When New England was New

It is a small book, palm-size, with pages of less-than-fine paper, the well-worn letters of the type sometimes carelessly inked. The sparse woodcut illustrations are child-like in their simplicity and straight-forwardness. Yet John Josselyn’s New-Englands rarities discovered, printed in London in 1672, drew me in as I went about cataloging the work. Intrigued by the title and the early date of publication, I found myself reading an account of the landscape of my past, from Boston, “down east” (that is, up the coast as represented in the above illustration) to my place of birth, and points all around. That great bibliography, The Hunt Botanical Catalogue, notes that this book is “particularly interesting to people who are fond of Maine.” Indeed. The text provides a sense of place from the 17th century.

Having refreshed my self here [Boston] for some time, and opportunely lighting upon a passage in a Bark belonging to a Friend of my Brothers, and bound to the Eastward, I put to sea again, and on the Fifteenth of August I arrived at Black-point, otherwise called Scarborow, the habitation of my beloved Brother, being about an hundred leagues to the Eastward of Boston; here I resided eight years, and made it my business to discover all along the Natural, Physical, and Chyrurgical Rarities of the New-found World.

New-Englands rarities is an account of the author’s two journeys to America, the first in 1638 for several months and again in 1663 for a stay of eight years. Despite the autobiographical nature of the work, not much is known of Josselyn, “active” in cataloging parlance, from 1630 to 1675, and born around 1608 in Essex County. The author comes across as a learned, if not terribly discerning, gentleman with possibly a medical background. He describes the topography, customs and the natural history of the country, with great interest in the healing properties of organic materials from recipes used by both native Americans and colonists, leading to speculation that the Englishman was a physician. It may be Josselyn was simply well-read and the curious type. The era of European plant exploration in the New World, for both therapeutic, consumption and ornamental purposes, was underway by the time of Josselyn’s travels. There would be a ready audience for such information, particularly in a relatively accessible and inexpensive publication.

“Scarborow” is the coastal area of Scarborough, incorporated as a town in 1658 in the present state of Maine. One of the area settlements was “Black-point” (originally a patent of 1500 acres) that included the rocky shoreline of present-day Prouts Neck, of artist Winslow Homer-fame (a place now known for exclusiveness). It was here that John Josselyn’s brother Henry lived and worked along the sea, rivers, stretches of salt marshes and sandy beaches. Henry Josselyn was representing the Royal grant of land, Council of Gorges’ Province of Maine, by 1636, and later served as Deputy-Governor.

There is some evidence that Henry Josselyn may have ascended the highest mountain in the Northeast, the 6,288-foot (1,917-meter) Mount Washington. His brother John, as did Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524, observed and recorded the peak (known by various names before European settlement) from shipboard in the Atlantic Ocean as “one stately mountain…surmounting the rest”:

“Fourscore miles (upon a direct line) to the Northwest of Scarborow, a Ridge of Mountains run Northwest and Northeast an hundred Leagues, known by the name of the White Mountains, upon which lieth Snow all year, and is a Land-mark twenty miles off at Sea.”

John Josselyn’s further writings indicate that he probably also summited the mountain (as I did one June, when there was still snow on the slopes). Now a not-particularly arduous but long day’s hike in good weather along groomed trails, it was not a casual undertaking in the 1660’s. It is a volatile place with fierce, sometimes unpredictable, weather. The Josselyns probably journeyed along the magnificent Saco River, south of Scarborough, to reach the range. There John Josselyn made meteorological observations (The Mount Washington Observatory on April 12, 1934, recorded the wind at 231 miles per hour, a record that held through the 20th century).

Josselyn liked to compose catalogs and there is humor sprinkled about his lists. In the one on fishes, he prefaced: “Pliny and Isadore write there are not above 144 Kinds of Fishes, but to my knowledge there are nearer 300: I suppose Americawas not known to Pliny and Isadore.” The account of his unfortunate encounter with a wasp nest begins with his belief he was coming across an exotic fruit. And, amusing for readers today, Josselyn was none too fond of the Puritans of the Bay Colony. The Native Americans, on the other hand, were regarded with admiration.

