When I study history, I am often amazed to discover the plain truth about so many people and places we think we know about, only to find what we have learned is often wrong, or spun into some propaganda ploy. I am a historian. I have a minor degree in History, and have read and studied history since I was a boy of 7! I used to read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun! Once in a while, I learn about some little known fact or person that has actually had a great deal in how we live today, yet we have no idea about.
Today, I came across Matthew Fontaine Maury (January 14, 1806 – February 1, 1873), United States Navy, was an American astronomer, historian, oceanographer, meteorologist, cartographer, author, geologist, and educator. Bet you never heard of him, I know I didn't… But here is the rest of HIS STORY and what it means to you. Matthew Fontaine Maury's grandfather (the Reverend James Maury) was an inspiring teacher to a future U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson.
Maury was born in 1806 near the City of Fredericksburg; and moved to Tennessee when he was five years old. His older brother, Flag Lieutenant John Minor Maury, caught yellow fever and died. As a result of his brother's death, Maury's father, forbade him from joining the Navy. He didn't listen and joined the Navy as a midshipman on board the frigate Brandywine which was carrying the Marquis de La Fayette home to France following the Marquis' famous visit to the United States. Maury began to study the seas and record methods of navigation. One of the experiences that piqued this interest was when he circumnavigated the globe on the USS Vincennes, the first US warship to travel around the world.
Matthew loved the sea, but this love would soon come to an abrupt end at the age of 33 after a stagecoach accident broke his right leg. He would walk with a severe limp for the rest of his life. He was assigned desk duty and should have been left to the pages of history as another in a long line of unknown characters who never accomplished much.
However Matthew Maury believed in his God and would not give up! He devoted his time to the study of naval meteorology, navigation, charting the winds and currents, seeking the "Paths of the Seas" mentioned in Psalms 8:8 "The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas." Maury had known of the Psalms of David since childhood. In "A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury; compiled by his daughter, Diana Fontaine Maury Corbin (1888)" she states on pages 7–8, "Matthew's father was very exact in the religious training of his family, now numbering five sons and four daughters, viz., John Minor, Mary, Walker, Matilda, Betsy, Richard Launcelot, Matthew Fontaine, Catherine, and Charles. He would assemble them night and morning to read the Psalter for the day, verse and verse about; and in this way, so familiar did this barefooted boy [M. F. Maury] become with the Psalms of David, that in after life he could cite a quotation, and give chapter and verse, as if he had the Bible open before him. His Bible is depicted on his monument beside his left leg.
As incredible as it may be to you and me, up until the late 1800's the best seaman in the world DID NOT KNOW that the seas had constant pathways, that never changed, and one could calculate where a ship would be by sea currents, if they had the data! Maury soon started charting this data. He began measuring and charting all sea currents and wind pathways and making records of them.
Like most people ahead of their time, Maury was ridiculed by the establishment. His idea of constant and predictable wind directions and sea currents were scoffed at, but when a ship went missing, and nobody knew where to look for it, Maury asked where was it when last seen, and what day was that sighting. He was told and he looked at his charts and boldly proclaimed that the ship was on the “X” he placed on a map. Although not believed, rescuers followed his map anyway, only to discover that the ship was broken down helpless, with a full crew EXACTLY where Maury had placed the X on his map!
His hard work on and love of plotting the oceans paid off when he became the first superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory in 1842, holding that position until his resignation in April 1861. The observatory's primary mission was to care for the U.S. Navy's marine chronometers, charts, and other navigational equipment. Maury was in fact one of the principal advocates for the founding of a national observatory, and appealed to science enthusiast and former U.S. President, Congressman John Quincy Adams for the creation of what would eventually become the Naval Observatory. Maury did on occasion host Congressman Adams, who enjoyed astronomy as an avocation, at the Naval Observatory. Concerned that Maury always had a long trek to and from his home on upper Pennsylvania Avenue, Adams introduced an appropriations bill that funded a Superintendent's House on the Observatory grounds (a large mansion was built on the site in the 1890s for the Chief of Naval Operations which as Number One Observatory Circle has now been converted into the official residence of the Vice-President of the United States). Thus, Adams now felt no constraints in regularly stopping by for a look through the facility's telescope.
As a sailor, Maury noted that there were numerous lessons that had been learned by ship-masters about the effects of adverse winds and drift currents on the path of a ship. The captains recorded these lessons faithfully in their logbooks, but they were then forgotten. At the Observatory, Maury uncovered an enormous collection of thousands of old ships' logs and charts in storage in trunks dating back to the start of the United States Navy. Maury pored over these documents to collect information on winds, calms, and currents for all seas in all seasons. His dream was to put this information in the hands of all captains.
Maury also used the old ships' logs to chart the migration of whales. Whalers at the time went to sea, sometimes for years, without knowing that whales migrate and that their paths could be charted.
