Charles Ferson Durant


The pleasure experienced [in the study of algae] is ample remuneration
for the patient industry required in its pursuit.
The gay iridescent plants seem tempting; the shore scenery is inviting;
the exercise brings appetite…
while the heart flows in gratitude to Him
who graciously permits us to live in this last most perfect link of His beautiful creation.
— Charles F. Durant 10

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) curates 73 specimens of macroalgae collected by Charles F. Durant.  All were collected in 1850 from the waters around New York City and Jersey City where Durant lived and worked.

Other herbaria curating algae collected by Durant include Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University (PH), Field Museum of Natural History (F), Herbarium Pacificum (BISH), New York Botanical Garden (NY), University of California, Berkeley (UC), University of Michigan (MICH), University of New Hampshire (NHA), and University of Washington (WTU).1

Label for a macroalga specimen collected by Charles F. Durant in 1850. The specimen was given to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) by the Herbarium of the New York Botanical Garden (NY)

It would be interesting to compare the taxa found in herbaria with those found in his magnum opus, Algae and Corallines of the Bay & Harbor of New York, Illustrated with Natural Types, published in 1850. Perhaps the specimens distributed to herbaria had not been collected in sufficient numbers to be included in the planned copies, or perhaps they were distributed to herbaria when it became clear that the planned 100 copies of the work were not going to be completed.  Durant’s specimens at NCU were distributed by the New York Botanical Garden Herbarium (NY).  The LuEster T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden has a copy of Durant’s book which contains both text and algal specimens.  Unfortunately when this book was scanned for the Biodiversity Heritage Library, only the text was scanned, not the pages containing specimens.  “All of our Durant specimens that I could find easily appear to have been a gift from  J. F. Burke in the 1940s — I don’t know who this person is,” says Dr. Barbara Thiers, Vice President of the New York Botanical Garden.  “I also couldn’t find any information in the catalog record to indicate where we got [Durant’s] book.”12  Other libraries holding Durant’s book on algae include University of Maryland (College Park, MD), Ohio State University Libraries (Columbus, OH), Princeton University Library (Princeton, NJ), Rutgers University Libraries (Piscataway, NJ), The Newark Musueum Association (Newark, NJ), the Priscilla Gardner Main Library (Jersey City, NJ), and the New York Historical Society Library (New York, NY).13  

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. curates a barometer owned by Charles F. Durant.2

Charles Ferson Durant was born on 19 September 1805 in Manhattan, New York.On 16 Nov 1837 he and Elizabeth Freeland were married in New York City.The 1860 US Census for Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey, lists Charles Durant (age 50 [sic]) as a “Civil Engineer”; completing the household is  spouse Ellen [sic; Elizabeth], age 40 and sons Charles P. (age 25, “Clerk”), George (age 21, “Printer”), John (age 5) and Edward (age 2) along with daughters Julia (age 16), Emma (age 10), and Kate (age 7).  Two servants from Ireland, Mary Donovan (age 25) and Dalia O. McCann (age 15) were also living with the family.9

1870 US Census for Jersey City lists Durant as being a 63 year old “retired lawyer,” and his wife, Elizabeth, as “keeps house” at age 53.  Completing the household were sons Charles (30 years old; “copying clerk”) and John L. (22 years old; “stock broker”) and daughters Emma (17 years old) and Kate (15 years old).Charles Ferson Durant died at age 67  in Jersey City on 2 March 1873, and is buried in the Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery, one of the first Garden Style landscape cemeteries established.3,6 

Durant’s obituary appeared in the 4 March 1873 issue of The Chicago Tribune:
“Special Dispatch to The Chicago Tribune.  NEW YORK, March 3.  Charles F. Durant, a well-known resident of Jersey City, died yesterday suddenly of pneumonia.  Mr. Durant was a man of wealth, and had long devoted his leisure time to works of a scientific character.  He made the first balloon ascension on this side of the Atlantic from the Battery, New York, in 1833.  He subsequently made fourteen other excursions, and on one occasion landed in the Atlantic Ocean.  He was rescued by a passing brig.  At the time of the second great fire in New York, he domonstrated that saltpeter would explode.  He was the author of several works of a scientific nature, for one of which, “on the shells and sea-weeds of New York harbor” he received a medal from the Government.  He was the owner of the Kepler Market, Jersey City, which as a pecuniary venture was a failure.  The structure cost $250,000, and has been almost tenantless since it was built about eighteen months ago.  Mr. Durant had recently written a work on astronomy.  His age was 68.”14

