This page was prepared by S.S.B. using OCR software, and is based on a scan of Clarke's original text.
In the early days of the last century, when geography was yet young and there still remained some undiscovered nooks of the earth, the inquisitive merchant marine of our still younger and very saucy Yankee republic was finding its way into the farthest ports of the Seven Seas. The sails of the Ship of State had bellied with pride in the achievements of our canvas navy of 1812-1814, and the confident commercial enterprise which followed gave birth to a generation of agile shipmasters who recked as little of the of the terrors of the sea as does to-day the commander of the mightiest of our steed ocean machines. In these days before steam, the skippers of Stonington, New Bedford, New London - whalers in fact, but explorers in essence - became the pathfinders of the waters; searching their quarry in the Atlantic and Pacific, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. They never held back from cruising unknown waters in the hope of finding some new thing, and in some of these New England shipmasters grew up a fine sense of devotion to their country's credit. They sought out knowledge of foreign parts that their country might have the name and fame of discovery, and many a little brig with its stars and stripes roamed among the islands of the South Sea and into ports of the Orient, where to-day and long since the American colors are as rare as leviathans.
Edmund Fanning was one of these early Yankee venturers and one of the few who has left an account of his "seventy voyages" about the world in the years of his active life from 1792-1832. Fanning early became a shipmaster of the first class and, successful at that, as time passed he was a patron and promoter of voyages. America was the country of his adoption, and having adopted her he had pride in her progress and confidence in her future. If the young nation were to play her part with dignity she must do her share in the exploration of the unknown world, and, possessed of this theme, he had sufficient influence on the Congress to convince it of its duty to send out an exploring expedition over the southern seas, for down in those Antarctic latitudes where the American sealers were already finding rich fields were the mysterious Auroras, the mythical isles east of the Horn, of which returning vessels had brought enamouring tales.
So the Congress of 1812 decided upon a first official voyage of discovery into waters out of our control, and Fanning was commissioned by President Madison commander of the two brigs Volunteer and Hope. The banner of hope was at the peak for a little while, but the same Congress soon pulled it down with a proclamation of war against Great Britain. Sixteen more years Fanning plied Congress with his project before it would again give heed to his plans for such a voyage of discovery, and in 1829 the shipmaster had grown too old to go to sea again; but early that year the United States Senate reported in favor of a South Sea expedition, and, though providing no money, it gave a moral support to the proposition and Captain Fanning was informally designated as "agent" of this first semi- or quasi-official "Voyage of Discovery." Fanning, filled with patriotic zeal, at once put two brigs into commission, the whalers and sealers Annawan, Nathaniel B. Palmer, captain, and the Seraph, Benjamin Pendleton, captain and commander. These vessels sailed from Connecticut ports for the South Seas in October, 1829. On their return a report of the expedition made by Commander Pendleton to the to the "agent," Fanning, was transmitted to Congress and was published by its order. It is needless to add that such sentimental support "buttered no parsnips," so that the guarantors of the expedition had to seek their returns in seal oil and skins. More and worse than that, the commander in his report poured forth a tale of lamentations over what he thought was the failure of the expedition, excused its seeming shortcomings by stories of disease, dissension and almost mutiny among his crews, and it is hard to believe that Congress could find anything in such a calamitous tale to be worth printing at the public expense.
This is my introduction to the forgotten story of the brief scientific career of James Eights, of Albany.
It is an odd name, that of Eights, and it seems to be entirely extinct to-day in the region that knew it best. There is a tradition (perhaps nothing more) that the name was originally Van der Achten, which translated means of more than one eight, in other words, Eights. This seems rather far fetched and the name as it appears in the records of the Dutch families of Manhattan is Eght or Echt. It was not at all the practise of the Hudson Valley Dutch to translate their surnames, after the manner of the French Canadians in America; but, at all events, the family stock was from Holland several generations before the birth of the scion whose name we desire to rescue from oblivion.
James Eights was the son of Dr. Jonathan Eights, in his day a well known Physician in Albany, and Jonathan was the son of Abraham, whose obvious Piety won for him among his town folk the sobriquet of "Father" Eights. The specified qualities of sire and grandsire seem not to have descended far. James was born in Albany in 1798 in his father's fine Dutch house, which stood on the corner of North Pearl and Columbia streets, just opposite what is now the Kenmore Hotel, in the heart of the city's business district. A century ago this was the center of the old Dutch residence. Thereabouts were the Douws, the Terwilligers, the Huns, the Van Schaicks and Van Vechtens, the Ten Broecks and Ten Eycks, the Zerbrugges and the widow Visscher, and it was among these streets of the old town, still lined with its picturesque high-peaked houses that young Eights got strong impressions of his environment. I say this because, if there is any memory of Eights in the town of his birth, it is of him as the artist who drew a series of color sketches of the streets of old "Albany in 1805" - pictures which have been copied so often that some of them are quite likely to be found in the homes of most of the old families. This skill with pencil and brush Eights developed very early and I am assured by one of his contemporaries, Mr. Albert Lawtenslager, now a man of ninety-four years old, that these pictures were made while Eights was still a lad, though the very early date, 1805 implies a memory or a tradition of houses and streets.1
I must say here that the records of the whole long life of James Eights are so particularly fragmented that a diligent search has resulted in a mere matter of shreds and patches. Obviously the young man was possessed by a strong love of nature. How he indulged and promoted it we do not know, but many believe that, with the books he could get and the help he could draw from others, he was his own guide and master in his study of the rocks, the plants and the animals about his home, in all of which we know he was deeply interested. What he had of the schools seems to have been only from those of his own town, but when he came to the time of fixing his career in life, he naturally turned to medicine; it was his father's, it should be his, and it afforded a better chance of close touch with natural history than any other. And so perhaps for this reason James Eights became a physician.
