Saturday, November 30, 2013

Byrd's Lightning

Engraving by Albert Flamen
for Devises et emblemes d'amour (Paris, 1664)
Over the years when he was preparing his History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina for publication--hoping to capture the notice of the London literary marketplace--William Byrd sat in his library and added all sorts of materials he thought would please his readers. Since he was positioning himself as the preeminent expert on Virginia, he made sure his narrative featured information about the topography and natural history of the region. In this sense Byrd was participating in the mission of the Royal Society; he had been a member since 1696. In the early days of the Royal Society Robert Boyle prepared a framework on which roving philosophers could “superstruct” a solid natural history, a set of "heads" or categories of general inquiry for organizing observations. Boyle first enjoined travelers to observe the air (latitude, longitude, the length of the shortest and longest nights, the climate, what stars and constellations may be seen, the temperatures of the air, its clarity and seasonal variation, the duration of the several kinds of weather, “meteors” such as lightning, wind, contagious sickness, and suitability to human temperaments). Then he instructed the observer to consider the water (the depth, tides, and currents of the sea; the course, length and width, flooding, and quality of the water; lakes, ponds, and springs; the fish that stock the various bodies of water). Boyle then directed the observer to consider the configurations of the earth itself, and then its inhabitants and productions. Topographical considerations included plains, valleys, hill, and mountains, the presence of volcanoes, mineral deposits, the quality of soil, and the grains, fruits, and other useful plants that grow there. The products of the earth—grasses, grains, herbs, flowers, fruit and timber trees—all favor certain conditions of soil and climate, which Boyle directed the observer to record. Animals, both wild and domesticated, were also to be studied. Further, the observer must examine “subterraneal” productions of the earth: beds of stone and quarries, clay for the potter, medicinal earths, salt-springs, chemicals, ores and mines. Finally, Boyle turned to the population, who though “above the ignobler Productions of the Earth” must also be studied. Travelers meaning to report their discoveries back to the Royal Society routinely carried and referred to Boyle’s instructions, often in a more detailed version commissioned by Boyle, John Woodward’s Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World. [i]
Byrd's method in observing (and borrowing information about) natural phenomena can be understood as a response to Boyle's recommendations. Throughout the History of the Dividing Line Byrd reported on the air and weather encountered during the 1728 surveying expedition. One interesting phenomenon is worth noting: the relation of weather to the fertility of the soil. Noting that variable seasons were preferable to an unfailingly warm climate, Byrd explained that constant summer would deprive people "of the Variety and Sweet Vicissitude of the Seasons, which is much more delightfull than one dull and constant Succession of Warm Weather, diversify’d only by Rain and Sun-Shine.” Although such a climate would allow cultivation of orange, lemon, and olive trees, there would be distinct disadvantages: “The Soil wou’d also want the Advantages of Frost, and Snow, which by their Nitrous Particles contribute not a little to its Fertility.” Byrd here draws on the natural philosophers’ chemical explanations for meteorological phenomena. That the air contained infusions of certain chemicals was inferred from the likeness of thunder and lightning to chemically-induced explosions. By condensation, potentially explosive mineral substances such as sulphur and nitre—“Etherial Gunpowder”—are borne aloft. As Robert Hooke noted, “The Atmosphere about the Earth doth abound with a spirituous Nitre, or Nitrous Particles, which are every where carried along with it.”[ii] Virginia naturalist Rev. John Clayton observed that the “Nore and Nore-West” winds in Virginia “are very nitrous and piercing, cold and clear.”[iii] The dynamics of this mineral infusion in the air are essential to an understanding of weather, as John Locke explained:
Besides the springy particles of pure air, the Atmosphere is made up of several steams or minute particles of several sorts, rising from the earth and the waters, and floating in the air, which is a fluid body, and though much finer and thinner, may be consider’d in respect of its fluidity to be like water, and so capable, like other liquors, of having heterogenous particles floating in it. . . Clouds do not consist wholly of watry parts: for besides the aqueous vapours that are raised into the air, there are also sulphureous and saline particles, that are raised up, and in the clouds mixed with the aqueous particles, the effects whereof are sometimes very sensible; as particularly in Lightning and Thunder, when the suphureous and nitrous particles firing, break out with that violence of light and noise, which is observable in Thunder, and very much resembles Gunpowder.
Those nitrous particles not burned up in lightning return to the surface of the earth through precipitation:
That there are nitrous particles raised into the air, is evident from the nourishment which rain gives to vegetables more than any other water; and also by the collection of niter or salt-peter in heaps of earth.[iv] 
The wind circulates minerals that have risen through the air, but as Robert Boyle explained in his “Experimental History of Cold,” the pores of the earth’s surface are closed during the winter months, so that the earth does not exhale the minerals deposited by the air.[v] It was widely understood that “nitre”—either sodium carbonate or sodium or potassium nitrate (saltpeter)—was both a component in explosive recipes and a key nutritive ingredient in certain soils.

