Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Fat alligators in Florida

Andrew Ellicott, one of the most important early surveyors in the United States, was born 270 years ago today. He helped survey borders with Canada and with the Spanish territories, worked on the boundaries of the District of Columbia, and completed the plan for Washington D.C. Unpublished diaries kept by Ellicott on some survey expeditions have been used by biographers, but there is one diary he published himself, concerning his work in ‘determining the boundary between the United States and the possessions of His Catholic Majesty in America’. It is full of well-observed notes on the land he’s passing through, its people, soils, rivers, minerals, and animals, not least the alligators.

Ellicott was born on 24 January 1754 in Buckingham Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the first child in what would be a large Quaker family. His father, a miller and clockmaker, together with his two brothers, purchased land on the Patapsco River and set up a new milling business there, founding the town of Ellicott’s Mills in 1772. Some three years later Andrew married Sarah Brown and they had nine children that survived childhood. He enlisted as a commissioned officer in the Elk Ridge Battalion of the Maryland militia during the American War of Independence, and rose to the rank of major.

After the war, Ellicott returned home to Ellicott’s Mills until he was appointed, in 1784, to the group tasked with extending the survey of the Mason-Dixon line (this had operated from 1763 tasked with resolving a border dispute between British colonies in Colonial America, but had been stalled since 1767). During the survey, he worked alongside the scientist David Rittenhouse and the educator and bishop James Madison. In 1785, the Ellicotts moved to Baltimore, where Andrew taught mathematics at the Academy of Baltimore. The following year he was elected to the legislature, and was called upon to survey and define the western border of Pennsylvania. This so-called Ellicott Line later became the principal meridian for the surveys of the Northwest Territory.

When Ellicott was subsequently appointed to lead other surveys in Pennsylvania, the family moved again in 1789 to Philadelphia. By recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, he was appointed by the new government under George Washington to survey the lands between Lake Erie and Pennsylvania to determine the border between Western New York and U.S. territory, resulting in the Erie Triangle. This survey, during which he also made the first topographical study of the Niagara River including the Niagara Falls, did much to enhance his reputation as a surveyor.

From 1791 to 1792, Ellicott surveyed the boundaries of the federal Territory of Columbia, which would become the District of Columbia in 1801. His team placed forty boundary stones a mile or so apart, many of which remain today. At the same time, he worked on surveying the future city of Washington, a project that brought much conflict with the French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Further major projects followed for Ellicott, planning of the city of Erie, and working with the commission that was surveying the borders, negotiated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo, between the Spanish territories in Florida and the United States.

This latter work took four years, after which the John Adam’s government refused to pay Ellicott, and refused him access to the maps he had submitted, leaving him in serious financial trouble. It took until 1803 for the maps to be released to him, under Thomas Jefferson’s administration, which also offered Ellicott the post of Surveyor Journal. He turned it down, accepting instead a quieter life as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Land Office, and moving with his family to live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Also in 1803, Jefferson engaged Ellicott to teach Meriwether Lewis, who would later be one of the leaders of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (see White bear, drunk Indians).

After being fired by a new administration in Pennsylvania, Ellicott returned to private practice, and was hired to re-survey the border between Georgia and North Caroline. This job also ended acrimoniously, without his fees being paid, and the family moved to West Point where Ellicott worked as a professor of mathematics at the military academy. After one last significant survey, concerning the western border between Canada and the US in 1817, Ellicott died in 1820. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or from biographies freely available at Internet Archive, such as Andrew Ellicott - His Life and Letters by Catharine Van Cortlandt Mathews.

Ellicott was accustomed to keeping a diary on his survey expeditions, at least from the mid-1780s. Mathews says this: ‘Records of his earlier surveys were not kept, and it is not until ten years after his marriage that we have the first of those letters and diaries which tell the story of his life so simply and so unassumingly that the biographer cannot do better than to let them speak for him. They form a clear and fascinating picture of the men and manners, the country and the State of Andrew Ellicott’s day, while through even the briefest of them, shines out the character of the man himself, in all its simplicity, integrity, and kindliness. Between the lines of almost every scrap of manuscript he has left behind him, may be traced the quiet, sensible courage, the quick and keen observation of men and things, the tremendous capacity for hard work, and the complete indifference to the lures of wealth or fame, which seem to have been recognized by all who came in contact with him as the most characteristic qualities of the man.’

