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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Grounds of Expansion: The Seward Surveys of New York’s Natural History

by Zachary Finn
Copyright © 2020 All rights reserved by the author.

“This earth is undoubtedly a wreck of a former world; a new combination of old materials.”
 DeWitt Clinton, 1822[1]

“Nature has written her own annals on the globe we inhabit.”
William H. Seward, 1842

In 1817, the future New York State Governor (1839-1843), Senator (1849-1861), and Secretary of State (1861-1869) William H. Seward was simply a college student seeking to distinguish himself from the pack. Struggling through his second year at Union College in Schenectady, New York, the petite and diminutive young man-- he stood at only about five feet, and five inches tall--was fighting tooth and nail to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa.[2] Not only would induction mean having his “name enrolled in a society of which De Witt Clinton, Chancellor Kent, and Dr. Nott were members” (the latter two being a revered local judge and the college president,) but it would also allow the young man, as he put it, to “acquire great secrets of science.”[3]

While Seward tirelessly sought acceptance into Phi Beta Kappa, elsewhere, other “secrets of science” were being unearthed--including in Seward’s own backyard of Orange County, NY.

As Seward woke at 3:00 AM each morning, eager to unlock the mysteries of the natural world through “severe study,” a tusk from an enormous mastodon was found only five miles away from Seward’s hometown of Florida, NY.[4] His native Orange County had already been established as a hotspot of discovery after multiple mastodon bones, some dating before the American Revolution, were unearthed in the region. However, in 1799 the discovery of fossils in a clay pit at a family farm in Newburgh, NY, led both to the excavation of the site and a new booming interest in paleontology in the Hudson Valley. A rapid flurry of similar discoveries propelled a spike of early archeological digs in Orange County, culminating with the eventual display of a complete mastodon skeleton in 1801, the year of Seward’s birth.[5]

By 1817, while Seward was on campus in Schenectady, Orange County was the place to be for amateur paleontologists (though the word paleontologists had yet to be termed) and geologists alike, most of who were well-educated gentlemen-generalists who were interested in the study of natural history.[6] Similarly, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton was intrigued by these fields, and he would become an avid writer on subjects about science.[7]

A universalist in his studies, Clinton served as a statesman and as an early naturalist who saw the natural world in both a conceptual and practical sense. It was this ability to merge these interests that allowed him to garner support for the Erie Canal, a herculean accomplishment that required technical innovation, an understanding of the State’s topography and waterways, and the savvy to drum up support for increasing statewide infrastructure.[8] For Clinton, science-- geology in particular-- was no longer a hobby of the elite or an abstraction limited to the academic sphere; it was a way to build a state-funded economic powerhouse so robust that the Erie Canal brushed aside the economic panic of 1819, which rippled through the rest of the nation, with little concern.

While Clinton laid the groundwork for New York’s scientific community to blossom, it took nearly a decade until a successor emerged to carry on his vision. Between the death of Clinton in February 1828 and the election of Seward in November 1838, four different men occupied the New York Governor’s office, none of whom displayed much interest in wedding science and politics. The closest, perhaps, was Seward’s immediate predecessor, William Marcy, who, despite his Jacksonian anti-statist tendencies, established legislation calling for natural history surveys of the state. After defeating Marcy in 1838, Seward became New York’s first Whig Governor, bringing to office a belief in the power of social improvement through an expanded state. Like Clinton, Seward also saw the value of state sponsorship of science; he worked tirelessly to aid in support of Marcy’s studies, earning them the nickname, “The Seward Surveys.”[9]

These surveys were conducted primarily during Seward’s two terms as Governor and, as former State paleontologist Donald W. Fisher states, they left “a more impressionable legacy upon American geology than any that preceded or succeeded it.”[10] The “Seward Surveys” most notably refer to the geologic survey of the state completed during his Governorship. However, research into other branches, including paleontology, would also be completed during this time (see footnote for appointments).[11]

Seward himself would write the introduction to the first volume of “The Natural History of New York”--the culmination of the geologic surveys--entitled Notes on the State of New York. Seward’s contribution was an impressive, all-encompassing overview of New York. Yet, as Seward made clear, his Notes represented the beginning rather than the end of his undertaking, especially when it came to what he referred to as “the progress of the physical sciences.” In his prefatory comments on the sciences, Seward admitted that “the notes on these subjects will be briefer, because they are fully investigated in the work to which this is the introduction.”[12]

What followed was truly a full investigation: Seward’s Notes would be included in the first volume, after which twenty-nine more books were to follow well after the conclusion of Seward’s time as governor and the initial survey, which detailed practically every subset of the natural history of the state.[13] Some of these volumes only saw publication due to the sheer tenacity of the scientists who had collected the data, even after the survey was completed and State support had dwindled. These thirty volumes have been described as the "Epochal Survey of New York.”[14]

