(all rights to this material retained by author)
A Review of the Historic Oil Wells
of the Little Spokane River Valley
Wally Lee Parker
… a laborious process of reasoning …
… a laborious process of reasoning …
Within area newspapers and advertisements, Professor Samuel Aughey was the most referenced expert of the 1901 oil boom. His influence on regional oil exploration and mining continued to resonate for years after that first boom had faded away. The eventual outcome of the majority of his scientific assessments seems to imply that he favored interpreting his findings in accordance with the wishes of his clients — be they land speculators or stock promoters. As to whether we should consider his frequently wrong conclusions as dithering mistakes or as profitable fraud, that’s not as clear a matter as one might suppose.
The first question that needs to be asked is whether Professor Aughey was actually a scientist? Had he been trained in the scientific method? And did he use the scientific method to reach his conclusions? Those are issues that require some sifting.
|Professor Samuel Aughey|
Samuel Aughey was born in a rural area of Juniata County, Pennsylvania, on February 8th, 1831. Accounts of his youth from several sources seem to differ only in minor detail. A. C. Edmunds’ 1871 tome “Pen Sketches of Nebraskans” stated, “Samuel Aughey (senior) … was a farmer by occupation, having been a tiller of the soil from early life to the present time. Young Samuel (Samuel Aughey junior) was engaged on his father’s farm until his majority … His eighteenth and nineteenth winters were devoted to teaching … in the same old log schoolhouse in which he had received his rudimentary knowledge of Smith’s Grammar and Arithmetic, and Olney’s Geography.” While an article found in Alfred T. Andreas’ “History of the State of Nebraska,” published in 1882, elaborated that, “Previous to … (college) … he … attended Tuscarora Academy six months and also taught school in his native district.”
Tuscarora Academy — opened in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, in 1839 — was a Presbyterian Church sponsored secondary school roughly equivalent to today’s high schools — high schools being a rarity in that era. Though the institution’s original intent was to prepare young men for teaching or the ministry, the Academy’s 1854 catalog states that, “Students who design entering college will be prepared for any state of advancement desired.”
Tuition for Aughey’s six months at the Academy would have likely run close to $50.00 — plus various extras such as books, paper, and the cost of illuminating his private study area.
As for Aughey’s education before the academy, Andrea’s “History” relates, “During his youth he was known as a constant reader of all books which he could borrow, Before he was aware of the existence of the science of geology he made large collections of fossils and Indian antiquities from his native valley. Every hour of release which he could obtain from the labors of the farm he devoted to reading and laborious study.”
Edmund’s “Pen Sketches of Nebraskans” noted, “At the age of twenty he entered the freshman class in the Pennsylvania College, at Gettysburg, where he continued until 1856 …” Though the phrase “he continued until 1856” is not definitive of graduation in itself, pre-Civil War issues of the “Catalogue of the Officers, Alumni, and Students of Pennsylvania College, Gettysburg, Pa,” do list “Reverend Samuel Aughey Jr.” as a member of the graduating class of 1856. What “he continued until” may be pointing out is an extra year beyond the normal 4 year curriculum.
Pennsylvania College should not be confused with the University of Pennsylvania — which is not to say less of the small college. Pennsylvania College was founded by outspoken abolitionist theologian Samuel S. Schmucker in 1832 as an associate institution to the Lutheran Theological Seminary established at Gettysburg in 1826. In 1921, some 89 years after its founding, the school’s name was changed to Gettysburg College, and continues as such today.
According to the school’s 1859 catalog, admission into the freshman class required “an examination on Cesar, Virgil, the Greek Reader, parts I and II, Adams’ Latin Grammar, Sophocles’ Greek Grammar, English Grammar, Ancient and Modern Geography, Arithmetic and algebra, as far as through simple equations” — these requirements likely having been the same when Aughey entered the institution at the beginning of that decade. Meaning this list of requirements is indicative of the depth of Aughey's education prior to his admission.
Classes offered during the normal four years of study included Latin and Greek grammar and literature, higher mathematics, surveying, optics, meteorology, botany, astronomy, geology, anatomy and physiology, and zoology — along with a continuing curriculum of religious, philosophical, and political studies.
Of the student organizations active at the college, the one most likely to have interested Samuel Aughey was the “Linnaean Society.” This group was named after Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who had developed the still used system of classifying life forms by attaching Latin based names of at least two parts — one part indicating the specimen’s genius and one indicating its species. Regarding the club, the school’s catalog related that “The object of this association is to promote among its members a love of nature, and an admiration of the works of God by cultivating the study of the various branches of Natural Science, and an acquaintance with animated nature by making collections of specimens in these departments, and also in that of Antiquities, natural and artificial curiosities, and the like.”
