“What then is the American, this new man?…He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims.” Letters from An American Farmer, 1782 edition
On this day, back in 1813, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, a resident of our area for many years, and the man who is attributed to the concept of America as a “melting pot” died. The term has been often challenged and perhaps we really are a “salad bowl.” On the anniversary of his death we at the Caldwell House Bed and Breakfast want to celebrate a neighbor who wrote about us and inspires many of us.
J. Hector St. John was born January 31, 1735 in Caen, Normandy France. He landed in New York on December 16, 1759 and ten years later he came to Orange County and bought 200 acres of land, six miles from our bed and breakfast. In that same year he married Mehetable Tippe, a member of a prosperous and prominent Tory family of Westchester.
This property knowN as Pine Hill is located midway between current day Washingtonville and Chester, just after Roe’s Orchards. Hector St. John lived there until late 1778 and left his wife and three children to stay with friends in New York City. While there he was arrested by the British as an alleged sympathiser to the revolution and eventually made his way to England in 1781 when his sold his manuscript “Letters From An American Farmer.” He then went on to France.
“Letters” became the first literary success by an American author. In the first part he wrote that in the American colonies a “new man” was be formed where groups from different countries and religious were “melting together.” These phrase inspired peoples for generations. Reading his description of the American Colonial period one can see the term “farmer”, a cultivator of the land, had an Enlightenment connotation. Jefferson called the farmer “the chosen people of God.” The plow in his writing has a mystical or holy symbolism to it. Exuberance, fertility, regeneration are powerful words in his book. Americans were “Masters of their own property and lords of their own soil” Being an American was living in America – plowing the land, facing the wilderness.
In the second part, which is not often quoted, he wrote about the American Revolution. For him it was chaos and disorder, disruption, destruction, hatred. Horrified by the Revolution he had the fictional character of his story go into the wilderness to live with the Indians, not returning to Europe. He went West not East, into the unknown. It is not an end but a continuation, it is a becoming….becoming an American.
He eventually came back to America to find his wife had died and his farm destroyed, but he was reunited with his children. Later he went back to France where he died. Again, we celebrate a neighbor.