Jasper and Newton

On September 21, 2014 · 1 Comments

I got an inquiry recently from reader "Aaron O." I took immediate interest because he sparked my Wolf Island visit during the Riverboat Adventure the last time we corresponded. He was a county counter like many of us on 12MC including myself, and he’d encountered a curious coincidence during his collections.

Jasper County bordered Newton County in Texas. Fine, nothing special there. This year he concentrated on Mississippi though, and once again he noticed a Jasper County bordered on a Newton County. Consulting a map, he observed that Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana and Missouri each had a Jasper County and a Newton County that shared a common border. Building on Aaron’s efforts, I began my research and saw that two states, Illinois and Iowa, also had a Jasper County (with no corresponding Newton County) that located their local seat of government in a town named Newton. What was going on?

I’d never noticed the pattern before and I didn’t understand the connection although it happened too frequently to be left to chance. However, the nexus would have been obvious to someone living in the United States two centuries ago. Jasper and Newton referred to Sergeants William Jasper and John Newton, as I found through additional Internet sleuthing, historical figures from the American Revolutionary War.(¹) Jasper was genuinely valiant. Newton was a nobody, elevated in stature through creative fiction that included the alleged connection between the two men.

William Jasper



Fort Moultrie. A poor quality video I took a few years ago

It was still early during the American Revolution when Colonel William Moultrie hastily constructed and never quite completed an earthen fort reinforced with palmetto logs on Sullivan’s Island to protect the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina (map). British warships attacked his positions in June 1776. Palmetto, as it occurred, served as an excellent defensive material. The spongy wood and sandy soil absorbed the impact of incoming cannonballs and deflected them harmlessly with minimal effect on the fortification walls. Meanwhile American artillery returned fire, pounding and damaging the British fleet. British forces retreated after a full day of futile bombardment and wouldn’t return to Charleston for another four years.

On the official flag of South Carolina, "The palmetto tree symbolized Colonel Moultrie’s heroic defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island against the attack of the British fleet…"


The Palmetto State
The Palmetto State by Wendy, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

William Jasper served under Col. Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island as part of the defensive forces preventing a British invasion. The Americans raised their flag, the "Moultrie Flag" — essentially the current South Carolina flag minus the palmetto tree — above a parapet and the battle commenced. A British shell shattered the flagstaff during the fight, knocking the Moultrie Flag to the ground. Jasper grabbed the flag, attached it to a makeshift flagstaff, climbed atop a parapet and held it in place. His actions became a rallying point for American defenders during the siege and his bravery became well-known afterwards.


Jasper Monument
Jasper Monument by Dizzy Girl, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Jasper tried a similar feat at the siege of Savannah, Georgia in 1779. Once more he found himself in a position to race to the top of a parapet and affix a flag. This time, however, he was shot and killed although not before he finish his task. This cemented his legacy, he became a revered hero with numerous posthumous honors, a statue was erected in Savannah, and all eight Jasper Counties in the United States were named for him.


John Newton and the William Jasper Connection

John Newton benefited from a largely-fictionalized revisionist history courtesy of Parson Mason Locke Weems. Parson Weems wrote highly romanticized accounts of early American history at the beginning of 19th Century. Modern standards would probably characterize this genre as "historical fiction" although back then it was simply history and presented as such. He’d listened to or concocted fanciful tales and presented them as fact. Most famously, it included the allegorical account of George Washington and the cherry tree which he claimed he’d heard from an elderly woman who said she was a distant Washington cousin.(²)

Weems wrote immensely popular and influential "biographies" of Washington and other leading historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, and more importantly to this account, Francis Marion. General Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" served originally under Moultrie at Sullivan’s Island, then at the Siege of Savannah and later as the leader of an unconventional force that bedeviled British troops throughout South Carolina. He is often credited with being instrumental to the development of modern guerrilla warfare.

What Weems did for Washington, he also did for Marion. Chapter VI of "The life of General Francis Marion, a celebrated partisan officer" presented an account of Jasper and Newton.


