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|In 1807, a comet appeared in the Natchez night sky|
On Tuesday, March 1, 1808, Judge Thomas Rodney wrote a letter to his son -- U.S. Attorney General Ceasar Rodney -- with news of the sighting of a comet in the Natchez sky.
Rodney, a territorial judge who lived in the village of Washington near Natchez, had made several visits during the previous weeks to William Dunbar's plantation, The Forest, located south of Natchez. There, through Dunbar's telescope, the judge observed the comet in the night sky.
As early as 1806, Rodney had peered at the stars through Dunbar's Gregorian instrument which Dunbar had designed himself and had constructed in London in 1805. Dunbar was so happy with the telescope that he wrote President Thomas Jefferson about it. The two had begun a regular correspondence in 1799.
On Tuesday, Dec. 17, 1805, Dunbar wrote the President: "I have just received from London a six feet Gregorian reflecting telescope with six magnifying powers from 100 to 550 times." Dunbar said when duties were collected at Fort Adams prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, an exemption was provided for books and astronomical instruments, which were to be used for the public good in the Mississippi Territory. But now duties were being collected at New Orleans and the collectors there, Dunbar complained, were not so liberal minded.
On an early morning in February 1806, Dunbar and Judge Rodney viewed the moon, the north star and Venus. At 4:30 a.m. they viewed Saturn and Jupiter and after breakfast peered at the sun. After finding "no spots," they determined that a hot summer was on the way.
On April 5, 1800, while in Baton Rouge, Dunbar had watched a meteor (he called it "the phenomenon") race through the night sky. The chuck of rock was a big as a house -- maybe 80 feet long -- "wholly luminous," streaking from the southwest to the northeast in 15 seconds. Racing above the treetops, maybe 200 yards above the ground, Dunbar said after the meteor went out of sight he heard a "violent rushing noise" and seconds later heard a loud crash. He never reported whether the site of the crash was located.
The comet of 1807-08 was a big topic of conversation throughout the territory, some seeing it as sign of impending doom. But the scientist Dunbar and the curious Rodney found it to be a powerful experience. People throughout Natchez country beat a path to the Forest to look through Dunbar's telescope.
"The comet...made its appearance above the western horizon here in the evening about the 20th of September and was first observed by Mr. (Seth) Pease (the Surveyor General)...," the judge told Ceasar.
Dunbar said Pease was "an excellent astronomer." Pease made nightly observations of the comet and every so often noted the comet's position. As an example, from Sept. 22-25, 1807, as Pease watched the comet, he made notations of its location, such as "comet north of Saturn," or "north of Mars."
Pease and Dunbar, said Rodney, found the comet's course to be "from S.W. to N.E. Their observations commenced while it was on the leg of the Virgin a little below her robe, and in its course passed over the bright Star Lyra in the Harp. I went several times to view this phenomena through Mr. Dunbar's glasses, which are the best we have in this part of the country. Indeed, they are excellent."
This was a time when many Americans were familiar with the night sky. Many a Natchez country couple took a walk through a meadow or along a river bank after twilight and gazed into the expanse of the night sky.
Families sat on porches at night and viewed the spectacle of the universe. They knew the constellations and where the stars would be located at particular times of the night and during the different seasons.
But Dunbar and Pease, scientists and astronomers, fully understood the scientific significance of witnessing a comet in their lifetimes.
Rodney thought comets were "no doubt planets belonging to the Solar System, moving in more distant and more elliptical, or more eccentric, orbits than the other known planets in our system..." His thoughts became even stranger, but few knew what a comet was in those days.
Rodney thought that when a comet approached the sun that its atmosphere could handle a certain amount of heat and that the heat "gradually retires behind the body...and forms what we call the tail."
By this means, he thought the tail moderated the temperature of the comet's body making it "comfortable to the 'inhabitants' that occupy it." Rodney thought his idea was ahead of his time. One day, he said, astronomers will better understand "the propriety of what I have here suggested..."
COMPLAINTS ABOUT THE MAIL
When not writing his son, Ceasar, about the comet, Judge Rodney wrote about other Natchez country happenings. In November of 1807, Rodney was mad at the post office.
"I write frequently," he wrote, "but whether my letters reach you or not I cannot tell because I have not heard from you for a long time."
Rodney said that a man named Winston, who was brother-in-law to Gov. Robert Williams, had been named postmaster but seemed indifferent to his duties and some suspected him of "mismanagement."
The judge said after letters arrived at the post office that Winston would sometimes take one to two weeks before giving them to the recipient. Rodney said one letter "was lately noticed from Mr. Branhem to have the seal broken before sent away." (A letter in those days was folded sheet of paper sealed with hot wax with the address written on the back.)
"I do not know what occasions this alteration of conduct for Winston used to be very attentive," said the judge.
Rodney then complained that he wasn't receiving his newspaper: "I wrote...a long time ago to direct it to this town or not send it at all. I get only one in three or four weeks so that it is useless."
By November 25, the mail had begun to arrive on a more timely basis.
He wrote his son he had gotten "the mail this morning. I was very glad on receiving it for I had not heard from you so long that I began to be anxious and apprehensive something was the matter, therefore was rejoiced to find you and family were well..."
Rodney also wrote that he was enjoying "good health," that the Supreme Court was in session, and Judge Peter Bryan Bruin, who was suffering from alcoholism like so many in Natchez country, was not able to attend court. Bruin was "confined" at home "with sore eyes."
On Jan. 27, 1808, Rodney learned that his son Ceasar had injured his hip.
"You did not say how it happened but as it is a dangerous joint to get injured you ought to be very careful how you use it till it gets restored..."
COACH FOR SALE; BRUIN RESIGNS
He wrote in 1808 that his friend, Col. John Ellis, had died during the autumn and that his widow was considering whether to purchase a coach from Rodney.
The judge thought "it probable she would take the carriage. If there was any market for cotton (for they have two crops now on hand.)"
As he was writing the letter he was visited by Mrs. Ellis, who was on her way to Woodlawn on her Buffalo River plantation.
"She will inform me on her return whether she will take the coach or not, but inclines to take it if she can sell her cotton so as to enable her to make the necessary remittance."
He added that Judge Bruin had decided to resign from office and that a message to that effect had arrived in the territorial capital of Washington.
"The vacancy will be filled next March," said Rodney, adding that it "will be material to me that a successor to Bruin should be here by the fourth Monday in May because I have a strong desire to visit my native state (Delaware) next April..."
George Poindexter, who served as Attorney General for the territory, had put out the word that he wanted Bruin's post. Rodney favored Poindexter, noting that he was "warm" to him. But Poindexter was volatile and had as many enemies as friends, a fact pointed out by Rodney when he noted that Poindexter could be a "very sincere friend to those he likes..."
HIGH WATER; LOTS OF BOATS
Before signing off on this letter in the spring of 1808, Rodney told Ceasar that the Mississippi was "usually high at this time" and because of that "an uncommon number of Kentucky boats" were docked at Natchez.
The produce was "very cheap."
Flour was selling for $5, corn for 75 cents and bacon $8 dollar per hundred. He said a "vast supply of other articles equally cheap and many cheaper" were available.
There were so many flatboats and ships at Natchez, said Rodney, that every tributary and creek near the Mississippi was filled with boats.
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