Friday, August 12, 2005

The Greatest Discovery I Never Made

Sometimes the only thing standing between you and a great discovery are the facts.

A year or so ago, I was transcribing passenger lists for Maine ports when I stumbled upon a manifest for the sloop Favorite out of Portland which showed the arrival of two men from Saint John, New Brunswick, October third, 1820. It was their shared occupation—"Astronomer"— that first caught my attention. The first passenger was named John Lewis Tiarks, 31, an Englishman. His companion was "Thomas Carlile," aged 25 years, a native of Scotland.

Somewhere in the damp recesses of my mind there rang a bell. Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish historian and essayist who lived in the nineteenth century. Could this be the same man?

A quick check of a Carlyle biography showed that Thomas Carlyle was born in 1795: a perfect fit with the age of the Favorite passenger. Thomas CarlyleIt also showed that he had never come to America, though he had considered moving here. He had asked a friend in 1819, half-jokingly, "What say you to that asylum or rather hiding-place for poverty and discontent, America?"1 Further, in 1820 Carlyle was undergoing a spiritual crisis, heightened by the lack of direction in his career and the abrupt end of a relationship with a woman to whom he had become attached. Just the sort of situation that might lead a man to jump on a ship heading west.

And what of astronomy? As it turns out, John Lewis Tiarks was an astronomer and surveyor charged by the British government with establishing the U.S.-Canada border. According to his biographer, Carlyle had studied astronomy, and in the summer of 1817 had come upon "the site of a trigonometrical survey" while hiking with a friend.2 The pair was given a guided tour of the site, and were allowed to peer through the surveyors' theodolite.

The coincidences were mounting. What were the chances that there were two Thomas Carlyles from Scotland, both born circa 1795, both interested in astronomy and surveying? The discovery that Carlyle had slipped off to America for a month or two would require a complete reappraisal of his biography and corpus. An apparent gap in Carlyle's correspondence for October of 1820 raised my hopes . . .

. . . which then were quickly dashed.

The hypothesis that Carlyle came to America turned upon one major point: the trip had to have been a quick one. The biography I consulted cited correspondence from Carlyle dated August and September 1820, and he was certainly living in Edinburgh in November.

An item in the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette of July 11, 1820, shattered my hopes for immortality:

From the Montreal Courant, June 24.
We have been informed by a person of veracity, and possessing the means of accurate information, that the operations on line 45 are to be suspended during this summer, in order that a Mr. Elicott, an American astronomer, may have time to examine the calculations made last summer by our astronomer, Doctor Tiarks. The latter gentleman is to employ this interval in ascertaining the position of some important places in New-Brunswick, for which province he has ere this taken his departure by the route of Boston. Two assistants, Messrs. Hunter and Carlisle, the former of the U.S. and the latter of the British commission, arrived in this city on Monday evening, and yesterday evening embarked in one of the steam boats for Quebec, on their route to New Brunswick.

Subsequent newspaper accounts show that Tiarks and his assistant were bound for New York early in October, where a final report on the boundary was to be prepared. It is extremely unlikely that the famous Thomas Carlyle commuted between Scotland and North America throughout the summer and fall of 1820.

This is the strangest set of coincidences I have ever encountered as a genealogist. Though unusual, it is a case from which we all can draw an important lesson: Don't jump to conclusions.

Oh, yes, and don't notify the Pulitzer committee until you've checked all your facts.

1Fred Kaplan, Thomas Carlyle: A Biography (Ithica, N. Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), p. 55.
2Ibid., p. 49.

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