Sketches of American History

This American world, all our histories say,
Secluded from Europe, long centuries lay,
And peopled by beings whom white-men detest,
The sons of the Tartars, that came from the west.

These Indians, ‘tis certain, were here long before ye all,
And dwelt in their wigwams from time immemorial;
In a mere state of nature, untutored, untaught,
They did as they pleased, and they spoke as they thought—

No priests they had then for the cure of their souls,
No lawyers, recorders, or keepers of rolls;
No learned physicians vile nostrums concealed—
Their druggist was Nature—her shop was the field.

In the midst of their forests how happy and blest,
In the skin of a bear or buffalo drest!
No care to perplex, and no luxury seen
But the feast, and the song, and the dance on the green.

Some bowed to the moon, and some worshipped the sun,
And the king and the captain were centered in one;
In a cabin they met, in their councils of state,
Where age and experience alone might debate.

With quibbles they never essayed to beguile,
And Nature had taught them the orator's style;
No pomp they affected, not quaintly refined
The nervous idea that glanced on the mind.

When hunting or battle invited to arms,
The women they left to take care of their farms—
The toils of the summer did winter repay,
While snug in their cabins they snored it away.

If death came among them his dues to demand,
They still had some prospects of comfort at hand—
The dead man they sent to the regions of bliss,
With his bottle and dog, and his fair maids to kiss.



Thus happy they dwelt in a rural domain,
Uninstructed in commerce, unpractised in gain,
’Till, taught by the loadstone to traverse the seas,
Columbus came over, that bold Genoese.

From records authentic, the date we can shew,
One thousand four hundred and ninety and two
Years, borne by the seasons, had vanished away,
Since the babe in the manger at Bethlehem lay.

What an æra was this, above all that had passed,
To yield such a treasure, discovered at last—
A new world, in value exceeding the old,
Such mountains of silver, such torrents of gold!

Yet the schemes of Columbus, however well planned
Were scarcely sufficient to find the main land;
On the islands alone with the natives he spoke,
Except when he entered the great Oronoque:

In this he resembled old Moses, the Jew,
Who, roving about with his wrong-headed crew,
When at length the reward was no longer denied,
From the top of Mount Pisgah he saw it, and died.

These islands and worlds in the watery expanse,
Like most mighty things, were the offspring of chance,
Since steering for Asia, Columbus they say,
Was astonished to find such a world in his way!

No wonder, indeed, he was smit with surprize—
This empire of Nature was new to their eyes—
Cut short in their course by so splendid a scene,
Such a region of wonders intruding between!

Yet great as he was, and deserving no doubt,
We have only to thank him for finding the rout;
These climes to the northward, more stormy and cold,
Were reserved for the efforts of Cabot the bold.



Where the sun in December appears to decline
Far off to the southward, and south of the line,
A merchant of Florence, more fortunate still,
Explored a new track, and discovered Brazil:

Good Fortune, Vespucius, pronounced thee her own,
Or else to mankind thou hadst scarcely been known—
By giving thy name, thou art ever renowned—
Thy name to a world that another had found!

Columbia, the name was, that merit decreed,
But Fortune and Merit have never agreed—
Yet the poets, alone, with commendable care
Are vainly attempting the wrong to repair.

The bounds I prescribe to my verse are too narrow
To tell of the conquests of Francis Pizarro;
And Cortez ’tis needless to bring into view,
One Mexico conquered, the other Peru.

Montezuma with credit in verse might be read,
But Dryden has told you the monarch is dead!
And the woes of his subjects—what torments they bore,
Las Casas, good bishop, has mentioned before:

Let others be fond of their stanzas of grief—
I hate to descant on the fall of the leaf—
Two scenes are so gloomy, I view them with pain,
The annals of death, and the triumphs of Spain.

Poor Atahualpa we cannot forget—
He gave them his utmost—yet died in their debt,
His wealth was a crime that they could not forgive,
And when they possessed it, forbade him to live.

Foredoomed to misfortunes (that come not alone)
He was the twelfth Inca that sat on the throne,
Who fleecing his brother of half his domains,
At the palace of Cusco confined him in chains.



