This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator & Head of the Manuscript Department
While watching his dream of establishing a university become reality, Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper assembling estimates of both university income and expenditures for 1825-1827. The surviving document contains many elements of interest (e.g. salaries of professors, the military instructor and librarian, as well as income from “University rents from 218. students.”). On the back Jefferson also lists parts of “the Library fund” which references various disciplines, including chemistry, natural history, anatomy, and medicine. Perhaps most conspicuous is “conchological,” relating to “the science or study of shells and shell-fish. ” As odd as it may appear to the modern observer though, conchology is much more than a curiosity and played a surprisingly prominent role in the early American intellectual landscape.
In a providential twist, a simultaneous reading of Caroline Winterer’s recent book American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason drove that point home. Winterer devotes an entire chapter to examining the fuller story of what is now an obscure, but intriguing, chapter of the Enlightenment in America. Invigorated by European settlers’ discoveries of fossilized seashells, scholarly interest began in the seventeenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth. This, even though the word itself isn’t documented until 1776 (in Emanuel Mendes da Costa’s Elements of conchology: or, An introduction to the knowledge of shells).
Integral to the story is the fact that a considerable number of the fossils were unearthed high in the Appalachian Mountains, a perplexing scenario for contemporary scholars. How could seashells from the ocean floor have made it to such heights? The quandary inevitably spawned an array of theories, many of which emanated from Europe, and thinkers who had never set foot on the continent. Perhaps as popular as it was foreseeable was the notion that this was a confirmation of the biblical deluge. In this circle was John Woodward, an English naturalist and geologist, whose Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth (1695) was among the most influential on the subject in the British colonies.
Another popular theory posited that the shells were natural formations mimicking real seashells. Whatever the case, as Winterer points out, this question resonated partly because this was not entirely unique to North America. As such, the subject allowed geographically expansive comparison.
Despite some rather “unique” theories, there were still those who offered a more discerning perspective. Among them was New Yorker and polymath, Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776). One of the great intellectuals in the British colonies, Colden’s papers at the Historical Society include correspondence with men like Johan Frederik Gronovius, Benjamin Franklin, and Carl Linnaeus on subjects such as astronomy, physics, electricity, botany and natural history. These letters and notes reflect his familiarity with the international scientific community and its pursuits. In one set of notes he even cites the pioneering work of Englishman Martin Lister on shells (Historiæ sive synopsis methodicæ conchyliorum et tabularum anatomicarum)
Colden brought this knowledge to bear in a 1755 letter to the English botanist Peter Collinson. Collinson had relayed John Batram’s flood theory to Colden and expressed an interest in “confirmations of the universality of the deluge,” eliciting this rather progressive observation in response:
These shells & many other marine things found far within land & on the top of mountains I think prove that those parts where these shells &c. are found were once under water but it does not prove that the face of the Earth was at that time the same as it is now. I think the contrary that it must be different now from what it was then & that this difference probably has happened by great & general Earthquakes of which some instances remain in story.
The variety of theories and the difficulty in confirming any with certainty lasted well into the 19th century. This brings us back to Mr. Jefferson who himself addressed the seashell issue in Question VI of his famous answer to the queries from French authorities, Notes on the State of Virginia. Convinced that there was no substantiated argument for any one of the prevailing theories, Jefferson was satisfied to believe none, writing “Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”