History Mystery #3 - Land, Law and Science

"Words are to the Anthropologist what rolled pebbles are to the Geologist — battered relics of past ages often containing within them indelible records capable of intelligent interpretation..."
John Herschel

While investigating the mystery of The Sawdust Coast, I came across another mystery: the Raft of Atchefalaya.  Just as Peter Freuchen's autobiography was my first hint of sawdust in the Lena Delta sediments, so also John Herschel's 1875 book Physical Geography of the Globe was my first hint of trees forming substantial land masses in the Mississippi Delta.

... the deltas of the Mississippi and the Lena carry out the rivers to great distances, and form very projecting points; that of the Mississippi, in particular, which is singularly ramified, and in which the main channel prolongs itself, on land of its own formation, like the claw of some web-footed bird, far into the Gulf of Mexico, being increased by immense quantities of drifted trees, which meet together, and forming a floating mass - the "Raft of Atchefalaya," which, in 1816, contained upwards of 250,000,000 cubic feet of timber, accumulated, in consequence of some local obstruction, in only 38 years, and has been increasing ever since.
It is therefore no sluggish river, but in many parts of its course, a torrent, against which steamers with difficulty make head, and which rushes down laden with drift timber from the (yearly disappearing) forest, of the vast alluvial region it traverses, cutting down timber laden banks (whose section discloses the forest growth and destruction of thousands of years - Lyell), and carrying all out to sea in a delta of unexampled extent.

John Herschel,
Physical Geography of the Globe, 5th edn.,
Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1875
excerpts from pages 93-94 and 194.

In the Lena Delta, sea ice can keep much timber from being dispersed.  It therefore tends to form a sort of tideline in which the constant grinding of wood against wood reduces the driftwood to sawdust.  In the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf at large is not and never has been - to my knowledge - noted for large volumes of driftwood.  In the absence of ice, the dispersal in the sea of trees carried down by a river can be prevented by shallow water or some form of underwater obstruction.  That appears to have been the case historically in the Mississippi Delta: trees would snag on the bottom in shallow waters, trap sediments and form new land.

Conformation of this geological process in the Mississippi Delta comes from a very surprising source: the records of an English court.  The court is the High Court of the Admiralty, the date is November 20, 1805, and the context is the capture of a Spanish ship by an English privateer.  The legality of that capture was challenged by America.  The question to be answered by the court in the determination of legality was whether or not the islands formed from trees constituted sovereign territory within the United States.

Thus, some useful observations on the creation of new land from 'natural logjams' - a matter of interest in the science of geology - have come to light in the annals of law.  It seems that there is almost no kind of written matter which does not contain something of use to science.

Sir William Scott (Lord Stowell), who tried this case and made some very astute observations on the relevant geological processes, was a major figure in the evolution of international maritime law.
Sir William Scott served 30 years as judge of the High Court of Admiralty. Much of his term in office involved naval prize law. During his time the strength of a nation’s navy directly impacted their place in the world. Britain’s dominance of the sea, and the fortunes brought by the prize system, made Lord Stowell's decisions that much more significant. Stowell adjudicated in many of the most spectacular prize award cases involving the capture of vessels in time of war. He wrote down his judgements and as a result much detail remains of the process by which prizes were assigned. Most of the judgements of Lord Stowell were confirmed on appeal, testimony to his sound and thorough judicial reasoning. His impact on maritime and international law is still felt today in the law of both England and the United States.


The full report of the court case is taken verbatim from the American&Commercial Daily Advertiser Apr 2, 1806.  The newspaper's preamble is omitted.  It should be noted that the 'courts of Vice-Admiralty' mentioned below were courts set up with the specific purpose of trying maritime cases as close as possible to the region in which the legal dispute arose - in the matter of legal venue, prima facie the ship La Anna should not have been taken to England.


