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John Adams Describes Being Taken by a London Street Hustler Over a Book
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While waiting for a copy of an old friend’s book, Adams relates a decades-old story about over-paying for another book: “I wished to posses it....she received the guinea with an Arch look of exultation which appeared to me to imply as much as if she had said I have made a handsom, profit by a very clever trick—upon the credulity of a Simple American who knows nothing of the World.”

JOHN ADAMS. Letter Signed to Elkanah Watson. “Montezillo,” [Quincy, Mass.], June 21, 1820. 2 pp., 7¾ x 9¾ in. On paper with watermark J. Green, 1815.

Inventory #23819       Price: $12,000

Complete Transcript

                                Montezillo June 21st 1820

dear Sir

your favour of the 10th. is received—I remember that a Woman came to me in London, with a Book she wished me to buy—it was Carvers Travels—she said she was his Widow that he had left her the Property in this Book—and that she had little else to support her—with much Pyrrhonism concerning the Veracity of her intentions as well as in the historical facts—as in the Work itself—I though it a dear Bargan at a Crown—but she asked a guina and I gave it without asking many questions I knew the Name and Character of Carver as a Partisan Officer and a Captain of a Company of Rangers in the French War—in which the Reputation of his services was fair—The Book purporting to be the production of an American—though I had little faith in it—I wished to posses it—I may have been too uncharitable both to Carver, and his Doxy—

But I did not then believe in the sincerity of either—she received the guinea with an Arch look of exultation which appeared to me to imply as much as if she had said I have made a handsom, profit by a very clever trick—upon the credulity of a Simple American who knows nothing of the World—what I said to you upon the occasion I do not remember—but I certainly thought Carver had picked up many of his Anecdotes from Wandering and Romantic Indians—I have not looked into the Volume since that time, and Remember very little of its Contents—

Your history of Canals—and Modern Agricultural <2> Society, will be very acceptable—by what ever Channel it arrives—it may come by the Mail as certainly, and as conveniently as by any private hand—

I am Sir with pleasing recollections of our former intercourse, in various Countries— / and with much esteem / your friend & humble / Servant

                                    John Adams

[Recipient’s Docketing]

“John Adams. About Carver. It will be well to glance at this respectable source.”

Historical Background

Year after the event, John Adams describes a London encounter with a woman purporting to be the widow of explorer and French and Indian War militia captain Jonathan Carver (1710-1780). She was offering a copy of Carver’s book, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 (1778) for sale, claiming it was the only property left to her by her dear, deceased husband. After Adams willingly overpaid for the book, the woman took the money “with a look which appear’d to me to imply as much as if she had said I have made a handsome profit by a very clever trick upon the credulity of a simple American who knows nothing of the world...”  However, Adams had not been taken in; he doubted both the veracity of the widow’s story as well as the tall tales of the author, who picked up many of his Anecdotes from Wandering and Romantic Indians.”

Jonathan Carver (1710-1780) was a colonial Massachusetts explorer who served in the French and Indian War. In 1763 at war’s end, he proposed an expedition to explore the new territories recently ceded to the British in North America. He was at first unable to find funding, but in 1766, his old commander, Robert Rogers, suggested Carver lead an expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Carver explored as far west as what is now Minnesota and Iowa, spending a great deal of time living with local Indian tribes. After he was denied payment by the Crown, Carter published his travel account in 1778. It was republished in Dublin in 1779. Though the book was a success, Carver died in poverty the following year. Nonetheless, his work offered the first mention of a large mountain range to the west, as well as the idea it divided the continent, the first mention of Oregon in print and on a map, and was the first English speaker to explore the northern Mississippi Valley.

However, Adams was right to mistrust Carver’s account. In a 1906 essay published in the American Historical Review, E.G. Bourne summarized Carver’s book: “Scholars are in general agreement that much of the work in this volume is an abridgement or adaptation of historical writings by Charlevoix, Adair, and La Hontan. Entire chapters read as near verbatim text from one or more of these other authors.”

Elkanah Watson, Jr., (1758-1842) was a traveler, writer, agriculturist, canal promoter, banker, and businessman. He was apprenticed to the Providence merchant firm of John Brown and early on, Watson was entrusted with transporting $50,000 in cash, sew into his clothing, to Brown’s Southern slave trading agents. The round trip took him to ten of the original thirteen states. When released from his indenture in 1779, he traveled to France with money and messages for Benjamin Franklin. Watson stayed and established his own mercantile house, which prospered enough to open a branch in London before an economic downturn sunk the firm. Watson remained abroad until 1784. Upon his return he embarked on another American tour. In 1791, he heavily invested in land in western New York and claimed to be the originator of the idea for a canal between Lake Erie and the Hudson River.

Adams had known his father, Elkanah Sr., and had been corresponding with the younger Watson since at least 1780, when the young man asked Adams advice on cultivating European manners in anticipation of a Continental tour.

In his biography of Adams, David McCullough reports that the minister to France wrote from Paris counseling Watson to “cultivate the Manners of your own Country, not those of Europe...the more decisively You adhere to a manly Simplicity in Your Dress, Equipage, and Behaviour....the more You will recommend yourself to every Man and Woman in this Country whose Friendship or Acquaintance is worth your having....I know that some young Gentlemen have come to Europe with different Sentiments, and have consequently injured the Character of their Country as well as their own...”

Years later, Adams was pleased to relate another story of American simplicity abroad to Watson, while looking forward to the arrival of Watson’s book, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Condition of the Western Canals in the State of New York, “by whatever Channel it arrives.”


Minor edge chipping, not impacting any text. Professionally repaired. Signed with Adams’s very arthritic hand as appropriate for letters from this period.

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