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Chapter 6 George Shannon and C. S. Rafinesque Charles Boewe In the 1820s, when George Shannon was a resident there, Lexington, Kentucky had a population of a little over 5,000.1 For its size and its geographic location, Lexington was remarkably cosmopolitan, with more than a dozen French names listed in its directory, one of which was that of C. S. Rafinesque.2 Most of these people knew one another, so it is not remarkable that Rafinesque and Shannon were acquainted—Rafinesque, a professor at Transylvania, the only university west of the Alleghenies, and Shannon, a successful lawyer and a member of the state’s General Assembly from 1820 to 1823. In addition to his teaching duties, Rafinesque gave occasional public lectures on various topics; and Shannon, to further his political career, gave speeches before the Lexington Tammany Society. Both were public figures in a small town. Despite all the attention given in recent years to the lives of members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the aperçu we have on Shannon through Rafinesque’s writings has been overlooked.3 Rafinesque himself had several reasons to be interested in the expedition and its discoveries. As a naturalist typical of his time, he considered the study of mankind within his purview, especially those little-known Native Americans the Corps of Discovery encountered; and an accomplished linguist himself, he collected vocabularies as avidly as he collected natural history specimens.4 He was the kind of polymath who appreciated Thomas Jefferson’s scientific goals for the expedition. George Shannon, of course, was the expedition’s youngest member and helped Nicholas Biddle prepare the first published edition of the expedition journals. By reviewing—and in some cases, retrieving from obscurity—some of the scientific writings of Rafinesque, we find that Shannon ’s knowledge of Indian languages, acquired during his service in the Corps of Discovery, was considerable. His contributions to Rafinesque’s 143 compilations of Indian-language vocabularies came from words he remembered hearing on the journey west. Although the science of linguistics no longer favors the historical approach Jefferson encouraged and Rafinesque embraced—of tracing tribal history through language study—the relationship of Shannon and Rafinesque suggests a new implication of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It probably did encourage the research of betterknown linguistic scholars who followed. It was only reasonable that Rafinesque should seek the acquaintance of Shannon, four years his junior, for he himself had hoped to participate in the expedition sent out in 1804 by his friend Thomas Jefferson.5 Rafinesque had come to the United States as a young man aged nineteen, but he returned to Europe at the end of 1804, just as the Corps of Discovery was settling into winter quarters in the Dakotas. He stayed in Sicily for a decade, publishing there his first books in natural history, the field for which he is best known, and returned to America in 1815, when naturalists—especially in Philadelphia—were trying to sort out the scientific accomplishments of the expedition. Though unable to join the Corps of Discovery, Rafinesque was immediately interested in the expedition’s scientific findings and written report. At the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, of which he was a member , Rafinesque tried to convince George Ord, a distinguished zoologist, that the expedition’s Ovis montana, as Ord had named a mammal on the basis of its skin and one horn, actually was a goat, not a sheep.6 Rafinesque’s opinion was correct, but such is the confusion between mountain sheep and mountain goats in the Biddle edition of the Journals (1814) that Ord stuck to his own belief in the face of the contradictory evidence of the specimen before him. Rafinesque, too, had ransacked the Biddle edition. Despite its lack of the crucial scientific portion of the journals, Rafinesque got enough information from Biddle to give scientific Latin names to a number of animals he himself had never seen. He gave their specific names, which continue to be used, to the Oregon bobcat, the mountain beaver, the mule deer, and the prairie rattler.7 The living prairie dog that the expedition had shipped to Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia died long before Rafinesque returned from Europe, but he named that animal too, from the description he found in Biddle. So had George Ord...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780520937147
Related ISBN
9780520238220
MARC Record
OCLC
55749588
Pages
298
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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