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Greene County History Notes: Amos Eaton

Written By Editor on 11/22/20 | 11/22/20

Amos Eaton (1776 - 1842).  Courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Submitted by David Dorpfeld, Greene County Historian

Amos Eaton was fairly famous in the early part of the 19th century; however, his reputation in Greene County could be termed infamous for a period of his life.  More about that later.

Eaton was a lawyer, natural scientist, educator and co-founder of the Rensselaer School, now known as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy.   He was born on May 17, 1776 in New Concord parish (now Chatham, Columbia County, New York).   In 1799 Eaton graduated from Williamstown College in Williamstown, Massachusetts and was admitted to the bar in 1802.  From then until 1811 he practiced law and worked as a land agent and surveyor in Catskill.  

Facts about circumstances surrounding the next phase of Eaton’s life seemed to be sketchy, but here is what several sources agree on.  During his time in Catskill he was accused by a client of having forged a property release: some articles suggested that it was somehow a political frame up (although there’s little other evidence of any political activity on his part) and that he received less than a fair trial.  After his trail Eaton served more than four years at Newgate state prison in Greenwich Village, New York City.  He received a conditional pardon from Governor Tompkins in 1815 before being fully pardoned by DeWitt Clinton in 1816 or 1817.  As part of the conditional pardon he was exiled from New York State.  

Unable to ply his old professions, he studied botany and mineralogy at Yale College in Connecticut starting in 1815.  He then returned to Williams College as a lecturer and published “A Botanical Dictionary and Manual of Botany for the Northern States” in 1817.  In 1818 Eaton returned to the Troy-Albany area where for the next six years he worked as an itinerant lecturer, ranging from West Point to the Castleton Medical Academy in Vermont.  He also wrote textbooks in chemistry, zoology and geology -- a true Renaissance man.

During this period he became friends with wealthy Stephen Van Rensselaer.  Under Van Rensselaer’s patronage he did geological and agricultural surveys of Albany and Rensselaer counties and along the route the soon to open Erie Canal.  His work was widely recognized and in American geology the 1820’s have been designated as the “Eatonian era.”

To implement his novel teaching techniques Eaton enlisted the support of Van Rensselaer in founding the Rensselaer School in 1824.  They are credited as the founders of RPI.  Eaton served as Senior Professor at Rensselaer for the rest of his life and is credited with training a number of influential scientists.  

A document in the RPI archives says the following: “Eaton’s most significant and lasting contribution was to scientific education.  He developed a teaching theory and methods that focused on ‘the application of science to the common purposes of life.’ In contrast to the then current method of rote, students were to learn by doing.  Field trips were used to gather specimens, experiments were performed in laboratories, and students prepared and delivered lectures with the instructor and fellow students serving as critics.”

Eaton died on May 10, 1842 at age 66.  What an unusual life.  After serving over four years in prison and being discharged at almost 40, Eaton went on to make significant contributions in the field of science and co-founded one of the most prestigious colleges in the United States.  Interestingly, Eaton also had 12 children with four wives.  The first three preceded him in death and in each case he remarried quickly thereafter.  Four of the children were born in Catskill.


To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”

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