FENCE viewing, agriculture, and religion were not enough to submerge the scholar’s desire to write. In the long winters and during the rainy weather of the growing season Van der Kemp spent much time with his own books and those he could borrow. And of course he read eagerly the newspapers and periodicals which passed from friend to friend. It was meager intellectual fare but Van der Kemp was living on the edge of civilization, isolated from other scholars except by letter-writing. In spite of the handicaps of the wilderness and that of writing in an adopted language, Van der Kemp essayed to be a productive scholar.
The enlightened people of the late 1700’s took an avid interest in natural history and natural law. Van der Kemp’s education and personal philosophy attracted him to this study, of which scientific agriculture was a facet. His reading of Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia inspired him, and Chancellor Robert Livingston’s letters encouraged him. The finding of a huge animal skeleton in Ulster County in August, 1801, greatly aroused his curiosity.
The Notes on Virginia contained several pages dealing with mammoths and other prehistoric animals. Jefferson disagreed with the popular French naturalist, Count George Louis Le Clerq de Buffon, especially in regard to the Frenchman’s conclusions that animals were smaller in America than in Europe because America was wetter and colder than the Old World. Van der Kemp was intrigued with the differing opinions and soon acquired or borrowed the major work of Buffon, printed in 1764.
He wrote of his interest to Chancellor Livingston in late 1800, saying that for “some time” he had been “ruminating” on the theories of Buffon and Jefferson. He intended to put his own ideas in a letter to Livingston with the hope that it would “find its way to our illustrious Philosopher [Jefferson].”1 Livingston replied that Van der Kemp’s contributions could be valuable. European naturalists were prejudiced against America, but American naturalists had defended their country with warmth. “You who are at once an American & a European will see the points in dispute with more coolness & probably detect errors in both.” He was certain Jefferson would be interested.2
Upon reading a “masterly” report on natural science by Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill of Columbia University, Van der Kemp hoped that scholar would be interested in opposing Buffon. He then looked up some animal descriptions by Livingston in the agricultural society proceedings, but found only sketches of the moose, elk and reindeer. Van der Kemp expected “exact descriptions of every one of them with their comparative anatomy and characterising differences with accurate drawings of them!” He wanted all the data necessary to understand and explain the theories of Buffon and Jefferson.3
The following June he told Adams that he had “amused” himself during the winter “gluing together [a] few cursory remarks on Buffon’s and Jefferson’s theories.” He wanted to submit the work to Adams but his present “hard working life” permitted writing or copying only in off seasons. He then opened up the subject of a study of the northwest coast, with numerous questions to Adams. Believing that Captain James Cook never reached the American mainland, Van der Kemp thought the government should support research to refute the British claim. He wanted to know more about the voyage of Captain Robert Gray, who discovered the mouth of the Columbia River. Would it be possible to see Gray’s journals from 1787 to 1789? How far eastward did Gray’s first voyage take him; did he make astronomical observations (if not, why not); did he sight land and what was its appearance? What was the view north of 55°, and why did Gray not make sure of the location of the continent?4 Van der Kemp’s search for knowledge never ceased. He believed the whole world was knowable and could be made useful to mankind.