The influence these surveys had on the scientific community, along with the individual scientists involved, cannot be overstated, and much scholarship exists exploring their respective subjects.[15] The scientists who conducted these surveys aided in discoveries and research that changed the field of science, and the ripple of their work would help establish the field of American paleontology and geology amongst their international counterparts. Beyond that, the impact these surveys had on the State was revolutionary. The “Seward Surveys” created a new network of professional scholars who published their findings in multiple reports spanning the decade. Their scope was wide-ranging, with a purview that included: geology, paleontology, zoology, and botanical studies (see footnote 11). As a community, the scientists furthered economic progress as the state expanded, following the Erie Canal westward; they harnessed their breakthroughs to the needs of the State that, in turn, supported them. Finally, in the same way, the surveys proved important to New York and the scientific community that emerged, they also provided a critical experience for Seward himself.

While credit belongs to the field workers whose pay barely covered their travels and whose tenacious efforts established New York as a leader in the scientific community, it is important to note that their findings gained traction thanks to the political support of Seward and his efforts to publicize their efforts. The success of the surveys was, in part, due to the economic and educational policies enacted by Governor Seward. He, like Clinton before him, tied improving scientific knowledge to the increasing economic prosperity of the State. The relationship, in short, was symbiotic. While the scientists toiled fearlessly, Seward worked tirelessly to establish the value of their efforts by disseminating their findings to the appropriate channels.

In the years to come, Seward’s political rank rose from Governor to Senator, and eventually to Secretary of State; his quest for additional lands for the United States too would grow. And, just as the “Seward Surveys” provided a valuable proving field for scientists and geologists breaking new grounds (quite literally!), they also provided a template in gathering information on resources, natural history, the economic potential of new lands. More importantly, they demonstrated that knowledge offered political utility all its own. Using the surveys as evidence demonstrating economic progress, scientific discovery, and his own brand of nationalism, Seward deployed science to sway the public. He honed his skills as an expansionist politician eying a diminishing frontier. This know-how would prove useful for Seward, a politician who would one day envision an American empire spanning the globe, as he hoped to reshape a former European run world into an American one.

“Economical Geology”

While the Panic of 1837 ripped through the country, setting in motion a turbulent period of economic uncertainty, the unrest proved beneficial to Seward’s political ambitions. Across the country, unemployment rates rose as banks suspended specie payments, and, along with a sudden plummet in the value of stock, uncertainty swept across the nation.[16] Tremors from the Panic reverberated down to state politics. Though Seward had been soundly defeated by over 12,000 voters in his first attempt at the governorship in 1834, the crisis proved severe enough to overthrow Democratic control of Albany in the 1838 electoral cycle.[17] As part of his campaign, Seward and his political advisor, the kingmaker Thurlow Weed, equated the controlling Democrats' failure to pass small bill legislation as a compounding issue of the Panic. By their account, the old Regency of Martin Van Buren had failed in preventing the crisis and had only continued to make it worse. The people agreed, and in 1838 Seward was elected as the first Whig Governor of New York. Seward biographer Walter Stahr notes that “voters wanted to punish the Democrats for what they viewed as their role in the economic crisis.[18]” With general discontent towards the Regency, a Jacksonian-aligned political machine which favored small government and the natural ebb-and-flow of the market, Seward was primed to unroll the sweeping reforms that he believed would improve the economy.

Upon his January 1839 inauguration as Governor, Seward took on a position of extreme importance. Seward assumed responsibility for appointive positions, many of which required no confirmation outside of Seward’s patronage; he carried with him the political clout of having been elected directly by the people of New York, and he stepped into the executive branch with a mandate of great displeasure with the previous administration.[19] Because of this, the role of Governor--especially the Governor of New York--carried with it a level of prestige and power that outweighed even positions in the federal government. Between the Erie Canal and market economy of New York City, Seward’s state was a financial and manufacturing powerhouse; policies implemented there swept through the nation as a whole. It is of little wonder then that Seward’s inaugural address garnered the attention of the entire country.

With the eyes of the Early Republic upon him, Seward called for a series of social reforms. He advocated for an increase in railroads, educational services, prison reform, and extended with open arms a refuge for immigrants, whose labor he deemed necessary to access the State's vast resources. Along with these sweeping improvements to state infrastructure, Seward noted the irony that “mankind learned the distances and laws of planets, and even periods of comets, before they conceived the mysteries of vegetation.”[20] Not wanting to make the same stargazer’s mistake, he argued instead for the formation of terrestrial and practical bodies like a State Board of Agriculture, which he hoped could solve the mystery of vegetation. Lastly, Seward paid tribute to DeWitt Clinton, calling for a monument to be erected in the capital grounds at Albany to honor the statesman. The latter had passed away eleven years prior.[21] Linking himself to Clinton was no accident. For the ambitious, young Governor, it was a telling end to his inaugural address, signaling his intentions to push forward with the scientific and infrastructural policies of Clinton.