It is an easy logical step to conclude that a region where nutritive particles are preserved by cold at the same time they continue to accumulate the additional minerals the snow brings will increase in fertility. The Virginia climate, with its “Nore winds,” ensured the soil was particularly well suited to the cultivation of tobacco. Clayton explained,
I conceive Tobacco to be a Plant abounding with Nitro-Sulphurious Particles; for the Planters try the goodness of their Seed, by casting a little thereof into the Fire; if it be good, it will sparkle after the manner of Gunpowder: so will the Stalks of Tobacco-leaves.[vi]
That Byrd subscribed to the notion of a beneficial transference of chemicals from air to earth is clear in a letter he wrote to his friend John Boyle in 1727: “We have had the most delightfull winter here that ever I saw in any country, just frost enough to fertilize our ground, and purify the air.”[vii]

Admirable Curiosities (London, 1702)

The Royal Society also encouraged their correspondents to report unusual phenomena; it is not difficult to find reports of strange lightning strikes in the Philosophical Transactions. Byrd also relates a tale of a remarkable occurrence in Virginia:

This Rain was enliven’d with very loud Thunder which was eccho’d back by the Hills in the Neighbourhood in a frightfull Manner. There is Something in the Woods that makes the Sound of this Meteor more awfull, and the Violence of the Lightening more visible. The Trees are frequently shiver’d quite down to the Root, and sometimes perfectly twisted. But of all the Effects of Lightening that ever I heard of, the most amazing happen’d in this Country in the Year 1736. In the Summer of that year a Surgeon of a Ship whose Name was Davis, came ashoar at York to visit a Patient. He was no sooner got into the House but it began to rain with many terrible claps of Thunder. When it was almost dark there came a dreadfull Flash of Lightening which struck the Surgeon dead as he was walking about the Room, but hurt no other Person, tho’ several were near him. At the same [time] it made a large Hole in the Trunk of Pine Tree, which grew about Ten Feet from the Window. But what was most surprizing in this Disaster, was, that on the Breast of the unfortunate Man that was kill’d, was the Figure of Pine-Tree as exactly delineated, as any Limner in the World cou’d draw it. Nay the Resemblance went so far as to represent the coulour of the Pine, as well as the Figure. The Lightening must probably have past thro’ the Tree first before it struck the Man and by that means have printed the Icon of it on his Breast.
     But whatever may have been the Cause, the Effect was certain, & can be attested by a Cloud of Witnesses who had the Curiosity to go and see this wonderfull Phœnomenon.
News of this wonderful occurrence appeared in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette (August 12, 1736): "We hear from Virginia that..." The story was reprinted by several colonial newspapers.[viii]

[Promotional message: my new edition of Byrd's Dividing Line histories was published on November 1, 2013. See the UNCP page for the book here:  It is also available in good bookstores everywhere, and through online book merchants.]

