Saturday, February 11, 2017

George William Featherstonhaugh

I've been looking at some of the early geological expeditions in the United States for work, and I thought I'd take a couple of posts to look at some of the pre-Civil War geologists who visited the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. We've already briefly looked at William Keating and the Stephen Long expedition of 1823, so I thought I'd move on to the next figure of note, George William Featherstonhaugh.

George William Featherstonhaugh, borrowed from Wikimedia Commons, who borrowed it from the Minnesota Historical Society.

George William Featherstonhaugh (1780–1866; other biographical links) (pronounced "Fanshaw", because English does whatever it pleases) was one of that class who is guaranteed to give nervous young professionals fits. At various stages in his life he was a linguist, a translator, a writer, an early promoter of railroads, a gentleman farmer, a journal editor and publisher, a surveyor, an explorer, a diplomat, a quasi-secret agent, and last but not least a geologist. In fact, he was apparently the first geologist employed as such by the U.S. government, back in the mid 1830s. How he obtained this position must have been an interesting story all by itself, because Featherstonhaugh was an outspoken aristocratic genteel Brit who distrusted democracy and had warm contempt for the frontier Americans he met (for example, he loathed the people of Arkansas and their doings with a passion), and the president at the time was Andrew Jackson, who except for "outspoken" was more or less his polar opposite.

Featherstonhaugh came to the United States in 1806 and spent most of the next two decades in upstate New York, involved in improving agriculture and railroads. He helped get what became the Albany and Schenectady Railroad going, and in the course of this work returned to England in 1826 to learn more about railroads. This visit inadvertently renewed a youthful interest in geology, and when he returned in 1827 he turned his attention from railroads and farms to rocks. In the next few years his wife died and his home burned down, so he left upstate New York and became involved in promoting the geological sciences. He tried a journal ("Monthly American Journal of Geology and Natural Science") which didn't catch on, but he did manage to secure a government appointment to investigate the mineral wealth of the territories. In the course of one of these expeditions he visited what is now the Twin Cities, which we'll get to momentarily. He also seems to have acted as an intelligence agent against the Cherokee.

After these travels, he returned to England in 1838 and was part of a commission to settle the northern boundary of Maine. In recognition of his work in this matter, the British government made him a consul in France (which also gives you an idea about the American feeling about his efforts). In 1848 he was responsible for getting deposed Louis Philippe and his wife out of France. For a wonderful geological in-joke, the alias he gave his charge was William Smith. If you don't get the joke, here's your link. If you're interested in an outsider's perspective on the frontier South, or just have something against Arkansas, his "Excursion Through the Slave States from Washington on the Potomac to the Frontier of Mexico; with Sketches of Popular Manners and Geological Notices", published in 1844 based on his mid-1830s travels, can be viewed on Internet Archive (two copies, damaged in different ways).

Featherstonhaugh's geological observations on what becomes the metro area are brief. In 1836 he published "Report of a geological reconnaissance made in 1835, from the seat of government, by the way of Green Bay and the Wisconsin Territory, to the Coteau de Prairie, and elevated ridge dividing the Missouri from the St. Peter’s River". The title is more than a little misleading, because 94 of its 168 pages are not devoted to his geological reconnaissance, but instead make up a condensed historical geology textbook. Although I am in full sympathy with Featherstonhaugh's admirable goal of presenting non-professionals with useful geological information, in hindsight he might have been better off publishing the first part separately, with illustrations. Perhaps he just wrote up his lecture notes. At any rate, the Mississippi–St. Croix junction shows up on page 134, and he sets off down the St. Peter River (=Minnesota) on page 137, so there isn't a whole lot of space on this area. He does visit Carver's Cave/Wakan Tipi, Fort Snelling, Minnehaha Falls, and St. Anthony Falls, and comments on fossiliferous beds which we can recognize as the Platteville. His most significant contribution in these few pages is probably his correction of Keating (1824)'s mistaken observation of a limestone bed below the St. Peter Sandstone in the area of the fort: Featherstonhaugh recognizes that Keating had seen an accumulation of fallen Platteville. Featherstonhaugh mentions collecting fossils from the Minnehaha and St. Anthony falls areas; I wonder what happened to them.

