The Magic of Pennsylvania Travel Narratives, Part I

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Old travel narratives are like old love letters. Consider the young woman who finds a stack of yellowed notes buried in an attic trunk, who sits down upon the floor, opens the first, and reads the endearments of another century. Once again the passionate words find an attentive reader, and once again the issue is in doubt. Will love triumph? Or will war or sickness or jealousy intervene? Between the faded paper and the woman’s eyes is a different time than elsewhere in the attic, a separate time which is neither past nor present, but an illusionary tracing of half-real and half-imagined faces and incidents.

Now the reader of old travel narratives discovers a similar separate time, and something more beside. He finds a separate space as well, a landscape of shadow where what was is intermingled with what is imagined to have been. And unlike the reader of the love letters who, sob or smile as she will, cannot greet their author or recipient. the reader of old travelogues finds too that the landscape of shadow is more than an illusion. He can close the book, walk out of doors, and search the sunlit landscape of the present for the shadows of landscapes long past.


Pennsylvania is an almost magical land for readers of old travelogues. Foreign observers and its own residents, especially during the century following the year 1750, recorded their impressions of its landscapes in dozens of travel narratives. No other state is richer in evocative memoirs of half-vanished space.

Between 1756 and the close of the eighteenth century, most travelers across Pennsylvania were chiefly interested in the condition of Philadelphia and other towns, and in the state of agriculture. Often they were interested in the natural environment too, but that was never their chief concern. Like Gottlieb Mittelberger. who published his Journey to Pennsylvania in 1756 after returning home to Wurttemberg, travelers through the state came to explore and provide firsthand reports to European readers. They traveled about independently, sometimes on foot and some­times on horseback.

As were most eighteenth-century foreign visitors, Mittel­berger was surprised at Philadelphia. “The city is very large and beautiful, and laid out in regular lines, with broad avenues and many cross-streets,” he wrote. “All houses are built up to the fourth floor of stone or brick, and are roofed with cedarwood.” Mittelberger asserted that it took almost a fuU day to walk around the city, though perhaps his inquiring into everything from shipbuilding, to the architecture of the new courthouse, to U1e great outdoor markets slowed him down. His detailed observations suggest that he devoted many days to walking about. visiting churches and courthouses and listening to the peculiar drumming sound made by the rain on the cedarwood roof­tops. He was interested in windows made of English plate glass, in fireplaces patterned after the French style and in the two short benches set perpendicular to the fronts of most houses where every evening people sat and enjoyed the passing scene.

“The streets and houses of this city are so straight,” con­cluded Mittelberger, “that one can look directly ahead for the distance of a half hour’s walk.” The regularity of Phila­delphia is the key to Mittelberger’s understanding of the larger landscape of Pennsylvania; the traveler passed into Pennsylvania through a gateway of orderliness.

It is that initial impression of the city which allowed Mittelberger to perceive in the rural landscape beyond an order foreign to his own homeland. He wrote:

In the country people live so far apart that many have to walk a quarter or a half-hour just to reach their nearest neighbor. The reason for this is that many plantation owners have got fifty or one hundred, even two, three, up to four hundred morgen [from six- to nine-tenths of an acre] of land, laid out in orchards, meadows. fields, and forest.

No settlement pattern could be more different from that of his homeland, but Mittelberger understood that there was as much order in the emerging Pennsylvania landscape of scattered farms as in his native village. In his own language, rural Pennsylvania was an einzelhofsiedlung – an open­-country-neighborhood – but it was even more open than the German word suggested. It was a New World landscape in­deed, as distinct as the frogs and rattlesnakes and sassafras trees he discovered along the road. The rural areas were prosperous and pious, but not focused on tiny clustered villages. Like Philadelphia, their dominant feature was the road.

While Mittelberger did not engage in much long distance traveling, many of his successors did. Johann David Schoepf. another German, though from the principality of Bayreuth, traveled through Pennsylvania in 1783,just after the end of the Revolutionary War. Schoepf was a learned man, a uni­versity-educated physician, botanist, mineralogist and forester who arrived in America as an army surgeon in 1777. What little of the colonies he saw from vantage points of the British and Hessian armies provoked his curiosity and, with the cessation of hostilities, he set off across New Jersey, through Pennsylvania and to the south­ern states into Florida. His Travels in the Confederation re­veal him to have been a sensitive, untiring observer. Like many other travelers, he devoted a great deal of his time to wandering about Pennsylvania; it was, in his estimation, time well spent.

Schoepf entered Pennsylvania at Bristol, thereby seeing a bit of the country before arriving at Philadelphia. “The nearer one comes to the capital,” he wrote, “the freer of woods is the landscape, and there are more people and more farms.” Schoepf was continually interested in woods, in their natural state and in their uses to man. In Rocky Hill Township, for example, he paused to study the con­struction of worm fences and discovered that chestnut wood “is used because of its lightness and because it lasts well, barked.” Hedgerows like those in Europe were rare, he learned. because the land was not long settled; some farmers did attempt to make them, however, by inter­lacing young saplings which grew along the boundaries of their pastures. In another place he discovered two thou­sand acres deforested to fuel an iron foundry. From time to time he did ride through virgin timber, and near Brinker’s Mill crossed Great Swamp, where the road “was nowhere more than six foot wide, and full of everything which can make trouble for the passenger.” Forester though he was, Schoepf was unsettled by riding through woods “so thick that the trees almost touch, by their height and their matted branches making a dimness, cold and fearful even at noon of the clearest day.” But there was far more to see than forest, and most of his narrative concerns the man­-altered environment – since even Great Swamp was pierced by a road, there was less and less wholly untouched wilder­ness in Pennsylvania to be seen.

