The forerunner

COMMERCE sat and scanned the horizon for the vessel bringing William A. Whitehead from the north. A few weeks from his arrival on Key West, he would be pressed into its service. Commerce had only a tenuous foothold on this remote, imperfectly charted island which still pinned its fortunes on misfortune, still relied for life on the salvage of ships wrecked on the fateful reef. With the newfound freedom of its infant mercantile community came a hope that commerce on Key West would find an enduring home.

More plainly put, the island’s owners, having made great strides in defeating rival claimants, had done little to stake their own claims or determine what belonged to each. We can probably never know precisely where, when or by what process William A. Whitehead, at just 18 years of age, got the crucial assignment to survey Key West. He was the youngest son of a proprietor who, with great reluctance, released him from Perth Amboy and the routines of its bank to venture to the very limits of the republic. It was not much of a qualification. Enthusiasm for the task must have overcome any doubts about the young man’s previous experience of land measurement which, by his own accounting, came to very little.1

Whitehead was not the first to traverse the island or a part of it with compass and chain–a nebulous figure named H. L. Barnum preceded him, possibly by a matter of only a few weeks. Barnum had a hand in many pots: his other vocations included engineering, publishing and teaching stenography. He sometimes assumed the title of Captain or Professor, and to a later age he seems to have combined a gift for self-promotion with a knack for the slightly fraudulent. One of his first productions was ironically titled An authentic key to the art of short-hand writing: issued in Baltimore in 1824, it copied almost line by line the guide of an older, more established authority, by then in its fourth edition.2

Barnum’s City Hotel in Baltimore, where in 1827 H. L. Barnum exhibited a new surveying device he called the Mensurator.

At a hotel in the same city in 1827, Barnum the “Professor of Topography” demonstrated “a very ingenious and accurate machine” with the improbable claim that it could measure a road or property line in one-fifth the usual time and at the same fraction of cost.3 In the same year he mapped shipping channels for the city of Washington, gave advice on construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and plotted proposed highways between New York City and Albany, two at the behest of the Post Office, a third perhaps under contract with the Army, but more likely in the hope of one.4 His greatest notoriety came in 1828 with The Spy Unmasked, a memoir founded on the recollections of Enoch Crosby “taken from his own lips, in short-hand.” James Fenimore Cooper insisted Crosby was not the real-life protagonist of his Revolutionary War novel The Spy, but to no avail: with Barnum’s compilation, many times reprinted, Crosby’s fame and that of The Spy were permanently joined.5

August of the year in which Barnum “unmasked” Cooper’s Spy saw him take ship–and a generous advance of $700–to do surveying work on Key West. The contract most likely came from the Navy Department, to which Barnum reported how favorably the “appearance, climate and health” of the harbor and surrounding town impressed him. He aimed for a civilian position with the Navy and even a coveted spot on its exploring expedition to the South Seas, but these hopes never materialized.6 The 1830s found him in Cincinnati as a busy publisher and bookseller and occasional maker of maps.7

Detail of H. L. Barnum’s 1825 map of Middletown, Connecticut.

We’re left to guess at Barnum’s approach to the Key West survey, since no trace of his map has come to light. If it resembled his earlier, pictorial view of Middletown, Connecticut–houses and ships laid flat on the page, with more than a hint of anachronism–it cannot have met the needs of the island’s proprietors. Whitehead found it “a very crude affair,” unsubstantiated by measurements and not to be depended on. But by referring to him only as “a connection of the showman of that name” Whitehead passed a more severe judgment on Barnum and his “map, so-called,” than any explicit criticism could.8

Whitehead would not set out to right Barnum’s wrongs, but to ensure that they passed into oblivion. In that aim he couldn’t have been more successful. In property descriptions on Key West, the lines he drew and the maps he produced in February 1829 retain their authority to this day. Whitehead was not, however, the most earnest acolyte of commerce: his labors earned him just a little more than half what was paid to H. L. Barnum.9

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “I set about the task with some misgivings,” Whitehead would recall, “but my want of experience made me more careful and exact probably than a more competent surveyor would have been.” “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 24 of the transcription contains the reference.

[2] Eighty years after this work appeared it was compared with–and judged “a seemingly absolute plagiarism” of–The analytic guide, and authentic key to the art of short hand writing by Marcus Tullius Cicero Gould. In fact, Gould seems to have had this “premeditated ‘steal’” in mind when railing against authors of “plagiarisms, and perversions of a subject, which neither their reading, nor experience, had qualified them to comprehend.” Still, a stereotype reprint properly ascribed to Gould and issued by Barnum’s Cincinnati publishing house in 1832 indicates a settlement of differences between them. Charles Currier Beale, “Marcus T. C. Gould–Stenographer and man of genius,” The phonographic magazine and national shorthand reporter 18:5 (May 1904) (143-155) 148; reprinted as Marcus T. C. Gould, stenographer (Cincinnati 1904) 18, 20.

