LeConte Family – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

Noted for their contributions to the intellectual life of 19th-century Georgia, the LeContes originally prospered as rice and cotton planters in Liberty County and later gained recognition for their scientific work.

In 1787, New Jersey native John Eatton LeConte became the sole owner of 3,356 acres of land in Liberty County. Known as Woodmanston Plantation, the estate eventually passed to John Eatton’s sons, Louis (1782-1838) and John Eatton (1784-1860). By 1810 Louis had settled permanently in Woodmanston, acquired enslaved laborers, and was farming rice and cotton. Young John Eatton lived in New York until 1852, when he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A noted naturalist, he often visited Woodmanston and made important contributions to the study of Georgian wildlife. His son John Lawrence LeConte (1825-1883) achieved international recognition as an entomologist.

Also widely recognized as a naturalist, Louis LeConte was particularly appreciated for the large botanical garden he cultivated at Woodmanston. Married to Ann Quarterman in 1812, Louis LeConte fathered seven children, one of whom died in infancy. The six surviving children were William, Jane, John, Lewis, Joseph and Ann. All four sons of Louis and Ann Quarterman LeConte are graduates of the University of Georgia, and Lewis also graduated from Harvard University Law School. Jane married John MB Harden, a Liberty County physician and naturalist who published notable articles on medical and scientific subjects. Ann also married a physician, Josiah P. Stevens, and their son Walter LeConte Stevens became a well-known professor of physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and later at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. The most famous of Louis LeConte’s children, however, were John and Joseph.

Born in 1818, John graduated from the University of Georgia in 1838 and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York in 1841. He married Eleanor Josephine Graham in 1841 and they had three children: Mary Tallulah, Louis Julian and John Cecil. . In 1841 John established a medical practice in Savannah, and early in his career he published several articles on medical subjects. His main interests were chemistry and physics, however, and he became professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at the University of Georgia in 1846. He resigned in 1855 following a disagreement with the president of the university, Alonzo Church, and returned to the College of Physicians and Surgeons as a lecturer. From 1856 to 1868 he was professor of natural and mechanical philosophy at South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina), located in Columbia.

John LeConte

John LeConte published several important papers during his tenure in Georgia and South Carolina, including studies of the formation of columns of ice in frozen ground and the effects of musical sound on a gas-jet flame. During the Civil War (1861-1865), he served as superintendent of a Confederate nitre plant, which manufactured explosives. In 1869 he became the first professor at the new University of California at Berkeley. In addition to teaching physics, John served as acting president of the institution in 1869 and president from 1876 to 1881. Among his important scientific contributions during his years in California were papers on the nature of sound in the water (1882) and on the activities of small objects floating in water (1882, 1884). John LeConte was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences in 1878. He died at his home in Berkeley in 1891, leaving behind his wife and eldest son, Louis Julian, who had become an engineer.

Joseph LeConte, born in 1823, graduated from the University of Georgia in 1841. He enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1844 and received an MD in 1845. He married Elizabeth Caroline Nisbet in 1847 and established a practice medical in Macon. Because his first love was geology, however, he enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard College in 1850 to study with the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz. After completing his education in 1851, he returned to Georgia and became professor of chemistry and natural history at Oglethorpe University (then located near Milledgeville). In 1852 Joseph was appointed professor of geology and natural history at the University of Georgia. Involved in a dispute with the president of the university, he left the university a year after the departure of his brother, and in 1857 he became professor of chemistry and geology at South Carolina College. During the Civil War he aided the Confederacy, first in the production of medicines and later in the works of Nitre.

Joseph Le Conte

Like his brother John had done, Joseph joined the faculty of the University of California, leaving for the West Coast in 1869. Although he often expressed a desire to return to the South, he easily adapted to his new state, where he became famous for his success as a professor of geology and physiology. Author of approximately 200 publications, including nine books, Joseph LeConte has earned special recognition for his elements of geology (1877), Sight: an exposition of the principles of monocular and binocular vision (1881), and Evolution and its relationship to religious thought (1888). Revised four times, the geology textbook remained in use well into the 1920s. A detailed study of the physiology of human vision, View was the first work of its kind in America. Evolution had notable success as an effort to reconcile the theory of evolution with Christian beliefs.

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1875, Joseph LeConte served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1891) and the Geological Society of America (1896). A dedicated camper and mountain lover, he was a founding member of the Sierra Club. His Journal of Ramblings through the High Sierra from California was published in 1875 and reprinted in 1930 and 1960. His Autobiography was published in 1903, and its ‘Ware Shermanan account of his escape from Union troops near the end of the Civil War, was published in 1937 and reprinted in 1999. LeConte died in 1901 while camping in Yosemite National Park.

Joseph LeConte was the father of five children: Emma Florence, Sarah Elizabeth, Josephine Eloise (died in infancy), Caroline Eaton and Joseph Nisbet. Emma LeConte’s diary of the events surrounding Union General William T. Sherman’s attack on Columbia, South Carolina, in February 1865 was published as When the world ended in 1957 and reissued in 1987. Her husband, Farish Furman, became a farmer near Milledgeville and developed a highly effective fertilizer for growing cotton. Joseph Nisbet spent his career as a professor of engineering at the University of California and served for many years as an officer with the Sierra Club.

The LeConte name has been commemorated in many ways. A pear, turtle, sparrow, mockingbird, and other species are named after John Eatton LeConte or his son John Lawrence LeConte. Each of the three universities where John and Joseph LeConte taught named a building in honor of the brothers, and several landmarks are associated with their names: Mt. LeConte in the Smoky Mountains honors John LeConte, while three places in the Sierra Mountains, a glacier and a ferry in Alaska, and various other things are named after Joseph LeConte and testify to the esteem in which he is held.

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