The school’s catalog went on to list costs. Annual tuition would run $140.00, which included board, room rent, and sundries such as heating and classroom lighting. Students were required to provide for themselves when it came to the furnishing and lighting their private rooms, washing (clothes?), books, and stationary.
None of the literature so far discovered suggests how Samuel Aughey paid for his time at either the Tuscarora Academy or Pennsylvania College.
Documents indicate that two years after graduation — on the 14th of October, 1858 — Samuel Aughey married Elizabeth Welty, daughter of Daniel and Barbara Welty. Barbara’s father was a merchant, and one of the organizers of the English Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania.
As for immediately after graduation, A. C. Edmunds’ “Pen Sketches” states, “… he devoted about two months to civil engineering and surveying, and in December, 1856, he took charge of the Greensburg Academy in which he continued for one year. He then entered the Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, where he pursued his theological studies for one year, when he was licensed as a preacher in the Lutheran Church and received a call to a charge near Philadelphia.”
Alfred Andreas detailed, “He was elected pastor of the Lutheran church at Lionville, Chester County, Pennsylvanian, where he remained four years. During this time he continued his scientific studies and also lectured on geology and related sciences. He at this time became somewhat prominent in the abolition movement, and publicly and privately denounced humans slavery and wrote and lectured against the pro-slavery sentient of the times. His pamphlet on “The Renovation of Politics” produced a division in his church, which finally led to his resignation.”
Regarding the above noted division within the Lionville church — the actual point of contention, though not specifically clarified, appears to have been a comment or comments first made from the pulpit on the 4th of January, 1861. By request, the sermon was published in booklet format several weeks after first given.
To place Aughey’s offending words within historical context, the sermon occurred barely two weeks after South Carolina had succeeded from the Union — when the likelihood of war was very much on everyone’s mind. Before the end of that January the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana had also voted to leave the Union. Opinions and emotions were boiling on both sides of the secessionist and slavery issues.
A few extractions from Aughey’s sermon may suggest the reason an apparently influential percentage of his parishioners, as well as others within the larger community, demanded his resignation.
“Many things, doubtless, have combined to produce the corruption, and the disunion movements in the Republic, but what is the foundation of it all is human slavery. … Even in 1774, the first colonial congress condemned slavery, and the slave trade, which action was confirmed by the southern colonies. And every southern statesman of the time condemned this dark institution. But alas, what a change has come over the times. … Let a man do it now; in the south he will be tarred and feathered or hung, and in the north he will be called an amalgamationist (advocating the blending of the races; especially black and white), an abolitionist, or whatever term is regarded most hateful and opprobrious (disgraceful/shameful). In our early history slavery was barely endured — now it is embraced in the south as one of the most prized gifts of God, and defended by many in the north … You and I are today bound by a congressional enactment to do all in our power to recapture a man running to gain his freedom. We may refuse, but if so we subject ourselves to confiscation of our property and imprisonment. … Only one nation on earth contains professed teachers of religion who pretend to find divine authority in the Bible for African slavery. That nation is our own. Some men in the north, be beclouded moral senses, or in the interest of party and prejudice, and vast numbers in the south, directly under the lash of slavery, teach that the scriptures justify human bondage. But the language, the precepts, and the principles of the Bible are against them, together with the convictions and the faith of the civilized and Christian world. … And yet some men, calling themselves Christians, raise their hands to heaven in holy horror at the very idea of preaching against and denouncing the Hell ordained institution. … Vessels bearing the American flag yearly carry thousands of human beings, torn from their relatives, home, and country into southern ports and sell the in irremediable slavery. And yet these would-be pious souls doubt whether it is wise and patriotic, and safe ministerial and evangelical, to speak against slavery as a system of iniquity.”
When assenting to the request to expand the reach of his words through print, Samuel Aughey wrote, “I am convinced of the truth and justice of the doctrines maintained in this discourse and believe that they will coincide with the verdict of posterity.”
Edmunds’ “Pen Sketches” relate that after Aughey’s resignation he “removed first to Blairsville, and then to Duncannon, with intervening periods spent in the army in the service of the Christian Commission.”
In November, 1861, an organization called the Christian Commission was formed by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) as a spiritual and medical support organization for Union troops in the field. Since a large number of the alumni of Pennsylvania College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary returned to Gettysburg during the early summer of 1863 in anticipation of an incursion into Pennsylvania by Lee’s Virginia army, it’s possible that Samuel Aughey was among the estimated 200 members of the Christian Commission on hand for the battle of Gettysburg, where they reportedly took to the field rendering comfort and medical aid to the wounded even during the thick of the fighting.
As reported in the August 20, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly, “There is no feature connected with the war which so well illustrates the peculiarity of Republican institutions as the work performed by the Christian and Sanitary Commissions. These are supported not by the government, but by the people. As our government is of the people so is this war the people’s war. And the people have taken it upon themselves to take care of the soldiers. This is a peculiarity which distinguishes the North from the South in the conduct of the war. It is on this account that the losses from sickness, and especially from wounds, have been so few in our army as compared with that of the rebels ... This service likewise has its sacrifices and its martyrs. Thousands of Christian men and women are giving up the pleasures of home, and it often happens that they give their lives also.”
