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Travel Accounts
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“Miss Hartwell and Bible Women in the Foochow Mission.” Life and Light, May 1902, p. 211 (BV2612.L5). General Collections.

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“I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position,” declared the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville after a visit to the United States in 1832. He went on to attribute the prosperity and strength of the young nation “to the superiority of their women.”18

Two years later, the English writer Harriet Martineau reached a different conclusion, complaining that in America “woman's intellect is confined, her morals crushed, her health ruined, her weaknesses encouraged, and her strength punished.”19

These two acute observers differ in sex, class, and nationality, yet both provide historians with pointed commentary on the life and customs of American women.

Many travelers kept diaries; most wrote detailed letters to family at home, which they occasionally reworked for publication, sometimes as books, sometimes in newspapers or magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's. These personal writings provided an acceptable way for women to present their opinions to the public.

Missionary Journals

Women's experiences far from home can also be found in reports and letters published in women's missionary journals. A single sentence from a death notice in Spirit of Missions shows the desired qualities of a “true woman” in 1872, and the acceptability of her “woman's work” to convert the Mormons in Utah—“Active, yet modest; helpful, without self-assertion; sensible, patient, unselfish, loving—she was a true woman, and she made her woman's work of inestimable value to us.”20

These journals also reveal that American women who journeyed far from home to take their God to others often carried more than religion. Reporting on the Dakota Women's Society, Miss Hunter asks, “Do you think it strange that in a Christian society the women should provide the wood for their families?” She describes the household duties of Dakota women and surmises that as the husband “grows in Christian character,” he will assume more of the outside duties (1886).21 Miss Hunter is trying to re-create in the lands of Native Americans her Eastern, Protestant concept of the division of labor.

In journals such as Heathen Woman's Friend (Methodist, 1869-94, incomplete, BV2612.H4; 1869-95, microfilm 51565, reels 221-25), Life and Light for Woman (Congregational, with title changes, 1869-1922, BV2612.L5), and Messenger of Our Lady of Africa (Roman Catholic, with title change, 1931-70, BV2300.W6 A4) you find, among other information

  • names of members of the denomination with home towns
  • donors and dollar amounts
  • obituaries
  • excerpts from letters and journals of women missionaries and foreign women who have been converted
  • annual budgets and meeting reports
  • texts of original hymns sung at meetings and composed by women
  • information on Native American women

Travel accounts of all sorts—published and unpublished, by women and men, by foreigners and Americans, written for pleasure, pay, or spiritual expression—can provide a wealth of unusual detail on topics such as manners, clothing, education, childcare, health, regional differences, interpersonal relationships, and political events. Such works are rarely indexed, so only patient perusal of individual volumes will uncover the gold. In these often overlooked sources you can explore important questions of gender, class, race, and national identity and observe interactions among people of different cultures.

Many American Memory collections contain travel accounts by women. For two full-text examples, see Frances Wright's Views of Society and Manners in America: In a Series of Letters from That Country to a Friend in England [full item] (1821) and Frances Milton Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans [full item] (1832). For a collection of travel works by women and men, see American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920.


Robinson, Jane. Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Z6011.R65 1990 MRR Alc [catalog record]. Mostly British women, some of whom traveled to America.

Smith, Harold Frederick. American Travellers Abroad: A Bibliography of Accounts Published before 1900. 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999. Z6011.S5 1999 MRR Alc [catalog record].

Tinling, Marion. Women into the Unknown: A Sourcebook on Women Explorers and Travelers. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. G200.T55 1989 MRR Biog, G&M [catalog record].

See “First-Person Accounts” for other bibliographies.

Women travelers—United States
Travelers—United States
Visitors, Foreign—United States
Travelers' writings, American—Bibliography
Voyages and travels—Bibliography
[Name of country or state]—Description and travel

LC CALL NUMBERS: BV2612 and BV2350 (for some missionary journals).

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