In fairness, Seward’s predecessor had not been indifferent to internal improvements, William Marcy, whom Seward faulted for failing to counteract the Panic of 1837, had proven himself willing to muster state resources for other large scale projects. Namely, Marcy had been responsible for the initial legislation that established a statewide natural history survey in 1836[22]. Even this was in no way novel to New York, as the State was not the first to issue a call for research into geologic studies. Throughout the early 19th century, American scientists were beginning to publish their findings with enough vigor to rival their European counterparts. As these early American geologists began to gain prestige and demonstrate the ability to locate valuable resources, politicians took note. Starting with Massachusetts in 1830, five other states would pass legislation calling for natural history surveys before New York joined the fray.[23]

The New York State Legislature passed the survey bill on April 15, 1836. Just as critical, after a passionate plea from Marcy’s Secretary of State, $106,000 was allocated to fund the investigation for four years. For the purposes of the study, New York was quartered into four geologic districts, each with a respective geologist assigned to oversee the survey.[24] When looking at the initially proposed survey, historian Samuel Rezneck notes that it “represented a characteristic American fusion of the practical and the theoretical, the scientific and the political.”[25] Scientifically, the legislation promised to expand the understanding of the State and its resources, virtually ensuring more findings like the mastodon bones in Orange County. Politically, it offered the potential for learning about new resources that could be converted into economic drivers for all New Yorkers.

To be sure, the initial interest in geologic surveys came from their economic potential. As Keith Thomson notes, “state after state realized the importance of surveying its geological resources, both in terms of learning about soil types for agriculture and discovering commercially useful minerals—everything from building stone to coal, iron ore to limestone, and not forgetting gold and silver, of course.”[26] In New York, scientists and politicians alike hoped to find coal in the Adirondack region. When reflecting on his career as Governor in an extra session in 1842, Seward hearkened back to the original purpose of the surveys: “The enterprise thus consummated, originated in a merely economical desire to explore our mountains in search of coal.”[27]

Initially for Seward, a curious intellectual and astute politician in his own right, the survey could be utilized effectively to expand human knowledge, strengthen his support in the western part of the State (the only region he won during his first ill-fated gubernatorial bid), and serve as an economic boon for the state still recovering from the financial crisis. It was, in essence, an investment that would lead to the increase in state-funded infrastructure that Seward so desired, and worked so hard to cultivate during his time as Governor.

Seward’s support of the survey came as no surprise to those who knew him. The new Governor came to Albany well aware of the state’s vast resources; Seward saw this first-hand during a stint away from politics beginning in 1836 when he had served as a land agent for the Holland Land Company. Tasked with resolving disputes between landholders and renters, Seward also managed millions of acres in Western New York-- a sprawling tract rich with potential. .[28] Unfortunately, Seward also knew from experience that the roads throughout the western part of the State were dreadfully inadequate. As Governor, Seward hoped to increase the State’s economic output by making these regions and resources more accessible.

During Seward’s gubernatorial career, the western and northern parts of the state were still relatively unpopulated. While the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 had opened up new portions of the state, Seward called for “canals and roads ‘through every valley and over every hill’” to access resources and address concerns that were beginning to become apparent based on the geological survey.[29] By discovering statewide resources through the efforts of the fieldworkers conducting the surveys, while also increasing infrastructure, Seward hoped to expand the prosperity of New York westward. But along with establishing potential, surveyors also addressed practical and immediate issues.

Noted geologist and paleontologist James Hall assembled a team that addressed issues of canal improvements (faulty construction material had cost the state over a million dollars they concluded) and recommended farmers experiment with marl for increased crop production.[30] This was after Hall had already “stud[ied] Archibald s McIntyre's iron deposits and gather[ed] minerals for sale and trade.”[31] These iron deposits were no small find, and over the next ten years, iron output in northern New York would quadruple.[32] Seward himself would take an interest in the northern section of the State, spending two weeks in the region in August of 1839 touring the area to learn about the land, its resources, and the economic potential that could be developed.[33]

By the time of his second gubernatorial address, Seward was already applauding the survey's success and looking to use its finding to further agriculture in the State. He called for a continuation of the surveys, which were nearing the end of the initial four year funding period, and merging its findings with economic opportunity. As Seward argued:

“The time assigned for completing the geological survey of the state is about to expire. High expectations of its usefulness have been raised by partial reports which have from time to time been submitted to the legislature, and provision should be made for preserving the invaluable scientific treasures which have been collected. Extensive as the collection is, it will probably be continually increased by new contributions. The place assigned for its accommodations should, therefore, be both spacious and accessible. The encouragement of agriculture, by more general dissemination of the sciences which it employs, has been the subject of frequent recommendations from this department, and of much discussion in the legislature. The geological survey may be regarded as laying the foundation for institutions for popular instructions in these sciences, and I confidently anticipate that it will not only develop the mineral resources of the state but will secure the agriculture its rightful consideration and influence.”[34]

