Title Reviewed:
A Journey through the West: Thomas Rodney's 1803 Journal from Delaware to the Mississippi Territory

Author Reviewed:
Dwight L. Smith; Ray Swick

James Davis


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 95, Issue 4, pp 397-398

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Journey through the West: Thomas Rodney's 1803 Journal from Delaware to the Mississippi Territory. Edited by Dwight L. Smith and Ray Swick. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997. Pp. xiii, 280. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $44.95.)

When Thomas Rodney, Delaware supreme court justice, was fifty-nine years old, Thomas Jefferson appointed him a Mississippi territorial judge and a land commissioner for part of the territory. To assume these responsibilities in Natchez, Rodney crossed the Appalachians and helped crew the custom-built Iris down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. His journey lasted from August 14 to December 1, 1803, including seventy-one days on water. Although Rodney's checkered life included a stint in debtors' prison, he was well-connected, intelligent, well-read, intrepid, insightful—and prone to exaggeration. His travel journal reveals his passion for history, geology, botany, zoology, river dynamics, archaeology, social questions, and morbidity. His journey from Delaware to Natchez was more than simple travel; it was a rite of passage, one that dispelled burdens and opened new worlds.

Boatmate conversations, fiddle and flute music, and his journal enlivened Rodney's spirits. Reflecting prevailing thought, Rodney lamented that western soil "is fine but in the hands of Indians…" (p. 158). Observing some assimilation of Indians, he also noted a white woman and her Indian husband. Rodney delighted in the unfolding natural and social environments and bubbled with expectation, awe, and mystery. Faulty guide books heightened the mystery.

Rodney recorded much: peaceful contacts with Indians, ubiquitous alcohol, "uncultured Pennsylvania Germans (p. lo), lodging, food and food prices, tavern signs, "monstrous vines" (p. 491, river towns, the Blennerhasset mansion, Presbyterians who experienced "frenzy and shouting and falling down" like Methodists (p. 411, an "air gun" designed to fire twelve balls simultaneously (p. 50), lingering British influence north of the Ohio, illnesses, backwoodsmen, high wages and leveling among Westerners, social tensions, Indian mounds, a "hansome blackeyed" river "nimph" (p. 97), the American penchant for speed, numerous kindnesses among hustling travelers and local denizens, a backwoodsman's family refusing to migrate to Illinois and "the finest land he has ever seen" (p. 55), saline operations, upwardly mobile immigrants, geologic and river formations, French and Spanish influences, Natchez strumpets, and flora and fauna, but virtually no deer, bear, or insects.

In fact, much is revealed by what is not in the journal: murders, scrapes with Indians, predators, mean-spirited people, and other conflict. Attentive to detail and quick to spot troubles, Rodney would have noted violence had it occurred. Although his mates took potshots at raccoons, ducks, pigeons, and other wildlife, no shot was fired in anger. His journal is virtually conflict-free and abounds with instances of kindness and trust among strangers, Indians coming aboard, and perfect strangers meeting and getting along well via ad hoc activities.

Technically, this work is virtually flawless. Dwight L. Smith and Ray Swick employ a sensible editorial policy. Endnotes illuminate significant people and places, idioms, context, and historiographical material. The editors, moreover, make modest claims and readily admit uncertainties. Nine illustrations, four adequate maps, an index, and rich primary and secondary sources (including material on epidemiology) grace the work. Although one could wish that Rodney had recorded far fewer sandbars and river bends, superb editing helps this work succeed.

JAMES DAVIS, professor of history and political science at Illinois College, Jacksonville, is the author of Frontier Illinois (1999). He is currently researching the Civil War and memory.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.