” “Even less,” we replied, “we do not even know his name.”f The good woman shook her head with incredulity and we, maneuvering the oars, began to advance rapidly toward Frenchman’s island.
During this short crossing, we kept a profound silence; our hearts were full of sweet and painful emotions. As we approached, it made less sense to us that this island could have been inhabited once, so wild were its surroundings. Little was needed for us to believe ourselves the victims of a false report. Finally we reached its bank, and slipping under the immense branches that the trees projected over the lake, we began to penetrate further. We first crossed a circle of century-old trees that seemed to defend the approach to the place. Beyond the rampart of foliage we suddenly discovered another sight. A sparse undergrowth and a young cluster of trees filled the whole interior of the island. In the forests that we had crossed in the morning, we had often seen man struggling, hand to hand, against nature, and succeeding, though with difficulty, to remove its energetic and wild character in order to bend it to his laws. Here, on the contrary, we saw the forest reclaiming its dominion, marching once again toward the conquest of the wilderness, defying man and making the fleeting traces of his victory disappear rapidly.
It was easy to recognize that a diligent hand had once cleared the place now occupied in the center of the island by the young generation of trees that I spoke about. You did not find old trunks spread over the debris. Everything there, on the contrary, smacked of youth. It was clear that the surrounding trees had grown offshoots in the middle of the abandoned fields, weeds had grown in the place that formerly supported the crop of the exile, brambles and parasitic plants had come to retake possession of their former domain. Scarcely here and there did you find the trace of a fence or the sign of a field. For an hour we tried unsuccessfully to find a few vestiges of the abandoned house in the foliage of the woods and amid the undergrowth that cluttered the ground. This rural luxury that the wife of the fisherman had just described to us, the lawn, the flowerbed, the flowers, the fruits, these products of civilization that an ingenious tenderness had introduced into the middle of a wilderness, all had disappeared with the beings who had lived there. We were going to give up our effort, when we noticed an apple tree half dead of old age; this began to put us on the track. Near there a plant that we at first took for a creeper climbed along the highest trees intertwining with their slender trunks or hanging like a garland of foliage from their branches; examining it more closely, we recognized a vinestock. Then we were able to judge with certainty that we were on the very emplacement chosen, forty years ago, by our two unfortunate compatriots to make their last refuge. But barely by digging in the thick bed of leaves that covered the soil, were we able to find a few remnants falling into rot that in a bit of time would have ceased to exist. As for the very remains of the woman who was not afraid to exchange the delights of civilized life for a tomb in a deserted island of the New World, it was impossible for us to find a trace. Had the exile left this precious trust in the wilderness? Had he, on the contrary, carried it to the place where he himself ended his life? No one could tell us that.
Perhaps those who will read these lines will not imagine the sentiments that they recount and will treat them as exaggeration and chimera? But I will say nonetheless that, with our hearts full of emotion, agitated by fears and hopes, and animated by a sort of religious sentiment, we devoted ourselves to this minute research and pursued the traces of these two beings whose name, family and, in part, whose story were unknown to us. They attracted our attention only because they had felt in these very places the sufferings and joys that have their source in all hearts and are therefore of interest to all hearts.g
Is there a misery greater than that of this man!
Here is an unfortunate man whom human society has offended; his fellows have rejected, banished him and forced him to renounce their company and then to flee from them into the wilderness. A single being attached herself to his steps, followed him into seclusion, came to dress the wounds of his soul and to substitute for the joys of the world the most penetrating emotions of the heart. There he is reconciled to his destiny. He has forgotten revolutions, parties, cities, his family, his rank, his fortune; he finally breathes. His wife dies. Death comes to strike her and it spares him. Unfortunate man! What is to become of him? Is he going to remain alone in the wilderness? Will he return to a society where he has been forgotten for a long time? He is no longer made either for seclusion or for the world; he would no longer know how to live either with men or without them; he is neither a savage nor a civilized man; he is nothing but a remnant similar to those trees of the American forest that the wind has had the strength to uproot, but not to pull down; he is upright, but he is no longer living.
