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Scientist of the Seas: The Legacy of Matthew Fontaine Maury

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Matthew Fontaine Maury has been hailed as, among other names, the “Scientist of the Seas” for his contributions to understanding ocean navigation in the mid-19th century. His expertise is evident in his large body of work, and particularly in his maps. But while Maury left an indelible mark on the fields of oceanography and geography at large, his legacy is not without controversy.

Portrait of Matthew Fontaine Maury in military uniform.
“MAURY, MATTHEW FONTAINE, U.S.N.” 1917. Harris & Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Matthew Fontaine Maury was born in 1806 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Joining the U.S. Navy at the age of 19, Maury would sail around the world and rise through the ranks, but a stagecoach accident in 1839 left him unfit to continue on the high seas. His next assignment was to helm the Depot of Charts and Instruments, the precursor to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Here, Maury studied meteorology, compiled data from ships’ logs, promoted enhanced record-keeping among captains at sea, and produced charts that would communicate his findings. In harnessing and analyzing thousands of scientific observations from around the world, the results of his work revolutionized our understanding of oceanography, meteorology, and marine navigation.

Over the course of his career, Maury would produce maps, charts, and inventive diagrams that conveyed his new insights on ocean sciences. Among his most striking charts are his depictions of oceanic wind patterns. His 1851 “Trade wind chart of the Atlantic Ocean” is a striking visualization of Atlantic Ocean trade winds across time and space, with recordings made specific to calendar month and location (by latitude and longitude). This highly detailed chart is colored to show regions of trade winds and doldrums. Knowledge of seasonal and geographic changes aided captains in their cross-Atlantic journeys.

Chart of trade wind observations for Atlantic Ocean, colored into areas of light blue, pink, and purple, indicating different wind pattern areas.
“Trade wind chart of the Atlantic Ocean,” by Matthew Fontaine Maury, 1851. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

In 1859, Maury produced a similar chart, documenting monsoon and trade winds of the Indian Ocean, including a map of seasonal wind patterns in February and August. As the detailed “Explanation” text notes, the overall chart “expresses the results of 16,915 separate observations.”

Map of wind patterns in Indian Ocean, along with seasonal chart of patterns and explanatory essay.
“Monsoon & trade wind chart of the Indian Ocean” by Matthew Fontaine Maury, 1859. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Maury’s series of “Pilot Charts” show recorded prevailing wind patterns by compass direction and month for every 5° square of the ocean. While they may not look like much at first, a close examination shows the incredible distillation of data and painstaking precision that went into producing these charts, which greatly helped captains at sea use wind patterns to their advantage.

Pilot chart diagram with wind conditions by cardinal direction.
Detail from “Pilot chart of the North Atlantic,” by Matthew Fontaine Maury 1853. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Through the 1840s and ’50s, driven by his strong work ethic, Maury contributed to a wide range of scientific and academic endeavors, including publishing perhaps the first modern textbook on oceanography (The Physical Geography of the Sea in 1855), tracking whale migrations, promoting greater international scientific cooperation, and even proposing routes for a cross-continental railroad.

Maury also showed prowess in land-based cartography, as seen in The Washington map of the United States, a large wall map produced in 1860 that measures over five feet wide and five feet high. Besides his detailed geographic depiction of the landscape, Maury included a wealth of thematic information, including predominant church denominations, geological regions, zoological distributions, and, of course, prevailing wind patterns across the country.

Map of North America with counties colored and several inset maps of United States demographics.
“The Washington map of the United States” by Matthew Fontaine Maury, 1861. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

With the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War, however, Maury’s legacy becomes murkier. Maury was neither a slave-owner nor a proponent of slavery. In the early 1850s, he had studied an idea to resettle slaves from the U.S. to the Brazilian Amazon as a way to gradually phase-out slavery in the U.S., but the project ultimately went nowhere. Nevertheless, in declining to fight against his native Virginia, Maury resigned his post and joined the Confederate Navy, initially to direct coastal and river defenses and develop naval mine technologies to use against the Union. He would spend much of the war abroad, hoping to persuade Europeans to support the Confederate cause and bring the war to a quick end. Following the end of the war, Maury remained abroad for several years before taking a professorship at the Virginia Military Institute where he would teach until his death in 1873.

The Matthew Fontaine Maury Papers, a collection at the Library of Congress, contains over 14,000 items that document his career, including correspondence, notebooks, written speeches, and more. His papers and maps together are a testament to the hard work he devoted to his study. While Maury’s siding with the Confederacy has been a source of controversy in evaluating his legacy today, the scientific value of his contributions to marine navigation, oceanography, and geography is clear.

Comments (7)

  1. Anyone who doubts the value of accurat data also fails to understand the universe. “When you can describe it in numbers, then you know something about it.”

  2. Neat article. Thank you!

    There is a beautiful statue of him as the “Pathfinder of the Seas” on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. The statue was dedicated in the late 1920s.

  3. Great knowledge for an old Navy navigator.

  4. Mathew Fontaine Maury did not come back from France after the civil war as he was tried in a federal court for treason, without representation found guilty. It took Robert E Lee seven years to obtain a pardon. Lee also secured him a post at VMI. Let us not white wash history as these are the facts. Why he was treated this way explains the treason verdict. The way it was handled is an other example of why the south succeeded from the Union.

  5. Nice article! This is my great great great grandfather. I’m named after him. Love learning more about him.

  6. He returned to Mexico after thecwar, as he wasn’t allowed in the United States until President Johnson issued the pardon proclamation ! Your history is twisted

  7. “Maury was neither a slave-owner nor a proponent of slavery. In the early 1850s, he had studied an idea to resettle slaves”

    I would humbly suggest that anybody that wants slaves to remain slaves, just somewhere else, is a “proponent of slavery.”

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