In 1847, he published a second account of his travels in the upper Midwest, titled "A canoe voyage up the Minnay Sotor; with an account of the lead and copper deposits in Wisconsin; of the gold region in the Cherokee country; and sketches of popular manners; &c. &c. &c." Never were three "&c." employed more truthfully. The 1847 work is a sprawling travelogue in two volumes, combining his cultural observations with geological observations. Most of the geological information has been superseded, but the volumes are quite readable in a historical sense, if you don't mind the author's sometimes delicate sensibilities concerning frontier life. (One thing that comes up frequently is his absolute hatred of tobacco smoke, which makes him ill.) He expands on his visits to Twin Cities landmarks beginning on page 257 of the first volume, with his cave visit. From the chronological nature of the book, it turns out that he only spent a few days in this area, in mid-September 1835 (still well into mosquito season, as we can tell from his entry for September 11). He departs up the St. Peter on the 17th (p. 283) to the accompaniment of a couple of paragraphs of rousing prose on the promise of adventure. (Part of his good mood was due to his relief at departing from his quarters at Fort Snelling, which see below.)

Featherstonhaugh's party arrives at Fort Snelling on the 12th after a brief stop at Carver's Cave. They set up camp in the lowlands below the fort, which is described as of "noble appearance", and Featherstonhaugh goes to pay a visit, commenting briefly on the "Silurian" fossils he observes on the way (the Ordovician not yet having been distinguished). He meets the commandant, Major [John] Bliss, and after unsuccessfully trying to cadge a meal from one of the officers (his reference to "Duke Humphrey" is an old expression meaning he won't get anything to eat), he goes to visit Henry Sibley instead. Sibley is not yet Henry Sibley, Namesake of Various Minnesota Locations, just an agent of the American Fur Company (which we've met before), but he is able to recommend a guide, a French–Indian man named Milor who features prominently in this part of the narrative. (Incidentally, Featherstonhaugh sometimes refers to St. Peter as a location. This is not the modern St. Peter, but Mendota, just across the Minnesota River from Fort Snelling.) He returns to Fort Snelling to find he has been quartered in a storeroom; later it turns out that this had been done by the second-in-command, described as a pious hypocrite. For diplomatic reasons Featherstonhaugh never brings it up with the major, which I suppose may be the first recorded example of Minnesota Nice.

The next day he visits a waterfall (Minnehaha Falls) and collects fossils. On the 14th he leads a small party to St. Anthony Falls, with which he is somewhat unimpressed due to their low heights. He does, however, spend a chapter pondering the creation and modification of river channels, and cannot help but comment on the recession of the falls, a topic which Minnesota geologists will turn to frequently in the future. The next couple of days are occupied with preparations for his departure upriver, during which he also meets with Lawrence Taliaferro and is not impressed. There is a discussion of supposed copper deposits to be found on the trip; not to spoil it for you, but these were actually exaggerated reports based on deposits of blue clay, which gave Blue Earth River its name.

Postscript: I mentioned that Featherstonhaugh's party set up camp below the fort. There was actually a second geologist on the expedition, William Williams Mather, but you wouldn't know it from Featherstonhaugh's narrative. Apparently, the two did not get along. Mather prepared a report from this trip as well, but it was never published and seems to have been lost (although according to him Featherstonhaugh appropriated a map of the St. Peter that he had drawn). I bring this up because I've also been doing genealogical research, and was surprised to find that my maternal grandmother, whom we thought was of Irish descent, was actually in large part descended from the early colonists of New England (i.e., the Puritans). Among them were the Mathers (you know, Cotton Mather and all that). William and I appear to be very distant cousins, which really doesn't have any bearing on anything but is kind of neat to me.

William Williams Mather, also borrowed second-hand from Wikimedia Commons.


Featherstonhaugh, G. W. 1836. Report of a geological reconnaissance made in 1835, from the seat of government, by the way of Green Bay and the Wisconsin Territory, to the Coteau de Prairie, and elevated ridge dividing the Missouri from the St. Peter’s River. Gales and Seaton, Washington, D.C.

Featherstonhaugh, G. W. 1847. A canoe voyage up the Minnay Sotor; with an account of the lead and copper deposits in Wisconsin; of the gold region in the Cherokee country; and sketches of popular manners; &c. &c. &c. Richard Bentley, London, United Kingdom. Volume 1; Volume 2.

Keating, W. H. 1824. A narrative of an expedition to the source of St. Peter’s river, lake Winnepeek, lake of the Woods, etc., performed in the year 1823, by the order of the Hon. J. C. Calhoun, Secretary of War; under the command of Stephen H. Long, U. S. T. E. Volume 1. H. C. & I. Lea, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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