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The Geological Sciences in the Antebellum South
By James X. Corgan
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1982 the University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Andrew Ellicott's Geological Observations in the Mississippi Valley and Florida,1796–1800
George W. White
Almost all of the data on the history of early American geology must be sought in reports of travels such as Andrew Ellicott's. The first book on the geology of the United States, written by J. D. Schoepf in 1787, was in German and remained almost unknown. Similarly, a French-language report by C. F. Volney contained a great deal of geological information, but remained little known to Americans, although translated into English in 1804. The first widely read work on the geology of the United States was an English-language account by William Maclure that appeared in 1809.
In the years before Maclure's report, travel books were a major medium for communicating geological observations. A few early travel writers collected their scientific observations into special sections of their books, but most did not. After 1750 some writers speculated on the origin of the geological features they described, and a few, such as Lewis Evans, organized these speculations into wide-ranging theories.
Among the most important early geological observations in southern travel accounts are those made by Andrew Ellicott in the Mississippi Valley and Florida from 1796 to 1800. Ellicott's geology is not organized into separate chapters in the report of his travels, but is explicit in many widely separated paragraphs or parts of paragraphs and is implicit in many pages. If observations were all Ellicott made, listing them would be useful only to antiquarians. But Ellicott's work is far more important. He was not only a perceptive observer of geomorphic and stratigraphic features, but also sought explanations for their formation. He then organized these to elucidate a part of the geologic history of the Mississippi inner valley and the great limestone plateau that is the peninsula of Florida. He was inductive in his reasoning, proceeding from observations of features, to observations of their formation in time, and then to hypotheses to explain the wider extent of the meander history of the Mississippi and the extent of the organic limestone of the Florida peninsula.
Andrew Ellicott: Engineer and Scientific Observer
Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820) was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. During the Revolutionary War he rose to the rank of major, by which title he was addressed throughout his career. His talents in mathematics and astronomy led to a career in precise surveying, and he soon attained a wide reputation. In 1784 he was one of the surveyors who continued the Mason-Dixon Line west from the surveys of 1767. He was appointed to determine the western boundary of Pennsylvania in 1785 and the northern boundary in 1786. He was appointed by the new federal government in 1789 to determine the western boundary of New York. In order to determine a precise point in Canada involving the northern origin of the boundary line, Ellicott took occasion to study Niagara Falls and Niagara Gorge, where he made important geological and hydrological observations. These were published in 1790 and 1799. He accurately measured the height of Niagara Falls and commented on its hydrology. He described the strata over which the river flows and asserted that it was a part of the horizontal strata that extended from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River and to an unknown distance beyond it. He asserted that the horizontal strata indicated that the "country has never been disturbed by those terrible convulsions which a great part of the globe must have experienced."
One of Ellicott's most important assignments, prior to his work in Florida, was a precise survey of ten miles square in Maryland and Virginia that included the future site of the District of Columbia. The first map of this region was published by Ellicott in 1793. When L'Enfant, the original designer of the capital city, disagreed with the government commission before the work was completed, Ellicott finished laying out the city in 1792 and drew the engraving of the plan of the city. In 1794 to 1796 he surveyed a road through the wilderness of Pennsylvania from Reading to Erie and laid out towns in northwestern Pennsylvania. The government then called upon Ellicott to take charge of the determination of the Florida boundary. His Florida survey will be described in a separate section.
After Ellicott returned from the Florida survey in 1800, he had important appointments in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and elsewhere. In 1813 Major Ellicott went to the Military Academy at West Point as professor of mathematics. He died suddenly in 1820, "with his adored Sally, mother of nine," whom he had married in 1775, by his side.
Ellicott Surveys the Florida Boundary, 1796–1800
Before discussing Ellicott's geological contributions it is appropriate to outline his route to, and along, the Florida boundary and to identify the events that required him to make a precise survey.
The west and east Florida region was Spanish until 1763, when Spain, having joined France in 1762 in the war against Britain, had to transfer Florida to Britain. The boundary line had been 31°N. latitude from the Mississippi River to the Chattahoochee River, thence south to the mouth of the Flint River, then east (actually south of east) to the headwaters of the St. Marys River in the Okefenokee Swamp, thence down the St. Marys River to the Atlantic. In 1783 Great Britain lost the American colonies and also returned the Florida territory to Spain, who attempted to maintain a more northern boundary and to make Natchez the seat of government. America did not agree to this northern boundary and always insisted on the 1763 boundary of 31°. The contest was settled in 1795, when Spain agreed to the old boundary. It then became necessary for the agreed-upon boundary to be precisely surveyed and properly marked. (Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819 and the territory became a state in 1845.)
