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George William Featherstonhaugh (1780–1866)

George William Featherstonhaugh (pronounced “Fanshaw”) was the first U.S. government geologist. In 1834, the War Department appointed him to make a geological survey of Arkansas. He later conducted geological surveys of Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, and the Carolinas. His importance to Arkansas goes beyond his work as a geologist, for he was one of the first to leave behind an accurate record of life in the early Arkansas Territory.

Born in London, England, on April 9, 1780, to George and Dorothy Simpson Featherstonhaugh, George William Featherstonhaugh grew up at Scarborough, an ancient city on the North Sea 221 miles from London and forty-three from York. Featherstonhaugh spent much of his childhood climbing over the cliffs, gathering sea bird eggs to sell and collecting fossils. He studied at local schools, proving himself adept at writing, and was later a fellow of the Geological Society and of the Royal Society of London.

Being a restless soul, Featherstonhaugh came to the United States in 1806 with money inherited from a grandfather. He thought at the time that he would make a study of the languages of the North American Indians. He married Sarah Duane of Schenectady, New York, on November 6, 1808. Sarah bore four children: James, Ann, George Jr., and Georgianna. He engaged in extensive farming, organized the first New York Board of Agriculture, and advocated the building of steam railroads in the United States. After the death of his wife and two daughters, he returned to England in 1826. He later ventured to Philadelphia and, on January 28, 1831, married Charlotte Williams Carter in Schenectady County, New York. They had three children: Albany, Georgiannia, and Henry.

In 1834, Featherstonhaugh, newly appointed U.S. government geologist, was instructed to examine the elevated country between the Missouri and Red rivers and report back to Colonel John James Abert of the Topographical Bureau with “accurate information of the Mineral and Metallic Resources of that territory.” His son George Jr. was his assistant. The two took stagecoaches from Baltimore, Maryland, to St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, they purchased a horse they named “Missouri” and a Dearborn wagon for the travel into Arkansas.

Featherstonhaugh’s route through Arkansas Territory generally followed the Military Road constructed with an appropriation from Congress in 1831. Featherstonhaugh entered Arkansas at Hix’s Ferry on Current River in Randolph County. He continued southwest, passing the small town of Jackson near modern-day Imboden (Lawrence County). He crossed the White River southeast of Batesville (Independence County) and the Little Red River northwest of Searcy (White County) before coming to the bank of the Arkansas River opposite Little Rock (Pulaski County). He stayed in the Little Rock area about two weeks and, as he did all along the trail, engaged in conversation with anyone who could give him information regarding the nature of the country and its inhabitants.

Leaving Little Rock, he passed through Benton (Saline County) and then veered off the Military Road to visit the geological oddity of Magnet Cove (Hot Spring County). He made scientific observations at the now-famous Hot Springs (Garland County) and then crossed the Ouachita, Caddo, and Little Missouri rivers, where he came to the frontier town of Washington (Hempstead County). Featherstonhaugh was uncomfortable in this town, which he found full of greedy land speculators and others using the town as a place to encourage settlers in Texas to rebel against the Mexican government. Continuing south, he crossed the Red River into the cotton lands which bordered it. After a brief stay, he returned to Little Rock by the Military Road and boarded a steamer for New Orleans.

In his report of the expedition, Excursion Through the Slave States, Featherstonhaugh primarily wrote about the geologic nature of the country, but his writings describe what he viewed as the crude, frontier nature of the people of Arkansas.  

Shortly after entering Arkansas, Featherstonhaugh and his son stayed with a Mrs. Russell and her daughter, who slept in a bed next to the geologist and his son, quite to their pleasant surprise. Northeast of Batesville, they encountered a man named Meriwether who informed them of the murder of a man named Couch several years before and whose bones still lay in the woods. Expressing his surprise that nobody had buried Couch, Featherstonhaugh found and buried the remains. West of Searcy, he witnessed a girl throw a duck out into the road. When he inquired why the duck was thrown out, the response was that they “never ate sich truck, because they had a kind of smell.” Featherstonhaugh wrote, “The truth is, that these poor people kill wild fowl merely for their feathers, and that neither wild ducks nor anything else please them as much as bad fried pork, the coarse taste for which perhaps, when acquired, makes every other kind of flesh taste insipid.”

Upon reaching Hot Springs, he found only four “wretched looking” log cabins, one of which was a store. The proprietor gave them one of the cabins for the night; it had no furniture whatsoever. A rainy, windy night followed. Rain poured in on them from holes in the roof, and the local pigs gathered under the floorspace for protection from the storm. Squealing as pigs do when distressed, the Featherstonhaughs got little sleep that night. Near Arkadelphia (Clark County), Featherstonhaugh reported an encounter with the wife of Jacob Barkman: “I have never seen any one, as far as manners and exterior went, with less pretensions to be classed with the feminine gender. She chewed tobacco, she smoked a pipe, she drank whiskey, and cursed and swore as heartily as any backwoodsman, all at the same time.”

Published in 1844, Excursion Through the Slave States is remarkable for reasons beyond the geological observations made by its author. Featherstonhaugh attempted to write much of the dialogue with locals in the dialects he observed. His observations of the state of living of the inhabitants may be the single best picture of the state of society in Arkansas Territory at the time.

Featherstonhaugh returned to England in 1838 with his wife and children. He was appointed consul from the British government to France and spent much time writing and publishing the journals of his travels in the United States. He died on September 28, 1866, and is buried at Tunbridge Wells, England.

For additional information:

Berkeley, Edmund, and Dorothy Smith Berkely. George William Featherstonhaugh: The First U.S. Government Geologist. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Featherstonhaugh, George W. Excursion Through the Slave States from Washington on the Potomac to the Frontier of Mexico; with Sketches of Popular Manners and Geological Notices. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968.

Scott Akridge
White County
Historical Society

Last Updated 10/29/2013

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