Thanks to the Governor’s lobbying, an additional $26,000 for the completed survey would be allotted in 1842, which would help cover the additional costs of publication for the subsequent volumes of the Natural History series.[35]

For all the state investment in the surveys, the apportioned monies paid the geologists little more than a day-laborer would expect to make. Still, the funding demonstrated an investment from the State into science, which was clearly linked to the economic opportunities men like Seward hoped the survey would reveal. Seward’s Notes evidences his happiness with the discoveries made by the hard-working field agents of the survey: “the want of coal, however, is compensated by the discovery of rich deposits of salt, lime, marl, peat, and gypsum, and of plumbago, zinc, lead, and iron. The field within which economic science had recently pursued its investigations, with results so well calculated to exalt.”[36] Even without any discoveries, the fact that the surveys established there was no coal in the State was in itself valuable. It prevented expensive investigations looking for the sought after commodity.[37]Seward’s close friend, the publisher James Derby speculated that the geological survey “saved the people millions of dollars in providing that there were no coal regions in New York State, thus preventing expensive explorations and useless mining.”[38] The surveys were not only economic successes in what they found, but also in preventing the State from pursuing pointless endeavors.

However, not all of the finds proved to be financially rewarding, even if initially they looked promising. In 1839, the discovery that mulberry trees, a favorite food of silkworms, could grow in northern soils led to a “Morus multicaulis fever” which saw farmers rush to plant the tree in efforts of establishing what was sure to be a lucrative silk trade.[39] It is here, where Seward’s meticulous approach proved an important addition to the surveys. Consider a rather self-aggrandizing passage in his autobiography:

“Savants and philosophers are proverbially careless of matters of detail in ordinary life and business. The Governor's methodical habits occasionally saved the scientific gentlemen of the geological survey from censures, which, though unmerited, would probably have been made. His calls for them for precise accounts and regular reports were, at first, thought unreasonable, but they soon came to see the wisdom of such actions.”[40]

Seward utilized a plethora of media to introduce these findings from the scientists' “precise accounts.” From speeches and lectures throughout the state and to a multitude of audiences; to supporting the publication of the surveys and his own personal writings, Seward began to craft a blanket approach to distributing information he wanted to be introduced to the public, specifically when it came to increasing infrastructure and expansion. As his political adversaries charged that he was overspending and abusing the State’s budget, Seward could turn to the discovery of Iron and other minerals to justify his actions.[41] He cleverly linked the surveys and their findings with the expansion of agriculture, a shrewd political move seeing as New York was entering its heyday as an agricultural powerhouse, with a growing rural population whose main income was farming.[42]

According to Seward biographer John Taylor, the surveys capture that “Seward saw in America tremendous undeveloped resources and great social potential.”[43] Seward hoped to utilize the surveys as a way to justify increased state spending towards improving roads and canals to access those undeveloped resources, and he hoped to gain political support in rural communities by appealing to the growing agricultural community. But what of the social?

“A Nobler Tribute”

While the economic promise to the State surely galvanized the support of Governor Seward in favor of the surveys, the prospect of discovery proved just as enticing to the man who would author several books himself. It was not only a sense of general inquiry into the scientific world that drove Seward to champion the surveys; added to the fold, was an underlying competition with Great Britain-- another constant throughout his political career. And, beyond the economic growth of the State, Seward also vyed for increasing intellectual prosperity as well.[44] In this area, Seward sought to use the surveys for two purposes: first, as a way to establish New York State at the forefront of scientific discovery; and second, as a way to further educate the State’s students in the sciences.

Concern over the quality of education can be seen in an address Seward made in 1837, the year before his election as Governor. Seward would deliver the speech to the Westfield Academy, where he would lay out his plans for government reform, most notably, for improving the American education system, which he found lacking.

“The truth may be fairly stated thus; that in the science of government and laws. And in eloquence, our statesmen and jurists are equal to any of their contemporaries; in other departments, and especially those of pure science, and in varied literature of the age, as well as fine arts, our scholars are inferior to those of Europe.”[45]

A major point of contention for Seward was the fact that he felt the American intelligence and its education system were failing to match the push west. While Americans clamored for new territory, as did Seward undoubtedly, he feared the outcome of such growth if it was not accompanied by a similar growth of “virtue.'' For Seward, it was not a matter of simply matching Europe’s academic institutions: “our people ought, therefore, to possess a measure of knowledge, not only as great as is enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of other states, but at least as much superior as their power and responsibilities are greater.”[46] Later on in the speech, Seward derided the quality of the curriculum being taught to students, highlighting the fact that most withdrew from school to enter the workforce right when they began learning and noted the lack of accessible texts on such subjects as science.[47] He would also argue that the sciences were a vital yet neglected, component of education.