To cooperate with Spanish officers in surveying the boundary, Andrew Ellicott was appointed commissioner by President Washington, and directed to proceed to Natchez, which was the headquarters of the Spanish government. Ellicott left Philadelphia in 1796 for Pittsburgh, where he secured four boats for his large party. They traveled down the Ohio to the Mississippi and down the Mississippi to Natchez, arriving there in 1797 (Figure 1).
The Spanish governor and his officials, through a series of vexatious actions, delayed the beginning of the boundary survey until May 1798. A less able and determined man would have given up, but through persistent negotiations and a certain amount of private diplomacy, Ellicott finally persuaded the Spanish authorities to join him in beginning the survey. The first step was to determine the intersection of 31° with the Mississippi River. Then he and his three skillful surveyors and their large support party began to mark the line to the east (Figure 2). At the Pearl River, Ellicott left the party to proceed to New Orleans. Here he purchased an unfinished boat of about thirty-eight tons, which he decked over and rigged as a schooner. He named it the Sally, after his wife. He used this little ship to move supplies from New Orleans to the Mobile, Pearl, Perdida, and Chattahoochee rivers as far as the thirty-first parallel. He was thus able to supervise his surveyors, who met him at these places.
St. Marks, at the mouth of the Chattahoochee (or Apalachicola) River was the principal base on the Gulf. Ellicott himself did not accompany his surveyors from the Chattahoochee to the headwaters of the St. Marys River, but instructed them to proceed without him. He would meet them in St. Marys.
Setting off in the little schooner, Ellicott made his way around Florida to Cumberland Island and the St. Marys River. He had several men in his party, but only two were sailors, men he had found in New Orleans. They were illiterate, however, and could not assist in the navigation of the craft. Apparently Ellicott had little previous experience in taking charge of a sailboat. He was nevertheless an expert mechanic, skilled at precise position-finding, self-confident, and, it is fair to say, a little lucky as well. His report contains maps of the coast only as far as the present northwest Florida, and then of the St. Marys region on the east of Florida. He did not map the shoreline between St. Marks and St. Marys. He had no really precise maps and no charts, except for part of the area of the Keys. The source he used for the names of the bays and islands that he gives in his narrative account is not mentioned, but he may have had Stork's 1769 map of East Florida, as well as others he picked up at St. Marks. There is no evidence that he used Hutchins' 1784 descriptions of coastal features.
In spite of reefs, shoals, and severe storms, which wrecked many other vessels, Ellicott brought his little schooner to St. Marys. His reports of the navigation are almost deliberately casual. He could have used his superb instruments to determine position, but the more simple sextants in his skilled hands were all that were necessary to determine latitude, and apparently only very rough calculations of longitude were needed.
Ellicott did not have "the latitude of St. Mary's on any publication, but from a small mutilated chart it appeared to be at N 31°." The wind was such that he was carried north of that latitude.
At four o'clock in the afternoon came to an anchor at the end of St. Simon's Island in a good harbour. The satisfaction which the crew, and myself experienced on this occasion may be more easily conceived than expressed. We were now able to take a night's repose, free from those cares, and anxieties which must ever attend the reflecting mind in our past situation; exposed to the turbulence of the sea in a little vessel, having but two young illiterate sailors on board, along a dangerous coast with which we were all unacquainted, and experiencing three violent gales of wind, which we afterwards found had wrecked as many vessels, much better calculated to resist the fury of the winds, and billows than ours. So great was the dependence on observation, and so little on dead reckoning among the currents near the coast, that the log was never hove once during the passage, (pp. 259–60)
Ellicott cleverly used the Gulf Stream in his passage from the Keys to St. Simons Island. He was familiar with Franklin's essay and maps of the Gulf Stream and took occasion (pp. 261–67) to write at length on the position, width, and speed of the current, and to speculate on its origin.
From St. Simons Island Ellicott returned southward to St. Marys, where he met his party. He and his associates then established an astronomical observatory at Point Peter for position. The reason for his decision not to use the town of St. Marys for this location is of passing interest:
Finding that I could not obtain quarters in the town for myself and people, free of expense to the public, I removed on the 12th to Point Peter, and encamped in a forest of live oak, where a number of people were engaged in cutting ship timber for the United States: the offal wood served us for firing. This system I pursued from the time I left Pittsburg in the year 1796 until my return to Philadelphia in the year 1800; and whatever attention, and shelter the men might require, I occupied no quarters myself at the expense of the public. (p. 270)
After carefully surveying the St. Marys River from its mouth to its origin in the great Okefenokee Swamp, the astronomical part of the survey was finally completed. Ellicott and his party left St. Marys on March 6, 1800, and sailed north to Cumberland Island to complete the maps and reports. Returning briefly to St. Marys, Ellicott chartered a sloop that had come from New York, and set out for Philadelphia May 9. The master of the vessel, having only rudimentary instruments, soon invited Ellicott to take charge of the navigation, which he did with great satisfaction to both. Ellicott took advantage of the Gulf Stream and reached Philadelphia on May 18, 1800, arriving at 8 o'clock in the evening, "when all the fatigues, hardships, and difficulties I had been exposed to during a long absence, were more than compensated by the pleasure I experienced in meeting my family in good health" (p. 300).