Minutes of the sentence in the high court of admiralty, of England, on  the  20th day of November, 1805, on the reserved question of costs and damages,   the ship and cargo having been restored.  The right honorable sir William Scott, knight, the judge, observed : " this  ship was taken with a cargo of logwood  and specie, on a voyage from the  Spanish Main to New Orleans, she was seized as expressed in the log book of the captor, by reason that she had no clearance or register on board, which if not explained might afford some pretence. In this case I think both these prima facie irregularities satisfactorily explain. The ship had been on the contraband trade and therefore could have no clearance, and had been Spanish property, and therefore no register. The master from the entries in his log book and depositions has given a very fair testimony at all times, no disposition in him to aggravate matters; this evidence ought to have satisfied the captors. The papers are unusually numerous and consistent, considering the course of trade in which the vessel was engaged, there is therefore no justification of the seizure on these grounds. As to what is stated of captain La Porte commanding a privateer last war, he had a right so to do as being then a Spanish subject.  The ship has been brought to England and it certainty lies on the captor to exonerate himself for so doing ; although the instructions leave it to the discretion of the captor, yet  they must, be cautiously executed ; it is a  most injurious thing for ships seized as this was, on slight pretences, to be brought to the other extremity of the globe ; courts of Vice Admiralty are established for preventing such inconveniences -- this is therefore prima facie an impropriety; it might however,   be justified in a king's ship bound on the public service but  cannot apply to a Privateer ; if the cruise was expired and it was time to return home he should have abstained from capture. The crew is stated to have been   mutinous but the person who takes a commission stipulates for the good conduct of his crew ; if they had not agents in that quarter it is the fault of the owners who ought to establish such, if they send their vessels to cruise there:  this has been productive of much inconvenience: at the best, for the  captors it was a case of further proof, but a case I  think in which the court of Vice Admiralty would have restored. This vessel  was on its voyage to England exposed to every danger, and I am of opinion the conduct of the captors in that respect is  liable to every censure.  I think the ship was taken not for deficiency in the papers, but for what she had on board, several thousand dollars ; captors should not look to value, but whether or not enemies property.    On being brought  here  a claim is given of a very grave   nature by general William Lymman, the consul of the U. States under the authority of his excellency James Munroe, Esq, the ambassador, as being taken within the territory of the United States ; this has been much discussed and charts have been exhibited.
The vessel is said to have been captured at the mouth of the Mississippi, within the bounds of the American territory -- the general rule on this subject, is, where power of arms is limited, there is the limitation of the territory; since fire-arms have been introduced, three miles is considered as where the territory begins, but it has been said the mouth of the Mississippi cannot be considered as territory, being nearly mud islands formed by trees -- it is pretended these form no part of the territory, argued to be, in fact, no man's property, only occasionally resorted to for the purpose of shooting birds, their only inhabitants.  It is urged that the territory can only begin at the Belise, where officers were established by the Spaniards ; I am of a different opinion. Clearly these islands are to be considered as a necessary and indispensable part of the American territory -- by universal courtesy so allowed, be the consistency of the earth great or small, it must be considered as territory formed from thence, as elements from thence made.  If the course of a river carries away any part of the land the rule of general law is that it still remains your territory ; it would be so even if such removal occupied the property of another, but in this instance there is no other person to claim -- if it were not so considered any other state might occupy, embark and build fortresses upon these island ; in that case what a thorn it would be in the side of America, other nations might there construct forts the same as at the Belise and the passage of the river would be no longer in possession of America -- it must therefore be considered as within the American  territory, no consistency of earth being required.    These islands therefore being within the territory the distance must be taken from thence, and this vessel was captured as far as I can judge, from the evidence within this threshold as it were of the American states -- it is said the pursuit began before, and that although you may not begin within the neutral territory you may pursue there, and I should be inclined to coincide with that, if the captor had been out on a legal cruise, and had legally summoned the vessel to surrender, and the capture made without violence, and I think if nothing could be previously objected to the captor, it would hold good.   This brings me to a part of the case which calls for great censure on the part of the captor.  Cruisers have no right to station themselves in a neutral river and exercise the right of capture. That this privateer did so, appears from her own log ; they are not justified in saying such is the conduct of king's ships, which I do not believe, if it were so, it would call for equal censure on them.  It appears this captor chased, ovehauled, captured vessels, and collected information about vessels coming down the river, seeking every opportunity to commit hostility.  One case demands my particular attention, I mean that of the Bilboa, which vessel they captured at sea, and then sent the prisoners on shore which they had no right to do ; they were prisoners of the king -- then came before the court with their own officers, swearing the prisoners had escaped ; this totally destroys  all credit to them.  If the court relied  upon them it would be relying upon a texture as loose as the earth of which these islands are described to consist -- and they by such improper means have obtained a sentence of condemnation.  Is their improper conduct evinced only in that instance ? I think it discovers itself also in this transaction.  They asserted that they brought this vessel here at the request of the  captain ; it now appears they offered to set him on shore, but he very properly refused to quit his vessel.  I am of opinion, therefore, that in every part of this transaction there is misconduct on the part of the captor and that of a gross kind, and that he has been guilty of a violation of territory connecting the place of capture with his conduct in that territory, the property afforded no justification of the seizure. I should therefore fall much short of that justice due to the violated rights of America, as well as to those of the individual, if  I did not condemn the captor in costs and damages.
  The court pronounced the ship and goods to have  been seized and taken in violation of the territory of the United States of America, and condemned the captor in costs and damages.
Proctors for the claimant.
8th January, 1806.
Note: the date is printed - wrongly - as 8th January 1106 in the original.  Ampersands in the original have been changed to 'and' to avoid conflicts with some html browsers.

And so it comes to light that a record which forms part of the case law of the English legal system is also a record of the observation of a most unusual geological process - the forming of land from naturally rafted trees and sediments.