[3] A complimentary newspaper piece acclaimed the Mensurator as “destined to confer lasting honor upon its inventor, no less than to elevate the scientific character of the country.” It concluded: “We have heard that it has already undergone the scrutiny and test of the engineer [sic] department of the general government, and that several instruments have been since ordered for the use of that department.” American & Commercial daily advertiser (Baltimore, Md.) 5 May 1827 2:1. Cf. ibid. 11 April 1827 2:2.

[4] National Journal 17 May 1827 4:1; Letter from H. L. Barnum to Alden Partridge, 21 April 1827, Alden Partridge Records, Correspondence, 1827, Norwich University Archives, Kreitzberg Library, Northfield, VT; New-York Advertiser 10 July 1827 2:2; Schenectady Cabinet 8 August 1827 3:3 and 10 October 1827 2:4; Albany Argus & City Gazette 23 October 1827 3:4; New-York American 31 December 1827 2:5; American state papers. Documents, legislative and executive, of the Congress of the United States…. Post office department (Washington 1834) 306.

[5] See Tristram Potter Coffin, Uncertain glory. Folklore and the American Revolution (Detroit 1971) 157-164; Lance Schachterle, “Cooper revises the first great American novel,” presented at the Cooper panel of the 1990 Conference of the American Literature Association (Web).

[6] Of Barnum’s commission J. N. Reynolds confided in the Navy Secretary that the sum he received was “a compliment to him, as others offered to do the same, for half the amount,” saying of Barnum’s ambition to go to the South Seas, “He, with many others will die if they don’t join the expedition.” Reynolds to Samuel L. Southard 1 August 1828. Reynolds wrote about Barnum again in October, recommending him as a draftsman and surveyor for the exploring expedition. Reynolds to Southard 11 October 1828. Barnum’s brief report from Key West came in a letter to the Navy Secretary dated 11 September 1828. All three letters are found in the Samuel L. Southard Papers, Box 31, Folder 9, Box 31, Folder 10 and Box 29, Folder 3 respectively, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. For the cancellation of the exploring expedition see Michael Birkner, Samuel L. Southard. Jeffersonian Whig (Rutherford, N.J. etc. 1984) 111-112. Barnum also applied for a job carrying dispatches for the State Department; Barnum to Henry Clay, 30 May 1828, Letters of application and recommendation during the administration of John Quincy Adams, 1825-1829, National Archives Microfilm Publication M531.

[7] In Cincinnati Barnum published, on his own and in partnership with H. S. Barnum, a variety of farm journals, manuals and primers from 1830 on; H. L. and H. S. Barnum are identified in the 1831 city directory as magazine publishers and “commission merchants,” and as booksellers in 1834. Barnum’s accomplishments included maps of Cincinnati (1831) and Jeffersonville, Indiana (1837), patents for a “flax and hemp machine” (1829, with M. Stephenson of Cambridge, N.Y.) and a “light and heat” generator (1836), and a pamphlet of recommendations for a railroad between Jeffersonville and Indianapolis (1837).

[8] Did H. L. Barnum share more than a surname with the creator of The Greatest Show on Earth? His Connecticut associations argue strongly for kinship, though in what relation he stood to the showman is uncertain. He published a map of Bridgeport in 1824, well before that town would feel the younger Barnum’s imprint, and he can perhaps be identified with a Horatio L. Barnum who joined the Congregational church in Middletown in 1825. Cf. Connecticut church records. Middletown 1668-1871. A-1 (Hartford 1939) 54. H. L. Barnum’s links to Baltimore likely explain the death notice appearing in that city’s papers for Captain Horace L. Barnum, who succumbed on 20 August 1837 to “a pulmonary affection.” The Baltimore Gazette and Daily advertiser 9 September 1837 2:7; American & Commercial daily advertiser 11 September 1837 2:4.

[9] “For the work I received $400, but how much of that sum I gave to my assistant I do not remember.” “Childhood and Youth,” 24.

Images: Barnum’s City Hotel, Lithograph, E. Sachse & Co., Item H119, Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society; Map of the city of Middletown surveyed & delineated by H. L. Barnum, topographer, Connecticut Digital Archive

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