But what am I talking—or where do I roam?
’Tis time that our story was brought nearer home—
From Florida’s cape did Cabot explore
To the fast frozen region of cold Labradore.

In the year fourteen hundred and ninety and eight
He came, as the annals of England relate,
But finding no gold in the lengthy domain,
And coasting the country, he left it again.

Next Davis—then Hudson adventured, they say,
One found out a streight, and the other a bay,
Whose desolate region, or turbulent wave
One present bestowed him—and that was a grave.



In the reign of a virgin (as authors discover)
Drake, Hawkins, and Raleigh in squadrons came over
While Barlow and Grenville succeeded to these,
Who all brought their colonies over the seas.

These, left in a wilderness teeming with woes,
The natives, suspicious, concluded them foes,
And murdered them all without notice or warning,
Ralph Lane, with his vagabonds, scarcely returning.

In the reign of king James (and the first of the name,)
George Summers, with Hacluit, to Chesapeake came,
Where far in the forests, not doomed to renown,
On the river Powhatan they built the first town.

Twelve years after this, some scores of dissenters
To the northernmost district came seeking adventures;
Outdone by the bishops, those great faggot fighters;
They left them to rule with their cassocks and mitres.

Thus banished forever, and leaving the sod,
The first land they saw was the pitch of Cape Cod,
Where famished with hunger and quaking with cold
They planned their New-Plymouth—so called from the old.

They were, without doubt, a delightful collection;—
Some came to be rid of a Stuart’s direction,
Some sailed with a view to dominion and riches,
Some to pray without book, and a few to hang witches.

Some, came on the Indians to shed a new light,
Convinced long before that their own must be right,
And that all who had died in the centuries past
On the devil’s lee shore were eternally cast.

These exiles were formed in a whimsical mould,
And were awed by their priests, like the Hebrews of old;
Disclaimed all pretences to jesting and laughter,
And sighed their lives through, to be happy hereafter.

On a crown immaterial their hearts were intent,
They looked towards Zion, wherever they went,
Did all things in hopes of a future reward,
And worried mankind—for the sake of the Lord.

With rigour excessive they strengthened their reign,
Their laws were conceived in the ill-natured strain,
With mystical meanings the saint was perplext,
And the flesh and the devil were slain by a text.

The body was scourged, for the good of the soul,
All folly discouraged by peevish controul,
A knot on the head was the sign of no grace,
And the Pope and his comrade were pictured in lace.

A stove in their churches, or pews lined with green,
Were horrid to think of, much more to be seen,
Their bodies were warmed with the linings of love,
And the fire was sufficient that flashed from above.

’Twas a crime to assert that the moon was opaque,
To say the earth moved, was to merit the stake;
And he that could tell an eclipse was to be,
In the college of Satan had took his degree.

On Sundays their faces were dark as a cloud—
The road to the meeting was only allowed,
And those they caught rambling, on business or pleasure,
Were sent to the stocks, to repent at their leisure.

This day was the mournfullest day in the week—
Except on religion, none ventured to speak—
This day was the day to examine their lives,
To clear off old scores, and to preach to their wives.

Their houses were forts, that seemed proof against light;
Their parlours, all day, were the blackness of night:
And, as if at their thresholds a cannon did roar,
The animals hardly dared open their door
'Till the sun disappeared—then, like a mole's snout
In the dusk of the evening, their noses popped out.

In the school of oppression though woefully taught,
’Twas only to be the oppressors they sought;
All, all but themselves were be-deviled and blind,
And their narrow-souled creed was to serve all mankind.

This beautiful system of nature below
They neither considered, nor wanted to know,
And called it a dog-house wherein they were pent,
Unworthy themselves, and their mighty descent.

They never perceived that in Nature's wide plan
There must be that whimsical creature called Man,
Far short of the rank he affects to attain,
Yet a link in its place, in creation's vast chain.



Whatever is foreign to us and our kind
Can never be lasting, though seemingly joined—
The hive swarmed at length, and a tribe that was teazed
Set out for Rhode-Island to think as they pleased.

Some hundreds to Britain ran murmuring home—
While others went off in the forests to roam,
When they found they had missed what they looked for at first,
The downfall of sin, and the reign of the just.

