Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Mayor and the Aurora Borealis

Image of Samuel W. Jones.
This blog entry was written by library volunteer Bob Emery.

The Schenectady County Historical Society owns the diary, 1821-1855, of Samuel W. Jones (1791-1855), mayor of Schenectady in 1837-1839.  Jones came from a prominent Long Island family, noted for its legal accomplishments (his uncle Samuel Jones, for instance, was Chancellor of the State of New York).  After graduation from Union College in 1810 and admission to the bar in 1813, Jones located in Schenectady.  He cemented his position in the community by his 1816 marriage to Maria Bowers Duane (1793-1858), granddaughter of James Duane, a member of the Continental Congress and mayor of New York City, locally best known as founder of Duanesburg and owner of a big chunk of the eastern Mohawk Valley.
Jones had a career of some minor distinction.  Prior to his service as mayor of Schenectady he overcame local “Dutch prejudice” to achieve election in 1833 as a city alderman, as well as appointment to the county Court of Common Pleas; after his mayoral term he was elected County Court judge and county Surrogate.  In addition, he was a longtime vestryman of St. George’s Church and a leader in such local civic projects as the Schenectady African School Society, founded in 1829 to educate Schenectady’s newly emancipated African-American residents.  Jones was, in short, a solid citizen of the superior sort.

Jones’s “diary” might better be described as a journal, containing random notes on things that interested him, including some information on the Jones and Duane families that might be of interest to genealogists.  These random notes ranged from criticisms, as an old alumnus, of the way Union undergraduates pronounced Greek to the derangement and dismissal of the Presbyterian Church’s minister, and everything in between.  One of Jones’s main interests, however, was transportation improvements.  In the 1820’s he was a devoted supporter of De Witt Clinton, particularly of Clinton’s efforts to promote the Erie Canal.  Throughout his diary, Jones was careful to note when the canal closed for the winter and opened in the spring, and any untoward events that affected its operation.  In his later years, he was involved in turnpike and railroad development.  Another of Jones’s major interests was politics.  After Clinton’s death, Jones moved into the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, becoming a strong follower of Martin van Buren and Andrew Jackson.  As early as the Compromise of 1820, he had expressed his suspicions concerning the expansionistic ambitions of the slave states; if he had lived long enough he may well have followed other van Buren Democrats (like B.F. Butler) into the Republican Party.

Weather for the week of December 21, 1840.
If there was any sign of the Aurora Borealis
in Schenectady, then Samuel Jones noticed it
and wrote about it in his journal.
Jones’s primary interest, though, seems to have been meteorology, and in particular the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.  The Aurora Borealis seems to have been much more visible in Jones’s time than it is now.  Like his contemporary Professor B. F. Joslin of Union College (whom Jones knew), Jones regarded the Northern Lights phenomenon more as a weather-based than as an astronomical event.  Hence, he carefully recorded meteorological data surrounding each appearance of the Aurora Borealis.  He devoted page after page of his diary to the Aurora, noting such things as extent and duration as well as careful descriptions to the shifting colors of each appearance.  If one is to judge by the attention Jones paid to the Aurora Borealis in his diary, it was his main interest, even surpassing politics.

"Last evening another more brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis. It concentrated in the zenith from all directions it was first seen in the South East and in the course of the evening presented every shade of colour from bright red to white-  sometimes it would hand from the zenith over the whole south part of the sky-  sometimes to the north and sometimes to every point-  it continued until late in the night as I heard-  it was brilliant at Eleven when I went to bed." - Entry from Samuel Jones Diary dated September 4th, 1839.

Jones’s diary is by no means a significant source for Schenectady history.  It is, however, a useful record of the interests of a prominent local citizen who might, not altogether unfairly, be described as an Aurora Borealis fanatic.

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