[i] “General Heads for a Natural History of a Countrey, Great or Small,” Philosophical Transactions, I (1665-1665), pp. 186-89. An expanded version of the article was published separately as General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small; Drawn out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators (London, 1692). See also John Woodward, Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World (London, 1696). Ralph Bauer points to Boyle’s “Heads” in his Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures (Cambridge, 2003), Chapter 3 and pp. 186-187. Bauer interprets Boyle as the practitioner of an earlier form of empiricism superseded by “Newtonian” method, though without providing a clear account of his distinction.
   [ii] Robert Hooke, “Of Comets and Gravity,” The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke (London, 1705), p. 169 [Hayes 796].
[iii] “A Letter from Mr. John Clayton Rector of Crofton at Wakefield in Yorkshire to the Royal Society, May 12. 1688. Giving an Account of Several Observables in Virginia, and in his Voyage Thither, More Particularly concerning the Air,” Philosophical Transactions, XVII (1693), p. 784.
[iv] John Locke, “The Elements of Natural Philosophy,” A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Locke (London, 1720), pp. 198-199. The explanation of thunder and lightning as the explosion of volatile sulphur and nitre, dating back to Paracelsus, was taken up by early modern scientists including John Mayow, Robert Boyle, John Woodward, Thomas Robinson, and Edward Barlow. See Vladimir Jankovič, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820 (Chicago, 2000), pp. 26-28.
[v] Robert Boyle, “The Experimental History of Cold,” Philosophical Works, I, 698.
[vi] “A Continuation of Mr John Clayton’s Account of Virginia,” Philosophical Transactions, XVII (1693), p. 943.
[vii] Byrd to John Boyle, Baron Boyle of Burghill, February 2, 1726/7; Correspondence, p. 361.

[iv]The story appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, August 12, 1736:"We hear from Virginia, that not long since a Flash of Lightning fell on a House there, and struck dead a Man who was standing at the Door. Upon examining the Body they found no Mark of Violence, but on his Breast an exact and perfect (tho’ small) Representation of a Pine Tree which grew before the Door, imprest or printed as it were in Miniature. This surprising Fact is attested by a Gentleman lately come from thence, who was himself an Eye-witness of it; and ’tis added that great Numbers of People came out of Curiosity, to view the Body before it was interr’d." The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven 1960), II, 160. Several colonial newspapers republished the story, all giving it the same dateline, “Philadelphia, August 12.” The York lightning story that appeared in the New-York Weekly Journal, CXLVI (August 23, 1736), repeats Franklin’s story nearly word for word. The story appeared without any substantive changes in the Boston Evening Post, LV (August 30, 1736); Boston Post Boy (August 30, 1736); and the New England Weekly Journal, CMXCI (August 31, 1736). [Thanks to Joel Berson for conversations about this story in colonial newspapers].

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Some of Byrd's words...

William Byrd II of Westover
Borges once observed, "A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” 
     Sometimes, if dialogues between texts written long ago and 21st-century readers are to succeed, they need editorial assistance. This may mean providing cultural and historical contexts as part of the editorial apparatus, and it may mean paying attention to particular words.  As I transcribed and annotated the extant manuscripts of William Byrd's Dividing Line narratives, I found both of these endeavours challenging and fascinating. But there is not always room in a book for everything that can be said, and I find (as the volume nears the publication date) that I have more to say, especially about a few words Byrd employed.
     William Byrd II, in the History of the Dividing Line (his account
of the 1728 survey to chart the Virginia-North Carolina border), produced a detailed narrative of the expedition, featuring a history of the colonies, descriptions of the flora, fauna, topography, natural resources, indigenous people, and much more. Indeed, he wrote (and rewrote) much of the Dividing Line in his library over the next
Byrd's bookplate
seventeen years, adding more and more layers of interesting material. He was initiating a dialogue (as Borges would say) with his intended readers in the London literary marketplace. Byrd was evidently something of a logophile, choosing his words carefully, and in revision replacing terms with better, more interesting ones. The Oxford English Dictionary cites at least one of Byrd's words as the earliest instance of a particular usage. However, he also introduced a few words whose history is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. In what follows I discuss a few examples of Byrd's curious vocabulary, encountered as I prepared a new edition of the two Dividing Line histories.


