Part of the structure of Dalton estate after Victorian renovations. From Leonard Woodman Smith provided by Katharine M. Gove Director, G.A.R. Memorial Library West Newbury, MA
The West Newbury country estate “Spring Hill” built by Captain Michael Dalton and Mary Little was a pastoral paradise. When son Tristram took up residence it grew more glorious. Visitors from all over the globe enjoyed its enchanting landscape and breath taking views. The poesy of Jacques Pierre Brissott “de Warville” deemed it as “one of the finest situations that can be imagined.”
J J Currier noted that when Tristram inherited the estate he “found pleasure and profit in the ownership and management of this attractive and productive farm He was liberal in his household expenditures and with lavish hospitality entertained many distinguished travelers at his country home.” (History of Ould Newbury)
Tristram and wife Ruth Hooper, daughter of Robert “King” Hooper, a wealthy Marblehead merchant knew how to through a party. The festive soirees hosted George Washington and an ensemble of French royals. See Tristram Dalton and Family
However, in the spring of 1769 there was one celebrated guest summoned to the Pipe Stave Road address that would source a different ambit for Dalton, namely the extraterrestrial.
Samuel Williams, Harvard professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy was more than happy to oblige as he knew “a seat at Newbury, in a high elevated situation,” was “very convenient for this purpose.”
The hearth upon the hill behest “forty mountain peaks and oceans far and wide” and was the most auspicious place to observe the celestial heavens. God had even graced Dalton with 18 church steeples in wide view.
But this gathering was not just for star gazing, it was to expand scientific knowledge by observing the transit of Venus. Dalton had a keen interest in the field of Astronomy and was part of the newly founded American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In this venture Dalton choose his cohort carefully. Williams had been selected by Harvard’s John Winthrop to observe the transit in the Newfoundland expedition 1761. His lectures and experiments were progressive, but it was when Williams preached in the Port that Dalton sought him out.
Williams matched Dalton’s passionate intensity to explore the “dark horses” of the world. Williams excelled in many diverse disciplines and his innovative style earned him honors. More importantly, Dalton knew that besides Winthrop, Williams “was among the most accurate of any estimating the moment of tangency of the internal contact to the Sun which had an uncertainty of only seven seconds.”
Williams had the same confident spirit working with Dalton. He was well versed in theory from his Harvard days and would be an active participant in assisting him. According to Hinckle, Dalton’s knowledge allowed him to make necessary preparations way in advance such as getting the clock adjusted and longitude determination made.
Dalton also took all precautions which included hiring carpenters to build shelters on the roof. A persistent trend of overcast and rain had set over Newbury, but just before the big event Mother Nature decided to cooperate. The conditions could not have been more perfect as one Boston paper reported: “after a long course of cloudy weather it cleared up and last Saturday was fair and afforded a fine opportunity for viewing the Transit of Venus.”
The anxiety that would have visited the observers would have been in calculating the exact timing to observe the “black dot,” or Venus landing on the sun. Williams was successful and carefully recorded the planetary activity. He also found that Venus had a definite atmosphere. This was due to the “fuzzy contrast” and “uncertain timing.” In other transits, such as Mercury the observation was precise and easily timed. This revelation would later prove to be a major significant discovery.
The transit of Venus produced “an intercolonial scientific effort of major proportions” and there were several locations observing the event, but it was Newbury that caught Ben Franklin’s attention. His organization known as The American Philosophical Society issued William’s publication: “An Account of the Transit of Venus over the Sun, June 3d, 1769, as observed at Newbury, in Massachusetts.”
Williams work impacted several scholars, including John Quincy Adams, who attended Williams' series of twenty-four lectures on Astronomy at Harvard. According to Rothschild Adams was “so engrossed with the subject that he wrote copious notes on the lectures during and after their presentation.”
Adams comradery with Williams is noted in his journals: “he is affable and familiar with the students, and does not affect that ridiculous pomp which is so generally prevalent here.” The warm affinity and respect Adams had for Williams would sustain a relationship for many years after he was equally fond of Williams’ son, Samuel, JR. who was his classmate at Harvard. During his stint in the Port Adams records dinners with Samuel, JR, and some visits to Dalton’s magical manor on the hill.
The contribution of these two men that summer would reflect a lifetime of reaching for the stars and encouraging others to expand their horizons. Dalton took an active interest in local education. He assisted along with Jonathan Jackson, Nathaniel Tracy, and John Tracy to fund young scholars for college. One fellow, Dudley Atkins attended Harvard due to their generosity. Atkins had Williams as an instructor and Williams extended the use of his home laboratory to him. In 1780 Atkins was chosen to accompany Williams on the Penobscot Bay expedition to observe the eclipse of the sun.
The grounds at Spring Hill have been torn down and rebuilt since the Dalton reign. Tristram invested in new territory, but calculated risks took his fortune. But the planets taught this explorer heaven is not down on any map; true places never are.
Built by Edward Nairne of London, this telescope was used by Samuel Williams Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington.
- Old Paths and Legends of New England: Saunterings Over Historic Roads.
- Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, MA)
- The Dalton Genealogical Society founded November 1970 by Michael Neale Dalton of London, England.
- Family History Compiled by Lucy Henderson Horton
- Ould Newbury: Historical and Biographical Sketches
- Reminiscences of a Newburyport Nonagenarian
- Brides of Apollo R F Rothschild