Peterkin, Hope
Autograph Letter Signed, New York, November 30, 1832, to his older brother, Alexander Peterkin, Edinburgh, Scotland

folio, three pages, plus stamp-less address leaf, formerly folded, in very good, legible condition.

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Newly arrived in New York after 13 years wandering in North America, Peterkin had expected to meet another Scotsman, an in-law, in Canada, but “ … such was the dread entertained by the country people of the cholera which then raged in N. York and in every town … that had I started… and got sick by the way, I must certainly have gone the same road with the hundreds of immigrants who were seized with cholera. Therefore, I determined to remain where I was and wait till a healthier season … to have gone to a strange place, crowded with strangers in want of employment, at a time when business of every kind was at a stand would have been an unwise calculation… Mr. G. [Giles, probably his brother in-law] may not be in Canada or he may be dead … the season is too far advanced to think of going, unprovided, to so cold a country. I shall go in the spring and endeavor, should circumstance force any of my old friends from home, to secure a resting place for them. I spent a winter in Canada about 12 years since, and I met with few Scotch folks who appeared satisfied with the exchange of circumstances they had made. This appeared to me to arise from the isolated state in which they were and from a disposition in the older settlers to look upon them as intruders. However, old acquaintances settling near enough to form a neighborhood of themselves, may secure almost without money a great amount of the comforts of life in a country whose agricultural productions cannot supply the wants of its inhabitants – but to accumulate money – the mere representation of wealth – is a thing impossible. Among American settlers in Canada, the mode of managing matters in good times used to be this. They made extensive clearings and the potasta produced from the ashes of the wood burned, paid for the land and for the labour of clearing it, with houses so open that in cold weather it required an immensity of labour to keep them in firewood (nearly their winter’s work), these settlers, though fitted by previous habit, have few enjoyments, while a man accustomed to a civilized life need covet, and no European can expect, by adopting their system, even to attain such enjoyments. If, instead of clearing more land, than they are able to cultivate, they would girdle the large trees and cut down the smaller trees, for fencing stuff on what ground they could cultivate to advantage, sufficient time would be allowed to make provision for winter. Any man who could work, tho’ unacquainted with wooden labours, would succeed, were he to adopt this plan. Trafficking of every kind is overdone in this country, and farming cannot be very profitable when men who can succeed at nothing else for want of capital, betake themselves to farming as a business that can be carried on with little or no capital. There is one evil which occasions the ruin of thousands in the States, and which no doubt exists in Canada viz taxes are paid in money and money cannot be attained in exchange for grain or cattle when taxes have to be paid, without a sacrifice of property. If a greedy, intriguing, trading Tory faction constitute the dominant party in the Prov[incial]. Parl[iamen]t (as I suspect it does) you would, by coming to Canada, put it in the power of these wretches to revenge whatever injuries they imagine you have done their party in your editorial capacity at home. By trying what can be done and letting you know how I succeed after a year’s trial appears to me to be the safe way, but to settle on a place which would not pay itself in a few years, I would never dream of. Your idea that “one accustomed to labour can never want for the necessities of life” is quite inapplicable to this Country ever since I came to it. Each sect and party reserve the wage of labour for the attainment of party ends, and where party ends are not to be gained, labour is not to be had that will yield more than ‘victuals’ and sometimes ‘victuals and clothes’ in ‘manhoods active might’ and a poor house in old age…

          … Mary A. appears to be … ‘a judgematical lass’ – how sorry should I be were she ever placed within the influence of an Amrn manufacturer of religion. Vide Mrs. Trollope’s description of a camp meeting – such scenes are quite common here if not in Canada. I shall not write again until I write from Canada… I hope you have gained your law suit. I have kept quite clear of cholera and am in as good health as I have been for some years…”

 

           Hope Peterkin, a Scotttish immigrant, whose name would be lost to history were it not for the brother to whom he wrote this letter – and who was, apparently, at that moment, also thinking of immigrating to Canada. Alexander Peterkin became prominent both as lawyer and journalist, editor of the first provincial newspaper of the Scottish Borders, and an avid Whig in his politics. A “lover of literature for its own sake”, he numbered among his close friends Sir Walter Scott, Judge and literary critic Lord Francis Jeffrey, still another literary lawyer, John Wilson) who wrote as “Christopher North”) and “the leading contemporary men of letters in Edinburgh” and was himself “a vigorous and lucid writer … his polemical thrusts” in numerous pamphlets and magazine articles “occasionally more forcible than polite”.

 

           So what became of his equally literate brother, Hope?

 

           Six years later, the Newark Eagle, of July 16, 1838, told the sad story under the heading “Death of a Hermit”: “An inquest was held on the 4th of July over the body of Hope Peterkin, a Scotchman, aged about 45 years, found drowned in the Passaic river … It appeared by the evidence of some boys on the shore at the time, that he went into the river to bathe, and swam out in the middle of the river and attempted to return, but soon sang out for help and began to sink, and before assistance could reach him, disappeared. His body was recovered in a short time, but too late to save his life … Hope was the son of a Scotch Presbyterian Clergyman and came to this country to seek his fortune about 19 years ago. He first established himself in the bleaching business at the English Neighborhood in Bergen County; and not succeeding to his satisfaction, disposed of his property there, and went to the South. Here he fell into the hands of sharpers and lost all his money. He became disheartened, dejected, and disgusted with the world, and wandered from place to place, until he finally reached Newark, about 6 years ago [when this letter was written]. He obtained permission to build himself a small hut in the woods, near the Passaic river, where he lived a secluded hermit’s life. He was, in the language of those best acquainted with him, one of the honestest men living. In his youth, he had received a liberal education, and was a first rate scholar. He spent most of his time in reading and writing. His remarks on certain passages of the Bible, written on the margin, shows that he was no stranger to its contents. He left no property, excepting a great number of letters from his friends and correspondents in this country and in Europe, and a large bundle of manuscripts of his own writing. Hope had never been married, and the reason he gave for remaining single was, that he had been engaged to a lady in Scotland, and never, to the day of his death, did he abandon the idea of yet being able to return and fulfill his engagement with her.”