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Kalm's North America

Peter Kalm’s Travels in the Adirondacks

By Anthony F. Hall

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Of the many distinguished Europeans who visited the Adirondacks, the least often mentioned, and yet certainly one of the greatest, was the botanist Peter Kalm, a member of the Swedish Royal Academy who travelled through the region in 1749.

Kalm is  a figure even more remote to us today than he was forty years ago, when a two volume edition of his travel journals was still in print and readily available in paperback.

Fortunately, Doug Deneen, an owner of the bookstore Trees in Bolton Landing, has chosen to include a recently published biography of Kalm, “The Travels of Peter Kalm,” by Paula Ivaska Robbins in his shelves of intelligently chosen books of regional interest.

Published by Wray Romminger of Purple Mountain Press, who also published  Frank Leonbruno’s Lake George Reflections and Russ Bellico’s histories of the Lake George region, “The Travels of Peter Kalm” is the first biography of Peter Kalm to appear in English.

Robbins’ biography can be augmented  by Russ Bellico’s ‘Chronicles of Lake George,’ an anthology of  writings by visitors to Lake George, including Kalm. Bellico has supplied a useful introduction to the life and work of Kalm and reprinted those passages from the journals that discuss Lake George. “Chronicles of Lake George” is likewise available at Trees.

Kalm was a student of Carl Linnaeus, whose greatest contribution to science was the concept of species and genera and other categories. The collection of  400 American plants that Kalm carried with him on his return to Sweden were listed and classified by Linnaeus with due credit to Kalm. Even before Kalm returned to Sweden, Linnaeus had honored his young disciple by designating the American mountain laurel “Kalmia latifolia.”

The Mountain Laurel, named for Kalm

Peter Kalm was 33 when he visited the Adirondacks in 1749. While he considered it his prime interest to collect and classify species of plant life, his journals include observations of geography, topography, American history, mineral and ore deposits, geology, architecture, animal husbandry and agriculture as practiced by the colonists, the wages of workers and the “short, coarse skirt” worn by the women of Canada “Which does not reach to the middle of their legs.”

His travels in the Adirondacks started by boat from New York, bound for Albany, in early June. For the Albany Dutch, he had no kind words. The Treaty of Aix la Chappelle had just been signed by Britain and France, bringing to an end King George’s War which from 1740 to 1748 had embroiled English and French colonists and their Indian allies. The inhabitats of Albany had remained neutral during that war, Kalm said, and had continued to trade with the Indians whom the French had assigned to ravish northern New York.

The destination of Kalm and his party was Montreal, with most of the trip to be made by water, with Fort St. Frederic, or Crown Point, the first French port of call. He wrote that they were forced to use “a canoe” because they could get neither bateaux nor boats of bark.

His definition of the boats is confusing. He describes a canoe as a single piece of wood hollowed out, which we call a dugout. His “bark boat” sounds like the birch bark canoe except that it is made of elm bark. His description of the bateaux, however, conforms to what we know about the craft famous for its role in the work and wars on Lake George – some 18 feet long, three feet wide at the center, with a flat bottom and usually pointed at both ends.

At what is now Hudson Falls, the party abandoned their craft and hiked through the woods to Fort Anne, which was in ruins, having been burnt by the British in 1713 when a plan to invade Canada misfired. Launching another boat on Wood Creek, they headed for Lake Champlain.

First English translation of Kalm's Travels

On July 2, they were received at Crown Point. Kalm  noted that it was not only a military garrison, but a thriving community. Every family had been granted a plot for a garden, and contemporary observers believe that a number of foreign species now growing in our region escaped from the gardens and orchards of the French settlers. They include asparagus, a member of the orchid family, roses and thorn apple. Kalm mentions none of these, but described other plants, such as the burdock, milkweed, a kind of parsley called chervill, and dandelion, all of which have edible parts.

After visiting Canada, Kalm returned to the American colonies by way of the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain. On October 21, he entered Lake George, then known by its French name, Lac du St. Sacrement.

Kalm’s notes may be considered base-line data for every study of Lake George’s plant life since.

“ In some places are found pines, firs and arbor vitae. The birch also is found now and then,” he writes. Chestnut trees grow along the shore; they were prevalent on Lake George until the 1920s, when a blight destroyed them. Kalm also mentions a lichen that Native Americans eat to sustain themselves when threatened with starvation.

Of this portion of the trip, Kalm’s biographer, Paula Ivaska Robbins, writes, “ The area was a no-man’s land, without settlements. Even the Indians came only occasionally to hunt. During their journey through this wilderness, the guides told stories around the camp fire at night of the atrocities committed during King George’s War, including the scalping of captives while they were still alive. Kalm must have been frightened by these tales, for he wrote, ‘The long autumn nights are rather terrifying in these vast wildernesses. May God be with us!’”

Kalm returned to Scandanavia, and civilization, in 1751, and assumed the role of a successful 18th century academic, writing, teaching and lecturing.  As Russ Bellico notes, most of the plants Kalm brought from America died, which seemed to disprove Linnaeus’ theory that any plant can be acclimated to grow in foreign soils. (The spread of invasives would, on the other hand, seem to confirm it.)  According to Bellico, Kalm’s claim to fame now lies in the fact that  “he was the first competent scientist to study colonial America extensively and publish the results.” He died in 1779.

Trees is located on Main Street, Bolton Landing. Call 644-5756 for more information.


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