The river is in most Places fifty or sixty Yards wide, without spreading much wider at the Mouth. ’Tis remarkable it was never known to ebb and flow, till the year 1713, when a violent Storm open’d a new Inlet about 5 miles south of the old one; since which convulsion the Old Inlet is almost choak’d up by the Shifting of the Sand, and grows both narrower and shoaller every day. This term appears to be a conflation of the familiar word shoal--"a place where the water is of little depth; a shallow; sand-bank or bar" (OED)--with shallow, common enough in maritime writings. But the comparative shoaller, as Byrd uses it, has escaped the attention of the OED. But other instances do exist, especially in maritime works:Between Buttoness and Abernay, the Passage is narrow, about three quarters of a mile over, as is said before, and 6, 7. Fathom in the midle of the Chanel, but up from that it turns broader, and the Water somewhat shoaler, the length of Tents-muirness.
--John Adair, The Description of the Sea-Coast and Islands of Scotland... (Edinburgh, 1703), p. 15.
Towards Cape Hatteras, are several Shoalings or Banks a great distance off, having 10 or 12 fathom white Sand, and sometimes coarse, and within 18 or 20 fathom more dirtish or oazey blackish Sand, and then again shoaler, with sandy Ground at 10, 9, 8, 7 fathom.
--"Directions for Virginia and Mary-Land," The English Pilot. The Fourth Book, Describing the West-India Navigation, from Hudson's Bay to the River Amazones   (London: Printed for Thomas Page and Milliam Mount, 1729), p. 23.But we had not sailed above a League farther before our Water grew shoaler again, and we anchored in 6 Fathom hard sand.
--A Collection of Voyages. In Four Volumes. Containing I. Captain William Dampier's Voyages Round the World... (3rd ed., London: John and James Knapton, 1729), III, 90.

 Parliament Man

The Curiosity of beholding so new and withal so sweet a Method of Encamping, brought one of the Senators of N. Carolina to make us a Midnight Visit. But he was so very clamorous in his Commendations of it, that the Centinel, not seeing his Quality either thro’ his habit or Behaviour, had like to have treated him roughly. After excusing the Unseasonableness of his Visit, and letting us know he was a Parliament Man, he swore he was so taken with our Lodging, that he would set Fire to his House as soon as he got Home, and teach his Wife and Children to lie, like us in the open Field The phrase originally simply denoted a member of the British Parliament, and later, by extension, a member of any other legislature; the OED actually cites Byrd for this second definition. In context, however, the term is emphatically satirical, referring to this "Senator" as a politician completely devoid of gravitas. The origin of Byrd's usage lies in Tory characterizations of Whigs as unrepentant heirs of the regicidal parliamentary era. For Byrd, the appellation “Parliament Man” was a term of abuse implying the inappropriate rise to power of vulgar, unqualified men, and so it becomes part of his satirical depiction of Carolinian government. 

Mill Swamp

This day the Surveyors proceeded with the Line no more than 1 Mile and 15 Chains, being Interrupted by a Mill Swamp, thro’ which they made no difficulty of wading, in order to make their work more exact.The term mill swamp is not listed among the compound forms of swamp in the OED. It apparently indicates soggy terrain resulting from the overflow from the stream dammed to provide water power for a flour mill; it also appears in colonial surveying documents and place-names.

Pride (of the Beaver)

The certain way to catch these sagacious Animals is thus, squeeze all the Juice out of the large Pride of the Beaver, and 6 Drops out of the small Pride. Powder the inward Bark of Sassafras, and mix it with this Juice, then bait therewith a Steel Trap, and they will eagerly come to it, and be taken.Byrd's term for the testicles, “cods,” or scent sacs, the source of castoreum, is not registered in the OED.

to prime (a game animal)

We only prim’d the Deer, being unwilling to be encumber’d with their whole Carcasses. The rest we consign’d to the Wolves, which in Return serenaded us great Part of the NightThe prime cuts of animals butchered for meat are those “of the best or highest quality.” In context, Byrd’s use of a verbal formation (not recorded in the OED) may be taken to mean selecting only the best cuts of meat and leaving the rest.

