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Peter Kalm’s 1749 Adirondack Journey

Kalmia angustifolia

Ever wish you could time-travel back to the Adirondacks of a different era, to walk the land and paddle the water on the eve of European settlement? The closest you can come is to read Travels Into North America, by Peter Kalm.

Kalm was a Finnish-Swedish botanist and protégé of Carl Linnaeus, who established the system still used to name and classify all life on Earth. Linnaeus sent Kalm to the New World in 1748 to collect plants that were new to science. Kalm was also interested in bringing back to Scandinavia utilitarian species that could be cultivated in that cold climate.

Not only did Kalm discover more than 50 new plants, he kept a diary and recorded day-by-day observations of the country, Native Americans, and the customs of the Dutch, English and French settlers he met along his way from Pennsylvania to Quebec and back.

He found the Adirondacks unprepossessing. Here is his initial impression, probably around what is now Whitehall, as he paddled north toward Lake Champlain on July 1, 1749:

The country which we passed was the poorest and most disagreeable imaginable. We saw nothing but a row of amazing high mountains covered with woods, steep and dirty on their sides; so that we found it difficult to get to a dry place, in order to land and boil our dinner.

He must’ve been in a dark mood that day. He also wrote warily of timber rattlesnakes, which still inhabit that country:

I can never think of this journey, without reverently acknowledging the peculiar care and providence of the merciful Creator.

Indians influenced land cover on a broad scale long before the colonists:

The country, hereabout, it is said, contains vast forest of firs of the white, black, and red kind, which had been formerly still more extensive. One of the chief reasons of their decrease are the numerous fires which happen every year in the woods, through the carelessness of the Indians, who frequently make great fires when they are hunting.

Kalm was often uncomfortable, and often afraid. Tensions were high between the French and English and their native allies. On the trip between Fort Anne and Crown Point, crossing from English into French territory, he wrote on June 10:

We passed the night in an island, where we could not sleep on account of the gnats. We did not venture to make a fire, for fear the Indians should find us out, and kill us. We heard several of their dogs barking in the woods, at a great distance from us, which added to our uneasiness.

He seemed fascinated by why colonists’ teeth were so poor and Native Americans’ teeth were so strong and white. In his journal he mused whether the cause was sudden changes in temperature or too much tea-drinking by the Europeans. Eventually he seemed to settle on the soft, bready diet of the whites.

Kalm may have carried some prejudices over the Atlantic—that or he had a particular disdain for the colonial English. He raved about his stay with the French at Crown Point (then Fort St. Frederic), July 2–19, 1949.

I found that the [French] people of distinction, in general here, had a much greater taste for natural history and other parts of literature than in the English colonies, where it was every body’s sole care and employment to scrape a fortune together, and where the sciences were held in universal contempt.

Ever wonder how indigenous people dealt with black flies and no-see-ums?

The Indians prepare an oil from bear’s grease, which in summer they daub their face, hands, and all naked parts of their body, to secure them from the bite of the gnats.

He also witnessed sturgeon leaping out of Lake Champlain, flocks of passenger pigeons so heavy they caused limbs to fall of trees, war whoops, scalps, primeval Lake George, and other scenes from a vanished world. Other than Lake George, he did not venture into the Adirondack interior, but he gathered some intelligence:

The country behind the high mountains, on the western side of [Lake Champlain], is, as I am told, covered for many miles together with a tall forest, intersected by many rivers and brooks, with marshes and small lakes, and very fit to be inhabited.

Despite the hardship of 18th-century travel, Kalm loved North America and discovering new plants everywhere he looked. He asked Linnaeus for permission to stay but was called back to Finland in 1751. Linnaeus named a genera of North American evergreen shrubs in Kalm’s honor. In the Adirondacks we remember the explorer when we see the heath Kalmia angustifolia, also known as sheep laurel, with its clusters of pink flowers on the boggy edge of lakes.

The last edition of Travels Into North America was published in 1972. However, Purple Mountain Press in 2007 published the only English-language biography of Kalm, The Travels of Peter Kalm, by Paula Ivaska Robbins.

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