Adams laughed at Van der Kemp’s interest in the natural history of Jefferson and Buffon, particularly the mammoth. He expressed credibility in such large animals but saw less value in such research than in comparable work on agriculture. Buffon’s writing style pleased Adams, and he was interested in his facts “when he is correct”—but not in his theories. He asked Van der Kemp if Buffon’s molecules were any different from Epicure’s atoms. In regard to the northwest coast, Adams promised assistance in Van der Kemp’s research and suggested a look at the journal of Captain Joseph Ingraham who made a voyage in that area. He concluded his letter by saying he had been too busy with schemes for the public good over the past forty years to enjoy curious inquiries and, therefore, he was the least qualified man Van der Kemp could have chosen to assist.5
Livingston offered some of his ideas on mammoths and natural law and received Van der Kemp’s first essay in the summer of 1801. It began:
I was and am yet enamoured with Buffon’s theory, and most cheerfully submit to your judgment in crowning him with laurel above all his competitors—but even this splendid sun of our Philosophical world—has in your opinion his spots. His proofs, it is true, are so numerous, his facts so indisputable, the appearance of mathematical exactness so artfully display’d and so much analogy preserved in his most excentric whim, that he often compels our assent by his bewitching eloquence, when cool reason discovers, that this immense fabric of solid materials is raised in quicksand—
Van der Kemp doubted some of the reports on the Shawagunk bones which had been taken to Charles Willson Peak’s museum in Philadelphia. Peale had made quite an expedition to Ulster County and reconstructed two skeletons in his museum. Van der Kemp contested Livingston’s idea that an early race of men had killed off the mammoths; surely sufficient carniverous animals inhabited North America to have reduced the number of huge beasts. He accepted Livingston’s offer to send a fuller description of the Shawagunk bones and asked, “Was the head entire? Did the Judge [George Graham] examine the jaw-bones? … Have you explored their enamel? Are the teeth bone or of ivory?” Van der Kemp presented six or seven pages of ideas, queries and opposing opinions about the mammoth.6 From this grew a manuscript of 270 pages.
Van der Kemp organized this work in the form of letters—a common practice at this time. These were supposedly to Chancellor Livingston and Gerrit Boon and were twelve in number. A short introductory letter contained the reasons for writing the material, praised Jefferson as writer-president and praised Buffon for his perception in his Natural History. In the first numbered letter the subject of the creation of the earth is treated, followed by discussion of the possibility of the deluge as an explanation of fossils and shells of sea animals on high lands. Van der Kemp could not believe God would allow creation of the earth through an errant comet knocking a chunk out of the sun, but the theory that the earth was originally a molten mass which cooled interested him. He explored writings and presented ideas of his own concerning the theory. This chapter was concerned more with Buffon than Jefferson, although the latter was criticized for his unsupported rejection of the deluge. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and other great scientists were cited frequently, with quotations in French and Latin. The second letter continued the examination of evidence for a deluge which deposited shellfish and other sea animals on the mountains of Europe and America. He included comments on fossils collected by John Lincklaen, probably near Chittenango Falls, and some found by Peter Smith at Peterboro. Van der Kemp himself had observed fossils at various places, and collected many at Esopus and Trenton Falls.
Prompted by his curiosity about fossils and the deluge, Van der Kemp had made some further geological studies. He had followed the West Canada Creek and its branches from the falls toward Rome and found “unquestionable proofs of disappeared lakes and rivers.” He felt that if the land at Cohoes Falls and Little Falls were compared with that around Canada Creek and the vicinity of Rome, it would be found that
The Mohawk shall be transformed in an immense River—our vicinity shall be proved to have been a lake—whose circuit yet may be ascertained—and the Oneyda—Ontario and other adjacent lakes were a vast expanse of water within its lofty barriers.
Van der Kemp used this example and many others to show that numerous convulsions had changed the pattern of the earth’s lands and seas.
His next consideration was the origin of the American Indians and the extent of their civilizations. He saw similarities between the Indian artifacts and habits and those of the Mongolians. He thought the Indians must have come across Bering Strait but that more investigation was needed, especially of the Mississippi and Ohio Valley mounds. The mammoth bones that were being discovered in America and Siberia probably belonged to animals that used the same connection of Asia and North America. However, he believed the mammoth was not carnivorous, as some thought, and that it was, perhaps, not extinct. Maybe the unexplored parts of our Northwest or the interior of Siberia contained living mammoths.
In the last letters Van der Kemp jumped from one minor scientific problem to another, apparently with the aim of showing how many areas of research were inviting educated men. Then he concluded with a strong theme that the Almighty Creator made every thing and every part for a purpose or a service and these purposes could be discovered by man.