After the war the Christian Commission was disbanded.
The Reverend W. H. Bruce Carney’s 1918 book, History of the Alleghany Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Pennsylvania, Volume I, in a biographical sketch accredited to Elizabeth and Helen Aughey, Professor Aughey’s wife and daughter, stated, “In the winter of 1864 (Samuel Aughey) removed to Dakota City, Nebraska, as pastor of the Lutheran Church. While here he also organized a congregation and built the church at Ponca, twenty miles distance. A serious failure in health necessitated cessation of pulpit work.”
Though no details of the nature of the above mentioned “serious failure in health” are evident, the account for the period after as recorded in Alfred Andreas’ “History of the State of Nebraska” suggests that Aughey’s health was not as diminished as the above account implies — since the “History” also noted that “for the first three years (of his stay in Nebraska) he was … also engaged in scientific work. Since 1867 he has been engaged exclusively in scientific work, was also engaged in making geological, mineralogical botanical and conchological collections in Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, for scientific institutions, principally for Professor Henry, of the Smithsonian institute. (He) was also engaged in making geological surveys in Nebraska and Dakota Territory. … He became connected with (Nebraska) State University in September, 1871, having been appointed in June of that year …”
The biography published in A. C. Edmunds’ “Pen Sketches of Nebraskans,” recorded, “It is a pleasure to announce the unanimous election of Samuel Aughey to the Professorship of Natural Science in the University of Nebraska. Mr. Aughey is a dear friend. We are glad to see his talent appreciated. Nature is all poetry to him. He studies her with enthusiasm and has the faulty to take in her great and holy meaning by a sort of intuition. We have rarely ever met a young or even an old man who has such a love for the Natural Sciences, or such intimate and rational acquaintance with them. And such are the men to teach.”
Aughey’s June, 1871, appointment made him one of a faculty of five lecturing to the seventy students attending that first year.
A speech Professor Aughey gave for the University’s February 15th, 1881, “Charter Day” celebration was later published under the title “The Ideas and the Men That Created the University of Nebraska.” In outlining the school’s founding, the professor said, “The (Nebraska) legislature that met in January, 1869, passed an act on the 15th of February … to establish a State University.” He went on to say that the school’s construction was to be financed through the sale of land grants provided by the federal government specifically for the purpose of building an “Agricultural College and University” within the state.
As Aughey explained, “When the bill establishing a University became law … the population was barely 100,000. Even the few high schools that existed could barely prepare students for the freshman class, and very few students anywhere were in such a stage of preparation. The state, too, was mainly settled by persons of comparatively small means, seeking homes for themselves and families. Little of the prairie had yet been brought under agricultural subjection. The state was rich prospectively, put really poor practically.”
The Professor recollected, “I shall never forget my first interview with (the school’s) Chancellor Benton. He wished me to select a room which would answer the double purpose of a lecture room and work room, where the experiments should be prepared to illustrate the chemical lectures; for it had already been decided that though my chair was that of the natural sciences, I should also fill that of chemistry until the growth of the university should justify the election of a tutor or a professor for that department.”
An article — Pioneers in Economic Ornithology — written by Mrs. H. J. Taylor and published by the Wilson Ornithological Society in September of 1931, relates the observations of one of Samuel Aughey’s first students, Lawrence Bruner — later Professor Lawrence Bruner – as regards the Professor’s teaching methods. Bruner said Aughey taught the natural sciences, “as well as botany, German, chemistry, and geology.” Bruner indicated that Professor Aughey had not left the ministry with his resignation from the pulpit in 1867, rather “he (also) continued to preach” while chair of “natural sciences.” He “had a church” in a nearby town, and would preach as a guest at “nearby congregations” as well.
Bruner’s quotes in the bird fancier’s magazine suggested Aughey was a hard worker with “a lovable personality,” though it was noted that while he appeared “sincere” in his scientific endeavors, he was engaged in so many activities that “scientific exactness could scarcely be expected.”
Drawn from the text of his 1881 speech, Aughey’s view of the scientific method seemed to leave some interpretive slack between experimental deductions and conclusions. He said, “the scientific spirit is not … mere(ly) (the) study of the sciences … Scientific methods are applicable to all studies — to literature and languages, as well as to metaphysics, political economy, natural history, and physics. The scientific spirit pre-eminently makes its inductions from facts — facts in nature, in consciousness, in language, in the life of a people, and the development of an epoch. It does not depend merely on facts which are tangible to the senses, but on those also which can be seen only with the mental eye. Leibnitz and Newton, Cuvier, Lyell, and Agassiz, were types of the former, while Plato, Shakespeare, and Emerson are representatives of the latter. Shakespeare saw things intuitively which others reached only by a laborious process of reasoning.”
