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Of Pemmican and Polariscopes: the 1860 Eclipse Expeditions

This post was written by Josh Levy, Historian of Science and Technology in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

When is pemmican like a polariscope? When is a chronometer like a canoe?

Maybe not too often. But in the summer of 1860, they all became essential technologies in an epic, months-long quest to observe a total solar eclipse at a location nearly 550 miles northwest of Winnipeg, along the Saskatchewan River.

In the 1860s, big changes were on the way for astronomy. Like other scientific fields, astronomy was rapidly professionalizing. On the way out were scientific institutions started as private social clubs, and the idea that the excited discussions women and men had shared in parlors counted as “real” science. On the way in were institutions and laboratories, sponsored by governments and universities, and staffed by salaried scientists. Observatories were perhaps America’s premier scientific institutions, but their eclipse expeditions still felt informal, relying on observations taken with small borrowed instruments. Methods like spectroscopy and eclipse photography were in their infancy.

But midcentury astronomers did have enthusiasm. They had become fascinated with solar prominences, bright arcs of gas that erupt from the sun’s surface, and with a striking diamond ring-like effect known as Bailey’s Beads. The totality of a solar eclipse offered a rare opportunity to see them both.

Image from Harper's Weekly illustrating the path of the 1860 eclipse.

The 1860 eclipse, as printed in Harper’s Weekly. Harper’s informed its readers that the moon’s shadow during the eclipse would travel across the earth at “four times the velocity of a cannon-ball.”

A total solar eclipse hadn’t been observable from the continental United States since 1806. In fact, the eclipse of July 18, 1860, barely qualified. With a track passing over the northwest corner of the Washington Territory at dawn, the totality moved through the center of “British America” and then left the continent over the northeastern tip of the Labrador Peninsula in the early afternoon. Crossing the Atlantic, it then passed fifty miles northeast of Valencia and moved on to Egypt. Observations were planned all along the route. The Americans didn’t want to be left out.

Three American expeditions were planned. The first, to the Washington Territory, was undertaken by U.S. Naval Observatory founder James Gilliss and two assistants. Advice from officers at Fort Steilacoom convinced Gilliss to abandon his plan to summit the Cascades, and the group instead made camp just ten miles away. There, they became so captivated by the sun’s prominences that they forgot to observe its corona. The second expedition, to northern Labrador, was lent a steamship by the U.S. Coast Survey and led by Princeton astronomer Stephen Alexander. They devised a strict division of labor, preparing for everything from weather observations to reading a book in the dark (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Report, 1860: 229-249). Presumably satisfied with a job well done, they named a series of local landmarks after themselves as they left.

The third expedition aimed straight up the middle of the continent, deep into present-day Canada. It was organized by the American Nautical Almanac Office, then based in Cambridge, and included three scientists: astronomer Simon Newcomb, meteorologist William Ferrel, and entomologist Samuel Hubbard Scudder, all of whom later became leading figures in their fields. Newcomb brought along a telescope, a sextant, a chronometer, a spy glass, and a polariscope, a device he hoped would “determine the nature of the mysterious glory, or corona, which surrounds the dark body of the moon (Nor’Wester. August 14, 1869: 3).

Letter of introduction for Newcomb and Mactavish requesting safe passage through territory controlled by Hudson's Bay Company.

Letter of introduction given to Newcomb and Ferrel by William Mactavish, Governor of the District of Assiniboia from the United States Naval Observatory Records (box 18), requesting safe passage through territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Fort Garry and Assiniboia were located in the area around present-day Winnipeg.

The scientists determined to make a voyage from present-day Winnipeg, up the Red River, across Lake Winnipeg, and along the Saskatchewan River until they reached Cumberland House, a Hudson’s Bay Trading Company settlement founded in 1774 with a trade depot still in active use. Getting there on their own would be nearly impossible. Instead, they tapped into the vast network of provisioning and transportation that had long turned the enormous wheels of the North American fur trade.

Newcomb, Ferrel, and Scudder not only consulted local officials for advice, they also traveled along well-established trade routes in an enormous birch bark canoe reportedly used by George Simpson Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land (Scudder, H. The Winnipeg Country: or, Roughing it with an Eclipse Party,1886: 20) . They also hired George Kipling, a Métis steersman whom Governor William Mactavish insisted was “the best guide in the county,” along with two of his assistants. For food they relied on a combination of packaged foods, forage, and pemmican, an energy-rich mix of meat and fats developed by indigenous travelers and later mass-produced by the Hudson’s Bay Company (G. Colpitts Western Historical Quarterly 43, 183; 2012).

