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This work is designed as a companion to “Traits of American Humour." The sketches it contains are confined, as expressed in the title-page, to the Byeways, Backwoods, and Prairies. The large cities and vast rivers and railroads of the United States are not only well known to all tourists, but to the reading public generally. Unfortunately travellers, on account of the facility, safety, and comfort of transit, confine themselves to the great public thoroughfares, whereby they add but little to the stock of information they previously possessed. The peculiarities of the people, their modes of thinking, living, and acting, are principally to be sought for in the rural districts, where unrestrained freedom of action, and the incidents and requirements of a forest life, encourage and give room for the developement of character in its fullest extent.
The populous towns are so similar in their general aspect and structure, that a description of any one city will commonly be found applicable in the main to every other in the same State. Age, gradual or premature, is apparent in all. The people have become homogeneous. Staid and settled habits have superseded the foreign modes introduced by a heterogeneous mass of emigrants, and the bustle of building and settling has given place to the indispensable cares and duties of life. Collision soon wears off angularity, the surface is rendered smooth, and a certain degree of polish, according to the texture of the materials, is the natural result. Society has its conventional rules, which it rigidly enforces. Hence in every community men dress alike, think alike, and act alike, except in such cases, where by the same rules they are allowed to agree or to disagree.
In the country, and especially that portion situated on the confines of the forest, man, on
the contrary, is under no such restraint. He is almost beyond the reach of the law, and altogether exempt from the control, or utterly ignorant or regardless of those observances, which public opinion demands and enforces. The only society he knows or acknowledges is that of his own family. He enacts the laws that are to regulate his household. He governs, but owns no obedience. His neighbours, if those can be so called who live several miles from him, aid him in those emergencies for which his individual strength is insufficient, or sustain him in those trials that require the sympathy and kindness of his fellow-creatures, while they occasionally unite with him in hunting, fishing, drinking, or carousing.
These pioneers do not, as might be supposed, so much present samples of a class, as a collection of isolated independent individuals, whose characters are distinguished alike for being both strongly developed and yet widely dissimilar. Nevertheless there are many striking peculiarities that pervade the entire population. They all have the virtues and the vices inseparable from unrestrained liberty. They are bold, hardy, manly, hospitable, generous, and kindhearted; while, at the same time, they are violent and vindictive in temper, reckless, improvident, often intemperate, and almost always without local attachment. They value their "locations" more for the facilities of hunting, and the exemption they afford from all restraint, than for the fertility the soil or their fitness for forming a family home.
As the animals of the adjacent woods recede, and the wave of emigration reaches their boundaries, they are ready, like the aborigines, to dispose of their “improvements,” and, without a sigh of regret for what they leave behind them, to seek a new home in the depths of the forest. The outskirts of civilization whereon they dwell, and the newly-settled territories of which they are in advance, present a wide field for the picturesque delineation of men and character, and the Americans have availed themselves of it with more skill, freedom, accuracy, and humour, than any strangers who have attempted it.