|An early French edition of Lahontan's travelogue.|
|The English title page.|
were based on personal observation of events and practices in New France, of Indian customs, and of flora and fauna. They included an impressive wealth of detail and, except for some exaggeration in the numbers of persons involved, were remarkably accurate in their information. The infrequent occasions on which Lahontan retailed hearsay – for example in his jesting page on the marriageable girls sent out to New France, or in his tale of the Long River – have drawn refutations which by their violence bear witness to his relative veracity elsewhere.
|The cartographer Hermann Mole's depiction of the mythical 'Longue River' linking the Great Lakes with the Pacific, seemingly invented by Lahontan along with details of cultures and ecosystems that lay along it.|
Quite apart from the information and opinions they communicated about North America, moreover, Lahontan’s works were a compendium of early 18th-century “philosophic” ideas about the folly of superstitions, the vices of European society, the illogicalities of Christian dogma and the virtues of the “noble savage.” The same ideas, better expressed, would be found in the writings of major 18th-century authors: in the fourth book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), in Rousseau’s Discours sur les origines de l’inégalité . . . (1755), in Voltaire’s L’Ingénu (1767), or in Diderot’s posthumously published Supplément au voyage de Bougainville...Below are a random sampling of quotations from the English translation of Lahontan's Voyages, with two engraved plates from the French edition. These are some of the earliest written accounts of the native tribes -- Ottawa, Huron, Iroquois, Illinois, and many more -- that populated New France, and the haunting sense of a vanished world and culture is palpable here.
On property and inequality: "They think it unnaccountable that one Man should have more than another, and that the Rich should have more Respect than the Poor. In short, they say, the name of Savages which we bestow upon them would fit our selves better, since there is nothing in our Actions that bears an Appearance of Wisdom... They brand us for Slaves, and call us miserable Souls, whose Life is not worth having, alledging, That we degrade our selves in Subjecting our selves to one Man who possesses the whole Power..." (421).
On food: "Their Victuals are either Boild or roasted, and they lap great quantities of the Broath, both of Meat and of Fish: They cannot bear the taste of Salt or Spices, and wonder that we are able to live so long as Thirty Years, considering our Wines, our Spices, and our Immoderate Use of Women." (422)
|A similar illustration from the English edition, with more details.|
On men who 'go in a Woman's Habit': "Among the Illinese there are several Hermaphrodites, who go in a Woman's Habit, but frequent the Company of both Sexes. These Illinese are strangely given to Sodomy, as well as the other Savages that live near the River Missisipi." (462)
|"Savages going to the hunt," an "infant attached to a branch of a tree," and a "female savage carrying her child."|
An excellent answer from the women, in my opinion! (And we must be careful not to take Lahontan too much at his word in his own censure of these practices - the Baron seems often to tacitly approve of the un-Christian yet spirited and clever responses of his native interlocutors, though he can never admit it outright.) These passage raise some profound questions about gender in North American indigenous societies -- Lahontan's 'Hunting Women' and 'Hermaphrodites' are fascinating and almost entirely unstudied, based on what I've read -- but sadly the documentation for these practices is so fragmentary that they may never be fully understood by historians.
|A detail from the 1707 French edition showing what is probably the earliest European depiction of the bison hunts of the Plains Indians - early French travelers like Lahontan called them 'boeufs sauvages,' or wild cows.|