Maury's work on ocean currents led him to advocate his theory of the Northwest Passage, as well as the hypothesis that an area in the ocean near the North Pole is occasionally free of ice. The reasoning behind this was sound. Logs of old whaler ships indicated the designs and markings of harpoons. Harpoons found in captured whales in the Atlantic had been shot by ships in the Pacific and vice versa, and this occurred with a frequency that would have been impossible had the whales traveled around Cape Horn.
Maury, knowing a whale to be a mammal, theorized that a northern passage between the oceans that was free of ice must exist to enable the whales to surface and breathe. This became a popular idea that inspired many explorers to seek a reliably navigable sea route. Many of those explorers died in their search.
Lieutenant Maury published his Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic, which showed sailors how to use the ocean's currents and winds to their advantage and drastically reduced the length of ocean voyages; his Sailing Directions and Physical Geography of the Seas and Its Meteorology remain standard. Maury's uniform system of recording synoptic oceanographic data was adopted by navies and merchant marines around the world and was used to develop charts for all the major trade routes.
Today, his work is used by all seafarers and thousands of lives have been saved because of this man, who you probably never heard of. Yet, his story doesn't end there! Maury was a Virginian and opposed to slavery but, at the outbreak of the Civil War, joined the Confederacy and became a diplomat to Europe.
After the war, while most southerners were pardoned, a stipulation that no “foreign spy” could be pardoned kept Maury a “war criminal” and not allowed back to his beloved America. He was truly a man without a country.
After time, Robert E Lee saw to it that Maury's charges would be dropped, and Matthew returned back to his beloved Virginia
accepted a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute (V.M.I.), holding the chair of physics.
Maury advocated the creation of an agricultural college to complement VMI. This led to the establishment of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia in 1872. Maury declined the offer to become its first president partly because of his age. He had previously been suggested as president of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1848 by Benjamin Blake Minor in his publication the Southern Literary Messenger. Maury considered becoming president of St. John's College in Annapolis Maryland, the University of Alabama, and the University of Tennessee. It appears that he preferred being close to General Robert E. Lee in Lexington from statements Maury made in letters. Maury served as a pall bearer for General Lee.
During his time at VMI, Maury wrote a book entitled The Physical Geography of Virginia. He had once been a gold mining superintendent outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and had studied geology intensely during that time, so was well equipped to write such a book. During the Civil War, more battles took place in Virginia than any other state (Tennessee was second), and Maury's aim was to assist war-torn Virginia in discovering and extracting minerals, improving farming and whatever else could assist her to rebuild after such destruction.
After decades of national and international hard work averaging 14 hours per day, Maury received fame and honors, including being knighted by several nations and given medals with precious gems, as well as a collection of all medals struck by Pope Pius IX during his pontificate, a book dedication and more from Father Angelo Secchi, who was a student of Maury from 1848–1849 in the U.S. Naval Observatory. The two remained lifelong friends.
Ships have been named in his honor, including three United States Navy ships named USS Maury. A fourth U.S. Navy ship named in his honor was the USS Commodore Maury (SP-656), patrol vessel and mine sweeper. of World War I. A World War II Liberty Ship was also named in his honor. Additionally, Tidewater Community College, based in Norfolk Virginia, owns the R/V Matthew F. Maury. This ship is used for Oceanography research and student cruises. In March, 2013, in Maury's honor, the U.S. Navy launched the USNS Maury in Mississippi. The Maury is designed to be an oceanographic survey ship for the Navy.
Portrait of Matthew Fontaine Maury by Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer
Lake Maury in Newport News, Virginia is named after Maury. The lake is located on the Mariners' Museum property and is encircled by a walking trail. The Maury River, located entirely in Rockbridge County, Virginia, near Virginia Military Institute (where Maury was on faculty), also honors the scientist, as does a Maury crater on the Moon.
Additionally, a high school in Norfolk, VA is named for Maury, and has been ranked in the top 1000 high schools in the country, and the highest in the city, by Newsweek. Matthew Fontaine Maury High School is located in Norfolk Public Schools which was named the Best Urban School District last year. Maury County, TN is named for his great-uncle.
Also, Maury Elementary School, in Alexandria, VA was named for Matthew Maury. Maury Elementary was built in 1926.
[University of Virginia has a Maury Hall named for Matthew Fontaine Maury. It houses the Naval ROTC (Reserve Officer Training corps]
James Madison University has a Maury Hall named in honor of Matthew Fontaine Maury. This was the university's first academic and administrative building.
Dan Graves listed Matthew Maury among his 48 great Scientists of Faith on grounds that: Maury lived by the Scriptures; he fully and unconditionally believed in what the Holy Scriptures stated; he hardly ever spoke or wrote without the inclusion of scriptural references; he prayed every day.
Today little is known of the man who charted the seas and made safe the lives of hundreds of thousands of seaman. A man who realized that the Bible held the answers that mankind did not know, and used a phrase in the Bible to establish a life's long work of charting the seas and taming the oceans!