He was now known through life as Doctor Eights, but he seems never to have practised medicine. It is here, along through the years of his young manhood, that there is neither record nor story, and it is still not till the event of the Fanning voyage that this unwilling escupalian cut the first and almost only notch in the tally stick of his real career. Through influences we do not know but which were a testimony to his recognized ability in natural history, he was appointed to the "Exploring Expedition of 1830," that first United States voyage of discovery. There is not a word in any record left by him or his shipmates that indicates whether he sailed on the Seraph or the Annawan, but the two brigs seem to have kept together and shared their troubles. Indeed, so far as I can find, his name was never mentioned in any record as a member of this scientific company by any one except Captain Fanning and Eights himself.
As I write now of Doctor Eights's admission to quasi-official scientific service on this cruise of discovery, I call to mind the characterization of the man by my chief and Eight's contemporary, Professor James Hall, the distinguished geologist of New York from l836 to 1898, who frequently spoke to me of his high regard for Eight's extraordinary scientific talents. He must have had a very close touch with all the natural science of his day, however he got it, for this is evident in the technical reports of his explorations and his subsequent writings.
Congress had "approved" this expedition in June, 1829, and the two brigs left New London in October, headed straight for the Antarctic, but with orders to meet in Staaten Island in case they got separated on the way. Directly after they left the home port they did lose each other, and neither saw its consort till the distant island was reached. Staaten Island lies at 55 just off the east point of Fuego. It is an island that has figured often in the experiences of the explorers, for, barren spot as it is, it lay on the Cape Horn course and was a point of departure for the short and sharp attack on the seals of the Antarctic ice front. Thence one of the boats, probably the Annawan, but perhaps both, put out for the South Shetland Islands - those remote spots of whose enormous supply of seals abundant evidence had come by the American whaling fleet and had beyond doubt helped substantiate this expedition. Now in this year 1829 what was known of these South Shetland Islands is the following: Students of southern explorations seem to have little doubt that the first to see them was Dirck Gerritse, whose good ship De Blyde Boodschap in 1599 was driven by a gale far to the south of Magellan when her captain sighted in the distance the tops of some snow-clad mountains. In itself this record was of much the same worth as the discovery of "Crocker-land." It is as equally certain that the first trustworthy knowledge of them came from the American sealers and whalers who had found them out as early as 1812. For years these American ships resorted thither, but no record of the new lands was laid down till the English skipper, Captain William Smith, observed them in 1819, made them out to be a chain of islands and called them the New South Shetlands. Fanning whimsically says:
Thus when the Yankee brig of 1829 with it's scientific supercargo, Eights, aboard, picked up the islands only so little as has been indicated was known of them, and all that has been written since will barely enlarge our knowledge of them beyond that given by Dr. Eights in his Remarks on the New South Shetland Islands, communicated to the Albany Institute in 1833.2 There is in this descriptive account a pleasing diction, and an effective phrasing, tinged in a kind of Wadsorthian color, which clothes the rawness of the subject, quite too obviously exposed in the accounts of later writers. His sentences are worth reading, and in the light of new knowledge it is to be remembered that his descriptions, ignored by time, were written eighty-six years ago. To establish Eights in his true estate it is well to extract freely from his accounts of these islands.
Speaking generally of their physiography, he says:
The sun, even at midsummer, attains but a moderate altitude in these dreary regions, and when its horizontal beams illuminate these masses of ice, their numerous angles and indentations catching the light as they move along, exhibit all the beautiful gradations of color from an emerald green to that of the finest blue. Some of them whose sloping sides will admit of their ascent, are tenanted by a large assemblage of penguins, whose chattering noise may be heard on a still day an incredible distance over the clear smooth surface of the sea. When the storms rage and the ocean rolls its mountain wave against their slippery sides, the scene is truly sublime. Tall columns of spray shooting up far above their tops, soon become dissipated in clouds of misty white; gradually descending, they envelope the whole mass for a short space of time, giving to it much the appearance of being covered with a veil of silvery gauze. When thus agitated they not unfrequently explode with the noise of thunder, scattering fragments far and wide over the surrounding surface of the deep.
The sky too in these latitudes presents a very singular aspect; being most generally filled with innumerable clouds, torn into ragged and irregular patches by the wild gales which everywhere race over the Antarctic seas; the sun as it rises or sets, slowly and obliquely in the southern horizon, sends its rays through the many openings between, tingeing them here and there with every variety of hue and color, from whence they are thrown in mild and beautiful reflections upon the extensive fields of snow which lie piled on the surrounding hills, giving to the whole scene for a greater part of the long summer day, the ever varying effect of a most gorgeous sunset.