Hence, dry controversial reflections were thrown,
And the old dons were vexed in the way they had shown;
So those that are held in the work-house all night
Throw dirt the next day at the doors, out of spite.

Ah pity the wretches that lived in those days,
(Ye modern admirers of novels and plays)
When nothing was suffered but musty, dull rules,
And nonsense from Mather and stuff from the schools!

No story, like Rachel's, could tempt them to sigh,
Susanna and Judith employed the bright eye—
No fine spun adventures tormented the breast,
Like our modern Clarissa, Tom Jones, and the rest.

Those tyrants had chosen the books for your shelves,
(And, trust me, no other than writ by themselves,
For always by this may a bigot be known,
He speaks well of nothing but what is his own.)

From indwelling evil these souls to release,
The Quakers arrived with their kingdom of peace—
But some were transported and some bore the lash,
And four they hanged fairly, for preaching up trash.

The lands of New-England (of which we now treat)
Were famous, ere that, for producing of wheat;
But the soil (or tradition says strangely amiss)
Has been pestered with pumpkins from that day to this.



Thus, feuds and vexations distracted their reign,
(And perhaps a few vestiges still may remain)
But time has presented an offspring as bold,
Less free to believe, and more wise than the old.

Their phantoms, their wizzards, their witches are fled,
Matthew Paris's story with horror is read—
His daughters, and all the enchantments they bore—
And the demon, that pinched them, is heard of no more.

Their taste for the fine arts is strangely increased,
And Latin's no longer a mark of the beast:
Mathematics, at present, a farmer may know,
Without being hanged for connections below.

Proud, rough, Independent, undaunted and free,
And patient of hardships, their task is the sea,
Their country too barren their wish to attain,
They make up the loss by exploring the main.

Wherever bright Phœbus awakens the gales
I see the bold Yankees expanding their sails,
Throughout the wide ocean pursuing their schemes,
And chacing the whales on its uttermost streams.

No climate, for them, is too cold or too warm,
They reef the broad canvass, and fight with the storm;
In war with the foremost their standards display,
Or glut the loud cannon with death, for the fray.

No valour in fable their valour exceeds,
Their spirits are fitted for desperate deeds;
No rivals have they in our annals of fame,
Or if they are rivalled, ’tis York has the claim.

Inspired at the sound, while the name she repeats,
Bold Fancy conveys me to Hudson’s retreats—
Ah, sweet recollection of juvenile dreams
In the groves, and the forests that skirted his streams!

How often, with rapture, those streams were surveyed,
When, sick of the city, I flew to the shade—
How often the bard, and the peasant shall mourn
Ere those groves shall revive, or those shades shall return!

Not a hill, but some fortress disfigures it round!
And ramparts are raised where the cottage was found!
The plains and the vallies with ruin are spread,
With graves in abundance, and bones of the dead.

The first that attempted to enter the streight
(In anno one thousand six hundred and eight)
Was Hudson (the same that we mentioned before,
Who was lost in the gulph that he went to explore.)

For a sum that they paid him (we know not how much)
This captain transferred all his right to the Dutch;
For the time has been here, (to the world be it known,)
When all a man sailed by, or saw, was his own.

The Dutch on their purchase sat quietly down,
And fixed on an island to lay out a town;
They modelled their streets from the horns of a ram,
And the name that best pleased them was, New Amsterdam.

They purchased large tracts from the Indians for beads,
And sadly tormented some runaway Swedes,
Who (none knows for what) from their country had flown,
To live here in peace, undisturbed and alone.

New Belgia, the Dutch called their province, be sure,
But names never yet made possession secure,
For Charley (the second that honoured the name)
Sent over a squadron, asserting his claim:

(Had his sword and his title been equally slender,
In vain had they summoned Mynheer to surrender)
The soil they demanded, or threatened their worst,
Insisting that Cabot had looked at it first.

The want of a squadron to fall on their rear
Made the argument perfectly plain to Mynheer—
Force ended the contest—the right was a sham,
And the Dutch were sent packing to hot Surinam.

’Twas hard to be thus of their labours deprived,
But the age of Republics had not yet arrived—
Fate saw—though no wizzard could tell them as much—
That the crown, in due time, was to fare like the Dutch.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in the Freeman's Journal, December 15, 1784