Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Benjamin Smith Lyman Papers
Benjamin Smith Lyman was born December 11, 1835, to Hampshire County Register of Probate Samuel Fowler Lyman and his first wife Almira Smith Lyman in Northampton, where he remained until attending Phillips Exeter Academy from August 20, 1851, to July 8, 1852. From Exeter, he went on to Harvard College, graduating in 1855. He then taught school at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, at Charles Short's Classical School for Boys in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and at Franklin B. Sanborn's school in Concord, Massachusetts, where he came to know, through Sanborn, members of the Emerson and Alcott families and Henry David Thoreau, as well as abolitionists active in the region.
In the same exploratory period he was given his first geological job -- chain carrying and rainy day office work for his uncle by marriage, J. Peter Lesley, already a noted geologist, on a topographical and geological survey of Broad Top Mountain in Pennsylvania. According to an 1872 Lyman family genealogy, Lyman's own Uncle Joseph, Lesley's brother-in-law, originally intending a career in law, later studied civil engineering, mining, and metallurgy, and was active in the development of anthracite coal and iron resources in Pennsylvania. His activities and connections may have been an influence on Lyman in his ultimate choice of career, as well as in his sympathies for social reform. Although Benjamin had first intended to become a merchant, his interest in geology and mining engineering grew in the next few years, during which he made a survey of iron foundries in some of the eastern, middle, and southern states for the American Iron Association, accompanied Lesley on additional surveys, and became assistant geologist of the Iowa State Geological Survey.
By 1859 he had finally decided to make geology his life's work and went for a year's study at the Ecole Imperiale des Mines in Paris (1859-1860), followed by a practical course at the Royal Academy of Mines in Freiberg, Saxony (1861-1862). Upon returning to the United States, Lyman established his residence in Philadelphia and opened an office as a consulting mining engineer. Work on surveys took him to the Pottsville coal region of Pennsylvania; Cow Bay and Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; Arizona; California; and in 1870, the oil lands of the Punjab, India. On his return from India, he traveled through China and Japan, where he was, as he said, "bitten with Orientalism."
The opportunity to return to Japan came to Lyman shortly thereafter. In the hope of making a name for himself in geology, he signed a three-year contract with the Meiji government in 1872 to survey Hokkaido for mining possibilities. Lyman carried out his mission in Japan with passion. It was to be the most productive period of his life. His survey identified the most promising coal fields for Hokkaido's eventually successful mining industry as well as reporting on progress in the reclamation of waste land, the nature of the soil in various districts; the customs, physique, and folklore of the Ainu; useful ores and stones; the development and exploitation of hydraulic power; importation of foreign capital; and the advantage of cooperation with foreign concerns in the mining industry.
Lyman's Japanese assistants, to whom he taught surveying, mapping, mathematics, mineralogy, and related subjects, accompanied him on the difficult ground-breaking survey. They all became proficient surveyors and some of them distinguished geologists. Their enthusiasm and support was largely responsible for making Lyman's experience in Japan as rewarding to him as it was, for he did not have good relations with the Kaitakushi (the Bureau of Development for Hokkaido), owing in part to conflict as to who had authority over his assistants and to a discrepancy between his values and those of the Kaitakushi's administrators. Following completion of the Hokkaido survey and the final report and maps associated with it, Lyman was employed by the Interior Department of Japan and later by the Public Works Department, Bureau of Engineering, to survey oil fields in the rest of the country.
When his contract was up in 1879, Lyman remained in Japan at his own expense to complete the survey maps. Before leaving, he encouraged his assistants to form the Geological Society of Japan and to publish a journal. He gave them his house and grounds for headquarters, which they later sold with his permission when the group disbanded (to be succeeded later by the present society). Lyman maintained contact with his assistants for the rest of his life.
Returning to the United States in January 1881, Lyman took up residence in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he continued work on his reports, publishing them at his own expense. Having saved much of his considerable salary in Japan, Lyman did not need to earn money for the time being. Soon thereafter, he bought the house at 134 Elm Street built in 1880 by W.T. Clement, founder of the Clement Cutlery Company, who died in 1882. Lyman participated in civic affairs as a member of the City Improvement Association and the Community Council. In 1882, Tokumatsu Nakajima, the 10-year old son of his Japanese stableman, came to live with him and be educated in the United States. The boy attended public schools in Northampton and was loved by Lyman's family and friends, such as Mrs. Brewer and Mrs. Ferry, Lyman's near neighbors on Elm Street. He moved to Philadelphia with Lyman when the latter accepted the position of Assistant Geologist of Pennsylvania in 1887. Toku graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, returned to Northampton to work at a Banister's bookstore, and died of tuberculosis in 1901 at age 29.
In the years following his return to Philadelphia, Lyman wrote a great many papers and articles, attended meetings of technical and scientific societies as well as the Oriental Club of Philadelphia, and held a reception each year on the birthday of the Emperor of Japan. After retiring in 1895 from his appointed position, Lyman continued a private practice, finding little remunerative work, however, due to the business depression of the 1890s. In 1906-1907 he surveyed the coal lands near Mt. Lantauan on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, for a New York company building a railroad there. On the way, he visited his former assistants in Japan, who greeted him warmly. He hoped to re-visit them on his return trip, but a long bout with dysentery prevented that.
Lyman was convinced that if he hadn't become a vegetarian in 1864, he would have died young from food eaten on his travels. At 81, in 1917 he published a scholarly cookbook of vegetarian recipes.
Lyman died August 30, 1920, aged 84, in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania.
Born in the same year as Mark Twain, Lyman outlived him by ten years. His circumstances and career provide a useful perspective upon major developments in New England, United States, and, indeed, world history during a period of immense changes. Lyman was a member of a prominent Hampshire County family with origins in the earliest European settlements of Massachusetts Bay and the Connecticut Valley. His grandfather was Sheriff of "Old Hampshire" County and, after 1811, of the new; his father was County Register of Probate and later Probate Judge. Thus a scion of a local elite, attending Exeter and Harvard, in communication with Transcendentalism and Abolitionism through Franklin B. Sanborn, he was also an early exemplar of the American exodus to Europe for advanced scientific training. And as a participant in the process of resource exploration through the application of geological science, he participated in the development of industrialization both at home and, perhaps most importantly, in Japan. These historical movements are documented in valuable ways by the collection described here.