Thomas Jefferson Papers

Caleb Atwater to Thomas Jefferson, 2 June 1818

From Caleb Atwater

Circleville, Ohio June 2nd 1818.


Attatched to the Philosopher whom I address from my earliest years, permit me to lay before you, a letter addressed to President Monroe concerning the antiquities in the West. Perhaps I am committing an error, by intruding on that dignified repose, which by your distinguished services in the cause of literature, your country and of the freedom and happiness of mankind you so richly merit. To add any thing to the honors which have been so justly awarded to you by your country and the enlightened, the virtuous and good of all civilized countries, is beyond my humble powers.

The letter which accompanies this note, has not been answered by him to whom it was originally addressed, perhaps never will be, but it was written for the eye of the enlightened part of the community and as one of them, I ask your opinion of it and the opinions advanced in it, whenever you find the leisure to do so.

I have lately written an essay on the prairies and barrens of the west, which is now in the hands of the printer for publication in Prof. Silliman’s Journal. I have also written an essay on the prevailing currents of air in this country, which will also appear in that Journal, in which I have maintained doctrines taught by you many years since, on that subject. Some ignorant pretenders to science, had controverted them but I have supported your theory as to our climate, by bringing forward new facts and additional considerations, all which you will see in due time.

I am now writing Notes on Ohio in the manner of yours on Virginia. I do not thus entitle my work because I deem myself capable of writing any thing which shall equal your immortal work, but because under that humble and unassuming title I can write what I please. Any hints from you, if your time leisure and circumstances permit, concerning my intended publication, will be thankfully received and gratefully acknowledged.

My letter on our antiquities is translated into the German language and will be sent across the Atlantic and published on the continent of Europe. I am shortly about to write a memoir on the Geological formation of this part of the American continent which will probably be published in Silliman’s Scientific Journal to which it is already pledged.

I have no favorite theories on any of these subjects to establish, but intend to confine myself to a statement of facts, deducing therefrom only such conclusions as necessarily follow.

Without books and separated as I am from the society of learned individuals, I need assistance on many interesting subjects concerning which, did not your years and other and higher avocations probably forbid it, I should ask you for information.1 As it is I forbear and beg that you would pardon this intrusion on your repose and that you would accept my highest reverence for your talents, as well as highest esteem for your many virtues.   Your very obedt humb servt

Caleb Atwater.

P.S. A stone which I take to be the Yu stone of Tartary and China is now in my possession. It is in all respects similar to the one found in the mound at Chillicothe and described by me in my communication to Prest Monroe, except the one I have is manufactured from a species of marble like the Italian. I have several stone axes which were found in our tumuli, a tooth of the mammoth called mastodon, which was dug out of a salt well, a great distance below a stratum of rock very hard but of the secondary kind, imbedded in which were found many organic remains. Our highest rocks are all of them oceanic, those in our lower grounds are fluviatic. The former contain the fossil remains of marine shells and anima[ls] [. . .] the latter contain the fossil remains of she[lls] & animals, such as our ponds, lakes rivers contain at this time. Your’s truly


RC (DLC); damaged at seal; addressed: “His Excellency Tho: Jefferson Esq. late President of the United States Monticello Virginia”; franked; endorsed by TJ as received 17 June 1818 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: Atwater to James Monroe, Circleville, 1 Jan. 1818, describing the ancient fortifications and earthen mounds of Ohio and speculating on the reasons these earthworks were constructed and the origins of their builders (American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 2 [1818]: 333–6).

Caleb Atwater (1778–1867), attorney, public official, and author, was a native of North Adams, Massachusetts, who graduated from Williams College in 1804. After working as a teacher in New York City and training as a Presbyterian minister, Atwater was admitted in 1809 to the New York bar. A business failure caused him to move in 1815 to Circleville, Ohio, where he practiced law and pursued his interest in local antiquities and earthworks. Atwater served one term in the Ohio House of Representatives, 1821–22. In that office and thereafter he promoted education and internal improvements. Following an unsuccessful run by Atwater for the United States House of Representatives and a short-lived newspaper editorship, in 1829 President Andrew Jackson appointed him as a commissioner to conduct negotiations with the Winnebago Indians. A treaty was successfully concluded, and Atwater drew on his experiences in his Remarks Made on a Tour to Prairie du Chien (1831). His numerous publications also include a volume of collected Writings of Caleb Atwater (1833) and A History of the State of Ohio, Natural and Civil (1838). Atwater died in Circleville (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Clement L. Martzolff, “Caleb Atwater,” in Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society, Publications 14 [1905]: 247–71; Calvin Durfee, Williams Biographical Annals [1871], 250–1; Madison, Papers, Pres. Ser., 2:138–9; Jackson, Papers description begins Sam B. Smith, Harold D. Moser, Daniel Feller, and others, eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson, 1980– , 9 vols. description ends , esp. 5:421–2, 7:43–7).

Atwater’s essays on the prairies and barrens of the west and the prevailing currents of air were dated by him 28 May and 23 July 1818 and appeared in the American Journal of Science 1 (1818–19): 116–25 and 266–86, respectively. TJ had discussed the prevailing winds many years since in his Notes on the State of Virginia (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, 1955, repr. 1995 description ends , 76–7). Atwater’s letter on our antiquities was published as a “Description of the Antiquities discovered in the State of Ohio and other Western States” in American Antiquarian Society, Transactions and Collections 1 (1820): 105–267, and large portions were excerpted or summarized in translation, with inadequate authorial attribution, in Friedrich Wilhelm Assall and Franz Joseph Mone, eds., Nachrichten über die früheren Einwohner von Nordamerika und ihre Denkmäler (1827), 1–81.

In his 1 Jan. 1818 letter to James Monroe, Atwater described the stone found in the mound at chillicothe as a three-inch-long pendant of black marble, “exactly such a one as the Emperor of China and the highest grades of his officers now wear around their necks” (American Monthly Magazine 2 [1818]: 334–5).

1Omitted period at right margin editorially supplied.

Index Entries

  • antiquities; Indian burial mounds and fortifications search
  • Asia; supposed antiquities from search
  • Atwater, Caleb; identified search
  • Atwater, Caleb; letter from search
  • Atwater, Caleb; scientific and historical writings of search
  • axes search
  • China; supposed antiquities of search
  • geography; of western country search
  • geology; of Ohio search
  • geology; of western country search
  • German language; C. Atwater’s work translated into search
  • Indians, American; burial mounds and fortifications of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • marble; pendants of search
  • mastodon (mammoth, Ohio); teeth of search
  • Monroe, James; works sent to search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); and climate change search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); praise for search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); references to search
  • Ohio; antiquities from search
  • Ohio; books on search
  • Silliman, Benjamin; andAmerican Journal of Science search
  • tools; axes search
  • weather; and climate change search
  • weather; works on search