Letters of Asa Gray; Vol. 1

Letters of Asa Gray; Vol. 1
Author: Gray Asa
Title: Letters of Asa Gray; Vol. 1
Release Date: 2017-11-17
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Photo of Asa Gray (signed)





The Riverside Press, Cambridge

Copyright, 1893,
All rights reserved.


It has been my aim, in collecting and arranging the “Letters” from Dr.Gray’s large correspondence, to show, as far as possible in his ownwords, his life and his occupation. The greater part of the immense massof letters he wrote was necessarily purely scientific, uninterestingexcept to the person addressed; so that many of those published aremerely fragments, and very few are given completely. I have made noattempt to estimate his scientific or critical labors, for they aresufficiently before the world in various printed works; but something ofthe personality of the man and his many interests may be learned fromthese familiar letters and from even the slight notes.

Dr. Gray began an Autobiography, but went no further than to give abrief sketch of his early life. This fragment is placed, with some notesillustrative of the early conditions in which his youth was passed, atthe beginning of the work.

It is owing to the kind assistance of many friends that theAutobiography and Letters are thus presented; among whom should beespecially mentioned Professors C. S. Sargent and Charles L. Jackson,Dr. W. G. Farlow, Mr. J. H. Redfield, and Mr. Horace E. Scudder.


Botanic Garden, Cambridge,
July 1, 1893.


I. Autobiography. 1810-18431
II. Early Undertakings. 1831-183829
III. First Journey in Europe. 1838-183985
IV. A Decade of Work at Home. 1840-1850272
[The index appears in volume II. It is included at the end of volume I for the reader's convenience.
(etext transcriber's note)]

Note on the Illustrations. The frontispiece portrait of Dr. Gray is aphotogravure from a photograph taken in 1867. The portrait facing page286 is from a daguerreotype taken about 1841. The view of the BotanicGarden House, facing page 358, is from a drawing by Isaac Sprague.{1}



My great-great-grandfather, John Gray, with his family, among which wasRobert Gray, supposed to be one of his sons, emigrated from Londonderry,Ireland, to Worcester, Mass., being part of a Scotch-Irish colony.[1]The farm they took up was on the north side of what is now LincolnStreet.

Robert Gray, my great-grandfather, died in Worcester,{2} January 16, 1766.He married Sarah Wiley[2] about the year 1729. They had ten children;the eighth was Moses Wiley Gray, my grandfather, born in Worcester,December 31, 1745. About the year 1769, he married Sally Miller,daughter of Samuel and Elisabeth (Hammond) Miller, of Worcester, andremoved to Templeton, Mass. About 1787 he removed to Grafton, Vermont,where his wife died in 1793. In 1794 he removed to Oneida County, N. Y.,and settled in the Sauquoit Valley,[3] where he died from injuriesreceived from the fall of a tree, May 8, 1803.

My father, Moses Gray, was the youngest of the (eight?) children of hismother. There were three half-brothers and a half-sister by a secondwife, born in Oneida County, none of whom survived my father. He wasborn in Templeton, Mass., February 26, 1786.[4] He was therefore in hiseighteenth year when{3} his father died. He used to say that he had onlysix weeks of schooling; whether before or after his father’s death I amignorant. But soon after that event he was apprenticed to a tanner andcurrier (Mr. Gier) at Sauquoit, in whose employment he must have beenfor a part of the time after he came of age, for I was born in a littlehouse which had been a shoe-shop on the premises of the tan-yard.

The fact of being born supposes a maternal ancestry. July 30, 1809, myfather married Roxana Howard. She was born in Longmeadow, Mass., March15, 1789; was a daughter of Joseph Howard, who was born in Pomfret,Conn., March 8, 1766, and of Submit (Luce) Howard, born at Somers,Conn., April 3, 1767;[5] and he was the grandson of John Howard ofIpswich,[6] Mass., and of Elisabeth Smith, of the same town. He was thedescendant of Thomas Howard, who, with his wife and children, came fromAylesford (or Maidstone), Kent, in the year 1634.