Elizabeth Howe wrote about Durant’s scientific endeavors in 1904.Below (in bold) are portions:

“Durant, Charles S. [sic], Aeronaut, born about 1805, died in Jersey City, 2d March, 1873.  He made a balloon ascension in 1833, from the battery in New York, which was one of the first ever made by a native American.  Subsequently he made fourteen others, on one occasion descending into the Atlantic Ocean.  Mr. Durant was the author of several books of a scientific character, one of which was a ‘Treatise on Shells and Sea-Weeds.'”

     Thus in half-a dozen lines Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American biography disposes of a man and a book.  Yet when that book, the true title of which is “Algae and Corallines of the Bay and Harbor of New York,” first appeared, fifty years ago, it was hailed alike by press and review as “an epoch-maker,” “a Herculean task,” “the open door to a new field of science,” “a monument of persevering devotion.”  It was compared to Audubon’s work on ornithology; it was eulogized by scientist and bibliophile; and then — well, then it disappeared from the catalogue of the world’s achievements, save for the brief entry, with mis-quoted title, given above.
     Yet, if you are a lover of rare books, and have besides the good fortune to be on sufficiently friendly terms with the custodians of the treasures of the Astor Library to penetrate sometimes beyond the wooden barrier dividing them from the non-elect, inquire privately of the librarian what he considers the rarest and most valuable of his recent acquisitions.  Then perhaps you may be led through a labyrinth of stacks and shelves to a remote corner; a book may be taken from its place and reverently unwrapped from its protective coverings; and you may be permitted for a moment to hold in your hand a red volume, across the cover of which runs the title, “Algology.”  It is the “epoch-maker,” the “monument to science,” — in a word, it is Charles F. Durant’s work upon Algae and Corallines, a scientific curiosity which, for uniqueness and originality, has, in the country at least, few equals.
     Mr. Durant is classified by Appleton as an “aeronaut.”  But if by genius we understand, with Fielding, “those powers of the mind which are capable of penetrating into all things within our reach and knowledge, and of distinguishing their essential differences,” it is hardly too much to say that he might more fittingly have been distinguished by this larger appellation.  For all things, particularly in the world of Nature, were open to him…
     While still a lad attending the district schools of his native town, his bent for science and the original character of his mid disclosed themselves in an attempt to investigate air-currents.  For this purpose he began making balloon ascensions, achieving speedy fame for his dexterity and daring.  In all, thirteen grand ascensions were made, one at Castle Garden, about 1833, at the request of President Jackson, in honor of Black Hawk, the Indian chief.
     There are those now living who remember this ascension; to whom, half a century ago, the name of “Durant, the aeronaut,” was a household word.  But few who knew him thus would have recognized in the intrepid adventurer the modest, retiring student, in the quiet of his laboratory wresting from their jealous hold the secrets of physics and chemistry; or knapsack on shoulder and stick in hand, taking long rambles through the woods and clearings along the Palisades, never returning empty-handed; or paddling his boat, in the still mornings, along the marshes and shallows of the Hudson…
In 1837 he exposed the Fox sisters, originators of modern spiritualism…
     About the same time he undertook to demonstrate the practicability of silk-worm culture in the country upon a commercial basis, importing large numbers of mulberry-trees and cocoons to illustrate his theory, which, however, he was shortly forced to abandon as impracticable…
     But his most pretentious work, the one which suggested the present sketch, is his Algology, or, as the title-page has it, “Algae and Corallines of the Bay and Harbor of New York.”  The book is a large quarto, containing about fifty pages of letter-press — itself an almost perfect example of the printer’s art — devoted to

Macroalga collected by Charles F. Durant, Gracilaria multipartita. Specimen curated by NCU.

