WELD, ISAAC, traveller and author; b. 15 March 1774 in Dublin, son of Isaac Weld and Elizabeth Kerr; m. 1802 Alexandrina Home; they had no children; d. 4 Aug. 1856 near Bray (Republic of Ireland).
A descendant of learned and pious clergymen, Isaac Weld in 1795 found himself distressed by conditions in Ireland and in Europe generally, and set out on a voyage to North America to “ascertain whether in case of future emergency, any part of those territories might be looked forward to, as an eligible and agreeable place of abode.” He reached Philadelphia in November 1795 and ever the next 15 months travelled through Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Lower and Upper Canada, returning to Ireland via New York City. In January 1799 he published an account of his voyage, Travels through the states of North America, and the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797, which was an immediate success. It went through several editions and was translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian.
In his account of the United States, Weld found more to criticize than to admire. He deplored slavery and the treatment of the Indians; Americans struck him as rude and covetous; farming methods were “slovenly.” Although he praised aspects of Philadelphia and New York City, and declared himself to be “well pleased at having seen as much of [this continent] as I have done,” nevertheless he concluded, “I shall leave it without a sigh, and without entertaining the slightest wish to revisit it.” Nor did he.
Weld was more favourably impressed by the Canadian provinces. Between July and November 1796 he travelled from Lake Champlain to Montreal and Quebec, returning through Montreal and continuing his journey to Kingston, Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Malden (Amherstburg), Detroit, Fort Erie, and into western New York. He declared the scenery from the Upper Town of Quebec to surpass “all that I have hitherto seen in America, or indeed in any other part of the globe,” and travelling conditions between Quebec and Montreal to be the best in North America. He argued that “a man of moderate property could provide for his family with much more ease in Canada than in the United States” because the price of land was lower there. Like many other British travellers, then and later, Weld felt more at home in the provinces than in republican America.
Although some of his judgements were obviously rather subjective, Weld’s book was a substantial piece of work. He spent more time in North America than did many other travel writers. He was fortunate in his timing: in the 1790s he was able to give an early, sometimes a first, account of many aspects of North American life. Finally, Weld had a special skill in describing the topographical and physical aspects of the country through which he travelled “on horseback, on foot, and by canoes.” This aspect of the book was strengthened by good maps and by plates made from his own sketches.
During the remainder of his long life, Weld pursued various topographical and scientific interests, both at home and in Europe. For more than 50 years he was a member, and after 1849 vice-president, of the Royal Dublin Society, and he was also a member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1855 Weld’s much younger half-brother, Charles Richard Weld, published A vacation tour in the United States and Canada, dedicated to him, which contained various comparative references to conditions in North America nearly 60 years after Isaac’s trip.
The popularity of Isaac Weld’s Travels through the states of North America, and the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 is attested to by the number of editions and translations in which it has been issued. Originally published in London in 1799, it appeared first in a one-volume and then in a two-volume edition. The next year a two-volume edition was followed by another in one volume, and in 1807 a final two-volume edition appeared. The 1807 edition has twice been reprinted (New York, 1968 and 1970). An abridged version of Weld’s account and one by François-Alexandre-Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld*, Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt (originally issued in Paris in 1799), were published together as Travels through the United States of North America, and the province of Upper & Lower Canada . . . (London, ) and as Travels in North America . . . and through the American states, country of the Iroquois, and Upper Canada . . . , edited by William Mavor (London, 1807).
Several French editions appeared under various titles, the earliest of these being Voyage au Canada, dans les années 1795, 1796, et 1797 . . . (3v., Paris, ) and the last Voyage aux États-Unis d’Amérique, et au Canada . . . (2v., Paris, 1807). Two German versions, Isaac Weld’s des jüngern Reisen durch die staaten von Nord-Amerika, und die provinzen Ober- und Nieder-Canada . . . and Reise durch die Nordamerikanischen Freistaaten und durch Ober- und Unter-Canada . . . , were published in Berlin in 1800; two subsequent two-volume editions appeared there under different titles in 1800 and 1805. Other translations include a Dutch version, Reizen door de staaten van Noord-Amerika, en de provintiën van Opper- en Neder-Canada . . . , translated by Sander van Hoek (3v., The Hague, 1801–2), and an Italian one, Viaggio nel Canada’ . . . , translated by Pietro Spada (3v., Milan, 1819).
Weld’s later writings include Illustrations of the scenery of Killarney and the surrounding country (London, 1807), another edition of which appeared there in 1812; Observations on the Royal Dublin Society, and its existing institutions, in the year 1831 (Dublin, 1831); and Statistical survey of the county of Roscommon, drawn up under the directions of the Royal Dublin Society (Dublin, 1832). These and additional titles are listed in the British Museum general catalogue and the National union catalog, both of which also contain entries for his father and half-brother.
Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1855: 609–11. Monthly Rev. (London), ser.ii, 30 (September–December 1799): 1–11, 200–7. C. R. Weld, A vacation tour in the United States and Canada (London, 1855). Athenæum (London), 3 Jan. 1857: 19. DNB (biogs. of C. R. Weld and Isaac Weld). J. L. Mesick, The English traveller in America, 1785–1835 (New York, 1922). H. T. Tuckerman, America and her commentators, with a critical sketch of travel in the United States (New York, 1864; repr. 1961).