Niagara Falls by Carl Bodmer

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Niagara Falls
"savage grandeur and sublimity"

Bodmer's Niagara

Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

by Carl Bodmer1

Niagara Falls was widely known but seldom visited until the end of the eighteenth century, and there is no reason to believe that either Lewis or Clark ever saw it himself.
The French novelist François René Chateaubriand visited North America in 1791, and included in his novel Atala (1801) an impression of Niagara, "with admiration bordering on terror."2

In 1795 another French visitor, the Count of Volney, wrote the first book on the geology, climatology and physiography of parts of the United States, from New England to Virginia, westward down the Ohio as far as Fort Massac in Indiana Territory, and up the Wabash to Vincennes and Detroit. After reaching Niagara Falls via a rough wagon road on the left—U.S.—bank of the Niagara River, Volney wrote a detailed geological and hydrological description, occasionally highlighted with outbursts that bring to mind Lewis's reaction to the Great Falls of the Missouri. "No words," Volney declared, "can convey an adequate idea of the awful grandeur of the scene at this place."3

In 1804 the New England clergyman, teacher and poet Timothy Dwight wrote of Niagara Falls in a mixture of Enlightenment utilitarianism and Romantic ecstasy which, observes John Seelye, "bears comparison with Meriwether Lewis' aesthetic diagram of the falls at the head of the Missouri."4

This was a scene which I was unprepared to expect, and an exhibition of the force of water I had never before imagined. the emotions excited by the view of this stupendous scene are unutterable . . . [and] are heightened to a degree which cannot be conjunctured by the slowly ascending volumes of mist, rolled and tossed into a thousand forms by the varying blast, and by the splendor of the rainbow, successively illuminating their bosom. At the same time, the spectator cannot but reflect that he is surveying the most remarkable object on the globe. Nor will he fail to remember that he stands upon a river, in most respects equal, and in several of high distinction superior, to every other; or that the inland seas which it empties, the mass of water which it conveys, the commercial advantages which it furnishes, and the grandeur of its disruption in the spring are all suitable accompaniments of so sublime and glorious a scene.5

The noise of the falls, Dwight was told by a nearby resident, could be heard as much as fifty miles away.

The "commercial advantages" he referred to would have centered upon commerce and tourism, rather than water power, for the technology of the time was incapable of harnessing the tremendous force of the water to transform it into mechanical energy, and would remain so for most of the nineteenth century. Lewis's thinking could not transcend his satisfaction at having found the key to the gates of the Rocky Mountains, the proof that this was the main channel of the Missouri. Another seventy-five years would pass before the full industrial import of his discovery would be recognized.

Niagara Falls drew wider attention after the War of 1812, and by the 1830s was a full-blown international tourist attraction. The Prussian military officer and naturalist, Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867), who traveled up the Missouri River to the vicinity of the Marias River in 1832-1833, visited Niagara Falls on his way home in 1834.6 Accompanying him was the young Swiss artist, Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), who recorded their journey with hundreds of watercolors and drawings, mainly of Indians and their culture. Maximilian described the "savage grandeur and sublimity of the scene" in the same time-honored terms as his eighteenth-century predecessors, such as Meriwether Lewis. "The roaring of the cataract," he wrote, "is heard at a considerable distance, and lofty columns of mist and vapour ascend into the air." The waters of the three Horseshoe Falls "meet with fearful concussion, and, dissolving into snow-white spray, . . . they rage and boil with tremendous fury."7

1. Tableau 39, in the collection of hand-colored aquatints from paintings by Karl Bodmer, which accompanied Travels in the Interior of North America, by Maximilian Alexander Philipp, Prince of Wied-Neuwied (trans. H. Evans Lloyd, London: Ackermann and Co., 1843).

2. John Seelye, Beautiful Machine: Rivers and the Republican Plan, 1755-1825 (New York: Oxford, 1991), 173-177. Chateaubriand was drawn to America partly by the expectation of discovering the Northwest Passage himself.

3. Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, Count de Volney (1757-1820), A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States, trans. Charles Brockden Brown (1804; reprint, New York: Hafner Publishing Company, Inc., 1968), 87. Volney arrived in the U.S. in 1795, met Thomas Jefferson, and was welcomed cordially by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

4. Seelye. 384.

5. Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, Ed. Barbara Miller Solomon, with the assistance of Patricia M. King (1821-1822; reprint, 4 vols., Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1969), 4: 60, 63. Dwight (1752-1817) was one of the group of eight writers known as the Connecticut (or Harvard) Wits, who were among the most vociferous opponents of Jefferson's republicanism and his tolerance of French "infidelism."

6. William Clark provided Maximilian with fresh copies of his own maps of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Maximilian and his party got no farther than a few miles beyond the mouth of the Marias River, and thus did not see the Great Falls.

7. Maximilian, 493-496.