From Ordinary to Extraordinary – The Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Pathfinder of the Seas (Part III)

In Part II of the essay a brief account is related of the interesting story of H.W.D.C. Wright and her astonishing achievement in slashing the round trip sailing distance between New York and the Equator and back by more than a month of days following Lieutenant Maury’s directions on his Winds and Currents of the North Atlantic chart. In a future edition, we will explore in more detail how this singular and novel achievement brought to Lieutenant Maury worldwide fame and renown, and became the impetus for perhaps the most astonishing epoch in maritime history. In the meantime, it behooves us to travel farther back in time from that memorable event and discover who this amazing man was: Where did he come from? What were his roots? What are some of the most notable influences and events that served to shape his unimpeachable character and drive him to aspire to such great achievements?

On January 14th, 1806, Richard and Diana Maury, of Spottsylvania Co., Virginia, would welcome their fourth son and seventh child into their growing family, whom they would give the name Matthew Fontaine. The newborn took the name of his paternal great grandparents, Matthew Maury, and wife, Mary Ann Fontaine, both French Protestant refugees known in their native country as Huguenots. By 1714 the young couple had migrated to a temporary settlement in Ireland with Mary Ann’s parents, the Reverend James Fontaine and wife, escaping renewed religious persecution inflicted on French Protestants brought about by Louis XIV’s sudden announcement of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. During their brief stay in Ireland, Mary Ann would give birth to their eldest son, James.

When James was but a child of only one or two years of age, his father would make the long and arduous journey across the Atlantic to the welcoming arms of Virginia Colony, where he would establish permanent residence for his young family and Mary Ann’s parents. Here, in his new country of Virginia, would James pass his formative years and grow into manhood, eventually taking up the vocation of his maternal grandfather, Reverend Fontaine.

Among his ministerial duties at Fredericksville Parish (sometimes referred to as Walker Parish), Reverend James Maury was, for many years, instructor of the Parish youth. Alongside his own lesser-known sons, Reverend Maury taught three future Presidents of the United States, and five signers of the celebrated Declaration of Independence. Among whom was the youthful Thomas Jefferson himself. Reverend Maury was a lifelong learner whose infectious enthusiasm for the subjects of his classical curriculum would have a profound impact on the young scholars under his tutelage. It is related e.g. that the Louisiana Purchase and exploration of that vast wilderness territory by the famed Lewis and Clarke expedition, was largely inspired by intense interest developed in Mr. Jefferson while attentively observing and participating in the good Reverend’s animated lectures upon the probable physical Geography of the extensive western territories of the continent. Reverend Maury married Mary Walker, of English descent, and the couple would have twelve children including, of especial interest to our subject, Abram Poindexter Maury, and his younger brother, Richard – both educated in their father’s Parish school.

As the Maury brothers grew to manhood, each would go his own way, pursuant to his own interests and ambitions and the profession of his choice. Abram inherited his father’s great interest in exploration of the virgin western territories of the continent, and would establish himself in the wilderness of Tennessee during early adulthood. Known for his uncompromising honesty, among other outstanding character qualities, he would become one of the State’s most respected citizens, eventually being elected to a seat in the State’s representative body and having the County of Maury named in his honor. His brother, Richard, inherited their father’s deep and abiding religious convictions and pious humility. Less inclined to his elder brother’s penchant for adventure, Richard would marry and pursue his living as a farmer of cotton and tobacco, settling close to home about ten miles west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Here young Matthew Fontaine would be reared and nurtured in the admonition of the Lord until his fifth year, when his father, struggling to make ends meet on their small Virginia farm, would finally succumb to the lure of his elder brother’s promising invitations to join him in Tennessee.

Richard and Diana would take their children and join a settlement of kith and kin in the Tennessee wilderness about 17 miles from Nashville. Here, Richard would resume his profession, tilling and planting the rich Tennessee soil, and raising a variety of livestock. His young boys, Richard Launcelot (Dick) and younger brother, Matt, would grow into adolescence in their new Tennessee home as the closest of friends and confidants. Later in life, Matthew would reflect fondly upon the memory of those simple adolescent years during which time the boys were virtually inseparable, shared the most intimate of secrets, and made many plans for their futures together. Their older sisters taught the boys their primary school lessons from Webster’s Blue-backed Speller, and the Holy Bible. As the two became proficient readers, writers and “cipherers,” the boys would attend the Old Field School near their village along with their elder siblings. Twice daily the Maury children would all gather around their parents in the family room of their cabin, where their father would lead them in the reading and recitation of the Psalter.

Early in his life, young Matt would show a noticeable and uncanny aptitude for learning and retaining his lessons in the minutest detail. The Holy Bible was one of only a few books in the Maury household, and certainly the most prominent and revered. Matt would read from its pages daily of his own volition. His familiarity with the Holy Scriptures acquired during his formative years would later come pouring forth in his voluminous writings on the subject of geographical science and the Physical Geography of the Sea.

As a youngster, Matt first became interested in the higher branches of mathematics when he began to notice that the soles of the mended shoes of his siblings and other children around the wilderness settlement were all scratched over with little x’s and y’s. These curious scribblings were revealed to be the work of the nearby cobbler named Neal, who worked his computations on pieces of leather he would later carve up to mend the hapless children’s shoes.

As young Matthew advanced in his studies to a point that his knowledge surpassed that of his teachers at home and the old Field Schools, he would begin to petition his father to attend school at Harpeth Academy in Nashville. Not only a favored, cheerfully obedient son, Matt was, by now, a valuable and much needed asset on the Maury farm. As such, Richard was reticent to let him go, ignoring the advice of brother, Abram, whose extensive collection of scholarly books Matt had been given free access. But omniscient Providence would ultimately intervene one fateful day when Matt and Dick were at play climbing trees. Perhaps on a dare, the fearless Matt had scaled a large tree to the height of some 45-50 ft, whereupon he suddenly lost his grip and his footing, and fell from the great height to the unyielding earth below. Mindful that the severity of the back injury incurred from the fall could be worsened by the hard labor of his chores on the farm and might in fact permanently disable him, Richard reluctantly relented and sent the 12 year-old Matt to continue his education in Nashville, where the lad would form an abiding friendship with the Harpeth schoolmaster, Rev. James Otey, and his worthy young assistant, William C. Hasbrouch of New York.

(To be continued in Part IV…)

-By Terry Morris

One comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.