Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Partners in Geology, Brothers in Frustration

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Partners in Geology, Brothers in Frustration

Article excerpt

To remove this ignorance, and to convey a general knowledge of mineral productions, by printed descriptions, public collections, and geographical maps, is a project which cannot fail to advance the cause of science and of public improvement, and which is worthy the patronage of every man who is anxious for the honor or the interests of the state. -National Gazette, 8 December 1826 1

DURING the 1820s, a spirit of public improvement seized the United States. New York's Erie Canal demonstrated the value of publicly funded projects to a state's economy, and many legislatures rushed to imitate the success of the Empire State in linking local and national markets through internal improvements. These popular endeavors blended the legislator's pragmatic desire to develop the resources of his particular district with a more general patriotic ardor that reveled in the future glory of the state. State-level mercantilist programs-categorized as such because they focused on the economic destiny of a specific state and not the nation as a whole-thus resulted in the construction of countless turnpikes, canals, and railroads in the antebellum period.2

In the same vein, geological surveys offered a way for states to reveal hidden sources of mineral wealth through the employment of professional scientists. These state geologists systematically explored and cataloged the topographical and mineral attributes of their territory. The antebellum survey, therefore, combined economic, scientific, and patriotic agendas under the guise of a single project.

By the 1830s, a number of legislatures had commissioned surveys, including two of the young nation's most prominent states, Virginia and Pennsylvania.3 Their state geologists, William Barton Rogers and Henry Darwin Rogers, were scholars with stellar credentials and prominent leaders in the American scientific community. These two extraordinary men also happened to be brothers. Although their brief careers as state geologists began on a high note, both quickly learned that the competing demands of science and economic development created a shaky foundation for a geological survey and that the struggle to produce practical results placed unwelcome pressures on them. This essay compares the experiences of the Rogers brothers and the antebellum geological surveys of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Their story demonstrates that although it is tempting to consider geology and other sciences as divorced from the strange logic and surreal circumstances of legislative politics, in the nineteenth century these natural and political worlds were hopelessly intertwined.

Because state assemblies acted as the major sponsors of the antebellum surveys, they reasonably expected geology to conform to the particular needs of their state. In the case of Pennsylvania, legislators anticipated that the survey would serve the interests of the blossoming iron and coal industries-any other goals were secondary. The Virginia General Assembly counted on its survey to help revive the Old Dominion's sagging economy. But in the context of antebellum Virginia politics, in which tension between the eastern and western counties over legislative apportionment, suffrage, and the future of slavery flavored all policy, the legislature drafted geology into the service of agrarian slaveholding interests. As professional scientists, Henry and William Rogers chafed under these demands.4 They could not, however, separate their science from its potential context. They were partners in geology and brothers in frustration.

Philadelphia attorney and science enthusiast Peter A. Browne began the campaign for the Pennsylvania geological survey in the early 1820s. At first indifference, ignorance, and outright hostility frustrated his proposals at every turn. Once Browne's idea received attention in the legislature after the completion of the Erie Canal, however, its aims seemed less scientific and more practical. …

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