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    John Cleves Symmes

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0819                                                                                                                  

    (Leila F. Clark)


            John Cleves Symmes (1780 - 1829), soldier and "hollow earth" theorist,

    was born in Sussex County, New Jersey, November 5, 1780, the son of Timothy

    and Mercy (Harker) Symmes. He was a descendant of Zechariah Symmes who

    emigrated from England to Charlestown, Mass., in 1634. His father was Judge

    of the Court of Common Pleas of Sussex County, and the only brother of the

    John Cleves Symmes (1742-1814) whose name is famous in the history of the

    Middle West for his connection with the "Symmes Purchase" and the founding

    of the city of Cincinnati. Like his brother, Timothy Symmes was said to

    have taken "an active part in the cause of liberty in the Revolutionary war."

            Except that he received "a good common English education" and showed a

    keen interest in science and mathematics, little is known of Symme's education.

    His insatiable intellectual curiosity undoubtedly added greatly to whatever

    body of knowledge he acquired from his formal schooling.

            Through his uncle's influence Symmes entered the United States Army as

    an ensign, March 26, 1802, and he rose ultimately to the rank of captain in

    1813. For several years he was stationed at different posts in the Southwest;

    at Fort Adams near Natchez, in New Orleans, and at other points. It was while

    at Fort Adams that he fought a duel with a brother officer, Lieutenant Marshall,

    who had made some slighting remarks, entirely unfounded, about Symmes's financial

    integrity. Both were wounded in the encounter, Marshall in the thigh, and Symmes

    002      |      Vol_XV-0820                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Clark: John Cleves Symmes

    in the left wrist, the use of which he never fully recovered.

            In 1808, while he was stationed at Fort Adams, Symmes married Mrs. Mary

    Anne (Pelletier) Lockwood, widow of Captain Benjamin Lockwood, and mother

    of six children. Mrs. Symmes was a warmhearted, vivacious, intelligent

    woman of French descent. She spoke no English until after her second marriage.

    Symmes himself learned French, and is said to have spoken both French and

    Spanish fluently. He was devoted to his wife, and looked after the interests

    of his stepchildren equally with those of his own four.

            Symmes was stationed in Missouri at the outbreak of the war of 1812 and

    later was ordered to join the army of General Brown on the northern frontier,

    where he commanded his company with skill and gallantry. He was given honorable

    mention for his bravery at the battle of Lundy's Lane, and in the successful

    sortie from Fort Erie he and his command captured one of the batteries, Symmes

    leading his men over the intrenchments and spiking the first cannon with his

    own hand.

            Captain Symmes received his honorable discharge from military service

    June 15, 1815, and settled in St. Louis where he engaged in the business of

    furnishing supplies to the troops stationed on the upper Mississippi, and

    traded with the Fox Indians under a special license received from Governor

    Clark of Missouri Territory.

            It was from St. Louis that Symmes made the first startling announcement

    of his hollow earth theory in a circular dated April 10, 1818, declaring the

    earth to be hollow, habitable within, containing a number of concentric

    spheres, and open at the pole, twelve or sixteen degrees. He declared himself

    ready to explore the hollow, and asked the world to support and aid him in the

    undertaking. "My terms are the patronage of this and the new world, I dedicate

    to my wife and her ten children."

    003      |      Vol_XV-0821                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Clark: John Cleves Symmes

            The circular was widely distributed and the theory was received at

    first with almost universal derision. Undiscouraged, Symmes spent all the

    rest of his life, until illness overcame him, writing and lecturing about

    it, and tryint to obtain support for an exploring expedition to prove its

    truth and to open the new inner world which he expected to find. Later it

    gained a good many warm adherents, Symmes's own great simplicity of manner

    and the absence of any evidence of mental unbalance winning him many friends.

            Symmes moved from St. Louis to Newport, Kentucky, in 1819, and in 1824

    to Hamilton, Ohio. In 1822 and 1823, petitions for financial aid and ships

    received little serious consideration from Congress and were laid on the table.

    In 1825, Symmes was given permission to join a Russian exploring expedition

    but was not financially able to take advantage of it.

            Symmes was first introduced to a large audience in Cincinnati in 1824,

    and in 1825, accompanied by his stepson, Anthony Lo [c ?] kwood, and by Jeremiah

    N. Reynolds, one of his most earnest and influential converts, started on a

    prolonged lecture tour through Ohio and the East. In Philadelphia, Reynolds

    left him to lecture separately, and he and his stepson continued on through

    New England, New York, and as far north as Quebec. Local newspapers everywhere

    were full of notices of the lectures, both favorable and unfavorable. Many

    of them were skeptical of the truth of the theory but favorable to an arctic

    expedition whatever the outcome so far as the incidental testing of the theory

    might be.

            Symmes's health, never very good, suffered from the severe climate in

    Canada, and he went back to New York in 1827. He spent some time with relatives

    in New Jersey but seldom lectured after 1827. Seriously ill, he returned to

    Ohio, and died in Hamilton, May 28 or 29, 1829.

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    EA-Biog. Clark: John Cleves Symmes

            Though Symmes himself was unsuccessful, the enthusiasm and dogged

    persistence with which he and his converts, notably Reynolds, championed

    this theory and campaigned for its testing undoubtedly influenced public

    support of an exploring expedition, and so, by devious ways, played a

    part in the ultimate launching of the first great U.S. Exploring Expedition,

    in 1838, under Captain Wilkes, U.S.N., not to the Arctic, it is true, but to

    the Antarctic.


    Leila F. Clark

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