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EARLY VOTARIES OF NATURAL SCIENCE IN
The first period of New England colonization furnished little in the way of scientific inquiry or observation. The necessities and the spirit of the settlers, exiled from their homes and cast upon these inhospitable shores, allowed scanty opportunities for search into the secrets of nature. Some of the first colonists, like Winthrop, left records of what they saw ; but their notices of natural phenomena deal more with prodigies and . monstrosities than with normal sequences of events, and bespeak rather their awe-struck wonder, amid the novelties and mysteries of their new abode, than a desire to trace the harmonies of the world around them. Some curious visitors like Wood and Josselyn' described the plants and animals of the country; but their representations, though graphic, and sometimes highly picturesque, are often fanciful, or evidently inaccurate. :o
Their accounts of the native inhabitants of course have their value for the student of the natural history of Man ; but are too often warped by the disturbing influences of fear or hate ; or else, as the historian Neal remarks of Wood and Josselyn “affect rather to make their Readers merry than tell them the truth.” Where the New England fathers entered into kindly relations with the natives, results were obtained which add to the permanent stock of knowledge. Thus the Indian Bible of Eliot, undertaken from motives of pious benevolence, is now a
(1) Josselyn's “New England Rarities,” of which this society possesses a copy,
has considerable value in its botanical part. It describes and figures, with fair correctness, some genera like Sarracenia and Chelone, and makes interesting distinctions between plants peculiar to the country; introduced plants, &c. Sarracenia (pitcher-plant) he calls “hollowleaved lavender."
philological monument of peculiar value,-a kind of American Rosetta stone.
In Rhode Island, the conditions of life were even less favorable to scientific study than in the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. There were fewer men of liberal education. The hard and narrowing struggle for mere subsistence in the early years of the Providence Plantation left little time or inclination for such pursuits. Whatever surplus mental energy overleaped the bounds of circumstance spent itself in theological controversy or petty local disputes. : I can think of only one partial exception to this statement. Roger Williams' “Key into the Language of America,”—conceived primarily in a spirit of philanthropy, and as a private help to his own memory, as he says,-partakes also of a scientific character.' It embodies at any rate a valuable contribution 'to ethnology and philology, -sciences whose very names would have puzzled Roger Williams at first hearing. I think it represents some approach to scientific feeling,-a sense of the value of knowledge for its own sake, apart from its immediate practical applications. . . . . : : :
: His speculations on the origin of the Natives are avowedly - mere suggestions; he says, quite in the spirit of modern science, "I shall present (not mine opinion but) my observations, to the judgment of the wise.” He finds affinities in their language both to the Hebrew and the Greek,—his readiness to trace a Hebraic relationship being probably quickened by a desire to connect the Indians with the chosen people of Israel. But he comes to no more definite conclusion than the following, which is expressed with more than his usual grace : : . .
' "From Adam and Noah that they spring, it is granted on all bands. But for their later descent, and whence they came into those parts, it seems as hard to find, as to find the wellhead of some fresh stream, which running many miles out of the country to the salt ocean, hath met with many mixing streams by the way.”
"The student of anthropology may draw curious material from his accounts of the customs of the Indians, as to food,
shelter, warfare, etc., etc. Dr. Palfrey, who habitually judges the Indians severely, controverts Williams' statement about their astronomical accomplishments, which I will quote as a specimen of his verse :
“ The very Indian Boyes can give
“ More bright ten thousand fold.” His accounts of quadrupeds, "fowle,” fish and mollusks are interesting, and bear the stamp of personal observation. The chapter on “Beasts” ends with this comparative statement :
** New England's wilde beasts are not fierce
“ From mildnesse are they farre." “Whales are often cast up ; I have seen some of them, but not above sixtie foot long.”
The following passage has a true Rhode Island flavor :
“SICKISSUOG, CLAMS. Obs.—This is a sweet kind of shell fish, which all the Indians generally over the Country, Winter and Summer, delight in :—and at low water the women dig for them ; this fish, and the naturall liquors of it, they boile, and it makes their broth and their Nasaump (which is a kind of thickened broth) and their bread seasonable and savoury, instead of Salt,” &c.
In the parent country, little was done in a scientific direction during the first quarter of a century that followed the settlement of Providence in 1636. The late Mr. J. R. Green, in his “Short History of the English People” says:
“Only two discoveries of any real value came from English research before the Restoration (1660] : Gilbert's discovery of terrestrial magnetism in the close of Elizabeth's reign, and the great discovery of the circulation of the blood, which was taught by Harvey in the reign of James.”
The nation's quarrel with Charles, the civil war and the usurpation of Cromwell were not favorable to the restful investigation of nature.
Soon after the Restoration of Charles II. two events occurred, which appear at first sight entirely unconnected, but which it is not altogether fanciful to think were in some degree the result of a common cause. The charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, granted in July, 1663, is mostly remarkable for forbidding that any person in the colony be molested for differences in religious belief, not disturbing the civil peace. This provision was foreshadowed in the letter addressed to the House of Commons by Charles while yet in exile in Holland, called the Declaration of Breda. So far as the “Merry Monarch ” heeded it at all, it was owing, partly to policy, and partly to his indifferentism, his disgust with the religious disputes that had embittered his time, his half-sneering wonder that so much stress should be laid on sectarian differences, and his ill-concealed yearning toward the Romish church. It represented a reaction against Puritan bigotry, in the old world and in the new.
A year earlier, (July, 1662,) the Royal Society of London received its charter. The second John Winthrop, Governor of Connecticut, was its chosen correspondent in the western world. Its foundation was an important event in the history of science, both on account of the subsequent labors of this Society, and for what its incorporation indicated at the time, viz., a reaction from religious controversy toward the study of outward Nature. The national mind longed for quiet, and sought it in turning from the strifes of church and state to the study of natural phenomena.
“From the spiritual problems with which it had so long wrestled in vain, England turned at last to the physical world around it, to the observation of its phenomena, to the discovery of the laws which govern them.” (J. R. Green.)