Canby, Merritt
Autograph Letter Signed, New York, 9th Month 23, 1810, to his sister Anna, care of his brother-in-law, Benjamin Ferris, Philadelphia

quarto, 4 pages, including stamp-less address leaf, formerly folded, else in very good clean condition.

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A detailed account of Canby’s week of travels in upstate New York to visit relatives and fellow Quakers, after sailing from Boston to New York:


            “My Dear Anna,

                  … we left town in the Hudson Packet for Fishkill, we chose the above in preference to the Steam Boat on account of her being so much retarded by a strong head wind as to prevent her passing thro the Highlands before daylight the succeeding morning – we arrived at that narrow pass about seven oclock first day morning and was exceedingly gratified by the magnificent scenery, the mountains presented. I can scarcely convey to thee in this way an idea of the stupendous scenery, the mountains presented. I can scarcely convey to thee in this way an idea of the stupendous Grandeur of this remarkable place, the river thro the pass is about one mile in width but owing to the height of the mountains on either side appears very narrow and a sloop of much larger dimensions than those employed at B[randy] Wine when close under the shore appears little larger than an oyster boat – indeed when we were passing I could scarcely believe my own eyes… when coming along side a vessel which a few minutes before appeared a mere Sail Boat, I found her equal in size to that in which I was. We were gratified by seeing several places which were of much note and importance during the War of Independence – viz. the Fort called Stony Point stormed by General Wayne and West Point where Arnold and the British Adjutant General completed their infamous bargain., and the rock from which the former escaped on board the ship of war, when that bargain was discovered. We arrived at Newburgh at one oclock and immediately crossed over to Fishkill…”

                  With a friend, Canby, “proceeded to the top of the mountains … from which the scene was beautiful beyond description particularly that part of it that lies to the northward, in that direction the eye wanders over a great extent of fertile country through which the noble Hudson pours his current until the sight is lost in the Kaatskill ridge which appears like an immense bank of dark clouds… it was necessary for us to be in Newburgh to take the Steam Boat for New York at three oclock in the morning … we got on board in the midst of a most violent shower of rain … we had a rapid passage down and were gratified by getting a prospect of that part of the river and its borders that we passed in the night on our way up…”

                  Arriving in New York, Canby “took up our lodging… at a house in broadway…” visiting friends who “make their house at Willet Hicks … about two miles from town in the pleasant village of Greenwich… please convey this to … that part of our family now at B[randy]Wine respecting our peregrinations etc. Perhaps thou may obtain something handsome from Peale for this letter for his Museum…”


              A letter of early American travel with some intriguing historical hints: Robert Fulton’s first Steam Boat trip from New York was only three years before Canby described sailing on the scenic Hudson. A year earlier, Quaker Willet Hicks, in the “pleasant village of Greenwich”, had been the death-bed companion of the radical Thomas Paine.  Charles Wilson Peale, painter and renaissance man, married to a Philadelphia Quaker, had established the first popular museum of art and natural science; he was also an inventor who collaborated on several projects with Thomas Jefferson. This is significant because Merrit Canby’s father, William, a flour miller and Quaker leader who lived in the Brandywine River village of Wilmington, Delaware, was a close friend of Jefferson’s. In 1802, when son Merrit was 19 and about to leave home to seek his fortune in Philadelphia, his father visited Jefferson at the ‘President’s House’ in Washington, in company with an English missionary, hoping to persuade Jefferson to provide government support for a school for 60 free African-American girls in the capital. Jefferson demurred, saying that education might be wasted on Blacks who were “not of equal capacity with the Whites”. Canby, a passionate pacifist, strongly opposed to slavery and the slave trade very diplomatically turned the conversation to Jefferson’s own slaveholding. But their talk ended amicably and the two men kept in close touch for years after. In 1813, Canby had another “little quiet meeting” with Jefferson, then retired at Monticello, gently urging his friend to resolve his ambiguous religious beliefs. In reply, Jefferson wrote Canby a letter which historians now regard as the most important statement of the ex-President’s unorthodox views on Christianity. Son Merrit, meanwhile, after taking this tour of New York state, became partners with another Wilmington businessman in Philadelphia, together advancing a new method of sugar refining that made them both wealthy. Merrit retired in middle age and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropic and cultural interests, including the presidency of the Historical Society of Delaware.