Question 3: People of the Great Woods

In his letter, “What is an American”, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecouer expresses two contrasting sentiments concerning the “great woods” and the nature of life and living practices of pioneering or forest-dwelling American settlers, and the effects of such a life on the moral, social and economic capacities of these people.

He first explains that different environmental settings produce different citizens, i.e. people of the coasts “see and converse with a variety of people[…]the sea inspires them with the love of traffic, a desire of transporting produce from one place to another; and leads them to a variety of resources which supply the place of labour” (Crèvecouer 45). In a similar fashion he details the people living in the middle territories, lending fair qualities to them: “[…]the simple cultivation of the earth purifies them, but the indulgences of government, the soft remonstrances of religion, the rank of independent freeholders, must necessarily inspire them with sentiments very little known in European people among the same class” (45).

However, according to Crèvecouer, the people of the “great woods” are subject to the vices brought about by a number of circumstances and practices of which he disapproves. Because people of the woods are far from tamed, cultivated lands, and they are isolated because they were “driven there by misfortunes, necessity of beginnings, desire of acquiring large tracts of land, idleness, frequent want of economy, ancient debts [etc],” (Crèvecouer 46) he assumes that such people are inclined to represent the majority of ne’er-do-wells, criminals or undesirables operating on selfish and unproductive motives. They are assumed to be irreligious, unsocial and to labor primarily for themselves. In addition, he fears that they will take to hunting, a practice considered inferior to cultivation, agriculture and industry at that time – the same practice he mentions when deeming Native Americans to be “half civilized” or “savage” (Crèvecouer 52).

Crèvecouer goes on to explain that these “most hideous” results lay the groundwork for “the first labours of settlement, the mode of clearing the earth” (Crèvecouer 47) which is the prelude to acquisition and cultivation of land by future settlers. These second comers, he explains, will be supposedly more virtuous and successful settlers, the “more industrious people, who will finish their work” (47). In short, he argues that the “great woods” are a place of settling, which are prone to coarse or uncivilized life, a necessary evil of sorts, or a prerequisite to a country he envisions as being bound to become neatly agrarian and domesticated.


1) St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector. “What is an American?” Letters from an American Farmer. New York: Dutton, 1877. 39-68. Print.

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