Provisioned for a voyage of 35 days, the guides began an arduous journey: fighting rapids and mosquitoes and poor weather, and at one point paddling for 36 hours straight (Scudder, H. The Winnipeg Country: or, Roughing it with an Eclipse Party,1886: 107) . The scientists bickered along the way. Newcomb became territorial over the scientific instruments in a way Ferrel later described as “singular & uncourteous,” while Scudder happily collected bugs (Ferrel to Charles Davis, October 8, 1860, Box 18, United States Naval Observatory Records). The canoe finally stopped just a few days short of Cumberland House, at a half-dry marsh still within the path of totality. Newcomb’s tiny diary, now housed in the Manuscript Division’s collection of his papers, records the result: “Eclipse morning. Cloudy till eclipse was ¾ way through.” They missed it.

Pages from Newcomb's diary recounting the eclipse.

The pages from Simon Newcomb’s diary, beginning the day of the eclipse from the Simon Newcomb Papers (box 1).

For Newcomb, it was a 63 day journey back to Boston. His memoir recalls the incident with equanimity, arguing that “a sense of relief accompanies the disappointment” when observations fail for reasons so far out of the astronomer’s control (Newcomb, S. The Reminiscences of an Astronomer, 1903: 93). Scudder’s took a more mocking tone (Scudder, H. The Winnipeg Country: or, Roughing it with an Eclipse Party,1886: 71). As it turned out, the greatest scientific revelation of the 1860 eclipse wouldn’t come from the American expeditions at all. It would come from British astronomer Warren de la Rue, whose specially developed Kew Photoheliograph took some of the first photographs of a solar eclipse in progress, in northern Spain.

Illustration of eclipse observers from The Winnipeg Country: Or, Roughing it with an Eclipse Party.

Observing the Eclipse. Samuel Scudder, The Winnipeg Country: Or, Roughing It with an Eclipse Party (Boston: Cupples, Upham & Co., 1886), 70.

Their scientific instruments may have failed them, but the birch bark canoe kept the American scientists safe and the pemmican kept them alive. And maybe the image of bickering professionals asleep at the bottom of a canoe as their guides paddled through the night invites some reconsideration of what scientific labor is, and who performs it. And of whose expertise, technologies, and resources here on Earth have helped enable our scientific discoveries, even when they’re focused on a celestial body over 93 million miles away.

Illustration showing three paddlers in a canoe.

Paddlers. Samuel Scudder, The Winnipeg Country: Or, Roughing It with an Eclipse Party (Boston: Cupples, Upham & Co., 1886), 38.

Further reading:

Stephen Alexander. “Report to the Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey on the expedition to Labrador to observe the total solar eclipse of July 18, 1860.” U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Report (1860): 229-249.

Renée Bergland. Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).

George Colpitts. “Provisioning the HBC: Market Economies in the British Buffalo Commons in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The Western Historical Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 179-203.

J.M. Gilliss. “An account of the total solar eclipse of July 18, 1860, as observed for the United States Coast Survey near Steilacoom, Washington Territory.” U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (1860): 275-292.

J.E. Kennedy and S.D. Hanson. “Excerpts from Simon Newcomb’s Diary of 1860.” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 90, no. 5/6 (1996): 292-303.

Stephen Loring. “The Archaeology of Eskimo Hütte (IkDb-2): Inuit Sovereignty in the Torngat.” Études Inuit Studies 22, no. 2 (1998): 53-76.

Simon Newcomb, “The Scientific Expedition,” The Nor’-Wester (Red River Settlement, Manitoba). August 14, 1860.

Simon Newcomb. The Reminiscences of an Astronomer. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903).

A. Rochester Fellow [pseud. for S.H. Scudder]. The Winnipeg Country: Or, Roughing It with an Eclipse Party. (Boston: Cupples, Upham, & Company, 1886).

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. “The Social Event of the Season: Solar Eclipse Expeditions and Victorian Culture.” Isis 84, no. 2 (June 1993): 252-277.

One Comment

  1. Constance Carter
    September 8, 2021 at 1:41 pm

    Such an interesting post–filled with so many bits and pieces of history chronicling scientific endeavor in the field. Ruth Freitag would have loved this post–there is so much to unpack here. Thanks also for your personal observations.

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