After traveling across the island in all directions, after visiting its slightest remnants, and after listening to the icy silence that now reigns beneath its shadows, we retook the road to the continent.h
Not without regret, I saw the vast rampart of greenery fade into the distance. It had for so many years known how to defend the two exiles against the European’s bullet and the savage’s arrow, but it was not able to hide their cottage from the invisible blows of death.j
[a. ]Journey to Lake Oneida and A Fortnight in the Wilderness were written by Tocqueville during his journey in America. If he had not wanted to publish them, it was because he was concerned about not entering into competition on this point with Beaumont.Journey to Lake Oneida was published for the first time by Beaumont in Œuvres et correspondance inédites d’Alexis de Tocqueville, OCB, V, pp. 161-71. It has recently been included in Voyages en Sicile et aux États-Unis, OC, V, 1, pp. 336-41. Tocqueville presented a first version in a letter of 25 July 1831 to his sister-in-law, Alexandrine (reproduced with some modifications in OCB, VII, pp. 39-45). The family archives contain a copy of the text in the hand of Mary Mottley and corrected by Tocqueville. The episode also appears in Marie, II, pp. 45-46 and 329.
[b. ] Several of these sentences are found word for word in the Democracy. Cf. pp. 37-38 of the first volume and 459-61 of the second volume.
[c. ] Sophie von la Roche, Erscheinungen am See Oneida (Leipzig: H. Gra¨ff, 1798), 3 vols. Tocqueville, who tried to learn German on several occasions, probably had a rudimentary knowledge of this language only when he was preparing the Old Regime. He must have read the abridged version of the book of Sophie von la Roche, which was published in French by Joachim Heinrich Campe with the title Voyage d’un Allemand au Lac Onéida, as part of the collection Bibliothèque géographique et instructive des jeunes gens, ou recueil de voyages . . . (Paris: J. E. Gabriel Dufour, 1803), X, pp. 1-170. See Victor Lange, “Visitors to Lake Oneida, An Account of the Background of Sophie von la Roche’s novel ‘Erscheinungen am See Oneida,’ ” Symposium 2, no. 1 (1948): 48-78. It is not the only time that the reading of a novel pushed Tocqueville to travel. The reading of Kenilworth by Walter Scott will be the origin of an evening excursion and of an account very similar to this one. See note e of p. 118 of the first volume.
Certain passages of this account recall the fifth promenade of [Rousseau’s] Rêveries du promeneur solitaire.
[d. ] “For a bit of powder and lead, they bought the island from the Indians.” Letter of Tocqueville to his sister-in-law, Alexandrine (Batavia, 25 July 1831), YTC, BIa2, andOCB, VII, p. 40.
[e. ] In his letter to Alexandrine, Tocqueville writes instead: “and they were still there when we ourselves came, now twenty-two years ago, to live in this place.” Ibidem, p. 41.
[f. ] Devatines, Desvatins, De Wattines, Vatine, and others, depending on the different versions of the story. André Jardin and George Pierson (Lettres d’Amérique, p. 94, note 3) believe him to be a member of the family La Croix de Watines.
[g. ] “. . . despite its natural beauty, this island by itself was of only slight interest to me; but a man had lived there, and this man was French, unfortunate and proscribed!” Beaumont, Marie, II, p. 329.
[h. ] On July 8, 1831, returning from his journey to Frenchman’s Island, Tocqueville wrote: “What most intensely interested and moved me, not only since I have been in America, but also since I have traveled, is this trip.” Pocket notebook 1, YTC, BIIa, andVoyage, OC, V, 1, p. 162. The emotion seems to have been so profound that henceforth solitude and melancholy would always be associated in the mind of Tocqueville with the American wilderness.
[j. ] George W. Pierson, in Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (pp. 197-205), shows that the true history of the two French is far from the romantic version that Tocqueville learned about. The accounts of various travelers who met them indicate that the two French had arrived in America in 1786, and not at the time of the French Revolution, and that they had moved to Oneida only after being ruined in various enterprises. For some time, they inhabited the island with their three children and, far from enjoying their condition, everything leads us to believe that, on the contrary, they hoped for nothing other than to return to France. Their little appreciation for the inhabitants of the country seems to have put them on bad terms with their neighbors. They seem in the end to have found the money necessary to go back to France.
Tocqueville and Beaumont were not able to stop themselves from preferring the version of Sophie von la Roche. Like the French of this story, they left France after a revolution; their future was equally uncertain. What event could occur during their absence that would force them to become exiles in America? How not to let yourself be captivated by a drama that has as a setting an island and American nature, great and wild? Can we blame Tocqueville for having embellished the story and for having dreamed so romantically about the remains of the young French woman?
“Does the man who no longer lives have some appreciable advantage over the man who has never been?” Tocqueville asked himself in Visit to Kenilworth. “They both exist only by the will of those who are occupied with them. If the fictional being is more attractive than the real being, why would he occupy their thought less?” (YTC, CXIb12, and OCB, VII, p. 119).