W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

Brief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. online

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fessional men; while the eldest sister, Anna Maria (Mrs. A. M.
Weeks) has extremely varied talent. The other living sister,
Missouri Virginia (Mrs. S. T. Weeks) has the domestic taste of
her mother and has raised a family of nine children. Robert E.
Lee See is a farmer and land surveyor; while S. C. See is one of
the best and most prosperous farmers in Montgomery County.
The little sister Lucy Elizabeth, who died in childhood, was very
talented, and already showed a remarkable sense for music.

As a further account of Professor See's brothers it may be

1. That the eldest, Millard Filmore, is a great reader of
scientific literature, having made a careful study of such celebrated
philosophers as Darwin, Spencer, Haeckel, Huxley, John Stuart
Mill; and of late years has given much attention to astronomy
and cosmogony, along the lines marked out in Professor See's
' ' Researches. ' ' His mind is noted for its scientific turn, and he has
practical talent as a builder, and inventor of mechanical appli-
ances. Moreover he is well read in law and public administration.
His son, Russell See, is a distinguished graduate of the Missouri
University, and now a civil engineer in the U.S. Reclamation Service-

* Originally named in honor of the famous Confederate General Stonewall
Jackson, but as the name Jonathan in the General's name did not seem the most
suitable, it was replaced by Jefferson and the new name then considered as repre-
senting three celebrated men: Thomas in honor of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson,
in honor of Jefferson Davis and Jackson in honor of Stonewall Jackson. Professor
Newcomb once remarked to Professor See in Washington that his father must
have been a great admirer of American history to have given him such a distin-
guished name.


2. The intellectual tastes of George W. See are about equally
pronounced. He made a good record at the Missouri State Uni-
versity, including a year in the Law School; and has been quite
active in public affairs. In 1898 he represented Montgomery
County in the State Legislature, and served on important com-
mittees. He has long been a warm friend and trusted adviser of
Speaker Champ Clark; and in 1912 was designated by the State
Central Committee a Presidential Elector at Large on the Demo-
cratic Ticket, to fill a vacancy, but did not serve, owing to subse-
quent ruling of the State Supreme Court sustaining the claims of
the first nominee, whose legal right to act as Elector was in doubt.

3. The youngest brother, E. E. See, was a promising student
at the Missouri State University, and made notable progress in
biology, under the celebrated Dr. Howard Ayers; and his subse-
quent studies have included geology, astronomy and cosmogony.
All of Professor See's brothers take a deep interest in his dis-
coveries, and Edward also has artistic talent.

Missouri Virginia's husband, Judge S. T. Weeks, was a man
of high standing and liberal attainments. He was elected county
Judge of Callaway County, and afterwards State Senator; and
aided in important legislation looking to the betterment of the
State. The offices which he held came to him quite unsought.
While Senator he was a trusted advisor of Governor Francis, whose
administration is reckoned among the best in the history of

Before dismissing the subject, it may be remarked that Pro-
fessor See's Uncle, Jacob See, was in his time also a leading citizen
of Montgomery County. He was elected sheriff, and afterwards
represented the county in the Legislature, during the session of
1876-7. But his greatest fame was won as a raiser of fine stock.
The celebrated ox, " Stonewall Jackson," weighed 4,300 pounds,
and was by far the largest animal of the kind in the world. This
mammoth ox was exhibited in many cities of the Union, and
finally taken to the Centennial at Philadelphia, where it was
crippled and died.


Jacob See's son, Randolph E., was twice elected sheriff of
Montgomery County, and later was appointed marshal of the
Supreme Court at Jefferson City. Under Governor Folk, Rand-
dolph See became chief assistant warden of the Penitentiary,
where he rendered such eminent services, on the occasion of an
outbreak of the prisoners, that his widow was voted the sum of
$2,000. by the Legislature, in recognition of bravery which
shortened his life, owing to the extreme exertions then made in
the discharge of his duties to the State. His death soon after this
heroic conduct was viewed as a public calamity.