Aughey continued at the university from 1871 until 1883 — when he left under a cloud of scandal. During that time he engaged in several fields of study for which he was widely praised. He also published a number of scientific papers on subjects he found interesting. Among those subjects were the grasshopper plagues periodically ravaging the Great Plains — a popular story of the time being that the insects were at times so numerous that the railroad engines would lose traction on the rails due to the lubricating effect of the myriad of grasshoppers being crushed beneath the drive wheels.
Aughey’s findings placed a strong emphasis on natural predation to curb the grasshopper plagues — as noted his 1880 book, “Sketches of the Physical Geography and Geology of Nebraska.” In that volume he wrote “It is a law of nature that the undue development of any animal is checked sooner or later by a like increase of its natural enemies. Were it not for that law, the slowest breeding species would soon overrun, to the exclusion of all other animals, its own special habitat.”
After noting the number of parasites that prey on locust and their eggs, Aughey states “among vertebrates, no animals equal the birds as destroyers of insects, and especially of locust. The numbers of locust which birds consume is simply incalculable. Many species in locust years live entirely on them and most do so partially. Often each bird of a species captures several hundred during each day. In fact, after many years’ study of this subject, and after dissecting more or less of several hundred species, I have been forced to the convention that even the gramnivorous (feeding on grass) birds cannot be excluded from the list of locust enemies … Many calling themselves cultivated regard it sport to maim and kill innocent birds. Such a course destroys the harmony of nature, and one of the consequences is the devastations (brought about by) insects.”
Aughey’s defense of birds brought him into high regard by preservationist groups such as the Wilson Ornithological Society — though again his scientific accuracy was sometimes questioned.
Aughey also became an unabashed promoter for the settlement of the new State of Nebraska — as were a number of others. Though his enthusiasm may have been largely civic in nature, the manner in which he phrased his scientific writings and public words leaves open the possibility of a somewhat less than altruistic motivation.
Before large scale settlement could occur, Nebraska and the other territories in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains needed to counter the historic assumption that the area was, as far as precipitation was concerned, marginal at best for traditional agriculture. Early explorers had defined the area as desert. And compared to the amounts of rainfall farmers further to the east were reliably accustomed to, that definition was not without merit. Since settlement was dependent on agriculture, and agriculture was dependent on water, development of the western Great Plains required a reversal of public opinion as to the suitability of the dry regions for any form of agriculture beyond cattle grazing.
During and after the Civil War the federal government was encouraging the railroads to push tracks across the continent as a means of cementing the two more populated parts of the country — the east and west coastal areas — together. As incentive, large block of land along the routes were being deeded to the railroad companies. The railroads and their agents would sell those lands to settlers to defray construction cost, and then sustain profitability by transporting any agricultural products produced by the settlers to market. They would also profit by providing transport services to the towns likely to sprout up along the railroad tracks, and by bringing the settlers manufactured goods such as those provided by up-and-coming catalog retailers — Aaron Montgomery Ward being one.
While land speculators — often assisted by corrupt or indifferent government officials — used various questionable or outright illegal methods to gain control of lands originally intended for free settlement through the Homestead Act, the railroads collaterally pursued their own best interest by instigating a massive promotional and highly deceptive advertising campaign specifically intended to induce potential setters from the eastern United States and Europe to buy railroad lands — though much of that land, like the land being opened to homesteading, was unsuitable for farming as then practiced.
To counter the land’s questionable suitability, Professor Aughey and associates provided a heavy dose of intuitive science. As to what extent the professor’s “scientific” opinions regarding Nebraska’s agricultural potential may have been an act of deliberate collusion with the dubious promotional efforts then ongoing is difficult to document — at least difficult to document from Aughey’s personal perspective. In 1931 Mrs. Helen Fulmer, Aughey’s daughter, sent a letter to the author of “Pioneers in Ornithology,” Mrs. H. J. Taylor, in which Fulmer stated that her “father’s library and records” related to his time in Nebraska “were all lost.” That resource being unavailable, we need to draw from various published materials and surmise as to what those words might tell us regarding Aughey’s motives. What the writings most certainly indicate is that throughout the 1870s and ‘80s Professor Aughey was the public face and foremost advocate of a dubious scientific hypothesis regarding the mechanics of precipitation — a hypothesis that may have been specifically designed to offer hope to persons contemplating farming the dry lands within the Rocky Mountain’s rain shadow. And that eventually the lack of due consideration brought on by accepting Aughey’s uniquely advantageous theory resulted in a flood of misery, heartache, and financial ruin for tens of thousands of the professor’s fellow citizens.
… to be continued ...