For botany researchers there is much information to decipher from New-Englands rarities. Twenty-two invasive species or weeds are listed under a section “Of such Plants as have sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New-England” (the reference to cows is of their manure). In Josselyn’s identifications, sow thistle, night shade, mallowes, wormwood, bloodwort, and cheek weed are recorded; some are identifiable today, others not. According to noted botanist, ecologist and conservationist Paul Sears, Josselyn provides the first mention of the now-ubiquitous dandelion in America. From the many references, it is evident that the author had with him the hefty 1633 Thomas Johnson’s edition of Herball by John Gerard, “our famous Herbalist.” Josselyn notes the New World plants described by Gerard as well as Parkinson and points out his own discoveries, such as skunk cabbage and the pitcher-plant.

Recipes, whether for medical purposes or nourishment, are sprinkled throughout the text. The wild turkey is fully described for the first time and what must be one of the earliest records of meat being eaten with cranberries as “it is a delicate Sauce.” Josselyn also mentions “pompions” (pumpkin) pie. The colonists of course learned about the cultivation of pumpkins, squash and corn from the native inhabitants. “Billberries” (blueberries), are reported to be “very good to allay the burning heat of Feavers and hot Agues, either in Syrup or Conserve. A most excellent Summer Dish.” Peas, grown in New England, “are the best in the world.”

Josselyn soon expanded New-Englands rarities with An account of two voyages to New England in 1674 (BHL copy digitized from the Smithsonian Libraries). The dedication in this edition is loftier and more ambitious: to the President and Fellows of the Royal Society. A relative of Josseyln’s, Samuel Fortrey, had helped pay for the printing of the earlier work. There is far more detail on the provisioning and crossings of the ships and attendant illnesses and deaths. There is also a disturbing story of the rape of a slave on Noodles Island in Boston Harbor, a horrifying but important testament in the history of slavery in New England.

Two voyages to New England provides more scenes of the coast. Monhegan Island, a favorite place of mine, is a speck about ten miles from the nearest mainland. Following European explorers Martin Pring, Samuel de Champlain, George Weymouth, John Smith (and before these sailors, possibly the Vikings), Josselyn reported that Monhegan was filled with fisherman’s houses and shacks, long a staging area for drying fish and post for fur traders to send their goods across the Atlantic. Cod was the great commodity, harvested from the abundant fishing grounds of the Gulf of Maine and along the coast. Since the mid-19th century, Monhegan, spectacularly ruggedly beautiful, has been better known as an artist colony and draw for tourists, at least in the summer.

New-Englands rarities was cited by the great Swedish zoologist and botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, attesting to its completeness and authority on flora and fauna for about a century. It also inspired a certain type of travel literature. Henry David Thoreau was an admirer and in A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) wrote of Josselyn’s speaking of “the strong new soil.” Soon after I encountered the book in the Cullman Library of Natural History, I came across a reprinted edition while in Salem, Massachusetts in the gift shop of the House of the Seven Gables. Most valued today for its accounting of plants, the book and its successor, An account of two voyages, have much to offer historians of indigenous cultures about the impact of European settlements, cookery, gardens, religion, folklore, meteorology, geology, and maritime and social norms of the early colonial period in America. Its sense of wonder about the landscape of the New World provides the modern reader with a sense of the place.

Josselyn’s last printed words:

“Now by the merciful providence of the Almighty, having performed Two voyages to the North-east parts of the Western-world, I am safely arrived in my Native Countrey; having in part made good the French proverb, Traveul where thou canst, but dye where thou oughtest, that is, in thine own Countrey.”

New-Englands rarities has frequently been reprinted. Many of those editions, as well as the National Agricultural Library’s copy of the first, have been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The Cullman Library’s copy had been rebound too tightly for it to be safely scanned. It also lacks the last leaf containing the printer’s device.

Leighton, Ann. Early American gardens “for meate or medicine.” Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

The Scarborough Land Conservation Trust.

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Julia Blakely is a former Rare Book Catalog Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. She has undergraduate and master's degrees in art history from the George Washington University and a M.S., with a specialization in rare books, from Columbia University. For many years she was a lab instructor at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (formerly at Columbia). She served as the Libraries' representative for the Smithsonian's Material Culture Forum. Julia wrote the bibliographical descriptions for An Oak Spring Flora (1997) and has worked with several other private collections.