Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Caspar Wistar, 19 October 1800

From Caspar Wistar

Philada. Octobr 19th: 1800—

Dr Sir

The unceasing calls of my profession have accasioned me to postpone my answer to your esteemed favour longer than I wished—You committed Chancellor Livingstons first paper on the Steam Engine to my care—it was read at the next meeting of the Society & referred to Messrs. Patterson & Latrobe. Those Gentlemen finding no references to the figure, in the descriptions which accompanied it, were much puzzled, & therefore wished to have the consideration of the Paper deferred—I handed the Second paper to Mr. P. & he has informed me since, that it renders the first much more intelligible, & that the Committee will report fully upon the subject in a short time—In consequence of a resolution of the Society to publish yearly, & to arrange their papers for that purpose in September; a Committee was appointed last month & they found a sufficient number of Papers for a volume of moderate size—Among them are two papers on the premature decay of Peach Trees wh[ich] appear very interesting—The paper you transmitted with a plan of an opening for common sewers was read at the Society, & referred to a Committee who appeared pleased with the box for collecting sand; but our fellow Citizens who are engaged in mechanical pursuits display great talents not only in the invention but the simplification of Machinery, & we now use a box at the opening of some of the common sewers which has completely the effect of a valve with out the inconveniences which arise from intricate structure. thus suppose a box with an aperture at each end A.B., at an equal heighth from the bottom, and a partition CD extending from the top, so as to divide the box cross-wise, but to leave an aperture at the bottom—if this box is placed horizontally & receives a stream of water at A, it will allways be filled up to the line A.B. while the partition CD will prevent any exhalations from passing out thro the aperture A.

Have you received any accounts respecting the large bones which have lately been found up the North River in the State of New York—The News papers informed us about two months Since that a large proportion of a Sceleton was found, I think near New-Burgh in that state—I have applied to two different Gentlemen at New York, & as yet have received no information respecting it—You remember that bones which seem to have resembled those of the Mammoth were found at the Wallkill (described in the 2d Vol: of the Academy at Boston)—I have long thought that we have neglected too much Dr Mather’s story in the Abridgement of the Philosophical Transactions for I met with an Old Man at Claverack, who specified the spot in that neighbourhood where the large bone was found, & mentioned also a man whose father or Grandfather had seen it.

I am tempted by the importance of the subject, & the difficulty of procuring information elsewhere, to inquire if you have met with any accounts of diseases that resemble our yellow fever among the first Adventurers to America. I see in Robinson that the first Settlers at Darien were much reduced in their numbers, & the natives of Mexico were also attacked by Sickness after their Conquest—If you can refer me to any of the historians of those transactions who describe, or state the circumstances of those diseases, I will be greatly obliged to you—

To this long letter I will only add, that the returns of our Election have not yet been received from many of the Counties, but those which have appeared show that the Republican Party has acquired a great accession of strength in the Course of the last year—Our Governor is about to issue his writs for calling the Assembly immediately, & a short time will decide whether this populous State is to be deprived of her sufferage at the important election—I am not at all conversant with the maneuvres of parties, but I cannot believe any party will be hardy Enough to take such a meas[ure.] Our friends here are perfectly confident as to the result in general, & their confidence appears to increase daily—With sincere wishes that their calculations may prove just

I am, with respect & affection Yours &c

C. Wistar Junr

RC (DLC); damaged; endorsed by TJ as received 3 Nov. and so recorded in SJL.

Your esteemed favour: TJ wrote Wistar on 9 Sep., according to SJL, but the letter has not been found.

After hearing from its secretaries and treasurer on the matter, the American Philosophical Society on 15 Aug. 1800 formed a committee, including Wistar, to collect material for a new volume of the society’s published Transactions. At the next meeting, on 19 Sep., the committee received instructions for proceeding, although the volume of the Transactions did not appear until 1802. The decay of peach trees had been an object of the society’s attention for at least five years. On 3 Oct. 1800 the society concluded an essay competition on the subject by naming two essays to share the prize. Those papers appeared in an appendix to the next Transactions volume (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 229–30, 301–3; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 5 [1802], 325–8; Vol. 30:37).