It was a sign of things to come. When Seward was elected Governor in 1838 and installed in 1839, the main initiative of his was overhauling the State’s educational framework. Initially, his efforts fell flat as the Democrats controlled the State Senate. Still, luckily for Seward, this would change the following year with Whig maintaining their position in the assembly and taking control of the Senate.[48] With the overhaul of the State government, Seward was primed for making the education reforms he viewed as essential. And, as part of those reforms, Seward hoped to elevate American scholars to above that of their European counterparts.

The opportunity appeared almost immediately in the form of natural history surveys. Then underway, these studies were being carried out by a series of prominent scientists whose efforts helped establish New York as a critical thought leader in the sciences. One of these field scientists, the previously mentioned James Hall, would gain an international reputation as a geologist and paleontologist, largely in part to the survey work he conducted during Seward’s two terms as Governor, and his subsequent publications on the paleontological history of the State.[49] Nor did Seward sit idly by, instead, forcing himself in as an active participant in the surveys. Seward injected himself into the process every step of the way, as detailed in his memoir below:

“His sympathy in the work was not limited to his public messages but was manifested in a cordial and hearty cooperation with the savants in their labors. He invited them to his house for frequent consultations, severally or collectively, audited and facilitated their accounts, advised as to preparation of their work for publication.”[50]

Whether Seward’s input was happily received, or simply tolerated by the field workers is open for debate; however, Seward had faith in the project. Especially in its ability to garner academic respect for the State.

A relatively new field, the New York State survey of both geology and paleontology offered a chance for American academics to catch-up to, and even surpass their European counterparts. For Seward, a noted anglophobe, the possibility of American scientific superiority must have been intoxicating.[51] Consider a moment, from shortly before his death in 1872, while working on his autobiography, Seward drew attention to the strides America had made during his watch. Recounting a European tour he took in 1833 with his father, Seward noted his first impression of British cultural sites, specifically the vast superiority of the British scientific institutions and charities. Forty years later, as Seward gleefully wrote, “they have no such superiority now.” For Seward, that diminished superiority could be traced, at least in part, to his surveys.

Along with the scientific discoveries made, Seward happily promoted their public display. In Notes, Seward noted with satisfaction that several of the collected specimens went on to be displayed in a museum of natural history housed in the capital of the state. In contrast, others were displayed at statewide colleges.[52] Seward must have been quite proud of the museum, as along with appearing in his Notes, a reference to the “yellow-brick building” would similarly make it into his autobiography.[53] It was yet another way Seward could showcase the findings and hope to catch up to the institutions of Europe he eyed with envy.

Beyond the strides made within the scientific communities, Seward sought to make sure the surveys proved accessible to the public as a whole. With the eventual publication of the survey’s findings in a series spanning thirty volumes, Seward aspired for the new knowledge to trickle down to those same students he spoke before in 1837. This was not an easy task, and at times, gearing certain publications towards the general public earned the disdain of the researchers.[54] Hall complained that since “thousands of copies were to be distributed to the ordinary citizens of New York State, he had to expand on fossil descriptions to make them useful to laypersons.”[55] Still, it was key to creating a scientifically enlightened citizenry that Seward aspired too.

Seward’s vision of education, and how the survey could be used to advance national knowledge extended beyond just increasing expertise in the field; he also pushed for the findings to be distilled in a way palatable for the American student, preventing a monopoly of knowledge by the elite. In essence, through a trickle-down of knowledge, the academic aristocracy would utilize their discoveries and knowledge to enlighten the rest of the population with a similar understanding.[56] While the first part of establishing an elite scientific community was carried out by the scientists and field workers such as James Hall, whose labors helped change the 19th century understanding of the scientific world, the second part was pure Seward. As Governor, Seward sought to establish equal education not only across class lines, but also racial, ethnic, and religious, by making universal education accessible to all, therefore connecting all students of New York to the findings made by the survey.

Unfortunately for Seward, his efforts to expand mass education ran afoul of many entrenched political beliefs during the time. His attempt to help Irish immigrants by increasing funding to Catholic schools earned him the scorn of nativists. At the same time, his efforts to establish universal literacy and education for all, including African Americans, proved similarly divisive.[57] Still, despite the uphill battle he fought, Seward had impressive success with the eventual creation and state funding for a series of over 200 books dedicated to creating a statewide curriculum. $55,000 was allotted annually for five years, with the intention of creating a school library for each of the 11,000 school districts in the state at that time.[58] This school library included primarily American authors and covered a series of subjects, history, biographies, and travels, and most notably (for this paper at least!--) various departments of science.[59] It was, in essence, a tool any New York family could use for further education.

A complete collection of these school district libraries is on display at Seward’s home in Auburn, NY, which is now operating as the Seward House Museum. Of this prized collection, which has a special section amongst the family’s drawing-room, astute observers will find text number 86, or “Elements of Geology for Popular Use.” Included in the book is the inscription: "William H. Seward" and the note: “This series was a project initiated by Governor Seward.”[60] Here was the trickle-down.

