Copyright ABCs – John Melish’s ‘Travels’

Thursday 16 March 2017

This week Ethan reports on an item discovered by the Lighting the Past team from within the ‘E’ and ‘F’ sections of the Copyright Deposit Collection. You can see the previous post in the series here.

Classmarks E and F of the Copyright Deposit Collection focus on the United States, and John Melish’s Travels joins many other books describing how early-nineteenth-century United States appeared to British travellers.

A native of Perthshire, Melish (1771-1822) found many aspects of the United States novel and noteworthy. Upon disembarking in Savannah, Georgia, in 1806, he noted the “extreme warmth” of the temperature, 33° C. However he seemed to enjoy his travels and spoke highly of all the states up and down the Eastern seaboard. Melish commented on the size of the population, types of industry, and assorted facts about local society. For example he noted that “the citizens of Boston … though much attached to the subject of religion … are more liberal, generally speaking, than any people I have yet been amongst” (78).

A map of Pittsburgh from Melish’s Travels

But the writing of the travelogue was actually occasioned by politics more than general interest. Upon returning to the United Kingdom in 1807, Melish found a party whose politics he opposed in power and “saw that bigotry, prejudice, illiberality, and corruption, had prevailed over virtue, patriotism, and integrity” (214). Melish wanted closer relations between the United States and his home country and was dismayed by the rising tide of hostility that eventually led to the War of 1812. After making a trip north to Scotland – which he details for the reader – Melish returned to America to seek employment in seeing the West and writing a book.

A map of Ohio from Melish’s Travels

This second tour included a number of marvels such as the site of Big Bone Lick, Kentucky from which “vast numbers of large bones” had been removed for study. Further down the Kentucky River he found that the local wine either needed diluting with water or was “very unpalatable” (371). The Travels includes maps of Kentucky and Ohio, a move which foreshadows Melish’s later fame as a mapmaker. Melish also wrote about his trip into Upper Canada and commented on Niagara Falls.

A View of Niagara Falls from Melish’s Travels
A map of Kentucky from Melish’s Travels

Throughout his work, Melish desires to do more than sell books; he want to sell the idea of America. He repeatedly compliments the wonders of the United States and the opportunities that the country affords to immigrants. Although it may seem that he was merely trying to sell his work by making America sound interesting, Melish himself emigrated permanently and lived out his life in Philadelphia. The Travels proved a printing success: the volume held by Special Collections is an 1818 edition of the 1812 original. Whilst the first edition was printed in Philadelphia, the latter occurred in both London and Dublin. Melish must have hoped for a broad audience. The British printing included appendices for the benefit of European and particularly Irish emigrants to America.

Advice to Emigrants in Melish’s Travels

With its conversational tone and cheerful description of the early United States, Melish’s work proves readable two hundred years on.


Ethan Birney

Lighting the Past Cataloguer


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