A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 9

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Publications in the periodical press while at the Observatory—Observations of the rise and fall of the Mississippi "Drowned Lands"—Steam Navigation to China—Ship-canal schemes—"Inca Papers—Their defence in a letter to Mrs. Blackford.

While engaged on those labours at the Washington Observatory which will immortalize his name, Maury frequently ventilated his ideas and the results of his ripe experience in periodical literature.

In 1843 he wrote on the subject of "Lighthouses on the Florida and Gulf Coasts, and showed just where they ought to be placed. In another paper, in the same year, he begged that a competent officer of the navy might be sent to Memphis, or elsewhere on the Mississippi River, to make systematic observations on the rise and fall of the water in that river and its tributaries. For this purpose Lieutenant Marr was selected, and directed by Maury to make an accurate cross section of the river opposite to the navy yard, and to observe for 365 consecutive days the velocity of the current near the surface and bottom, for the purpose of ascertaining the volume of water passing that point daily; also to take daily a measured quantity of water, evaporate it, and note the amount of silt or solid matter it contained.

He was to observe daily the temperature of the air and water, the amount of evaporation and precipitation. The first year the continuity of the series was broken, and he had to begin again and go over the work, so as to have a complete series of observations for one year. "These observations, patiently and carefully made and afterwards digested by Maury, formed the foundation of all that subsequent research has revealed of the habits of our greatest river.[1] The War Department afterwards ordered additional observations to be made, which were elaborately discussed by General Humphries.

Maury also originated the plan of establishing water marks or river gauges at all the principal towns on the Mississippi, and its branches, in order that captains of steamboats and others interested "might every day be accurately informed through the telegraph what stage of water might be found in any of the tributaries." "It is believed that a record of these river gauges, properly kept, would enable intelligent observers to determine the effect upon the stream below of a freshet in any tributary, or set of tributaries."

His papers on The Defence of the [Great] Lakes and the West, and his advocacy of the Illinois and Michigan ship-canal as a measure of national defense, created a profound impression, particularly in the North-West, and were received with enthusiastic commendation. These papers were spread upon the journals of the legislature of Illinois, with a vote of thanks to the author.

When Congress had under consideration the cession of the "Drowned Lands" (belonging to the Government) along the Mississippi River to the several States in which they lay, Maury, at the request of one of the Senate Committee (J. H. Borland) having charge of the subject, prepared an elaborate Report and a Bill, providing that the States should proceed to redeem these lands according to a common plan to be matured by competent engineers selected for the purpose by the general government. "It has since become evident that, had this been carried out immense advantage would have been gained, and enormous loss and damage avoided," says the Memphis Eagle and Enquirer. In April 1842 Maury published a letter[2] to the Honorable T. Butler King about Steam Navigation to China, recommending his "great circle route," which would take in the Fox Islands, and advising that coaling stations should be established there. "You know", he said, that the shortest distance between two points on a plane or flat surface is a straight line; but the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a globe or sphere is a section of a great circle, or a circle which has for its centre the centre of the globe or sphere. Such a curved line is the one I recommend as the shortest route between our Pacific shores and China."


He urged the building of a ship-canal and railroad across the isthmus to the Pacific, and showed the advantages possessed by Panama only forty five miles across, or Nicaragua, over Tehuantepec, which is three times that distance, and has besides no harbour.[3] The expense of a ship canal across the Isthmus of Panama has been estimated by European engineers at $25,000,000. The summit to be overcome is 275 or 280 feet above the level of the sea. The River Chagres is navigable only for small vessels a part of the year, and for a part of the way across the isthmus, which here is about forty five miles broad. A railway is already in process of construction. A canal across Tehuantepec is out of the question; there are difficulties both of the land and water which make it impracticable. It is useless therefore to discuss the hypothetical advantages of this route.

I am not in possession at present of the information necessary to speak of a canal by the Nicaraguan route, although it offers advantages which are very inviting. There are valuable letters on this subject on file at the National Observatory; also letters about two lines of railroad through the United States to the Pacific—"One should be through the North-West, the other through Texas." Copies of these, or of others on many subjects of national interest, can be obtained by reference to Lieutenant Maury's official letter books at the National Observatory."

In consequence of these and other writings, the Navy Department sent Lieutenant Strain and several other naval officers, including engineer John Minor Maury (a young nephew of Lieutenant Maury's) being of the party, on the celebrated but ill fated Darien Exploring Expedition, which, owing to defective maps and bad guides, proved a most disastrous one.

After untold privations from hunger and other causes, and the loss of several lives, they reached the other side; but for the last two weeks they were out. "Jack Maury" was the only one who had strength left to carry a shot-gun and he kept the men alive by his devoted exertions. [4]

In 1845, Maury read a paper before the Virginia Commercial Convention on the "Commercial prospects of the South." In it he says, "Geographically speaking, Norfolk is in a position to command the business of the Atlantic seaboard. It is midway between the coasts, has a back country of surpassing fertility, of great capacity and resources. The waters which flow past Norfolk into the sea divide the producing States from the consuming States of the Atlantic slope, the agricultural from the manufacturing; and these same waters at this one place form the natural channels that lead from the most famous regions of the country for corn, wheat, and tobacco, to the great commercial marts.

