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Unlikely Encounters

An unpronounceable geologist's visit, 165 years ago this month

by Jack Neely

He had a name that must have sounded like a mouthful of pillow stuffing. George William Featherstonhaugh was British, of course, though he'd lived in America for over 20 years. Principally a geologist, he'd been elected Fellow of the Geological Society of London, but he was also a classical scholar who had published his translations of Cicero and written a play called The Death of Ugolino: A Tragedy. He was also a railroad man who had already organized the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad in New York. And he was an effective diplomat.

George William Featherstonhaugh had been lots of places in his 54 years, but until September, 1834, he had never been to Knoxville. Though still a British subject, he was here on a mission from the U.S. War Department, which paid him $6 a day, plus expenses, to conduct a geological survey of the U.S. interior. He brought his young son along.

He didn't fit right in. A Tory royalist, he was fastidious even for an Englishman, and abstained from liquor and tobacco. He was also an abolitionist who ridiculed America's hypocrisies about the "common man." Somehow, though, he earned Southerners' respect.

In an East Tennessee tavern, when a young Alabaman armed with "dirk and pistols" threatened the middle-aged Englishman, he had a surprise. Featherstonhaugh drew out his fists, "the noble use of which," he said, "was altogether unknown in the enlightened state of Tennessee." Offering his "Scarborough warning—a word and a blow," he punched the offender in the eye.

"Down he went on the floor in an ocean of tobacco spit," Featherstonhaugh recalled, "quite puzzled to imagine how he got there."

He approached Knoxville along the banks of the Holston River, "a pretty stream, navigable by boats." He was less impressed with the "rude people" and their "poor log huts." He noted they pronounced the name of bovine livestock something like "kayws."

"At about noon we reached Knoxville," he wrote, "a poor neglected-looking place, which notwithstanding makes a great feature on the map." In the booming South, Knoxville must have seemed like a forgotten leftover of territorial days. No longer capital of anything—the reason it was spelled in larger letters on maps—Knoxville had yet to develop any industry to compensate for the fact that we didn't have much agriculture, either. Steamboat traffic wasn't making up for the fact that we didn't have a railroad.

"I saw some tolerable dwelling houses," recalled Mr. F., "and called upon a gentleman by the name of Campbell...who was very polite to me; but we only stayed an hour, just long enough to let the passengers dine at the tavern.... There is steamboat navigation from Knoxville...when the water is high enough; but to judge from the inactivity of the place, there is very little commerce going on."

In 1834, Knoxville's claim to fame hung on one resident. Featherstonhaugh knew him. "I also called upon a very worthy and well-known gentleman with whom I had the pleasure of being acquainted, Judge Hugh White, who resides there; but he was [away] from home." Just last year, White had been president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and acting vice president. By September of '34, much of the South was abuzz about White's likely candidacy for the presidency.

Disappointed not to find White, Featherstonhaugh looked around for interesting rocks and mussel shells along the river shore, and found a few. Some of his specimens made it to the museum of the Scarborough Philosophical Society.

He and his son reboarded the stagecoach. "Fourteen miles farther we came to Campbell's Station," he wrote. There at the tavern he had a start. Seated at a window smoking a long pipe was the president of the United States. The second-term executive, then 67, was on his way from the Hermitage to the White House. Jackson wore a white hat with mourning crepe for his old friend de Lafayette, who had recently died.

The astonished Featherstonhaugh "went to pay my respects to him, apologizing for my dirty appearance, which I told him I had very honestly come by in hammering the rocks of his own state. He laughed and shook hands cordially with me; and learning that my son was with me, requested me to bring him in and present him. My son, who had been scampering about the country all the time we were in Knoxville, was in a worse pickle than myself, and felt quite ashamed to be presented to so eminent a person; but the old General very kindly took him by the hand and said, 'My young friend, don't be ashamed of this: if you were a politician, you would have dirty work upon your hands you could not so easily get rid of.'

"We had a very agreeable chat with the old gentleman; he was in fine spirits; and we left his cheerful conversation with great reluctance, amidst the kindest expression of his wishes for our welfare, and an injunction to call upon him in Washington as soon as we returned."

Featherstonhaugh made his way all the way to Texas, and later published a droll account of his excursions in London under the title, Excursions Through the Slave States. His haughty accounts raised hackles across the South and West.

Abolishing any notion that he was becoming American, himself, Mr. F. represented Britain in controversial northern-border disputes; then Queen Victoria then appointed him consul to Le Havre, France. In 1848, he would help King Louis Philippe escape an insurrection by smuggling him to Britain as his uncle, "Mr. Smith." Louis Philippe and George William Featherstonhaugh may not have had much to talk about as they hastened across the channel. But both the French king and the English diplomat-geologist had written memoirs of visiting a place called Knoxville.