Half Jack-Boots a Help to bear Fatigue I us’d to chew a Root of Ginseng as I walk’t along. This kept up my Spirits, and made me trip away as nimbly in my half Jack-Boots as younger men cou’d do in their Shoes.The OED defines a jack-boot as a “large strong boot the top of which came above the knee, serving as defensive armour for the leg, worn by cavalry soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries.” No definition of the half jack boot appears. Presumably it was a stout riding boot the top of which did not reach above the knee.


The Horse Flies are not only a great Grievance for Horses, but likewise to those that ride them; These little Vixons confine themselves chiefly to the Woods, and are most in moist Places..The term vixen originally denoted a female fox, and then an ill-tempered, quarrelsome woman, though the use of the word to indicate peevishness or difficulty of character was not always gendered in the early eighteenth century. However, the OED lists no usage such as Byrd’s, denoting a general nuisance of indeterminate gender, such as the horsefly.


They make their Wives rise out of their [warm] Beds, early in the Morning at the same time that they lye and snore, till the Sun has run one third of his Course, and dispers’t all the unwholesome Damps. Then after Stretching and Yawning for half an Hour, they light their Pipes, and under the Protection of a Cloud of Smoak venture out into the open Air; tho’ if it happen to be never so little cold, they quickly return Shivering into the chimney corner. When the Weather is mild, they stand leaning with both their Arms upon the cornfield fence, and gravely consider whether they and best go – and take a small Heat at the Hough: but generally find reasons to put it off till another time.Reporting the laziness of frontier men, Byrd disparaged their reluctance to do agricultural chores. To "take a small Heat at the Hough" is to undertake a brief effort at weeding with a hoe. Byrd, who was an avid gardener and who had a number of gardening books in his collection, would have been familiar with this spelling of the familiar gardening tool. The OED does not give hough its own entry, merely listing it as an alternate spelling for hoe. Though at first I thought it was an idiosyncratic spelling, it turns out that Byrd was not alone:

Hough or Haugh, is an instrument well known to Gard'ners, and most Country people, as likewise the action of using it. 
--Jean de La Quintine, The Compleat Gard'ner, tr. John Evelyn (London: Matthew Gilliflower and James Partridge, 1693).

--George London, The Retir'd Gard'ner (London, 1706), I, 255.  See also Louis Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America...  (London, 1698), p. 212; Antoine-Joseph Dézallier d'Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Gardening (London, 1712), p. 44; John Mortimer, The Art of Husbandry (London, 1712), II, 229; Edward Bysshe, The British Parnassus (London,  1714), I, xxiv [where, in Bysshe's rhyming dictionary, hough is listed as rhyming with ow, bow, crow, &c.]; Richard Bradley, The Gentleman and Gardeners Kalendar (London, 1718), pp. 21, &c.; Richard Bradley, New Improvements of Planting and Gardening, Both Philosophical and Practical (London, 1718), pp, 126 &c.; John Laurence, Gardening Improv'd (London, 1718), p. 179; Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, for the Month of April (London, 1721-22), pp. 100 &c,; John Reid, The Gard'ners Kalendar, Directing What is to be done every Month (Edinburgh, 1721), p. 44; Stephen Switzer, The Practical Fruit-Gardener (London, 1724), pp. 210, 218; Noel Chomel, Dictionaire Oeconomique: Or, The Family Dictionary (London, 1725): "a necessary Instrument for the Gardiner"; Richard Bradley, The Country Gentleman and Farmer's Monthly Director (London, 1726), passim; Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, Containing a New System of Vegetation (London, 1726), passim; Benjamin Townsend, The Complete Seedsman (London, 1726), pp. 7, &c.; and so forth.
P.S. My new edition of The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, will be published on November 1, 2013, by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture. For further details see the UNCP listing. 
And the book is available from Amazon
Quotation from Jorge Luis Borges, "Nota sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw" (1951).