30 April 2005

Where were you on the night of 30 August 1820?

A group of explorers, including Thomas Say, camping out somewhere along Arkansas River under the command of Captain Bell were deserted by three soldiers on that night, or perhaps early in the morning of the following day. The deserter took with them not only some horses but also the saddle bags of the rest of the party. The bags contained spare clothing, Indian presents and, most importantly, all the manuscripts of Say and Lieutenant William Swift.

They were with Major Stephen Long's 1819-1820 expedition to the Rocky Mountains, but had separated from Long's party on 24 July. Say was the official zoologist of the expedition. He also studied the customs and languages of the Indian tribes they encountered. Lieutenant Swift was one of the assistant topographers. Say's five lost notebooks contained his records of the manners, habits, vocabularies of Indians as well as notes on the animals he had collected.

The identities of the three deserters were known1: "Nolan, Myers and Bernard". Despite a reward of $200 that was offered for their capture2, neither the three men nor the stolen manuscripts were ever found. Say's biographer Stroud wrote1: "To this day scientists lament the theft [of Say's manuscripts]".

If you ever come across ancient-looking journals while cleaning out your grandparents' attic, hang on to them. They could be Say's lost notebooks.

1. Stroud, P.T. 1992. Thomas Say: new world naturalist. University of Pennsylvania Press.
2. Weiss, H.B. & Ziegler, G.M. 1931. Thomas Say: early American naturalist. Charles C. Thomas.

post revised: 8-viii-08

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