In addition to Ellicott's report to the government, he prepared his Travels of Andrew Ellicott ..., which was published in 1803. This book included astronomical tables, maps, the account of his route, and his geologic and other scientific observations and explanations.
Ellicott's Geology in the South
The geological observations with which we are concerned here began at Pittsburgh on October 16, 1796. In the Ohio Valley, they were made at some of the places where Ellicott stopped to determine precisely his position. Exact determinations of position were needed to provide a more accurate map than earlier ones. Hutchins had prepared the first map of the Ohio that was at all accurate, but there were still parts of the Ohio that lacked astronomically determined positions. Ellicott, an accomplished geodetic surveyor, corrected the accepted longitude of the mouth of the Ohio by nearly two degrees (p. 119).
He described the severe air pollution from the smoke at Pittsburgh and the smoke from forest and grass fires from Pittsburgh to Wheeling, which was then a part of Virginia. At times the smoke was so dense that the party "proceeded with difficulty."
Near the mouth of the Scioto River, now Portsmouth, Ohio, Ellicott collected "several fine specimens" of fossils, presumably from the famous Sciotoville bar locality for Mississippian brachiopods.
Across the river in Kentucky he visited salt works and described the salt spring and the manufacture of the salt in some detail (pp. 14, 15). He then described the falls at Louisville and noted the horizontality of the limestones over which the river fell. His description of strata observed in the Ohio Valley is as follows: "The bottom and sides of the river are stony.... The strata of stone are horizontally disposed, and principally consist of either freestone, or limestone. This horizontal disposition of the strata of stone, is observable through a very large extent of the United States. I have traced it from Oswego, up Lakes Ontario and Erie, with all waters falling into them, and through all the western part of Pennsylvania, and down the Ohio, whereever hills or mountains are to be seen" (p. 23).
Ellicott continued the map revisions on down the Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio to Natchez and then to New Orleans and the mouth of the river (Journal, plates C, D, and E). He repeatedly commented on the difference between the Ohio Valley, with its hills bordering the river, and the Mississippi, with the floodplain from "thirty-six to forty-five miles wide ... several feet under water at every inundation."
The formation of meanders of the Mississippi River, their enlargement and eventual extinction, to form what are now known as ox-bow lakes, was analyzed by Ellicott. His own statement and diagram are shown in Figure 3.
Ellicott related the rapid erosion of the concave banks, where "many fatal accidents have happened on this river.... When the banks are inundated, they are less dangerous, being in some measure supported by the water, and not so liable to give way" (p. 122). He gave instructions about avoiding perils in the navigation of the river. His scientific acumen and his practical engineering applications are excellently illustrated in this section, as well as elsewhere in his report. He remarked on natural levees: "Some superficial observers, have been led to believe that the river flows along on a hill with a valley on each side" (p. 123).
His wide-ranging scientific interests are well illustrated by his clever determination that the difference in annual mean temperatures between Pittsburgh and just south of Natchez is fourteen degrees. "The permanent degree of heat may be stated at about 14° beyond that of Pennsylvania. The conclusion is drawn from the following facts. In Pennsylvania the mean temperature of the best spring and well water, is about 51° and from the Mississippi, east to the Atlantic, in the parallel of 31° I found it about 65°, the difference is 14°" (p. 135).
It was in West Florida and in the circumnavigation of East Florida that Ellicott made his significant sedimentological and stratigraphic observations and important scientific conclusions. He was not only a keen observer, but also interpreted and explained his data.
Excerpted from The Geological Sciences in the Antebellum South by James X. Corgan. Copyright © 1982 the University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of ContentsContents
Andrew Ellicott's Geological Observations in the Mississippi Valley and Florida, 1796–1800
South Carolina State Geological Surveys of the Nineteenth Century
Early American Geological Surveys and Gerard Troost's Field Assistants, 1831–1836
Mineral Fertilizers in Southern Agriculture
William Barton Rogers and the Virginia Geological Survey, 1835–1842
Southern Influences on the Career of Joseph Nicollet
Antebellum Geological Surveys in Kentucky and Their Contribution to the Shaler Survey of the 1870s
Charles Lyell's Observations on Southeastern Geology
The Second Geological Career of Ebenezer Emmons: Success and Failure in the Southern States, 1851–1860