In her biography (published in 1908), Mathews quotes from various of Ellicott’s unpublished diaries. The only diary of Ellicott’s that appeared in his own lifetime was the one he kept in the late 1790s while surveying the border between the US and the Spanish territories. He was only able to publish this, finally, in 1803, when allowed access to the survey’s maps. The book, which is freely available at Internet Archive has an impressive title:

The Journal of Andrew Ellicott: late commissioner on behalf of the United States during part of the year 1796, the years 1797, 1798, 1799, and part of the year 1800: for determining the boundary between the United States and the possessions of His Catholic Majesty in America, containing occasional remarks on the situation, soil, rivers, natural productions, and diseases of the different countries on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Gulf of Mexico, with six maps comprehending the Ohio, the Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, the whole of West Florida, and part of East Florida; to which is added an appendix, containing all the astronomical observations made use of for determining the boundary on a large scale, likewise a great number of Thermometrical Observations made at different times and places.

Here are several extracts.

6 December 1797
‘Spent at work upon our boats. Squalls of snow all day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 28°.’

7 December 1797
‘Finished repairing our boats. Cloudy great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 18° to 26°.’

8 December 1797
‘Detained till evening by our commissary, who was employed in procuring provision. Set off about sun down.’

The town of Louis Ville stands a short distance above the rapids on the east side of the river. The situation is handsome, but said to be unhealthy. The town has improved but little for some years past. The rapids are occasioned by the water falling from one horizontal stratum of lime-stone, to another; in some places the fall is perpendicular, but the main body of the water when the river is low, runs along a channel of a tolerably regular slope, which has been through length of time worn in the rock. In the spring when the river is full, the rapids are scarcely perceptible, and boats descend without difficulty or danger. Thermometer rose from 22° to 29°.’

9 December 1797
‘Floated all night. Stopped in the morning to cook some victuals, and then proceeded on till sunset and encamped.  Thermometer rose from 27° to 35°, Water in the river 53°.’

10 December 1797
‘Left the shore at sunrise. About nine o’clock in the morning discovered a Kentucky boat fast upon a log, and upon examination found that it was deserted, and suspected that the crew were on shore in distress, which we soon found to be the case. The crew consisted of several men, women, and children, who left the boat two days before in a small canoe when they found their strength insufficient to get her off. They were without any shelter, to defend them from the inclemency of the weather, and it was then snowing very fast. We spent two hours in getting the boat off, and taking it to the shore, where we received the thanks of the unfortunate crew, and left them to pursue their journey.

Having a desire to determine the geographical position of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and the large store boat not being calculated for expedition, I left her with directions to follow with all possible despatch, and pushed on myself for the mouth of the river. Stopped at sun down, to give our men time to cook some victuals: set off at eight o’clock in the evening, and proceeded down the river against a strong head wind till almost midnight, when it became so violent that we had to put to shore. Snow great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 28°. Water in the river 33°.’

11 Decmber 1797
‘Left the shore at daylight, and worked against a strong head wind till sunset, then went on shore to dress some victuals. Cloudy great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 23° to 29°. Left the shore at eight o’clock in the evening, and worked all night against a strong head wind.’

15 December 1797
‘Much ice in the river. Stopped at an Indian camp, and procured some meat. Dined at the great cave. This cave may be considered as one of the greatest natural curiosities on the river, and I have constantly lamented that I could not spare time to make a drawing of it, and take its dimensions. It is situated on the west side of the river. The entrance is large and spacious, and remarkably uniform, the dome is elliptical, and the uniformity continues to its termination in the hill.

Stopped about sunset to take in some wood. Set off in half an hour and floated all night. Cloudy part of the day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 41°.’

16 December 1797
‘At eight o’clock in the morning, one of our boats unfortunately ran on the roots of a tree, which were under water, and bilged. We spent till near one o’clock in the afternoon in repairing her, and then proceeded down the river till about sunset and encamped. The weather that day was very pleasant. Thermometer rose from 35° to 51°. Passed Cumberland river at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.’

