In the decade after Samuel Shaw’s first voyage to China, an American exodus swept into the Great South Sea, carrying the word that a new people had arrived to take their legitimate pace among the community of nations. They spilled out from the wharves of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and countless smaller seaports into Calcutta, Pondicherry, Sumatra, Ceylon, and even insulated Japan and returned with cargoes of tea, pepper, coffee, and silks that provided a timely injection of capital into the withered economy and stimulated the recovery of the early 1790s . .
Their early contacts with the peoples of Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe’s Asian expatriates offered this “new people” a significant measure of their national character. They believed that Americans who traveled abroad, as much as those who remained behind, contributed to the creation of the republic and, especially, toward the formation of an authentic national identity. Indeed, contact with the regions beyond Europe, navigated between “civilized” Europe and the “barbaric” East, afforded Yankee voyagers a more nuanced palette from which to fill in the details of an emergent national persona.
Within three years, the Columbia Redivia and Lady Washington had opened a fur trade for Americans between the Northwest Coast and China, and the nation’s newspapers preened over the expedition in the same language of global achievement.
This passage from True Yankees explores a cultural chord within the history of the early republic that I find fascinating. While voyages such as those of the Empress of China, Grand Turk, and Columbia and Washington contributed to the economy of the new nation, helping to rescue the country from the throes of the wrenching depressing of the 1780s, it was the reporting of these American travels in the print culture of the republic that equally merit our attention. The accounts of these voyages in print culture contributed to formation of a national identity, by casting the “voyages of commerce and discovery” as national achievements that warranted celebration across the country, by framing these journeys as American accomplishments that transcended state and local loyalties, and by identifying a constellation of traits that situated American in global terms, as “citizens of the world.”
We find a nice example of this national construction in the 1787 voyage of the Columbia and Lady Washington, hailed as the American vessels that opened the Northwest Coast fur trade.
Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society
In preparation, the six Boston-area owners commissioned gleaming medals of silver and copper to commemorate the global and national nature of the voyage. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society) Few Americans would see these tokens of the new nation’s entry onto a global stage, but it is likely many would read—or hear read to them—accounts of the medals in the pages of their newspapers. They were touted in the pages of Boston’s Massachusetts Centinel in September and Charleston’s Columbian Herald, featuring an image of the national hero George Washington on its masthead, in October. The language that Americans read in these journals bespoke the imagery of a national and global imagination:
Silver and copper medals, we are told, are striking off, to be carried by Capt.
Kendrick of Boston, bound to the Pacific Ocean, to be distributed among the natives of the Indian Isles. . . Fitted at Boston, North America, for the Pacifick Ocean.”[i] (my italics)
Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society
Journals like Virginia Journal considered the event so important that the papers described the preparations for the voyage in its issue for 11 March 1787, several weeks after the modest fleet had sailed. The language emphasized that this was not a New England adventure, but a national enterprise.
Quoting the Journal of Congress for 24 September 1787, the Carolinians emphasized that the vessels and cargoes were “the property of citizens of the United States, and that they are navigated principally by inhabitants of the United States.” Against the report of Shays’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, this was welcome news indeed.
So, the ship Columbia Redivia, under Captain John Kendrick, and the sloop Lady Washington under Captain Robert Gray, sailed out of Boston for northwest coast.[ii] The press covered the departure with all the ceremony that had attended that of the Empress. As reported in the Salem Gazette (3-4-1787) New York Packet (10-12-1787), the New-Jersey Journal (10-17-1787, the Vermont Gazette (10-15-1787), and Charleston’s State Gazette of South-Carolina (10-22-1787),
Sunday sailed from this port the ship Columbia and sloop Washington, commanded by Captain J. Kendrick and Captain R. Gray, on an enterprizing voyage to Kamschatka, on the western part of this continent. The object of this voyage is to open an intercourse between these States and the natives of that distant country, by trading with them for furs, of which commodity, it is said, that country abounds. The greatest commercial advantages are expected to be derived from this intercourse.
German-speaking Americans likewise could share in the national moment, reading in the Lancaster Beifung for 17 October 1787 and the Neue Unpartheyische Lancaster Zeitung und Anzeigs-Nachrichten of Lancaster Pennsylvania1(10-17-1787):
The national achievement was a national paradox: To unite the nation from thirteen disparate states, Americans would need to travel beyond their boundaries and engage the wider world.
[i] Massachusetts Centinel, 29 September 1787; The Columbian Herald, or The Independent Courier of North America 10-22-87; and Anne E. Bentley, “The Columbia-Washington Medal,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd Ser., 101 (1989): 120-127.
[ii] Joseph Ingraham, Joseph Ingraham’s Journal of the Brigantine Hope on a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of North America, 1790–92 (Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1971), xii; Robert G. Albion, et al., New England and the Sea (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1972), 57.