From these indications it will be seen that the prominence
attained by the See family in Virginia was not temporary, but
has been much increased in Missouri during successive generations,
and in several branches.

Returning now to the subject of this biography we notice
that Professor See was born at the "Prairie Place," a large farm of
some six hundred acres, three miles northwest of Montgomery City,
Mo., Feb. 19, 1866. This was just after the close of the Civil War,
and when the terrible days of test oaths and reconstruction were
coming on. During that fearful conflict, Noah See was an outspoken
Southern sympathizer, and was persecuted accordingly. \ He had
owned two or three slaves before the war broke out, but they were well
treated and remained faithful to their old master during these terri-
ble times, and continued to live near him after the close of the war.

Having a growing family of small children, Noah See could
not well leave them when the country was so overrun with maraud-
ers, who carried away live stock and provisions and pretty much
everything in sight, and often burned houses and towns, and com-
mitted many cold blooded murders. Thus Mr. Hamp Logan, an
innocent and unoffending young man, was killed by licentious
and drunken soldiers within a mile of Noah See's home. By these
depredations Mr. See lost property during the war worth at least
sixteen hundred dollars.

Much of the time he had to keep in hiding, to come to his
family in time of need, and to provide for the devoted wife and


children. For two or three years, at times of greatest danger,
he camped in the creek bottoms, often sleeping in caves, or in
ravines or hollows, with nothing but a low canvas over his head
as a shelter against the wind and snow.

First one set of raiders would come, and then another. On
two or three occasions he narrowly escaped capture at the hands
of desperate and drunken soldiery. Finally he was captured unex-
pectedly, and detained as military prisoner in Danville, where
he worked as carpenter, building the block house which was used
as a fort by the Federal troops. He always had good friends
among the Union sympathizers, and they secured his safety. After
some months he escaped and ran away, while the guard was inat-
tentive, but was again apprehended, though not long detained;
and he was then allowed to remain at liberty, as one of the inof-
fending Southerners.]

Noah See had in fact never taken any part in the war, and
was persecuted by a few envious individuals of the community
just because he was prosperous and well-to-do. Those who were
trifling and penniless made the war a pretext to spy on their pros-
perous neighbors, and aid in parceling out their property. It was
just such lawlessness as this that ruined the Federal cause in
the eyes of the best citizens of Montgomery County. The town
of Danville lost standing in this way, and after it was burned
during the war never recovered. As a law-abiding and peaceful
citizen, persecuted and thus compelled to camp out during the
war, much like Daniel Boone, in his conflicts with the Indians,
Noah See has related that he used to lie awake at night, with
nothing but the stars overhead, and wonder if there could be a
God governing the world, who would permit the triumph of such
injustice and wickedness. Few men ever went through a more
trying experience than the future father of the famous astrono-
mer, who was destined to be born a year after the close of the

It is worth recording in this connection, thatj Mrs. Noah See,
while her husband was in seclusion, or detained under military


guard in Danville, was under the necessity of managing the farm
as well as the household, and with very little help. A part of
the time her younger brother, John T. Sailor, then a boy of twelve
or fourteen, helped her about the place, and around the house.
But oftentimes the militia would come at night in their search
for firearms, and stay so long, by the comfortable fire, that they
would burn up all the wood in the house, and leave none for use
next morning.

They stole and carried away flour, bacon, lard, sugar, coffee,
live stock, hay, cattle, sheep and hogs, as well as horses and mules.
On one occasion they tried to kill one of the only yoke of oxen on
the place, wanting to shoot the ox while yoked to the feed wagon.
But Mrs. See was brave as a lion, and emphatically ordered them
off the place, using very strong language in laying down the law.
As she got between their guns and the ox, and simply would not
yield, they finally desisted, and went elsewhere for beef.

