Sea History 156 - Autumn 2016

Page 32

Whales' Tales: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the American Quest for the Northwest Passage by John Grady rom rhe end of rhe Mexican War in 1848 umil rhe srarr of rhe nexr American conflicr in 1861, Lieurenam Marrhew Fontaine Maury used his internarional repurarion in maririme affairs as superimendem of rhe Narional Observatory to shepherd rhe Navy imo an unprecedemed age of exploration. Though bound to a desk in Washington from a disabiliry incurred in a sragecoach accidem, Maury "sailed rhe globe by proxy and pen." 1 Maury did more rhan any ocher individual ro ensure char rhe fifreen naval exploring expedirions undertaken during his warch would ser our wirhour rhe delay or fuzziness of mission and command char had plagued rhe narion's firsr grand explorarion, rhe "Sourhern Ocean" expedirion, as ir was firsr known, evemually led by Lieurenant Charles Wilkes. No expedirions better demonstrare how rhe Unired Scares Navy underrook rhese missions, despire a parsimonious Congress's willingness to invesr in explorarion, rhan chose to rhe Arcric. The imperus to send naval expedirions to rhe Arcric sremmed from rhe highly publicized imernarional efforts to find rhe remains of Sir John Franklin and his crew, who had lefr England in 1845 on a mission to find rhe elusive Norrhwesr Passage, never ro be heard from again. While rhe search for Franklin was rhe scared goal, chose involved in rhe planning and operarions were jusr as-if nor more-imeresred in rhe Unired Scares winning rhe race to find a navigable sea roure across rhe top of North America. Matthew Fomaine Maury became heavily invesred in chis quesr. How did Maury, who grew up far from rhe coasr (in Tennessee), end up as rhe driving force behind American naval explorarion? Ir began wirh rhe stories of advemure and derring-do oflife in rhe Navy char his older brorher John regaled him wirh as a boy. John Minor Maury had particularly rhrilling stories to bring home from sea. He had survived two years marooned on a remote island in the Pacific before being rescued by Captain David Porter in USS Essex during the War of 1812. Porter was in the Pacific on a mission to decimate the British whaling Beet, which



along his own rale of a great white whale he had seen in the Pacific that he called "Mocha Dick." Maury's seagoing naval career was cur short when he was left permanently lame by a sragecoach accident in 1839. He was pur in charge of rhe Navy's Depoe of Cham and Instrumems in Washington, where he plunged himself into the study of mereorology, navigarion, and oceanography. When the office was changed to rhe US National Observatory, Maury was made superimendem. During this rime, Maury began compiling data and observations on ~ prevailing currents and winds for a given ~ season of the year from the hundreds of 8 o ship's logbooks stored in rhe Depor's library and ser up a sysrem for shipmasrers to report on wind, currems, and other observations Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, USN, 1853 rhey made ar sea. Seeking support from he did quite successfully. His efforts both Congress, in 1847 Maury wrote to John destroyed the economy related to the British Quincy Adams, then serving in rhe House whaling industry and sem a clear message of Representatives, to explain that he could to London that its ships were not safe from create track charts chat would serve "to American sea power anywhere around rhe generalize rhe experience of navigators in globe. John Maury was second in command such a manner chat each may have before of one of the seized whalers during Porter's him, at a glance, rhe experience of all." 1814 showdown with two British warships Maury presemed the idea of rhe charts in a battle off Valparaiso, Chile. to rhe Navy hierarchy as a navigational tool When younger brorher Matthew came and an opportuniry to free Americans from of age, he wem off to sea as a nineteen-year- rheir reliance on British-made charts. old midshipman in the Navy and would Having published a book on navigarion add his own experiences to the family trove chat rhe Navy was currently using aboard of sea stories. its ships, he made an easy sell on borh In 1833, Matthew Maury was ordered counts. Bur whar the Narional Observatory to report to the frigate USS Potomac, under began producing wasn'r rhe usual chart the command of John Downes. Also with hydrographic d ata, as historian onboard the Potomac was newspaper editor Penelope Hardy has nored, but instead and explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds, who showed "accumulated wind, current, had been picked up by Downes in temperarures, and ocher biological data Valparaiso and was now serving as his graphically." The emphasis on graphics to secretary fo r the remainder of Potomac's srudy "rhe phenomena of rhe ocean" made hisroric circumnavigarion. Maury and rhese charts more understandable and Reynolds became friends, as their shared useful to mariners, ship owners, insurance imerests were far-ranging and similar-the underwrirers, and sciemists. By the fall of need for a great American naval sciemific 1849, the observatory had sent to its expedition and the recognition of whaling's engraver eight 36-by-24-inch sheets for track charts covering the North Atlantic centrality to economic well-being. Maury, an invererate note-keeper, Ocean. In rhe years leading up to the Civil shared his observations on whales in the War, the observatory would publish "unknown west." In turn, Reynolds, who addirional track charts for the South would lacer become rhe most vocal salesman A tlantic, rhe Indian Ocean, the North for American naval explorarion, passed Pacific, and finally the South Pacific.