[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read”]

“Big Bone Lick,” from A Short But Comprehensive System of the Geography of the World: By Way of Question and Answer. Principally Designed for Children and Common Schools
by Nathaniel Dwight (1802)

Originally published in 1795, Nathaniel Dwight’s Short But Comprehensive System of the Geography of the World presented information about the known world in a series of questions and answers that would, Dwight hoped, make it easier for children to understand and remember. The fifth edition is, indeed, comprehensive, describing in general the landscape, politics, and stereotypical characteristics of apparently every piece of land on the planet. Questions are as general as “What is an ocean?” and as specific as “What is the present state of literature in Wales?”

The longest section is the description of the Americas, including questions on “Spanish America”: “East and West-Florida”, Louisiana, and “Old and New-Mexico”. There are hints of regional insularity, with New England being treated as if it were a separate country. There are reminders that the world was changing: the description of the very new Washington, D. C.—where Congress had just met for the first time two years earlier—has inadvertent blanks in the description of location: “It is situated in      deg.      min. of north latitude, and      longitude from      ”. (p. 175) And, dry as the information is, Dwight’s information on the “character” and “customs” of the inhabitants of each country, state, and territory allows for editorializing: Virginians are “sociable and hospitable, attached strongly to pleasure and dissipation, and highly jealous of personal independence. The holders of slaves have the same character in all countries.” (p. 174)

The section on the Northwest Territory includes a brief mention of Big Bone Lick, where people had been finding enormous bones for hundreds of years. By 1802, the bones had been associated with the mastodon, then being described and explained. Charles Willson Peale had uncovered most of a skeleton in New York in 1801. Some speculated that the beast still roamed unexplored territories in the western part of the continent. Dwight merely points out that “none of them are now to be seen.” It’s an early discussion of fossils in American works for children.

The fossils at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, are discussed more thoroughly in Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology, by Stanley Hedeen (Np: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008) and American Monster, by Paul Semonin (New York: New York University Press, 2000). My copy of the Geography is of the fifth Connecticut edition.

Extracts from A Short But Comprehensive System of the Geography of the World: By Way of Question and Answer. Principally Designed for Children and Common Schools, by Nathaniel Dwight. Fifth Connecticut edition. (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1802)

[p. iii]

PREFACE to the First Edition.

During an employment of several years in school-keeping, I observed that the science of Geography was but little attended to in the early years of childhood. There are various reasons for this inattention to so important a branch of education. One of these is the great expense of procuring books proper for it: another is, the plan of books which have been intended for that purpose is such as cannot be easily comprehended by children, or remembered by them. I think that both these objections are obviated in this treatise. The expense of this book is so small that it may be easily afforded, and the form of a catechism admits of its being much more comprehensive, and more easily understood by children, than any of the small geographies which have been heretofore designed for them. It will enable them usefully to improve many hours of their early years, which, for want of something of this kind, are entirely lost:—And should the first edition meet with suitable encouragement, the future editions will be enlarged and amended, as the author finds means and time for the purpose.

Hartford, May 12, 1795.

p. 184

Of the North-Western Territory.

Q. What is the situation of the North-Western Territory?

A. It lies between 37 and 50 degrees of north latitude, is nine hundred miles in length, and seven hundred in breadth.

Q. What is the general description of the North-Western Territory?

A. It includes all the lands belonging to the United States lying north-west of the river Ohio,* and is bounded on the north by the lakes of Canada; east by Pennsylvania; south by the Ohio; and west by the Missisippi [sic] river. It contains four hundred and eleven thousand square miles, and is watered by a number of the finest rivers in America. It is in a small part inhabited by emigrants from every part of the United States, and by some from France and Ireland. A great many tribes of hostile Indians are scattered over it. In this tract of country are wild beasts of every kind found in America in vast numbers. Deer, buffaloes, elks, wolves, bears, catamounts, beavers, &c[.] are found here as well as in all the states where the lands for a considerable extent are uninhabited. From the large teeth and bones which have been found in various parts of this territory, it is supposed that the Mammoth was formerly an inhabitant of the wilderness, but none of them are now to be seen. Salt springs, mines of coal, copper and lead, with limestone, free-stone, &c. have been found in several places.

* It was in 1800, by Congress, divided into two distinct governments, and the new government is denominated the “Indiana Territory.”

p. 186

Q. What curiosities are found in this territory?

A. Besides the big bones aforementioned there are various petrefactions found in or near the rivers, and some are evidently of marine production. In many parts of this territory are large mounds of earth; some of which are circular, and upon being opened are found to contain human bones; others are in the form of walls and fortifications. The trees which were standing on them when first discovered, some of which have been felled, are known to have been more than three hundred years old; and these are judged to be not the first growth of wood, upon the spot.

Q. Can any account be given of the origin of these works?

A. The natives have no tradition concerning them, and the conjectures of others are various, but not satisfactory.

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