an introductory treatise on the science, and a classification and description of the specimens, comprising nineteen families and nearly three hundred species.  This of itself was no slight task; for as no work upon the subject had appeared before in America, many of the plants were unclassified and even unnamed…
     But the crowning beauty and singularity of the Algology is its illustrations.  These are not drawings or reproductions from life but the plants themselves, preserved with all the beauty of their natural coloring, and mounted upon the blank page.  When it is understood that for each copy was required the collection and preparation of nearly three hundred specimens, a small idea of the magnitude and difficulty of Mr. Durant’s undertaking may be obtained.  “For two years,” he says, in his preface to the Algology, “I lived a sort of amphibious life, paddling about the shallows when the tide was out, in quest of specimens to be prepared and mounted in the evening.  The aggregate perambulations on the tidal and sea-shore will somewhat exceed one thousand miles, while two thousand hours were probably devoted to the work.”
     The book appeared in 1850, published by George P. Putnam… The original intention was that the edition should consist of fifty copies, at one hundred dollars each.  But the enormous labor of preparing the fifteen thousand specimens required rendered the design too vast to be carried out; and the lavish generosity of Mr. Durant’s nature caused him to find more pleasure in giving away the beautiful results of his labor than in exposing them for sale.  The first copy finished was presented to the New York Typographical Society; a second, to Mr. P. T. Barnum’s museum, at Ann Street and Broadway, where, in the fire which completely destroyed the building, it probably shared the fate of the other curiosities.  A copy was finished and given to each member of his family, seven in all; and several more were presented to friends.  The total number completed can hardly have exceeded fifteen.  The proceeds of the only copy known to have been sold were devoted to charity.  The purchaser was Mr. Rutzen Schuyler; the occasion, a Sanitary Fair held in New York shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers.  The cost of issuing the work, apart from the labor involved, which is incalcuable, was two thousand dollars.  The receipts were one hundred dollars, given away!
     The result is characteristic of the man.  To him the book had no money-value — or rather, it had a value too great to be expressed in terms of dollars or hundreds of dollars.  His purpose in writing it was to awaken an interest in the study of algae, to reveal the hidden beauties of Nature to eyes that are habitually blind to them, to publish the praise of a Creator who fills even the secret places of the earth with images of His love; and if he was successful in this, it mattered not at all to him that his reward was neither riches nor honor…

In 1912 Arthur Hollick wrote about encountering a copy of Durant’s Algae and Corallines of the Bay and Harbor of New York:10

This unique and rare work is worth of extended mention for several reasons.  As an example of bookmaking it is in a class by itself; only a limited edition, of fifty copies, was issued; it is of historical as well as of scientific interest and value; it contains numerous local references; and finally, this particular copy came in to the possession of [the Staten Island Association of Arts & Sciences] in a peculiar manner.

About six years ago the late Edward L. Morris, at that time curator of botany at the Central Museum of the Brooklyn Institute, showed me a copy which for half a century or more had been in the library of the Institute, unrecorded and forgotten.  Its origin was unknown to anyone at the Museum and Mr. Morris stated that he would be grateful for any information which might ascertain if any other copies were in existence, and to secure them if possible, in order that they might be placed where they would be available for those who would appreciate their artistic,  historic, and scientific value. The interest of our fellow member, Mr. William T. Davis, was also enlisted in the quest and he caused a notice to be printed in the Staten Islander of November 30, 1910, briefly outlining the circumstances mentioned, and closing with the suggestion: “It will be much appreciated if anyone having a copy of this work will communicate the fact to Wm. T. Davis, New Brighton, N.Y.” Botanic Garden, and today I received the following communication, together with the book …

Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Brooklyn, N.Y.
March 18, 1915

Dr. Arthur Hollick
New Brighton, Staten Island, N.Y.

My Dear Doctor Hollick:  Some months ago we had some correspondence with reference to the possibility of my being able to secure for the Staten Island Association of Arts and Sciences a copy of Durant’s “Algae and Corallines of the Bay and Harbor of New York.”  I am very pleased indeed to state

In the meantime, Mr. Morris had succeeded in getting into touch with the surviving members of Mr. Durant’s family, and learned that one or more copies were still in their possession, and I was assured that our Association would receive a copy if one could be secured.  Subsequently, however, Mr. Morris met with a sudden death and I took the matter up with Dr. C. Stuart Gager, Director of the Brooklyn  that I have secured from Miss Emma Durant, the author’s daughter, a copy of this work.  I indicated to her the suitability of having a copy at your institution on account of its local interest and importance there.  I am sending the [book] to you by messenger with this letter.  Your acknowledgment may be made to Miss Emma Durant, 608 W 148th Street, New York City.  I think we are very fortunate in the matter, for as I understand it, your institution and ours are the only institutions in the Greater New York which have copies of the work, unless possibly there is one in the New York Public Library.  Of that I am not certain.  With best wishes, I am yours sincerely, C. Stuart Gager.