“Virginia saw these advantages some ten years ago and slept upon them. She sees that Nature has placed them there, and made them hers. She never dreamed that man could take them away; but man has. . . .

"But Great Britain and Europe are not the only Countries in the world with which commercial trade is desirable. 'Let the South look to the South! Behold the Valley of the Amazon![5] In 1837 commenced the second era of ocean steam navigation, though twenty years before that the South had sent out an avant-courier from Georgia; but the South rested content with the honour of being the first to stride across the Atlantic under steam. This was the time (1837) when the idea was thrown out 'that Virginia should offer to cooperate with the French and invite them to send their steamers to her.'"

In 1850, Maury suggested, in his Inca Papers, (a term Maury chose so as not to offend South Americans -wmm) that the Valley of the Amazon should be used as an outlet and safety-valve for the surplus black and other population of the South. In consequence of this paper and two others which he wrote for the Southern Literary Messenger over the signature of "Harry Bluff," on "Our Relations with England" and the "Right of Search. One of his favourite cousins, Mrs. Blackford of New York, to whom Maury was much attached, wrote him a long letter and the following is Maury's reply:—

My Dear Cousin, Observatory, 24th, Dec. 1851.

I received your letter yesterday, and was grieved that any of my writings should give you pain. Do you recollect the ride we took together many years ago? It was on the road that leads from Fredericksburg to Spottsylvania Court House; in the month of May 1825. We had much talk as to my calling in life. You took an interest in my welfare, spoke kindly to me, and gave me good advice, which went straight to my heart and sank deep, and made me love you dearly. . . . No, my dear cousin, I am not seeking to make slave territory out of free, or to introduce slavery where there is none. Brazil is as much of a slave country as Virginia, and the valley of the Amazon is Brazilian.

I am sure you would rejoice to see the people of Virginia rise up tomorrow and say, from and after a future day—say 1st January, 1855—there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in Virginia. Although this would not strike the shackle from a single arm, nor command a single slave to go free, yet it would relieve our own loved Virginia of that curse. Such an act on the part of the State would cause slave owners generally either to leave the State with their slaves, or to send them off to the Southern markets.[6] But they would be still slaves in our own country. We must take things as we find them, and if we would be practical and do good, we must deal with mankind as they are, and not as we would have them.

If you will read my article published in the Southern Literary Messenger against the "Right of Search", which article was sent in the proof-sheets to Lord Ashburton, and commended to him as containing a plan which if carried out would be most effective in breaking up the slave-trade. . . . You will see that my plan was adopted exactly as I proposed it, and we have now a squadron on the coast of Africa for the suppression of the slave-trade.

. . . . Now for the last two years I have been urging the Government to make a treaty with Brazil, and to remind her in that treaty that we are her best customers for coffee; that nearly all she produces is consumed in the United States, where it is admitted duty free, and of course the consumption is largely increased thereby. I have urged that we should say to Brazil in that treaty, stop the African slave trade, or we will put a duty on that coffee, and thus lessen the demand for the fruits of slave labour, and so take away from you the interest in the Tariff Act. . . . Brazil is a slave country, and all the travelers who go there, I am told, say that the black man, and he alone, is capable of subduing the forests there. To make it clear that the people of Amazonia will have slaves—they are very near to the coast of Africa, and if they cannot get them in one way they will get them in another. The alternative is, shall Amazonia be supplied with this class from the United States or from Africa? In the former case it will be a transfer of the place of servitude, but the making of no new slaves. In the latter it will be making slaves of free men, and adding greatly to the number of slaves in the world. In the former it would be relieving our own country of the slaves, it would be hastening the time of our deliverance, and it would be putting off indefinitely the horrors of that war of races which, without an escape, is surely to come upon us. Therefore I see in the slave territory of the Amazon the safety valve of the Southern States.

I cannot be blind to what I see going on here. It is coming to be a matter of faith among leading southern men that the time is rapidly approaching when, in order to prevent this war of races and its horrors, they will, in self defence, be compelled to conquer parts of Mexico and Central America, and make slave territory of that which is now free.

Am I not right? Am I not humane when, insomuch as I see these tendencies, I try to prevent them by substituting a lesser for a greater evil? And though I cannot do all the good that I would, may I be permitted, in my humble way, to prevent harm?

How glorious is Lewis Herndon's mission into that valley in comparison with the achievements of Clive and Hastings!

I may be wrong in preaching up Amazonia; but I am, my dear cousin, as firm in my convictions of right as you are when you enter your closet and shut the door to pray, and may God help us both!

Your affectionate cousin,
M. F. Maury.

  1. Memphis Appeal
  2. In the S.L.M. [the Southern Literary Messenger-wmm] (Wikisource contributor note)
  3. See National Intelligencer, Nov. 4th, 1849, Maury on "Communication with the Pacific."
  4. See Headley's Darien Expedition," published in Franklin Symond series.
  5. See "Valley of the Amazon" by "Inca" (M.F.M.), 1850.
  6. As the Yankees did early in this century, when they ceased to be profitable north of 39° 30'