During several of the winters of the war the snow was very
deep, and the cold intense; yet Mrs. See herself had to yoke the
oxen and attend to the feeding, besides^aring for a family of five
children, several of them quite small./ If ever a woman deserved
a place in Missouri history it is Mrs. Mary A. See, the mother of
the great astronomer. No heroine of the American Revolution
ever went through more trying experiences than this noble and
good woman. ,

It was from such sturdy stock, tested in the crucible of bitter
experience during the war, that the future illustrious scientist
was to be born. And strange to say, he first saw the light on the
birthday of Copernicus (1473-1543), the founder of modern as-
tronomy, Feb. 19, 1866. This date of birth might be an accident,
but the believers in astrology will find in the career of Professor
See and his revolutionary work in astronomy so much to remind
them of his great predecessor, as to cause many to think that after
all our destinies are shaped by the stars under which we are born.

As a baby, the future astronomer was large and vigorous,
weighing nearly ten pounds. He suffered from no important ill-


i ness in childhood, except a croupy tendency, which however was
relieved without much difficulty. He was a quiet child, but
bright and inquisitive as soon as he developed to the talking age.
As soon as he could walk about the house, he was fond of following^
his mother around, and asking all kinds of questions, such as why
do you do this, and why that, etc.

It is authenticated that when not more than two years of age,
he would count the leaves on the trees, and the wild geese flying
in flocks overhead; and cry out: "Geese, geese! how many?
A hundred, or a thousand?" This showed a mind for number-
ing all things; and naturally it extended to the stars lighting
up the sky at night. They too had to be counted before the
little boy closed his eyes in sleep. Nor was the Moon, as the
chief ornament of the nocturnal sky, overlooked. On the con-
trary, it was his special pet, and he used to debate whether it
could not be brought down to the earth, like a plate on the

The little boy of three never dreamed in this happy childhood
that some day he was to be the one astronomer who could en-
lighten the world regarding the origin of the Moon. Yet all these
tendencies in childhood marked the boy as a born investigator,
and his questions ran all the way from who made the Sun, Moon
and Stars, to who made God. Even in childhood he was every
inch a natural philosopher.]

On August 7, 1869, a"total eclipse of the Sun took place, the
path of totality passing over Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky and North
Carolina. It was so dark in eastern Missouri that the cows came
home, as in the evening, lowing for the calves, while the chickens
went to roost, and the cocks crowed, as at night. The little boy,
under the safe keeping of his good mother, observed all this, and
it produced a lasting impression on his childish mind. He went
out to look at the Sun when covered by the Moon, but finding it
almost as dark as night, with only a halo of rays about the Sun,
due to the corona, he hastened back into the house and hid under
the bed, till all danger was passed.



As a child, Professor See learned his letters so early that no
teacher was required. Without instruction, he learned to spell,
probably from the example of the older children. He first went
to a district school, in a log school house, where his mother had
acquired the elements of her education years before, ; This school
house is shown in the accompanying picture. It had slabs for
seats, which were without any backs; and was heated by a fire-
place, and thus as primitive, as in the time of Andrew Jackson,
the neighborhood having undergone but little change in the forty
years since his mother's birth, Jan. 14, 1832.}' fiut the place was
safe, and in this rural Arcady the little boy passed an ideal child-
hood, i

His first teacher was Professor Benjamin Elliot, who still
lives in Montgomery County, and is naturally very proud of the
great man now grown out of the little "Tommy" See of six, who
came to him to learn the elements of reading, writing and arith-
metic, forty years ago.

In a letter dated Mineola, Mo., January 8, 1906, Professor
Elliott wrote Professor See regarding these early days at school
as follows:

"I am in receipt of your favor of recent date (regarding the
mathematical researches on the constitution of the Sun), which I
read with the greatest pleasure. You can not conceive the grati-
fication it is to me to know of the success you have had in your
chosen field of labor. Well do I remember the first day that you
were under my care at school. The methodical manner, in which
you took up the duties assigned to you, attracted my attention;
for even in childhood you employed system in everything you did;
and this led me to conclude, and rightly, that I had found the ideal
boy. And I never had the least cause to change my first impres-
sion, as long as we were together in school.