Further than that, and adding very materially to the value of the work, we also received a series of press clippings referring to it …
Following the printed title page of the volume is one from an engraved plate, with a picture of Neptune, at the top, and a dedication “to the illustrious on of Ops, the noble scion of Saturn, whose kingdom is the seas, and whose care is the plants and the creatures that live in and upon the waters…”  A preface and an introduction follow, and then the systematic part.  This latter is of special interest to us, inasmuch as it contains numerous references to species of seaweeds and other marine organisms collected in the waters surrounding Staten Island.”

In 1993 a copy of Algae and Corallines of the Bay and Harbor of New York, Illustrated with Natural Types was sold by the auction house, Christies, for $1, 610.  The identity of the seller was not mentioned, but the description of the item was:”4to, 343 x 255 mm (12 ½ x 10 1/8 in.), original red chagrine (or pebble-grained morocco) gilt and gilt-lettered, e.g. broken and stained, first few quires coming unsewn, some foxing to specimen mounts, scattered marginal foxing to text, occasional slight loss to specimens.  First and only edition, one of 50 copies printed, containing 179 original dried specimens of marine plants from New York Harbor, lithographed title and dedication leaf (included in pagination), 43 pp. text printed within decorative border, each specimen pasted or glued to its own mount with hand-impressed printed number corresponding to text description, on 40 heavy paper leaves, leaf of “Notices from the Press” at end” describes accurately the copy that was given to the Staten Island Association of Arts & Sciences by Emma Durant.11

According to “New England Aviation History” Durant staged three balloon ascents in the Boston area.  “According to a newspaper article that appeared in the Alexandria Gazette on August 5, 1834, Durant took off [on or about 1 August, 1834] from an Amphitheater near Charles Street that was erected for the occasion.   Thousands had gathered to watch, being an exceptionally unusual event for the era.  The ascension was successful, and the balloon was carried off by prevailing breezes which pushed it out over the open water.  There it was observed by the Captain of the steamboat Hancock to drop low several times and touch the water.  The Hancock turned to pursue the wayward balloon, but had trouble in doing so.  The balloon finally landed in the ocean about five miles off the coast  of Marblehead, Massachusetts, but fortunately Mr. Durant had equipped himself with a life vest which kept him afloat until he was rescued.”

Durant made another balloon ascent in August 25, 1834.Quoting the Alexandria Gazette on August 30, 1834, the New England Aviation History website notes:

