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TIARKS, JOHANN LUDWIG (John Lewis), astronomer and surveyor; b. 10 May 1789 in Waddewarden (Federal Republic of Germany), son of the Reverend Johann Gerhard Tiarks and Christine Dorothea Ehrentraut; m. 1822 Auguste Antoinette Sophie Toel of Jever (Federal Republic of Germany), and of their several children one daughter survived to maturity; d. 1 May 1837 in Jever.

Johann Ludwig Tiarks received a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Göttingen in 1808 and took a position as a private tutor. In 1810 he had to flee to England to escape conscription in Napoleon’s army. He soon became assistant librarian and factotum to Sir Joseph Banks* at the Royal Society in London. On Banks’s recommendation, in 1817 he was appointed an astronomer for one of the commissions established under article 5 of the Treaty of Ghent (1814) to determine the boundary between eastern British North America and the United States. He acted for Joseph Bouchette, who fell ill with “Lake Champlain fever” that year, and he remained with the survey after Bouchette was replaced as chief surveyor by William Franklin Odell.

Tiarks arrived in September at Saint-Régis (Akwesasne), where the 45th parallel intersects with the St Lawrence, and there he began his astronomical observations. He was greatly impressed by the local Christian Mohawks and made friends with many in the village, as well as with their priest, Joseph Marcoux*. His journals and letters are full of comments about their way of life. “I have never been so touched as when I entered the church,” he noted. “No one would believe how well mannered and with what discipline all the ceremonies of the Catholic church were observed by this wild nation. The women sat on one side, singing alternately each verse with the men, who sat on the other side.” He grasped something of the matrilineal nature of Mohawk society and acquired some perception of the dominant role of women in the household. His enthusiasm for North America generally was reflected in his appreciation of the Indians. “There is something fascinating about them which gives the civilized person a feeling of freedom, health and renewed courage he cannot hold back,” he wrote.

At the end of July 1818 Tiarks and his party left Saint-Régis and with the American surveying crew, headed by an old acquaintance from London, Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, set out towards Lake Champlain. At the lake, which they reached before winter, both teams discovered independently that John Collins* and others had been incorrect in locating the position of the parallel there and that the million-dollar American fort at Rouses Point, N.Y., was actually in British territory. The American members of the boundary commission refused to acknowledge the findings, and the man who replaced Hassler as astronomer, Andrew Ellicott, was much less cooperative than his predecessor. He reportedly suggested to Tiarks that “we should not do our work so exactingly and forget about completing most of it.” Feeling that his reputation was at stake, Tiarks refused to go along with the suggestion and was strongly supported by British Commissioner Thomas Henry Barclay*.

In 1819 Tiarks was working in the upper Connecticut River basin, where part of the boundary was intended to run. He spent time during the summer of 1820 mapping an area in what is now northwestern New Brunswick and nearby Quebec; in the fall he was again in the vicinity of the upper Connecticut. Disagreement between the British and American commissioners [see Ward Chipman*] soon brought his work in North America to a halt, however, and in 1821 he returned to Europe.

Tiarks came out to North America again in 1825 to determine the most northwesterly point of the Lake of the Woods, from which the international boundary was supposed to run due west to the Mississippi River. The following year he went back to London, where he remained until 1830 working on matters of concern to the boundary commission. The king of the Netherlands had been asked to arbitrate the boundary question, and in 1830 Tiarks was called to The Hague to explain certain points. After about a year he returned to Jever.

Tiarks had always hoped to be made a professor at a German university but no appointment was forthcoming. Nor did he live to see the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) which settled the boundary controversy. In March 1837 he fell victim to a stroke, from which he failed to recover. A letter he wrote to his mother during his first winter in the Canadas shows almost a premonition of how his life was to unfold: “So lies our future in the dark, we flatter ourselves with hopes that will never be fulfilled, believe that we can do otherwise, but are the playthings of fate.”

Vincent O. Erickson

[Johann Ludwig Tiarks’s papers were given by his great-grandsons Robert von Ranke Graves and Charles Patrick Ranke Graves to their Tiarks cousins in England, who deposited them in the family library at Foxbury. In 1972 Henry F. Tiarks presented the collection (with the exception of a few personal items and duplicate materials which remain in his possession at Foxbury) to the PAC, where it is now available at MG 24, H64, and constitutes the main primary source for this study. Tiarks left behind a wealth of unpublished materials, among them his journals and correspondence, reports, memoranda, and notes. The collection also includes five folio volumes, printed but not made available for circulation, of reports on the boundary commission, as well as copies of Tiarks’s published scientific reports, which were exclusively on the subject of determining longitude and originally appeared between 1817 and 1829.

Other useful manuscript collections are the Thomas Barclay papers at the Maine Hist. Soc. Library (Portland) and the boundary commission records in the Chipman papers (PAC, MG 23, D1, ser.1, 31–60). Additional material on Tiarks in secondary sources is to be found in C. A. H. Franklin, A short history of the family of Tiarks of Foxbury, Chislehurst, Co. Kent (London, 1929); Allgemeine deutsche Biographie . . . (56v., Leipzig, [German Democratic Republic], 1875–1912), 39: 92–94; and Oldenburger Sonntagsblatt (Oldenburg, Lower Saxony, [Federal Republic of Germany]), 12 (1919), no.5. There are contemporary obituaries or obituary articles in the Athenœum (London), 1837: 366–67; Oldenburgische Blätter (Oldenburg), 28 Nov., 5 Dec. 1837; 16, 23 Oct. 1838; and the Astronomical Soc. of London, Monthly Notices, 4 (1836–39): 108–10. Robert von Ranke Graves in Good-bye to all that; an autobiography (London, 1929) and Alfred Perceval Graves in To return to all that; an autobiography (London, 1930) also provide information on Tiarks, but these must be read with caution.

For specific materials on the boundary question the reader is directed to S. F. Bemis, A diplomatic history of the United States (New York, 1936); A. B. Corey, The crisis of 1830–1842 in Canadian-American relations (New Haven, Conn., and Toronto, 1941); W. F. Ganong, “A monograph of the evolution of the boundaries of the province of New Brunswick,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 7 (1901), sect.ii: 139–449; J. B. Moore, History and digest of the international arbitrations to which the United States has been a party . . . (6v., Washington, 1898), 1; and D. W. Thomson, Men and meridians: the history of surveying and mapping in Canada (3v., Ottawa, 1966–69).  v.o.e.]

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Cite This Article

Vincent O. Erickson, “TIARKS, JOHANN LUDWIG,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tiarks_johann_ludwig_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tiarks_johann_ludwig_7E.html
Author of Article:   Vincent O. Erickson
Title of Article:   TIARKS, JOHANN LUDWIG
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   June 24, 2024