Unlike Mittelberger, Schoepf was not wholly pleased with Philadelphia. The city had grown in the twenty­-seven years since the Wurttemberg traveler had delighted in its straight streets, and Schoepf thought them too narrow for their traffic. The markets admired by his predecessor, he too criticized for blocking the city’s view of the river and skewing Market Street out of alignment. He found the regular architectural style of the houses boring, deciding that the lack of open squares planted with grass or shrubbery detracted from the overall appearance of the place. He thought that privies were well located. however, and commended the city authorities for carefully cleaning the streets. Still, his impression of Philadelphia in summer was negative, and his description is an eerie presentiment of the conditions which sparked the yellow fever epidemic ten summers later. Schoepf was far more familiar with the great cities of Europe then was Mittelberger. and it is possible that Philadelphia suffered in rigorous comparison. It is more likely, however, that he saw it not as a city in the wilderness, but as a city in an established landscape, subject to typical forms of analysis.

Schoepf saw remarkably little untouched wilderness during his travels in eastern Pennsylvania. While he crossed that part of Saint Anthony’s Wilderness he called Great Swamp and learned secondhand about a place called The Shades of Death, his wilderness observations were made much further west, near Pittsburgh. Most of the land he saw was somehow altered by man, often so greatly modified that he evaluated the man-altered places against each other, not against the chaos of wilderness. “Brad ford is a little town,” he remarked in this regard, “but a little town in a great wilderness may easily please without beauty.” His travel narrative, then, describes a Pennsylvania no longer remarkable for its wilderness or for its settlements carved from that wilderness, but interesting as a great agricultural landscape focused on Philadelphia. Towns he compared with towns, farms with farms and houses with houses, setting up such relationships as one concerning chimneys:

From the exterior appearance, especially the plan of the chimneys, it could be pretty certainly guessed whether the house was that of a German or of an English family – if of one chimney only, placed in the middle, the house should be a German’s and fur­nished with stoves … if of two chimneys, one at each gable end, there should be fireplaces, after the English plan.

A house, then, was no longer worthy of attention simply because it was situated in the midst of a wilderness where houses had never been, but because it told something of its inhabitants or explained attitudes toward farming. Unlike little Brad ford, houses and Philadelphia and farms and foundries received from Schoepf a new sort of attention.

Such attention was not peculiar to Schoepf. Five years later, John Penn traveled from Philadelphia to Reading, Harrisburg, Carlisle and Lancaster and, like Schoepf, com­pared man-altered places one with another. Penn’s Journal is filled with descriptions of barns roofed with thatch and houses with tiles, of an irrigated meadow and a patched-up schoolhouse. Between Philadelphia and the township of Roxborough, he wrote, “the soil is not very good, but the country is finely diversified with wood and clear ground.” Penn perhaps thought the landscape similar to England’s, for between Womelsdorf and Reading, he commented ex­plicitly on the parallel: “There is one spot on this road remarkable for its European appearance, the lands all cultivated, and adorned by some farms, and a very handsome Presbyterian church upon a hill.” So struck was Penn by the resemblance that he attached to the scenery aesthe­tic terms usually reserved for the English countryside; words like sublime and romantic not only indicate the force of new standards of beauty developed in poetry and painting, but an increasingly “finished” landscape markedly different from that of fifty years before.

Different as their interests were, Mittelberger, Schoepf and Penn shared something which makes their narratives closer in spirit than they might have been otherwise. All walked or rode horseback on their expeditions. They could go wherever they desired. Sometimes, of course, they became lost; Schoepf, for example, rode miles down a back road without finding an inn and finally sought help from a farmer who took him for a robber. Usually, though, their self-directed and self-paced modes of travel allowed them to stop whenever they wished to question farmers about plow­ing techniques or the yield of acreage, or to gather wild plants or visit every street in a large town. Roads themselves figure very little in their narratives. If they were rutted or washed out, the travelers clambered around the obstruction and perhaps found something interesting on the detour. They were free to stay overnight with farmers, for as Mittelberger remarked, “It is the custom in this country that when a traveler comes on horseback to a house, he is asked whether he wishes to have anything to eat.” Sometimes their lack of mentioning anything of roads and inns is annoying, but the lack is offset by their detailed analyses of the roadside. They and other travelers in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania traveled slowly and, by indirection, found all sorts of interesting things in the maturing landscape.


The successors to Mittelberger, Penn and Schoepf did not generally walk or travel by horseback. Frequently, they remained on the main-travelled thoroughfares and rode in chaises and coaches. The changing times and newer modes of transportation contributed to a different view of the landscape, but allowed for interesting observations just the same.


The Magic of Pennsylvania Travel Narratives, Part II” appears in the spring 1981 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.


John R. Stilgoe, an assistant professor of visual and environ­mental studies and landscape architecture at Harvard Uni­versity, is currently preparing a history of the American man-made environment. This article, including part II to follow in the spring issue, was developed from a presenta­tion given at the 1978 Institute of Pennsylvania Rural Life and Culture at the Pennsylvania Farm Museum, Landis Valley.