The surveys were a crowning intellectual achievement for New York, in many ways, just as important as the economic promise they offered. Their findings rippled through the lyceums of higher learning, all the way down to elementary classes and students who were just being introduced to the sciences. Bridging this connection between academia and New York's primary and secondary students, was Seward. In his 1837 speech, Seward stated that the state of “pure science” in the United States was vastly inferior to that of Europe; however, in his 1841 annual message as the end of the survey drew near, Seward took a different tone. Proclaiming proudly: “The final report of the geologists will be submitted at the next session of the legislature; and since it will exhibit a full view of the zoology, botany, mineralogy, and geology, of the state of New York, it will be a nobler tribute to science than any which has yet been offered in our country.”[61]

“And to Mankind” 

With his time as Governor running short, Seward spent much of his summer in 1842 working on the research needed to complete Notes on the State of New York, consulting with experts as he attempted to write a comparable text to Jefferson’s, Notes on the State of Virginia.[62] In it, Seward praised the public libraries he had championed, shared the results of the survey, and used both resources to trace the scientific, political, and economic histories of the State. While Seward’s Notes has largely been forgotten, the lessons from his time as Governor would influence his career in the years to come. On August 16, 1842, speaking before the State Senate, Seward spoke of what he had learned:

“Progressive physical improvement, comprehending the north as well as the south, the east and the west, opening every necessary channel, and disclosing every resource which nature has bestowed, is emphatically the policy of the state. And we are required to return to the course we have left, by every consideration of duty to ourselves, to posterity, to our country, and to mankind.”

It proved a fitting takeaway and something Seward would aspire to accomplish throughout the rest of his political career.

While Seward’s time as Governor of New York is overshadowed by his later career in the State Department (even if his preferred title remained “Governor Seward”), the legacy of the “Seward Survey” remains vital, even if distantly removed from the namesake of the moniker.[63] The fact remains, for all his involvement and support of the surveys, it was the hard work of the criminally underpaid field agents, which led to their importance. With no James Hall to stubbornly wade through decades of bureaucracy to maintain his studies (though at times, that same stubbornness led to battles with fellow scientific professionals), the importance of the geology and paleontology of New York could have stalled for decades. With no Conrad, Vanuxem, and Emmons to establish the importance of geology in New York, the surveys would have floundered, similarly. Still, Seward deserves credit for not only his support but his ability to apply the findings to help argue for increased infrastructure--leading to more economic opportunities for the State--and for administering the findings to the general public as well. While far from a perfect partnership, the fact remains, the survey’s impact would likely have been less substantial without the economic and educational policies of Governor Seward.

The surveys left a lasting impression on Seward as well. Following his times as Secretary of State in the Lincoln administration, Seward continued at the helm in the Johnson administration; though now, rather than expelling his efforts to prevent an international crisis from happening, Seward could focus on the territorial expansion he so desired. The Dutch-owned Virgin Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and of course, Alaska, all became territories of interest for Seward, who sought to expand the United States in territorial size, as well as increasing channels of trade in the global markets. Though only one of the previously mentioned territories would be purchased by Seward, whose association with the poorly regarded Andrew Johnson drastically hurt his popularity, there exists a body of written work that bears a striking resemblance to the “Seward Surveys.”

In, A Report on the Resources of Iceland and Greenland, Benjamin Mills Pierce reports, “the rocks and geology of Greenland, as before stated, besides the valuable coal discovered, indicate vast mineral wealth.”[64] The report, compiled for Seward, while not as comprehensive as the survey of New York, paints a promising picture of both Iceland and Greenland as lands with economic potential and a need for further research. Furthermore, when it came to “Seward’s Folly,” Seward launched a massive campaign to gain support in the senate; but just as importantly, he sought to sway public opinion through the use of media and the publication of the “Purchase of the Russian Possessions in North America by the United States,” which was distributed broadly and, as my colleague Dr. Jeffrey Ludwig describes it, was “an omnibus of facts about the timber, minerals, climate, fisheries, fur, and other resources.”[65] Seward used the same blueprint for information dissemination that he’d used when he championed the surveys.

On June 20, Seward exchanged a signed copy of the treaty with a Russian minister. Immediately after, he ordered a revenue cutter carrying Smithsonian affiliated scientists to visit Alaska; he then took their findings and paired them with other additional documents, compiling a 380-page report.[66] While the report was introduced to Congress, Seward utilized the media, most notably the New York Commercial Advertiser and New York Times, which were run by close friends, Thurlow Weed and Henry J. Raymond, to highlight the economic potential. These newspapers highlighted the prospect of fishing and whaling in Alaska, along with the impressive amount of natural resources that existed in the North.[67] It was Seward at his best: establishing the prospect for both intellectual and economic growth by sending out experts to the field and connecting the public to the discoveries through accessible publications.

