Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Smith Barton, 9 February 1802

From Benjamin Smith Barton

Philadelphia, February 9th, 1802.

Dear Sir,

I do myself the honour to introduce to your knowledge, one of our countrymen, Dr. John Watkins, a gentleman of much information, and of great merit. Dr. Watkins has just returned from Spain, and is on his way to the Missisipi, where he proposes to settle. In that part of North-America, he will have ample opportunities of collecting important materials for the natural history of the new world; and he is eminently calculated, by his talents and zeal, to accomplish this desirable end.

Dr. Watkins brought with him, from Spain, the original memoir (with plates) concerning the great animal (Megatherium) of South-America. From a careful inspection of the plates, it appears, that there must have been great affinities between this animal and that whose bones were found in Virginia, and of which you have given an account, in the Transactions of the American P. Society.

I have the honour to subscribe myself, Dear Sir, Your very humble and obedient servant, and affectionate friend, &c.

B. S. Barton.

RC (DLC). Recorded in SJL as received 15 Feb.

Dr. John Watkins, previously from Kentucky, had been in France and Spain attempting to secure a large land grant west of the Mississippi. In 1802 and 1803, he sent Barton letters and specimens relating to the natural history of the Mississippi Valley. Watkins settled in New Orleans and became involved in politics (Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser., 4:447; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 328, 330, 334, 341; William C. C. Claiborne to TJ, 15 Apr., 29 May 1804, TJ to Claiborne, 30 Aug. 1804, in DLC).

What Barton called the original memoir on the megatherium—a large, extinct ground sloth—was Joseph Garriga’s Descripción del esqueleto de un quadrúpedo muy corpolento y raro, que se conserva en el Real Gabinete de Historia Natural de Madrid, published in Madrid in 1796. An almost complete skeleton of the animal was found in South America in the 1780s and taken to Spain, where Juan Bautista Bru prepared and mounted the bones for the royal “cabinet” of natural history. Garriga, who was not a natural scientist, did not undertake to analyze the bones himself. Instead he printed, with an introduction, Bru’s previously unpublished description of the fossils as well as five illustrative plates that had been prepared under Bru’s supervision. The megatherium shared some characteristics with the megalonyx of Virginia that TJ named and described in his 1797 paper for the American Philosophical Society (published two years later in the society’s Transactions). In 1789, TJ had received from Madrid a handwritten description and partial sketch of the specimen from South America, which had not been named yet. TJ got those materials when he was about to leave France for the United States and could not give them much attention. In addition, that drawing and description did not emphasize the animal’s claws, which for TJ, in 1796–97, were the distinctive feature of the megalonyx, and TJ did not make any connection between the megalonyx and the bones in the 1789 sketch. Just before he presented his paper to the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , however, he saw in the Monthly Magazine of London an abridged, translated version of a report on the megatherium by Georges Cuvier. Although the Magazine did not say so, the notice was a condensation of a report by Cuvier to the National Institute of France, and a version also appeared in the Magasin Encyclopédique in 1796. The single illustrative plate that accompanied the précis in the Monthly Magazine did show all the claws, and TJ recognized that the megatherium and the megalonyx had anatomical similarities. Cuvier’s account was the first published description of the megatherium fossils from South America and gave the animal its name, but Cuvier had seen only illustrations, not the bones themselves. Evidently he was unaware of Bru’s manuscript describing the fossils. Garriga included a translation of the notice of Cuvier’s report in his work, but sought to give primacy in the study of the megatherium back to Bru and to Spain (Robert Hoffstetter, “Les rôles respectifs de Brú, Cuvier et Garriga dans les premières études concernant Megatherium,” Bulletin du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, 2d ser., 31 [1959], 536–45; “Notice concerning the Skeleton of a very large Species of Quadruped, hitherto unknown, found at Paraguay, and deposited in the Cabinet of Natural History at Madrid. Drawn up by G. Cuvier,” Monthly Magazine, 2 [1796], 637–8; Vol. 14:xxv–xxxiv, 40 [illus.], 501–2, 504–5; Vol. 29:291–304).

On 15 Aug. 1797, writing his first letter to John Stuart since the delivery of his paper on the megalonyx to the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , TJ referred to the notice about the megatherium he had seen in the Monthly Magazine. Unfortunately, TJ did not name Cuvier or the publication, and mistakenly said that the report had been “published in Spain,” which led Julian P. Boyd to conclude that TJ saw Garriga’s publication in 1797. However, apart from TJ’s error about the place of publication, all the facts he related to Stuart in that letter referred to the Monthly Magazine account. Moreover, as Barton’s letter above makes clear, Bru’s report and plates, as published in Garriga’s Descripción, were unknown in Philadelphia until 1802. If TJ had known of Garriga’s work in 1797, Caspar Wistar would have known of it also, yet in his detailed description of the megalonyx bones in the 1799 volume of the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends Transactions, Wistar said that he had seen only one illustration of the megatherium skeleton, the one in the Monthly Magazine. Barton’s copy of Garriga’s work—presumably the one that Watkins brought from Spain—was among Barton’s books when his library was acquired by the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1829 (Julian P. Boyd, “The Megalonyx, the Megatherium, and Thomas Jefferson’s Lapse of Memory,” APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 102 [1958], 431–2; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 4 [1799], 531; Bedini, Statesman of Science description begins Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science, New York, 1990 description ends , 272; Vol. 14:xxx–xxxi).

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