19 December 1797
‘Set up the clock, and prepared to make some astronomical observations for the purpose of determining the latitude and longitude of the confluence of those great, and important rivers: for those, and the thermometrical observations made at this place, see the Appendix.

The map of the Ohio river which accompanies this work, is laid down from the best materials I could procure, a number of the latitudes between Pittsburgh and the rapids, were taken by myself: from thence down to the Mississippi, the latest charts have been used, except in a few places which have been corrected by my friend Don Jon Joaquin de Ferrer, an ingenious Spanish astronomer. The map is divided into two parts, that it may not be too large to fold in a quarto volume, and at the same time of such a size, as to shew distinctly the errors that may hereafter be discovered, and serve as a basis for future corrections.

The Ohio river, is formed by the junction of the Allegany and Monongahela rivers, at Pittsburgh, which name it retains till it falls into the Mississippi. It may not be improper here to observe, that all the Indians residing on the Allegany, ever since my acquaintance with the western country, have called that branch, as well as the main river, the Ohio, and appeared to know it by no other name.

The Ohio is certainly one of the finest rivers within the United States, whether considered as to magnitude, the great extent of its course, or the outlet it affords to an immense and fertile country rapidly filling with inhabitants.

The bottom and sides of the river are stony, from Pittsburgh down to the low country, which is generally supposed to be about eight hundred miles. 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 the waters falling into them, and through all the western parts of Pennsylvania, and down the Ohio, wherever hills or mountains are to be seen.

The flat, or bottom lands on the Ohio, are not surpassed by any in the United States for fertility; but in many places they are small, and inconsiderable; being limited by hills or mountains, on one side, and the river on the other. A large proportion of the hills, and mountains, are unfit for agricultural purposes, being either too steep, or faced with rocks. The hills and mountains on the east side of the river, generally increase in magnitude, till they unite with the great ridge, commonly called the Allegany: but on the west side they decrease, till the country becomes almost a dead level.

The country produces all the immediate necessaries, of life in abundance, and far beyond the present consumption of the inhabitants; the residue, with many other articles, such as hemp, cordage, hard-ware, some glass, whisky, apples, cider, and salted provisions, are annually carried down the river to New Orleans, where they find a ready market. Mines of pit coal (lithanthrax), are not only abundant, but inexhaustible from Pittsburgh many miles down the river.

The inhabitants of no part of the United States are so much interested in establishing manufactories, as of this. They possess the raw materials, and can export their produce with ease, but their imports are attended with difficulty, great risk, and expense. And so long as they receive neither bounties, nor uncommon prices for their articles of exportation, and depend upon the Atlantic states for their supplies of European manufactures, the balance of trade will constantly be against them, and draw off that money, which should be applied to the improvement of the country, and the payment of their taxes. To this source, may in some degree be traced, the character the inhabitants have too generally had bestowed upon them of insurgents, and disorganizers; to a few individuals these epithets may be applied, but not to the body of the people. In order to judge fairly on this question, it will be necessary to take into view the local situation of the inhabitants. In the Atlantic states every article however minute, if a necessary of life, will not only find a ready market, but command cash. On the Ohio, and its waters, almost the only article, which has heretofore found a ready market at home, and would command cash, was their own distilled spirits. The taxing of this article would therefore be but little different from taxing every article in the Atlantic states, which commanded cash. Such a tax as the latter, I am inclined to believe, would be collected with difficulty, and probably with the same propriety, give the same turbulent character to a great majority of the nation.

I am far from justifying any opposition by force, to the execution of laws constitutionally enacted, they must either expire, or be constitutionally repealed; a contrary proceeding must terminate in the destruction of all order, and regular government, and leave the nation in a state of nature: but at the same time, it is a duty incumbent on the legislature, to attend to the local situations of the several constituent, or component parts of the union, and not pass laws, which are feebly felt in one part, and be oppressive in another. That some turbulent persons are to be met with on our frontiers, every person possessed of understanding and reflection, must be sensible, will be the case so long as we have a frontier, and men are able to fly from justice, or their creditors; but there are few settlements so unfortunate as to merit a general bad character from this class of inhabitants.