Many sources were cited and explanations and quotations were placed in extensive footnotes. Sometimes additional materials or citations were put in the margin. At the end of the manuscript were some addenda, a table of contents and an index. The complete manuscript includes research done as late as 1812.7
The earliest manuscript was sent to Livingston, with a second copy laboriously copied and sent to John Adams in the late summer of 1801. Adams wrote soon that he had read the paper “with great pleasure” but that there were “too many subjects of curious speculation” for him to comment further.8 This reception encouraged Van der Kemp to ask Adams to mark the weak places in the manuscript. He reported that Livingston proposed to write a criticism from France. Livingston had sent the paper to Jefferson and received the president’s polite approval of the author’s exertions, of his wide reading and observations and his proper estimation of Buffon’s unphilosophical but eloquent dissertations.9
Professor Sereno [?] Dwight of Yale offered to read and comment on Van der Kemp’s research but there was no copy to send him. As soon as the Adams copy was returned it was promised to John Mifflin in Philadelphia.10 Adams made his first comments in January, 1802.
I can afford you no ideas on the subject of the mammoth because I have none. The Spirit of Political Party has seized upon the Bones of this huge Animal, because the head of a Party has written something about them, and has made them a subject of more conversation and Investigation than they merit. The Species may yet exist in America and in other quarters of the globe. They may be carnivorous, or they may subsist on the Branches of the trunks of Trees: but as I see no means of determining these questions, I feel little interest in them, till a living Individual of the kind shall be found. Mr. Peeles Skeleton may determine whether he is graminivorous or carnivorous or both, but our knowledge of the globe and even of this Continent is not sufficiently advanced to determine that the Species is extinct. We have so little of final causes as well as of physical causes of the phenomena of nature that no certain conclusion can be drawn from the Wisdom of the Creator against the Extinction of a Species. There may have been reasons for their existence at one time, which may not remain at another.11
He added in a second letter that every word of panegyric on Jefferson and Buffon must be erased since Buffon was an atheist and Jefferson was president of the United States. He thought the Academy might publish it.12 Van der Kemp was pleased with the prospect of publication and agreed to alter the manuscript as suggested by Adams. He also said he would “soften” the panegyrics and “mollify” the censures.13
During his perusals of the early manuscript Adams raised the question of the generation of shellfish. He suspected generation on the surface of the ocean and further suspected that the Portuguese man-of-war was a shellfish in embryo.14 The New Yorker knew only one author on shellfish who wrote in English and a few in Dutch and French. He could not yet agree with Adams’ ideas but was intrigued by their novelty. “Iterated experiments more than doubtful observations would be required” before he was persuaded. However, Adam Mappa was less doubtful, as he had observed in the eastern Asiatic seas various species of foam that might be the beginnings of shellfish.15
Perhaps Adams was stung by the reference to his “doubtful observations.” He elaborated with a long description of his careful observations of the externals and internals of the Portuguese man-of-war while on a voyage across the Atlantic. With this clarification of his “conjectures,” he asked Van der Kemp to procure Mappa’s observations.16
Mappa was busy with the annual reports of the Holland Land Company and Van der Kemp was doubtful if he could be prompt with his observations. Mappa had been pulled into a number of agricultural and other scientific investigations and had complained good naturedly that Van der Kemp was making him “a Naturaliste par force a la Moliere.” However, Mappa did write to Adams promptly.17
Van der Kemp busily searched for information on shellfish and included five pages of observations and data which he found. He also included notes on his own observations in Oneida Lake and the Oswego River of a fresh water fish which heaped stones over its egg deposits.18 Some of the ideas on shellfish were ultimately included in the Researches manuscript.
