Featherstonhaugh, George William

views updated


(b. London. England, 9 April 1780; d. Le Havre, France. 26 September 1866)


Featherstonhaugh was born shortly after his father had died suddenly at the age of twenty-three. He is said to have been related to Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh, second baronet, of Uppark, Sussex, the only son of Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh of Northumberland. Featherstonhaugh’s mother, Dorothy, alarmed by the Gordon riots, took her infant son to Scarborough, Yorkshire, where her parents, George and Ann Simpson, resided. The boy was brought up there and received an excellent classical education at Stepney Hall, a private academy near Scarborough. He did not enter a university, but at the age of twenty-one began to travel in Europe, visiting France, Italy, and other countries. In 1806 he went to the United States, where he made many friends. He was about to return to England when he met, and subsequently married, Sarah, daughter of the late James Duane, a wealthy landowner who had been mayor of New York City and a federal judge.

Featherstonhaugh then began to farm his wife’s property at Duanesburg, near Schenectady, and developed a great interest in agriculture. In 1809 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society; but there is little on record about the next fifteen years of his life, except that in 1819 he became corresponding secretary of the newly established New York Board of Agriculture.

In 1825, with his friend Stephen van Rensselaer (patron of Amos Eaton and a principal figure in the development of geology in the United States), Featherstonhaugh promoted a railway (opened in 1831) from Albany to Schenectady. To improve his knowledge of railway construction and to consult with the railway engineer George Stephenson, in September 1826 he returned to England, accompanied by his wife. There he became acquainted with the leading geologists and displayed an active interest in geology. At Scarborough, where his mother still resided, Featherstonhaugh met the geologist William Smith and took lessons from him in the recognition of different strata and the fossils found in them. He visited Scotland and met Jameson but lost all confidence in him after discovering his outdated Wernerian views. He also met Murchison and, with him, attended some of Buckland’s lectures at Oxford. With Buckland he visited Mantell's museum at Lewes and later studied the fossils of the Greensand (Lower Cretaceous). On 17 June 1827 he accompanied Sedgwick, Murchison, and others on a visit to the tunnel under the Thames then being constructed by Marc Brunel. He and Sedgwick were the first to descend in a diving bell to examine the river bottom, returning to the surface, according to Murchison. with “red faces and staring eyes.”

In August 1827 Featherstonhaugh went to Paris and spent several weeks with the leading French geologists, particularly Cuvier and the Brongniarts: at the same time he studied the Tertiary beds of the Paris basin. On his return to England, he went to Dorset and Devon with Buckland, and later saw Cornish geology under the guidance of Sir John St. Aubyn, a keen mineralogist.

Shortly after his departure from England at the end of November 1827, he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London.

A few months after his return to the United States, his wife died. Featherstonhaugh then abandoned agriculture and left Duanesburg to live in Philadelphia. Only a year later his house in Duanesburg. Featherston Park, was destroyed by fire. In 1828 he sent Murchison a letter “On the Series of Rocks in the United States” comparing the succession with that of England: the letter was read to the Geological Society of London on 2 January 1829 and was published in the Proceedings. In it Featherstonhaugh stated his opinion that the American coal measures were analogous to the English ones and were not post-Liassic, as Amos Eaton maintained.

During 1829 Featherstonhaugh gave a series of public lectures on geology at the New York Lyceum of Natural History: these were followed by a similar course in Philadelphia. He had returned to America with a very large collection of minerals, fossils, and recent shells (in a letter to Mantell in July 1827 he stated that a large number had been packed, but about 4,000 still awaited cataloging and packing). Most of these were distributed to museums and societies, and he was soon begging his friends in England to send him more.

Featherstonhaugh felt the lack of an American journal devoted to geology, and in July 1831 began to issue Monthly A American Journal of Geology and Natural Science. He both edited and contributed extensively to it. Although the journal was well supported, with President Jackson and many military men heading the list of subscribers, the bankruptcy of his publisher after only eight issues had appeared meant that Featherstonhaugh had to finance the rest of the volume himself, and a second one was not commenced.

Between 1832 and 1838 Featherstonhaugh carried out a number of field investigations, some at his own expense, others sponsored officially. He spent the summer and fall of 1833 examining the base of the Cretaceous beds along the “fall line,” as far as Virginia. In 1834 he received government instructions to examine the minerals and geology of the Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. With this appointment Featherstonhaugh became the first United States government geologist, receiving six dollars a day and traveling expenses. In his report (1835) he claimed to have traveled 4,600 miles in the time allowed—less than six months. In July 1835 he was instructed to go to Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan. and examine the country to the west as far as the headwaters of the Minnesota River. (The assistant geologist on this trip was W. W. Mather, who, however, was not mentioned in the final report.) In his report Featherstonhaugh also described the rocks he had observed on his way from Washington to Green Bay. In the summer of 1837 he made another lengthy journey to examine various mineral deposits, including the lead mining area near Galena, Illinois (in company with the geologist Richard Cowling Taylor), the Missouri iron deposits. and the gold diggings in Georgia and the western Carolinas. This journey is described in the second part of his book A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor (1847).