"I had thought to give some recollections of those days, but
there are so many pleasant ones that present themselves, that to
write even a small part of them, would make this letter too long.
There is ever a warm place in my heart for you, and an earnest


Professor See's earliest teacher, as he ap-
peared when about 70 years of age. From a photo-
graph taken in 1906.


wish that you may succeed in all your undertakings; for it seems
to me that your success is my success. I claim part of it any-

"I have no photograph at present, but shall have some made
soon, and send you one. I met your mother at the Old Settlers'
Reunion last August, the first time I had seen her since the family
moved from Loutre. Was real glad to meet her, as I am to meet
any of the old-timers. Be sure to visit me when you come to
Missouri next time."

Something in these earliest days led little Tom See to learn
by heart the familiar poem:

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

"When the blazing sun is set,
And the grass with dew is wet,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

"And if I were in the dark,
I would thank you for your spark;
I could not see which way to go
If you did not twinkle so.

"And when I am sound asleep
Oft you through my window peep,
For you never shut your eye
Till the sun is in the sky."

It was observed that he had a prodigious memory, and he
used to repeat such poems at play time, to the delight of all the
pupils. Little did his associates then imagine that the little boy
with methodical methods and brilliant memory was to become
the greatest astronomer in the world, and one of the greatest of
all time!




EFORE proceeding with the story of Professor See's boyhood,
it is advisable to dwell briefly on his father's activity at this
period. We have already related that Noah See was a man
of remarkably keen mind. He was rather stocky in build, about
five feet eight inches in height, but active as a farmer, builder,
engineer, and surveyor, till within a few years of his death in 1890.
He was a good business man, and acquired in time an independent
fortune. He invested his savings chiefly in land, and thus the
estate finally included some eight thousand acres. Accordingly
in the latter years of his life Noah See was one of the largest land
holders in northeast Missouri.

In the early days, from 1840 to 1870, Mr. See acquired land
little by little. He entered some of it himself, and in other cases
bought it from others who wished to sell. In the forties and fifties
the whole country from Montgomery City to Palmyra, in Marion
County, was an open prairie, with grass as high as a horse's back.
The flies were so bad that people could not live in the prairie, and
the early settlements had therefore all been along the creek bot-
toms and in the timbered regions, where water also was more ac-
cessible than in the prairie country.

But Mr. See himself moved to the Prairie Place, three miles
northwest of Montgomery City, about 1852, and settlers began to
enter the prairie land also. At this time they had to go to Pal-
myra to obtain the land patents, and thus had to ride about sixty
miles through the high grass. It was impossible to travel by day,


because the flies were so bad on the horses, and the custom was
to travel by night. Many times did Noah See traverse this
stretch of open prairie with nothing but the stars to guide him.
As he was a surveyor, he knew how to reach his destination by the
shortest route, which often decided who got the land offered for
patent by the Government. Guided by the stars he would ride
all night, and rest his horse by day, under a cover to protect the
animal from the flies; and then on the second night reach Palmyra
by the light of the morning stars.

Most of Professor See's country place on Loutre, was entered
by his maternal great grandfather, Phillip Cobb*, from whom
Noah See purchased it in 1837; but he calls it Starlight, in memory
of the nightly journeys of his father, who thus acquired so much
of his land by entry at Palmyra. Besides the name Starlight is
very appropriate for the home of an astronomer, who first learned
to study the heavens in this most beautiful region of Montgomery

After his marriage in 1853, Mr. See gave up building and con-
structing houses for others, but as he had acquired several farms
of his own, he continued to improve them with buildings, barns,
and tenant houses. And he continued to act as bridge com-
missioner for the county till after 1880. While Noah See always
took a keen interest in public affairs, and was so patriotic in his
feelings that he named his sons largely after the Presidents, he did
not like political life, as it is carried on. Hence he made it a rule
not to hold public office. But upon the solicitation of friends he
was persuaded to be a candidate for county surveyor twice in
the seventies, and was each time elected by good majorities.