While Seward is most remembered for his efforts to secure the Alaska territories for the United States, the fact remains, the lessons learned from his time as Governor of New York served as a critical lesson for the ambitious politician. If expansion, whether territorial, intellectual, or infrastructure was to happen, the public would have to be connected to those responsible for making the discoveries. If the United States was to grow as Seward envisioned it, it would require a general population who was invested not only economically in that growth, but intellectually linked to the specialists as they made their findings. Or, in his own words, “the gifted few” who Seward had spoken about in his 1837 speech before the Westfield Academy, who were responsible for enlightening with “abundant satisfaction the mass of mankind,” to their scientific discoveries.[68] And, whether in New York or Washington D.C., whether pushing for education reform or territorial expansion, there was Seward, maintaining the pipeline between the experts and the public. 

About the author: Zachary fin is the Education and Outreach Coordinator of the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York.


[1] Dewitt Clinton, Hibernicus [Pseud.] Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources of the State of New York (New York: E. Bliss & E. Whitey, 1822) 34 Accessed: 3/31/2020.
[2] Frederick Seward, Ed., William H. Seward: An Autobiography (New York: Derby and Miller, 1891) 35; on Seward’s height, see John Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 17.
[3] FS, WHS, 35. Despite Seward’s obvious intellectual curiosity, his time at Union College would not be without his fair share of mishaps. A disagreement with a tutor-led to a two-week absence as Seward felt himself unfairly slighted was accompanied by another break from his studies as, following a dispute with his father, Seward sought employment as a school master in Georgia. Nevertheless, Seward would return to his studies both times, and along with his induction into Phi Beta Kappa, Seward would deliver his classes commencement speech.   
[4] Samuel Latham Mitchill, “Catalogue of the Organic Remains, Which, with Other Geological and Some Mineral Articles, Were Presented to the New-York Lyceum of Natural History, in August 1826” (New York: 1826) 11. Accessed:  3/31/2010
[5] Keith Thomas, "Fossils and Show Business: Mr. Peale’s Mastodon." (In The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America, 46-54; Yale University Press, 2008) 48, Accessed March 31, 2020. The completed mastadon would go on to be displayed in Philadelphia, PA.
[6] For a conclusive overview on the history of New York’s geology and the personalities who helped establish the study, seeDonald W. Fisher, “Laudable Legacy: a Synopsis of the Titans of Geology and Paleontology in New York State,” New York State Museum 253.1 (1978), 1. Available online:
[7] George W. White. "The History of Geology and Mineralogy as Seen by American Writers, 1803-1835: A Bibliographic Essay." Isis 64, no. 2 (1973): 197-214. Accessed March 31, 2020.
[8] Samuel Rezneck, "The Emergence of a Scientific Community in New York State a Century Ago." New York History 43, no. 3 (1962): 213. Accessed March 31, 2020.
[9] Fisher, “Laudable Legacy”, 1
[10]Fisher, “Laudable Legacy”, 9
[11] “That luminous and satisfactory document led to the passage of the act of the 15th of April 36, on April 9, 1842, the survey has been done. William L. Marcy, governor, arranged the plan of the survey in 1836 and assigned it’s departments as follows: The zoological department to James E. De Key; the botanical department to John Torrey; the mineralogical and chemical department to Lewis C. Beck; the geological department to William W. Mather, Ebenezer Emmons, Timothy a. Conrad, and Lardner Vanuxem. This arrangement was subsequently altered by the institution of a paleontological department, under the care of Mr. Conrad, and by the appointment of James Hall to supply his place as a geologist. The results of this survey appear in thirteen large quarto volumes, and eight collections of specimens of the animals, plants, soils, minerals, rocks, and fossils, found within the state.” 
Taken from Seward’s Notes on New York. (See Becker, Works of Seward, 171
[12]George Baker, Ed. The Works of William H. Seward: Volume II (New York: Redfield Press, 1853) 209 Accessed:
[13] Rezneck, "The Emergence of a Scientific Community”, 215
[14]  Rezneck, "The Emergence of a Scientific Community”, 215
[15] For further reading on the influence the surveys had on the scientific community, see: Samuel Rezneck,  "The Emergence of a Scientific Community in New York State a Century Ago"; Donald W. Fisher, “Laudable Legacy: a Synopsis of the Titans of Geology and Paleontology in New York State,” or visit for a concise overview. For reading on James Hall, the man who would become synonymous with the study of paleontology and geology in the state, see: Michele L. Aldrich, and Alan E. Leviton, "James Hall and the New York Survey" Earth Sciences History 6, no. 1 (1987): 24-33. And for further reading on early American paleontology/geology, see Keith Thomsan, The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America. Yale University Press, 2008. 