In 1835 Featherstonhaugh was elected a fellow of the Royal Society: later that year he showed he had not forgotten the town where he grew up, sending a donation of £25 to the Scarborough Philosophical Society. A few years later he sent a collection of American minerals and fossils, as well as freshwater shells from American rivers, for the society’s museum.

In September 1838 Featherstonhaugh went to Canada, where he became involved in diplomatic affairs and had discussions with the governor-general, Lord Durham. The dispute over the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick had brought Britain and the United States near war, and it was not to be settled for some years. In February 1839 Featherstonhaugh arrived in England and was immediately involved in discussions with Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary. He accepted an invitation to serve as commissioner in the boundary dispute and in July returned to the United States with R. Z. Mudge as associate commissioner and a small party of surveyors. He spent three months, often under extremely arduous conditions. examining the area involved. At the end of December he returned to England to make his report. He was accompanied by his wife (he had remarried in 1831) and a daughter. He never returned to the United States; but his eldest son, James, helped to complete some unfinished work on the New Brunswick boundary.

Featherstonhaugh continued to work at the Foreign Office in London; and he attended several meetings of the British Association, reading a paper at the York meeting in 1844. In 1843 he was asked to return to the United States as boundary commissioner but, being over sixty and not in good health, he refused. In 1844 Featherstonhaugh was appointed British consul at Le Havre, a post he held until his death. As consul he was responsible, in 1848, for smuggling out of France the fleeing king, Louis Philippe, and his queen, passing them off as his uncle and aunt, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

A detailed assessment of Featherstonhaugh’s contributions to American geology has yet to be made, but certainly the fund of information and large collections with which he returned from England in 1828 must be taken into consideration. It was a critical time, when Amos Eaton was attempting to correlate the American and British strata, but with little knowledge of the characteristic fossils of either. Samuel Morton and Vanuxem were on the right track, and the firsthand account of British strata and fossils brought by Featherstonhaugh to Philadelphia would have been very valuable. But Featherstonhaugh’s scathing criticism of Eaton’s terminology so infuriated the latter that he widely expressed his contempt for the Anglo-American geologist, and any cooperation between them became impossible. By maintaining a regular correspondence with English geologists, particularly Murchison, Featherstonhaugh kept in touch with new discoveries; and his official reports contain evidence of his wide reading.

(Although some members of the Featherstonhaugh family in England pronounce the name “Fanshaw,” others [including his American descendants] pronounce it in full. It should be noted that Murchison’s wife always wrote to him as “Dear Mr. Featherstone,” and his house at Duanesburg was called “Featherston Park.”)


I. Original Works. Featherstonhaugh’s published geological work is not large. His paper “On the Series of Rocks in the United States” is in Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, 1 (1834), 91-93. Max Meisel, A Bibliography of American Natural History, II (New Youek, 1926), 259-260, 526-530, 542, 563, 569, lists papers and reports published by Featherstonhaugh, including those in Monthly American Journal of Geology and Natural Science (July 1831-June 1832; facs. repr., New York, 1969). His two official reports are Geological Report of an Examination Made in 1834 of the Elevated Country Between the Missouri and Red Rivers (Washington, D.C., 1835) and Report of a Geological Reconnaissance Made in 1835, From the Seat of Government, by Way of Green Bay and the Wisconsin Territory, to the Coteau de Prairie (Washington, D.C., 1836). There is much geology in his two popular works, Excursion Through the Slave States From Washington on the Potomac to the Frontier of Mexico; With Sketches of Popular Manners and Geological Notices, 2 vols. (London-New York, 1844), and A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor; With an Account of the Lead and Copper Deposits in Wisconsin, 2 vols. (London, 1847; facs. repr., St. Paul, Minn., 1970). His last geological paper seems to have been “On the Excavation of the Rocky Channels of Rivers by the Recession of Their Cataracts,” in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 14 (1845), sec. 2, 45-46.

Unpublished MS sources are numerous and have been drawn on for the above account. There is a large collection of letters to Featherstonhaugh from British geologists, and some from him, in the University of Cambridge Library. These include over eighty from Murchison and his wife, dated 1827-1861. Others to Murchison are in the library of the Geological Society of London, and three to Mantell are in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Over 100 letters to H. S. Fox, British envoy at Washington, written 1838-1843, are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and throw much light on Featherstonhaugh’s work as a boundary commissioner. Some of his MSS are in the collections of the American Philosophical Society, and others remain with his descendants (James Featherstonhaugh, of Duanesbung, N.Y., has correspondence and day journals).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no full-length biography of Featherstonhaugh. W. H. G. Armytage, “G. W. Featherstonhaugh, F.R.S., 1780-1866. AngloAmerican Scientist,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London, 11 , no. 2 (1955), 228-235, provides a useful account, valuable for the number of references in American literature to Featherstonhaugh and his activities. Other biographical accounts are G. W. White, in the facs. repr. of Monthly American Journal of Geology (New York, 1969), xi-xix, with a bibliography; and the introduction by W.E. Lass in the facs. reper. of A Canoe Voyage…(St. Paul, Minn., 1970).

Joan M. Eyles
Victor A. Eyles

About this article

Featherstonhaugh, George William

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article