* The Cobbs, like the Sailors, were of English origin, having settled in Virginia
before the Revolution. After participating in that struggle some of them moved
to Montgomery County, Ky. Phillip Cobb settled in Montgomery County, Mo.,
in 1823, and his daughter Sabina married James Sailor, Dec. 28, 1828.
Among well known descendants of the Cobbs of Virginia are Professor Collier
Cobb of the University of North Carolina, the celebrated Confederate States-
man Howell Cobb, Justice A. J. Cobb of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and


For many years he was accustomed to ride about the County
on bridge inspections, surveying, and other work; and often
attended court at Danville to hear speeches by the more eminent
lawyers. He would also attend political meetings, to hear Sena-
tors Vest, and Cockrell, or Champ Clark. In earlier days he
heard ex-Senators John B. Henderson, and Waldo P. Johnston,
and predicted eminent careers for both of them. He had been a
great admirer of Henry Clay, but said that he was too honest to
be elected President.

On account of these habits Noah See was accustomed to be
much away from home during the day, but seldom stayed over
night, and when he did it was with some of the substantial citizens.
Occasionally his surveying work took him to remote parts of the
County, and he might be gone a week; but this was exceptional.
He knew everybody in the County of any standing, and had a
strong personal following, and very few enemies. His fondness
for riding and his activity about the farm, in spite of severe weather,
kept him in fairly good health till within a year of his death in

As Noah See always lived on large farms in the country, only
the district schools were available for the education of his children,
except when special arrangements were made for their stay in town,
or at the University, after T. J. J. See went there in 1884. \ In
Professor See's boyhood the family lived at the Loutre place, about
seven miles west of Montgomery City. The father might go to
town on business, every day or every few days, but the rest of the
family stayed close at home, and were actively occupied with the
work of the farm, the children being in school about four months
during the winter. This was the common country school, very
good as far as it went, but usually not going beyond the elements
of reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, history, geography, and
in a few cases the elements of physics, geometry and physical

With only four months of the year devoted to school, it is
clear that advancement could not be very rapid. Each year the


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pupils got a little further than the year before, and the brighter
ones took up new studies. Noah See was "good in figures" or a
good mathematician, and he taught his son Thomas some of the
most important processes of arithmetic. Usually, however, the
children depended upon the teacher, and the older children who
had gone over the ground before. But, on the one hand, if the
schools were limited and somewhat short and inadequate, yet on
the other they were not crammed with such a mass of stuff as to
confuse both teacher and pupil, as they so often are nowadays.

Thus Professor See's early educational advantages were lim-
ited, but such as to give a clear understanding of what he did
study. Professor Benjamin Elliott was his earliest teacher, and
he was a good mathematician, and clearheaded in all that he did.
Professor See's later instructors during the years at Loutre, in-
cluded his sister Mrs. A. M. Weeks, who was an excellent teacher,
and especially good in arithmetic. From his earliest studies it was
observed that Tom See always stood at the head of his classes. Good
in everything, he would spell down every one in school, the teacher
not excepted; and it was the same way in arithmetic. If there
was any problem which no one could solve, in such books as Ray's
Arithmetic, it was put up to Tom See, and not once did he fail.

The old Loutre school house was burned down during Christ-
mas week of 1875, and a new frame school house built by Noah
See for the district, on a tract of land donated by him for the pur-
pose. It is now called Starlight, and is included within Professor
See's country place. It was here that Tom See as a boy of twelve
and thirteen went to school during the winter of 1878 and 1879.
He won the first prize for scholarship, a beautiful picture, and on
the last day of school surprised everybody by solving a very diffi-
cult problem in Ray's Third Part of Arithmetic, which Professor
Elliott and many others believed could not be solved. ^

In these early school days, which were characterized by few

Online LibraryW. L. (William Larkin) WebbBrief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. → online text (page 2 of 28)