During the winter of 1802–03 Van der Kemp worked further on his manuscript, chopping off some “useless branches” and taking away the “meretricious tinsel.” He thought it was vastly improved in its “more simple guise.” Then he sent it back to Adams for submission to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.19 Adams liked the revised work and placed it before the Academy at the May, 1803, meeting. It was referred to the regular committee and Adams declined to predict what action would be taken. His own opinion was that the work was a “learned and ingenious performance.” The compliments to Buffon and Jefferson made no difference to Adams but he was apprehensive that the committee and the Academy membership would object since “Neither of these illustrious Personages is held in much veneration among our New England Philosophers.” “In plain English” the Academy had classed Buffon’s theories and purported discoveries as “the most Stupid things that were ever committed to the Press.” He also thought the extraordinary length, the complementary episodes and the handwriting might be against Van der Kemp’s manuscript while the style was probably “not to the Taste of American Readers.” However, his own vote would certainly be for acceptance and publication.20
Van der Kemp was honored by the submission but certainly not encouraged by the comments. He asked if it would be publishable if Jonas Platt were to polish it.21 After eight months of waiting for the committee’s decision, Van der Kemp asked Adams if his “doom” had been “fixed.” He proposed to devote another winter to it inasmuch as he had additional materials. He said he would be willing to have the Academy publish part of it, as it would probably add to the value of a later publication.22 In March, 1804, Adams inquired of the committee what was happening to Van der Kemp’s manuscript and found it had been referred to a sub-committee.23 The following November, the decision came. “All who had looked into it, express themselves handsomely of it, as ingenious and learned, but all agree that it can not be inserted in the Transactions.”24 Van der Kemp had hoped for the publication to be included in the “Records of New England’s Worthies” but said he was not humiliated. In fact, he decided to spend the latter part of the winter of 1804–05 in retouching the work.25
The Researches was not Van der Kemp’s only scholarly effort in these years. The field of political science received his attention as an extremely important facet of the natural world. His work in this area is recorded in the following chapter. He also gave some time to a literary pursuit with minor scientific significance. This was his Use of Copper by the Greeks, an essay of sixty-nine pages. It depended largely on materials sent by friends from Europe and was concerned with the period of the Trojan War. He wrote the first draft in the winter of 1802–03 and sent it to John Adams with a request to send it on to John Mifflin or J. B. Boardley of Philadelphia. Van der Kemp thought maybe the Philosophical Society would be interested.26 Adams read it with pleasure and sent it to Boardley but it did not attract the Society.
In February, 1804, he wrote that he had collected “considerable ingredients” to improve the Use of Copper among the Greeks and a “vast heap of undigested materials” on the northwest coast. Would Adams be reminded to send some of Ingraham’s Journal? Van der Kemp asked for more information on shellfish to strengthen his “firm belief that no genus is annihilated.” What did Adams think about Clavigero’s history? “I am now in an European correspondence to investigate Particularities about the Arabian incursions from the 7–11 Cent. in the N.E. parts of Asia,” an attempt to add to his understanding of the American Indians.
A correspondence with a German Mineralogist induced me this winter to take a course of chemistry, and how deeper I dive in this and other branches of Nat. Philosophy, how more glorious appears to me—the goodness—the wisdom—and our thought surpassing greatness of our glorious maker.
He had also renewed his study of canon law and wished to borrow Adams’ old study. How many volumes of transactions had the American Academy published and at what price? He expected to induce a friendly neighbor to buy them and “allow me the perusal.”27
The northwest continued to be discussed between the two men during 1804 and for some time after. Van der Kemp collected materials, particularly extracts from journals, and in 1804 sent queries to Joseph Barrell of Boston, one of the six capitalists who financed the voyages of both Ingraham and Gray. Van der Kemp thought the government ought to provide for the exploration of the northwest coast rather than trust discoveries and settlement to smugglers and to kidnappers of island natives. He doubted if the Jefferson administration would do it. Yet he said he would write to Secretary of State Madison if he thought Madison would pay any attention to the idea.28 He had already written to Aaron Burr in 1802 and the vice president had sent information from Secretary Madison.29 On April 10, 1804, Van der Kemp wrote to Burr again (just a few months before the Burr-Hamilton duel) and included twenty-five detailed questions, most of which he had asked of Barrell regarding the voyages of Gray and Ingraham. The questions were pointed at the determination of what land in the Nootka Sound area (later Oregon territory) belonged to the United States and its commercial possibilities. The last question particularly inquired about the cost of a more discerning voyage. Individuals might contribute or a president might arrange it. The hints were there for Burr to support the national interest as well as the scholar’s pursuit. He also told the vice president about his political treatise, his Researches and the essay on the Use of Copper by the Greeks. Would Burr criticize the Researches? Perhaps even give it a recommendation and help to get it published? Did Burr know where Van der Kemp could get cited sources unavailable at Oldenbarneveld? 30
Burr was unable to assist Van der Kemp but John Adams sent extracts from Ingraham’s Journal. The scholar was delighted. Still more knowledge was needed on the northwest, however. Why did not the merchants of Boston and New York finance a study? The seal fishery and fur trade were to be gained and the China trade would pass through this spot. Of course, Van der Kemp was still concerned primarily with disproving the British claim of Captain Cook.31
Van der Kemp soon gave up on this project of helping his country. Perhaps he decided that the Lewis and Clark expedition would make his efforts unnecessary. The expedition, as it progressed, actually carried out some of Van der Kemp’s ideas.