With his letter of the 9th TJ evidently enclosed for the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends a two-paragraph description of an apparatus for the street drains of city Sewers. By retaining some runoff water in a catch basin, the device would block the escape of air and fumes from the sewer. TJ wrote the paper in his own hand and called it a “Description of a stopper for the openings by which the sewers of cities receive the water of their drains,” but his title line continued: “by mr John Fraser, of Chelsea, London.” Fraser, born in Scotland, had begun his career as a draper and hosier but became a botanist and horticultural collector and established the “American Nursery,” a commercial enterprise, in Chelsea. He traveled widely, searching for plants in South Carolina and Georgia in 1786–88 and meeting TJ in France not long after. Fraser maintained gardens in South Carolina to supply his nursery in England, and visited them more than once in the 1790s. He was in the United States in 1800, traveling in the Carolinas, Virginia, and elsewhere to collect plants for Emperor Paul of Russia. It seems likely that the botanist described the concept of the sewer stopper to TJ on a visit to Monticello during those travels, since there is no indication of any correspondence between them in this period. TJ’s brief paper discussed, and illustrated by diagrams, both the basic device and a modified form that included attachments for catching the sand that commonly ran into drains in Charleston and Savannah, cities familiar to Fraser. The paper was read at the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends meeting of 19 Sep. 1800, and at the next meeting Charles Willson Peale and Robert Leslie, to whom it had been referred, recommended its publication. It appeared in the next volume of the Transactions (PrC in DLC: TJ Papers, 107:18354–5, entirely in TJ’s hand; Dft in DLC: TJ Papers, Ser. 9, entirely in TJ’s hand including emendations; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 5 [1802], 148–9; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 302–3; ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 1:736; Vol. 12:655n; Vol. 14:278, 390; Vol. 15:47–8, 296).

The large bones that farm workers found while digging marl for fertilizer near Newburgh, New York, were the most recent of a series of similar discoveries in the area. This newest find gave hope that a complete skeleton of the animal, which had not yet been identified, might be recovered. Georges Cuvier later classified the fossils from the Hudson Valley and named the animal the mastodon (Medical Repository, 4 [1801], 211–14; Paul Semonin, American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity [New York, 2000], 316–17; Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art [New York, 1980], 113; Peale, Papers description begins Lillian B. Miller and others, eds., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, New Haven, 1983–2000, 5 vols. in 6 description ends , v. 2, pt. 2:1189–90).

In 1785 clergyman Robert Annan reported to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston that immense teeth and bones had been found five years earlier on his farm on the Walkill River, in New York State about fifteen miles west of the Hudson River and seventy miles north of New York City (Robert Annan, “Account of a Skeleton of a Large Animal, found near Hudson’s River,” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2, pt. 1 [1785], 160–4). Cotton Mather’s discussion of fossils from Claverack, also in the Hudson Valley, appeared in a letter of November 1712 that was reported in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, 29 (1714), 62–3. Mather decided that the remains must be those of gigantic humans mentioned in the Bible. A few years earlier the governor of New York had sent the Royal Society a huge tooth from the same vicinity. As the earliest reported evidence of an American “mammoth,” the finds at Claverack generated speculation and discussion in scientific and theological circles, including correspondence between TJ and Ezra Stiles in 1784. TJ traveled through Claverack in May 1791, taking note of the azaleas in bloom but saying nothing in his journal of the trip about the early fossil discoveries there (Semonin, American Monster, 9–11, 15–40; Vol. 7:312–17, 364–5; Vol. 20:453).

Robinson: William Robertson’s History of America, first published in 1777, which chronicled Spanish colonization in the Americas. TJ did not hold the work in the highest regard, considering it to be an uncritical reflection of the views of Buffon and Raynal; see Vol. 8:185; Vol. 13:397; Vol. 14:698; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends Nos. 468–9.

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