Featherstonhaugh, George William, 1780-1866

Alternative names
Birth 1780-04-09
Death 1866-09-28

Biographical notes:

George William Featherstonhaugh was a geologist and traveler, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1809.

From the description of Papers, 1771-1856. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122464837

From the guide to the George William Featherstonhaugh papers, 1771-1856, 1771-1856, (American Philosophical Society)

Epithet: diplomatist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000981.0x000177

English traveller and geologist in U.S.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Featherston Park, Duanesburgh, N.Y., to Monsieur Thouin, 1820 Apr. 7. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270519027

From the description of Autograph letter signed : [n.p.], to F.R. Hassler, 1819 Dec. 22. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270525616

George William Featherstonhaugh was a geologist and traveler.

From the description of Papers, 1809-1840. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122589320

Charles Babbage was a mathematician and inventor.

From the guide to the Charles Babbage selected correspondence, 1827-1871, 1827-1871, (American Philosophical Society)

George William Featherstonhaugh (1780–1866, APS 1809) was a British gentleman-farmer, geologist and diplomat. He promoted the application of scientific principles to farming, and he was instrumental in the construction of a railroad line in his home state of New York. In addition, Featherstonhaugh completed several geological surveys for the United States, including some in the area that was acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. In the late 1830s he served as boundary commissioner to settle the disputed Maine – New Brunswick border.

Featherstonhaugh was the son of George and Dorothy (Simpson) Featherstonhaugh. He was born in London but grew up in Scarborough, near the North Sea. As a boy, Featherstonhaugh showed a strong interest in natural history and mineralogy. However, his father died the year he was born and his mother’s income from her millinery shop did not suffice to pay for a university education. He was employed as an agent for British firms on the continent until 1804, and then worked for a London firm until 1806. In 1807 he moved to the United States. He settled near Schenectady, New York, where his wife Sarah Duane (1775-1828) had inherited a large estate.

Featherstonhaugh promoted agricultural and commercial development by applying scientific principles to farming, stressing proper drainage, and drawing attention to soil composition. He served as secretary for the New York board of agriculture, and promoted the construction of a railway from Schenectady to Albany. In 1826, he received a charter for the Mohawk and Hudson Rail Road Company. That same year, his interest in railroads took him to England.

His stay in England turned out to be less useful for developing Featherstonhaugh’s expertise in railroads than his interest in geology. In England and also during a visit to France, he turned his attention to the study of that science. He worked with several eminent geologists, including William Smith (1769-1839) and Roderick Murchison (1792-1871). In 1827 he returned to the United States with 8,000 fossils and minerals with the intention to make the study of geology his main occupation.

In 1829, after the death of his wife and the destruction of his house by fire, Featherstonhaugh abandoned agricultural pursuits and his position of railway director for good. In 1831 he moved first to New York City and then to Philadelphia. He remarried, published several literary works, and founded the Monthly American Journal of Geology and Natural History . The journal lasted only until 1832, partly because his tendency to attack and disparage the work of leading American scientists alienated him from the scientific community. However, his work helped establish his reputation as a geologist, and in 1834, he became the United States government's first geologist to survey the structure and mineral resources of Arkansas and adjacent territories. His 1844 book Excursion Through the Slave States, which focuses on Arkansas, is remarkable not only for its geological descriptions but also for the observations of the local inhabitants. Much of their dialogue, for example, is rendered in their dialects. Over the next few years, he surveyed and published official and popular reports on that region as well as parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and several neighboring states.

In 1839 Featherstonhaugh served as boundary commissioner to survey the area disputed between the United States and Britain on the Maine – New Brunswick border. His conclusion that Britain had a rightful claim to the territory earned him much criticism as a traitor to his adopted country. The Webster-Ashburton treaty of 1842 largely ignored his findings, but Britain did not. In 1844 he was appointed the British consul at Le Havre, a position that he held until his death in 1866.

Recognition for his accomplishments as a geologist includes his election to the American Philosophical Society in 1809, and to the Geological Society of London in 1827.

Featherstonhaugh had four children with his first wife Sarah Duane. In 1831, after the death of Sarah, he married Charlotte Williams Carter. They had three children.

From the guide to the George William Featherstonhaugh papers, 1809-1840, 1809-1840, (American Philosophical Society)


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