Boston, Tuesday, Aug. 26. – Mr. Durant’s Eleventh Ascension –  Yesterday afternoon, agreeably to previous notice, Mr. Durant made his eleventh grand ascension (it being his second from Boston,) from his amphitheater on the city land west of Charles Street.  The day was pleasant, and the wind was blowing with a pretty strong breeze from the north east.  At 4 o’clock, 30 minutes, Mr. Durant took his place in his wicker-basket car, the cords which detained him were severed, and he rose majestically from the amphitheater amid the firing of cannon and the benedictions of the multitude.  He moved toward the north-west.  Before leaving the ground, he had thrust out several bags of sand, and on rising 700 or 800 feet from the ground,  he arrived at an elevation where there was no wind at all, and he remained apparently stationary for some minutes.  He was then observed to let out the sand from one of the bags, which was seen to descend like rain, and the rays of sun upon it gave it the appearance of vapor descending in a vertical direction, and affording a beautiful appearance.  he then cast out what appeared to be the empty bag, which descended slowly, and was mistaken by many of the spectators for the rabbit falling with the parachute.  He now discharged the sand from several bags, which was seen to rain down in like manner, and the balloon was observed to rise.  In the meantime the gas was distinctly seen escaping from the top of the balloon like vapor.  After being up about 15 minutes the balloon descended to a lower stratum of atmosphere, which set towards the north-west, and it then moved pretty fast towards Cambridgeport.  At this time the rabbit was discharged with the parachute, which was observed to fall gradually in, or near, Cambridgeport.  The balloon then rose again , and appeared nearly stationary for several minutes, when it again moved towards the west.  Every few minutes the sand was distinctly seen showering down, and finally the balloon was observed to descend apparently beyond Mount Auburn.  Six o’clock.   We have this moment the satisfaction of hearing of Mr. Durant’s safe arrival with the balloon at the Tremont House, where he was welcomed by the shouts and congratulations of a large collection of people.  We learn that at 5 h. 6 m. he landed safely in a field west of Mount Auburn, and about six miles from the Amphitheater.  He was, therefore, 36 minutes in the air, and one hour and a half from his starting to his arrival at the Tremont House.  He brought the rabbit with him, and it was exhibited in front of the Tremont.  The parachute is in the shape of a large umbrella.  It happened that everything was in readiness for the ascension at an earlier hour than was anticipated and consequently the balloon started at half past 4 instead of 5 o’clock, as had been announced.  In consequence to this, we regret to say that many people were too late to see the balloon at starting.  To enable such people to witness the operation, and to afford everybody another opportunity to see the magnificent spectacle, it is hoped that Mr. Durant will undertake a third ascension from Boston.  As the balloon is uninjured, an early day would probably be convenient for the intrepid aeronaut as it would be desirable to our citizens generally. 

According to the New England Aviation History, “Mr. Durant’s third balloon ascension from Boston occurred on September 13, 1834.  The ascension had been scheduled for two days earlier but had to be postponed due to high winds.  After taking off just before 5 p.m.,  the balloon drifted westward towards Brighton until reaching an air current that was blowing to the east.  It then passed over the Boston Common and the State House, and eventually settled safely in Watertown.”8


Durant, Charles F. 1833.  The aeronaut to the people! [incomplete citation]

Durant, Charles F. Exposition, or a new theory of animal magnetism.  Originally published: New York : Wiley & Putnam, 1837.  Reprint, New York : Da Capo Press, 1982.

Durant, Charles F. 1850.  Algae and Corallines of the Bay & Harbor of New York, Illustrated with Natural Types.  New York:  George P. Putnam.

Durant, Charles F. 1863.  C. F. Durant’s objections to the commissioner’s report and proceedings in the opening of Montgomery street, numbers 1-162 consecutively, and both inclusive, together with appendix A.

Durant’s Physical Astronomy.  1873. [incomplete citation]

1.  Macroalgal Herbarium Portal.  Accessed on 4 November 2020.

2.  Barometer, accession A19640674000.  Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  Accessed on 4 November 2020.

3.  “Charles Ferson Durant”  Find A Grave Memorial #12211641.  Accessed on 4 November 2020.

4.  Genealogical Research Library, comp. New York City, Marriages, 1600s-1800s. New York City, Compiled Marriage Index, 1600s-1800s [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005.  Accessed on 4 November 2020.

5.  1870 US Census  Year: 1870; Census Place: Jersey City Ward 1, Hudson, New Jersey; Roll: M593_866; Page: 3B; Family History Library Film: 552365. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

6.  “Our history”  The Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery. .  Accessed on 4 November 2020.

7.  Howe, Elizabeth.  1904.  A forgotten naturalist.  The Lamp:  A review and record of current literature 28:  485-487.

8.  Charles Durant’s Boston Balloon Ascensions — 1834.  New England Aviation History.  .  Accessed on 4 November 2020.

9.  Year: 1860; Census Place: Jersey City Ward 1, Hudson, New Jersey; Page: 883; Family History Library Film: 803693. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

10.  Hollick, Arthur (1912 )  A quaint old work on seaweeds.  Proc. Of the Staten Island Assn. of Arts & Sciences IV(2):  90.  accessed on 4 November 2020.


12.  Personal communication, Barbara Thiers to McCormick email 11 November 2020.

13.  Personal communication, Jade Bruno to McCormick email 4 November 2020.

14.  Obituary 2, no title.  Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Mar 4, 1873; ProQuest Historical Newspapers; Chicago Tribune, page 8.