Raphael Peale, son of the curator, visited John Adams in 1804 and said he believed the bones from Shawagunk in the museum at Philadelphia were those of a sea monster or at least an amphibian. Since such skeletons were always found in or near salt licks, he further believed that the bodies had been thrown up by convulsions of nature through caverns which connected the salt holes with the sea.32 Van der Kemp replied to this report from Adams that “Mr. Peale’s whim—with regard to the Mammoth—is in my humble opinion, not much better supported than Buffon’s reverie.”33 With this dismissal he reported corrections and additions to his paper during the winter and, sometime during the summer of 1805, sent it back to John Mifflin in Philadelphia. The Philosophical Society through Mifflin had made Van der Kemp a member during the spring.34
When Robert Livingston returned from Europe in 1805, correspondence with Van der Kemp was renewed and an interest in Van der Kemp’s writing was expressed. The Use of Copper by the Greeks was promised if Livingston could pick it up in Albany. The Researches on Buffon’s and Jefferson’s Theories would be available for Livingston the following winter of 1806–7. Van der Kemp said that over the past few years the treatise had “increased more in value than in bulk.”35
To a considerable extent Van der Kemp turned his research and his writing to religious topics in the next few years. These are treated in another chapter. Yet, he kept a strong interest in his works on natural history and political science.
In 1809 one of Van der Kemp’s “honoured correspondents” offered to extract and polish parts of the Researches for insertion in the Philosophical Society Transactions. The author unaccountably declined the offer even though it was flattering and would have kept him from being “entirely an useless member” of the Society.36 Livingston said he should have allowed the extraction as “an insertion in the philosophical transactions would have given publicity to the useful work & the subject is sufficiently interesting to make it a duty in you not to withhold it from the world.”37
In 1811 Livingston read “with very great pleasure” The Use of Copper by the Greeks and the revised Researches. He regretted that Van der Kemp did not make them available “to the world by their publication.” Francis sent the copies of The Use of Copper by the Greeks to various friends, including John Quincy Adams. John Luzac offered to edit the essay in Holland for publication, but that prospect was ended abruptly by Luzac’s death.
Livingston was feeling his years and preferred to work in agricultural problems. However, he did write a long letter of comments on the origin of the earth and the great changes wrought through the ages by natural forces.38 His death occurred only fifteen months afterwards, a great grief to Van der Kemp in the loss of his “valuable friend.”
From time to time Van der Kemp worked on his Researches until it reached the length of the existing manuscript, 270 pages, in January, 1813. He apparently added more marginal notations when he was able to borrow the later volumes of Buffon’s Natural History dealing with minerals. In 1811, he sent it to Josiah Quincy, son of the Josiah Quincy whom Francis had so greatly admired when he and Adams had defended Preston ten years before. He sent it to Charles Eliot in 1813, but Eliot died before he could fulfill his agreement to edit it for publication. In 1815 the Researches manuscript was sent to De Witt Clinton, who was especially drawn to Van der Kemp’s remarks on the natural history of New York State. He asked if the petrified bees found by Peter Smith could be acquired for a cabinet of natural history. He had no suggestions for publication, and Van der Kemp gave up; the Researches was never published. However, it was perhaps as a result of his reading of this fine manuscript that Clinton proposed the scholar as a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York. He was accepted.39