Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Bass Dabney, 20 June 1808


Fayal 20th June 1808.


It is a great gratification to me to have a pretext that may not be deemed impertinent to address a Letter to Your Excellency, I flatter myself that the Narrative I now have the Honour to lay before you will be received with some degree of Interest.

A Phenomenon has occurred here not unusual in former Ages, but of which there has been no example of late Years, it was well calculated to inspire terror, and has been attended with destruction of lives and property.

On Sunday the First of May at 1 PM walking in the Balcony of my House at St. Antonio, Fayal, I heard noises like the report of heavy Cannon at a distance, and concluded there was some Sea Engagement in the vicinity of the Island, but soon after casting my Eyes towards the Island of St. Georges, (ten leagues distant), I perceived a dense Column of Smoke rising to an immense height, It was soon judged that a Volcano had burst out about the Center of that Island, and this was rendered certain when night came on, the fire exhibiting an awful appearance, being desirous of viewing this wonderful exertion of nature, I embarked on the 3rd of May accompanied by the British Consul and some other Gentlemen for St. Georges. We ran over in five hours, and arrived at Vellas, the principal Town at 11 AM. We found the poor Inhabitants perfectly panic struck, and wholly given up to Religious Ceremonies and devotion. We learned that the Fire of the first of May had broken out in a Lake in the midst of fertile Pastures, three Leagues SE of Vellas, and had immediately formed a Crater in size about Sixty Alquiers or 24 Acres. in two days it had thrown out Cinders or small pummice Stones that a strong Northerly Wind had propelled Southerly: and which independent of the Mass accumulated around the Crater, had covered the Earth from One to Four Feet in depth, half a League in width, and three Leagues in length, then passing over the Channel five Leagues, had done some injury to the East point of Pico.

The Fire of this large Crater had nearly subsided, but on the Eve of our arrival, another small Crater had opened one League North of the large one, and only two Leagues from Vellas. After taking some refreshments, we visited this second Crater, the Sulphurous smoke of which driving Southerly rendering it impracticable to attempt to approach the large one. when we came within a Mile of the Crater, we found the Earth rent in every direction, and as we approached nearer, some of the Chasms were six feet wide, by leaping over some of them, and making many windings to avoid the larger ones, we at length arrived within two hundred Yards of the spot, and saw it in the middle of a Pasture distinctly, at intervals when the thick Clouds that swept the surface of the Earth lighted up a little, the mouth of it appeared to be about Fifty Yards only in Circumference, the Fires seemed struggling for Vent. The force with which a pale flame issued forth resembled a powerful steam Engine multiplied an hundred fold. The Noise was deafening; the Earth where we stood had a tremulous motion, the whole Island seemed convulsed. Horrid bellowings were occasionally heard from the Bowels of the Earth, and Earthquakes were frequent. After remaining about ten minutes we returned to Town. The Inhabitants had mostly quitted their houses, and remained in the Open Air or under Tents. We passed the Night at Vellas, and the next Morning went by water to a Small Sea port town two Leagues to the Southward called Urzalina, and viewed that part of the Country covered with the Cinders before mentioned, which had turned the most valuable Vineyards in the Island into a frightful Desert. On the same day the 4h. May we returned to Fayal, and on the 5th and succeeding days from 12 to 15 small Volcanos broke out in the fields we had traversed on the 3rd from the Chasms before described, and threw out a quantity of Lava, which travelled slowly towards Vellas, these subsided and the Lava ceased running about the 11th May, on which day the large Crater that had lain dormant for nine days, Burst forth like a roaring Lion with the most horrid belchings distinctly heard at 12 Leagues from the Crater throwing up prodigious large stones and Lava & illuminating at Night the whole Island. this continued with tremendous force until the 5th. of June, Exhibiting the Awful yet Magnificent spectacle of a perfect river of Fire running into the Sea distinctly seen from Fayal. on that day its force was much diminished, and in a few days it entirely subsided. The Elevation of the Crater may be about 3500 Feet and its distance from the Sea about 5 Miles.

The Lava inundated and swept away the Town of Urzalina, and the Country Houses and Cottages adjacent, as well as the Farm Houses throughout its course. it as usual gave timely Notice of its approach and most of the Inhabitants fled, some few however remained in the Vicinity of it too long, endeavouring to save their effects, and were Scalded by Flashes from its steam, which without injuring their Cloaths, took off not only their Skin but their Flesh. about Sixty Persons were thus miserably scalded, of whom some died on the spot and others soon after. Numbers of Cattle shared the same fate.

The Judge and principal Inhabitants left the Island very early, the Consternation and anxiety were for some days so great among the people, that even their domestic concerns were abandoned, and amidst plenty they were in danger of starving. Supplies of ready Baked Bread were sent to their relief from hence; and Boats were sent to bring away those Inhabitants who had lost their dwellings. in short, this Island heretofore Rich in Cattle, Corn and Wines for Exportation is nearly ruined, and a scene of greater desolation and distress has seldom been Witnessed in any Country.

I have the Honor to be with the highest Respect Sir Yr Most Obdt Servant

John B. Dabney

PS. No opportunity having presented to forward the Letter sooner, R. L. Livingston Esqr (who put in here for refreshments on his way from Spain to the US.) is polite enough to take charge of it, and also of a small Basket containing a Sample of the Cinders thrown out the first day of the Eruption & of the Lava taken up on the margin of the Sea. The basket contains moreover a sample of Charcoal formed by the Lava from the Crater of this Island (Fayal) overwhelming the Forests, probably some Centuries previous, to the discovery of these Islands. This Coal is washed out in considerable quantities by heavy rain, from deep chasms in the mountain in the Vicinity of the Crater.

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