[16] Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013) 50. Stahr’s biography of Seward remains the standard study of Seward’s life. Over 500 pages, Stahr traces Seward’s life and political ascent with a level of detail and attention that speaks to Seward’s complex legacy. 
[17] Stahr, Seward, 50
[18] Stahr, Seward, 57
[19] John Taylor, William Henry Seward Reviewers Edition (HarperCollins Publisher, 1991) 44 
[20] Baker, Ed. The Works of William H. Seward, 209 
[21] Baker, Works of Seward, 210-211
[22] For a detailed analysis of the transfer of scientific interest among the governors of New York, see Rezneck, "Emergence of a Scientific Community”, 211-215. Rezneck, writing in 1962, explores the “paradoxical” relationship between the sciences and politics, and how initially scientific inquiry was often beholding to the political figures. Using the papers of James Hall, who served as a/the State Geologist from 1836 until he died in 1898, Rezneck looks at the emerging scientific community within the state, and its dependence on public funding while striving for independence.   
[23] Keith Thomson, "An American Geology." In The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America, 98-104; Yale University Press, 2008, 100. Accessed April 3, 2020.
[24] Fisher, “Laudable Legacy,” 5
[25] Rezneck, "Emergence of a Scientific Community,” 215.
[26] Thomson, The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America, 100
[27] Baker, Works of Seward, 329
[28] For more information on Seward’s time as a land agent at the Holland Land Company, see Stahr, Seward, 48-50.
[29] Quoted in Stahr, Seward, 63.
[30] Aldrich, Leviton, “Hall and the NYS Survey,” 25.
[31] Aldrich, Leviton, “Hall and the NYS Survey,” 25.
[32] Rezneck, "Emergence of a Scientific Community,” 218.
[33] Stahr, Seward, 63
[34] Baker, Works of Seward, 216
[35] Baker, Works of Seward, 171
[36] Baker, Works of Seward, 171-172
[37] FS, Ed., William H. Seward: An Autobiography, 444
[38] James Derby, Fifty Years among Authors, Books, and Publishers, (Hartford, Conn: M.A. Winter & Hatch, 1886) 61 Accessed
[39] FS, Ed., William H. Seward: An Autobiography, 444
[40]  FS, Ed., William H. Seward: An Autobiography, 444
[41] Stahr, Seward, 71
[42]  Yasuo Okada, "Squires' Diary: New York Agriculture in Transition, 1840-1860." New York History 52, no. 4 (1971): 396-422. Accessed April 7, 2020.
[43] Taylor, WHS, 45-46
[44] Jeffrey Ludwig “Everywhere and Nowhere: William Seward, History, and Greenland,” Ed. by Rebecca Brenner Graham. Society for US Intellectual History, January 27, 2020.
[45] Speech given by WHS, published: Wiliam Seward, Discourse on Education, delivered in Westfield, July 16th, 1837 (Albany: Hoffman and White; 1837) 8
[46] Speech given by WHS, published, Discourse on Education, 9
[47] Speech given by WHS, published Discourse on Education, 12. After claiming most students spent “misimproved,” one can imagine several unhappy teachers sitting in attendance at what was essentially elementary school graduation. 
[48] Taylor, WHS, 46-47
[49] Aldrich, Leviton, “Hall and the NYS Survey,” 24.
[50] FS, Ed., William H. Seward: An Autobiography, 397
[51] For an overview of Seward’s sometimes hostile, sometimes admiring relationship with English powers, see: Jay Sexton, “William H. Seward in the World,” Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Sep. 2014) 398-430
[52] Baker, Works of Seward, 171
[53] FS, Ed., William H. Seward: An Autobiography, 397
[54] Aldrich, Leviton, “Hall and the NYS Survey,” 29
[55] Quoted in Aldrich, Leviton, “Hall and the NYS Survey,” 29
[56] Vincent Peter Lannie, "William Seward and the New York School Controversy, 1840-1842: A Problem in Historical Motivation" History of Education Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1966), 56. Accessed April 9, 2020. doi:10.2307/367008.
[57] Stahr, Seward, 60-68
[58] Baker, Works of Seward, 24-25
[59] Derby, Fifty Years, 61
[60] For more information about the Seward family library, see:
[61] Baker, Works of Seward, 216
[62] Stahr, Seward, 82
[63] Taylor, WHS, 44
[64] Benjamin Mills Pierce, A report on the resources of Iceland and Greenland, 1868, 3 Accessed:  
[65] Jeffrey Ludwig, “Seward and the Intellectuals“ Ed. by Rebecca Brenner Graham. Society for US Intellectual History, Scheduled for publication April 27, 2020. 
[66] Joseph Fry, Lincoln, Seward and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War, (Lexington KY, University Press of Kentucky, 2019) 176.
[67] Fry, Lincoln, Seward, 174
[68] Speech given by WHS, published: Wiliam Seward, Discourse on Education, delivered in Westfield, July 16th, 1837 (Albany: Hoffman and White; 1837) 12

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