My mother came with her parents to Oneida County and the Sauquoit Valleywhen only a few years old.[7] Her father there joined a company whichset up an iron-forge. One of the early pieces of work of its trip-hammerwas to forge off three of my maternal{4} grandfather’s fingers. Thisappears to have qualified him to be the cleric in charge, or manager, ofthe office and store of the Paris Furnace Company, which established asmall iron-smelting furnace on the Sauquoit, two and a half miles abovethe village of Sauquoit, in a deep and narrow valley which had the nameof Paris Furnace Hollow, now called Clayville, the furnace long sincehaving disappeared, a natural consequence of the exhaustion of thecharcoal furnished by the woods of the surrounding hills. My earliestrecollections are of Paris Furnace Hollow, for not long after I wasborn, as aforesaid, in Sauquoit, on the eastern or Methodist side of thecreek, on the 18th of November, 1810, my father and mother removed toParis Furnace with me, their first-born, and set up a small tannerythere. Of this I retain some vivid recollections, especially thoseconnected with the first use to which I was put, the driving round thering of the old horse which turned the bark-mill, and the supplying thesaid mill with its grist of bark,—a lonely and monotonousoccupation.[8]{5} I was sent to the district school near by when threeyears old; and I either remember some of my performances of that or thenext year, or have been told them in such way as to leave the matterdoubtful.[9] My earliest{6} distinct recollections of school are ofspelling-matches, in which at six or seven years I was a champion.[10]{7}There was a year or two of early boyhood in which I was sent to a small“select” or private school, taught at Sauquoit, by the son of the pastorof the parish; a year or two following, in which I was in my maternalgrandfather’s family, near by, as a sort of office-boy; and at the ageof twelve, or near it, I was sent off to the Clinton Grammar School,nine miles away, where I was drilled after a fashion in the rudiments ofLatin{8} and Greek for two years, excepting the three summer months, whenI was taken home to assist in the corn and hayfield. For my father,buying up, little by little, lands which had been cleared for charcoal,had become a farmer in a small way, an occupation to which he was mostinclined. So about these times he sold out the tannery and bought asmall farm nearer to Sauquoit, mainly of the land which my maternalgrandfather had settled on, including the house in which he had marriedmy mother. To it he removed, and there resided until he bought out anadjacent small farm in addition, with an old house very pleasantlysituated, which he rebuilt and lived in until after I had attained mymajority. But soon after that he bought a small farm close to theSauquoit village on the western or Presbyterian side, hard by themeeting-house the family had always attended. There my father indulgedhis special fancy by rebuilding another old house, and the place, afterhis death, and, much later, after that of my mother, fell to my eldestbrother, who still possesses it.[11]

I am not sure, but I think it was after two years of the Clinton GrammarSchool that I was transferred to Fairfield Academy.[12] Fairfield,Herkimer County,{9} lies high on the hills, between the West and EastCanada creeks, seven miles north of Little Falls. I went there first inOctober, 1825, the date I fix by that of the completion of the ErieCanal. For that autumn, I think in November, I walked one afternoon,along with some other students, down to Little Falls to see there thearrival of the canal-boat which bore the canal-commissioners, with thegovernor, De Witt Clinton at their head, on their ceremonious voyagefrom Buffalo to New York city. It reached Little Falls near sunset, andwe walked to Fairfield that evening. The reason for my being sent toFairfield Academy was that the principal of the academy was CharlesAvery, uncle of my companion from infancy, Eli Avery, of our town, whodied two years ago, who had been educated by the help of Eli’s father,Colonel Avery, one of the owners of Paris furnace. Charles Avery severalyears later took the professorship of{10} chemistry, etc., at HamiltonCollege, lived to over ninety, I think, and through all his later yearsseemed to be very proud of having been my teacher. I cannot say that Iowe much to him, even for teaching me mathematics, which was his forte.My capital memory allowed me to “get my lessons” easily, and thatsufficed; and I had none of the sharp drilling and testing which Ineeded. He lingers in my memory in another way. He was sharp at turninga penny in various ways; among them, he for the first year and morejobbed the board of his nephew Eli and myself, who were chums, payingfor it in cooking-stoves and the like from Paris furnace, in whichthrough his brother he had an interest, and boarding us round, from onehouse to another (we had our room in the academy buildings) until thestove which cooked our dinner was paid for. Sometimes our fare was goodenough; but one poor widow, who took us in her turn, fed us so much uponboiled salt cod, not always of the sweetest, that the sight of that dishstill calls up ancient memories not altogether agreeable. I think it wasnot at that time, but at a somewhat later date, and with less excuse,that we mended our diet upon one occasion, one winter’s night, bycarrying off the principal’s best fowls from the roost, skinning them,as the most expeditious and neatest way, and broiling them in our roomas the pièce de résistance, for they were tough, in a little supper wegot up.

I here recall a favor which Mr. Avery did me. A year or two after I hadtaken my M. D., my dear old friend Professor Hadley, of FairfieldMedical College, who had been filling the place at Hamilton College protem., made me a candidate for the professorship there of chemistry, withgeology and natural{11} science. But my old teacher, Mr. Avery, an alumnusof the college, entered the lists and carried the day. I wonder if Ishould have rusted out there if I had got the place.

I must go back to say something of my omnivorous reading, which was,after all, the larger part of my education. I was a reader almost frommy cradle, and I read everything I could lay hands on. There was nogreat choice in my early boyhood. But there was a little subscriptionlibrary at Sauquoit, the stockholders of which met four times a year,distributed the books by auction to the highest bidder (maximum,perhaps, ten or twelve cents) to have and to hold for three months; orif there was no competition each took what he chose. Rather slowcirculation this; but in the three months the books were thoroughlyread. History I rather took to, but especially voyages and travels weremy delight. There were no plays, not even Shakespeare in the library,but a sprinkling of novels. My novel-reading, up to the

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