The people who reside on the Ohio and its waters, are brave, enterprising, and warlike, which will generally be found the strongest characteristical marks of the inhabitants of all our new settlements. It arises from their situation; being constantly in danger from the Indians, they are habituated to alarms, and acts of bravery become a duty they owe to themselves, and to their friends. But this bravery, too frequently when not checked by education, and a correct mode of thinking, degenerates into ferocity.

Vessels proper for the West India trade, may be advantageously built on the Ohio, and taken with a cargo every annual rise of the waters down to New Orleans, or out to the islands. The experiment has already been made, and attended with success.

The climate on the Ohio, does not appear to be inferior to that of any part of the union. The inhabitants enjoy as much health, as they do on any of the large rivers in the Atlantic states. At Pittsburgh, and for a considerable distance down the river, bilious complaints are scarcely known; but they are frequent at Cincinnati, and still more so at Louisville near the rapids.’

7 February 1800
‘We began our observatory, and sent a party to examine whether there was any communication between the river and Okefonoke Swamp, which after our arrival at St. Mary’s to our surprise, we found doubtful. The same day a number of canoes were sent down to the vessel to bring up some of our instruments and other articles, we were under the necessity of leaving behind.

On the 12th the instruments and other articles arrived, and a course of observations was began as soon as the weather permitted. In the evening the party that was sent to explore the source of the river, or its communication with the Okefonoke Swamp returned; but without making any satisfactory discovery, and the day following another party was despatched on the same business.

This being the season that the Alligators, or American Crocodiles were beginning to crawl out of the mud and bask in the sun, it was a favourable time to take them, both on account of their torpid state, and to examine the truth of the report of their swallowing pine knots in the fall of the year to serve them, (on account of their difficult digestion,) during the term of their torpor, which is probably about three months. For this purpose two Alligators of about eight or nine feet in length were taken and opened, and in the stomach of each was found several pine and other knots, pieces of bark, and in one of them some charcoal; but exclusive of such indigestible matter, the stomachs of both were empty. So far the report appears to be founded in fact: but whether these substances were swallowed on account of their tedious digestion, and therefore proper during the time those animals lay in the mud, or to prevent a collapse of the coats of the stomach, or by accident owing to their voracious manner of devouring their food, is difficult to determine.

The Alligator has been so often, and so well described, and those descriptions so well known, that other attempts have become unnecessary. It may nevertheless be proper to remark, that so far as the human species are concerned, the Alligators appear much less dangerous, than has generally been supposed, particularly by those unacquainted with them. And I do not recollect meeting with but one well authenticated fact of any of the human species being injured by them in that country, (where they are very numerous,) and that was a negro near New Orleans, who while standing in the water sawing a piece of timber, had one of his legs dangerously wounded by one of them. My opinion on this subject is founded on my own experience. I have frequently been a witness to Indians, including men, women and children, bathing in rivers and ponds, where those animals are extremely numerous, without any apparent dread or caution: the same practice was also pursued by myself and people, without caution, and without injury.

Some of the Alligators we killed were very fat, and would doubtless have yielded a considerable quantity of oil, which is probably almost the only use that will ever be made of them; however their tails are frequently eaten by the Indians and negroes, and Mr. Bowles informed me that he thought them one of the greatest of delicacies.

The Alligators appear to abound plentifully in musk, the smell of which is sometimes perceptible to a considerable distance, when they are wounded or killed; but whether the musk is contained in a receptacle for that purpose, and secreted by a particular gland or glands, or generally diffused through the system appears somewhat uncertain: and I confess their appearance was so disagreeable and offensive to me, that I felt no inclination to undertake the dissection of one of them.

The second party which had been sent to ascertain the connexion (if any,) between the river St. Mary’s and the Okefonoke Swamp returned on the 17th, having discovered the communication, and the day following a traverse was began, to connect the observatory with that part of the Swamp from whence the water issued, in order to determine its true geographical position.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 24 January 2014.

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