By Hobson Woodward, Adams Papers
On 17 July 1800 John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine embarked on an extended tour of Silesia, now southwest Poland. John Quincy chronicled their tour in a series of letters to his brother Thomas in the United States. The letters provide a rich description of a European excursion at the dawn of the nineteenth century. They also provide a rare look at a relaxed John Quincy Adams, unfettered by the demands of his diplomatic duties in Berlin.
John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 20 July 1800, letterbook copy (Adams family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society)
John Quincy prefaced his first letter to Thomas by advising him to send his correspondence to their mother Abigail if his extended descriptions of the Silesian countryside and people proved a bore:
I cannot promise you an amusing journey, though I hope it will prove so to us; & if at the sight of this my first letter on this occasion, you think it looks too long, & appears likely to prove tiresome, seal it up, unread, & send it to Quincy, where a mother’s heart will fill it with all the interest of which it may be destitute in itself
Thomas Boylston Adams to John Quincy Adams, 15 January 1801 (Adams family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society)
Thomas found the letters anything but boring, however, and he was so entranced that he gave them to a newspaper editor friend for publication. John Quincy graciously accepted their printing for the public, even though he had not been told in advance. He was less happy when the articles were later published in an unauthorized 1801 London edition.
John Quincy’s travel accounts are indeed vivid. In a 3 August letter he described an ascent of a mountain near Schreiberhau (now Szklarska Poreba, Poland). The hike began easily enough, he reported, traversing a grade “about equal to the steepest part of Beacon hill in Boston.” The difficulty increased, however, and the party finally emerged to a dramatic sight:
Instantly a precipice nearly fifteen hundred feet deep opened its gastly jaws before us— A sort of isthmus, or tongue of land however allowed us to proceed about an hundred rods further, untill we could fix ourselves against the side of a rock, & look over into the tremendous depth— We had then the precipice on both sides of us, & it passes by the respective names of the great & the small snow-pit— They are so called because generally the snow at the bottom remains unmelted the whole round, although this has not been the case for the last two summers, & at present they contain no snow at all
Later John Quincy and Louisa visited the Zackenfall waterfall. One is almost brushed by the leafy mist when reading John Quincy’s description:
At this place you stand upon one side of the cleft & see the water dash down from the other; upon a level with yourself; between you & the stream is an abrupt precipice, which seems the more profound, for being so narrow; about an hundred yards— With the help of a ladder I descended to the bottom, & walked partly over the rocks, & partly over the billets of wood lying in the bed of the stream to the spot from which the water falls— We likewise went round by a winding foot path on the top, to the spot from which the streams launches itself
John Quincy also described a visit to a coal mine near Waldenburg (now Walbrzych, Poland). The mine was accessed by a small boat navigated over a subterranean stream.
You go down in a boat, flat bottom’d, about a yard wide, & ten feet long. The canal is not more than four wide, & equally deep, & over it is an arch about as high, hew’d in many places through the solid rock. It is nearly an english mile long, & strikes deeper & deeper under ground, untill the surface of the earth over head is more than 150 feet above you. The boat is pushed along through the canal, by two men, one standing at each end, who with a short stick in the hand press it against the sides of the arch that goes over the canal.
John Quincy further commented on churches, factories, and estates, and the peasants, craftsmen, and soldiers who occupied them. Thomas called his brother’s travel accounts a “rich feast of epistolary excellence.” The letters survive today in the Adams Papers collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 2019 a selection of them will be annotated and published in volume 14 of Adams Family Correspondence, providing unprecedented access to a luminous portrait of an excursion through central Europe in an age gone by.