Jasper and Newton Rescue
Sergeants Jasper and Newton Rescuing American Prisoners from the British
by John Blake White (1781 – 1859)
United States Senate Collection

In this story, William Jasper had a loyalist brother who served in the British army at the Ebenezer garrison (map), near Savannah. Jasper would secretly visit his brother undetected for days at a time then report his findings back to the Americans. He brought John Newton along on his final trip behind enemy lines. While at the British garrison, they spotted the arrival a group of American prisoners captured in Savannah who were destined for execution, included a young woman and her child. British troops later marched the group away from the garrison presumably to be hanged. Jasper and Newton waited at a nearby spring where they supposed the group would relax before completing their march. They caught the resting guards by surprise, overpowered them, and released the prisoners, which they then led back across the Savannah River to freedom.

The heroic story struck a chord with American audiences.



Go ahead and read the original story. It won’t take more than a few minutes and it will provide an good indication of Weems’ fanciful, over-the-top style. I dare you to read it without rolling your eyes.

Too bad it wasn’t true. No similar account ever made it into written records on either side of the conflict at the time. Jasper was already revered for his bravery so it seemed unlikely that his peers wouldn’t have noticed him slipping behind enemy lines and returning with freed prisoners. Weems either heard an after-the-fact friend-of-a-friend tale like the Washington cherry tree story or he made it up on his own.

Nonetheless, the story linked Jasper to Newton inextricably in the American psyche during the first half of the 19th Century. Weems’ publications were so influential that fiction became fact. This coincided with a rapid expansion of the U.S. population and ongoing formation of county structures. Although Weems is largely forgotten today, his sway was great enough that it influenced several states to create both a Jasper County and a Newton County adjacent to each other.


(¹) Newton County, Mississippi claimed that it was named for Sir Isaac Newton. While I don’t have evidence, I suspect it was named originally for John Newton like all of the others and it was changed at a later date. This would be similar to King County, Washington named originally for William Rufus King and later changed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
(²) This tale is widely known to anyone raised in the United States. I doubt the same folklore applies elsewhere so I’ll briefly summarize. George Washington as a small child, according to Weems, received a hatchet as a gift and started chopping on various objects like any small child would want to do. This included his father’s prized cherry tree. When confronted he was alleged to respond, "I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." Weems used this as an object lesson to convey Washington’s moral fiber, that even when wrong he would confess his mistakes and deal with the consequences rather than deceive or hide the truth. My father, the king of bad puns used to tell a joke that I’ll presume was popular in the 1940’s, with the punchline "I cannot tell a lie. Popeye did it."

On September 21, 2014 · 1 Comments

A Prisoner to Geo-Oddities

On September 17, 2014 · 3 Comments

I noticed a reference to a prison in Alaska that turned out to be located not too distant from where I roamed around the Kenai Peninsula during my journeys a few summers ago. It was a prison with a view, in fact it was located somewhere (map) in the background of this photo I took from Seward’s Waterfront Park.



View from Seward, Alaska. My own photo.

This was the Spring Creek Correctional Center, the state’s maximum security prison for its most hardened criminals. One would never want to spend time there except perhaps as an employee, and none of us will likely ever find ourselves there as permanent guests unless county counting, state highpointing or extended road tripping suddenly become illegal. Nonetheless, from a purely geographical placement, the inmates have something pleasant to ponder through the slots of their tiny cell block windows during their lengthy incarcerations.

That got me to wonder what other prisons might be advantageous should, you know, one suddenly fall into an alternate universe where the laws are completely different. What correctional institutions would a criminal geo-geek mastermind appreciate?


Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana, USA


Offenders Artwork at Angola Prison Rodeo
Offenders Artwork at Angola Prison Rodeo by crawford orthodontics, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

One the surface, the Louisiana State Penitentiary might seem to have a lot to offer with its annual Angola Rodeo and art show. Seriously, the prison started a rodeo in 1965 and spectators flocked to the site in droves each year ever since.

That would be a nice diversion from toiling in the fields although a true geo-geek would crave more. Knowing that Turnbull Island (map) — a disconnected piece of West Feliciana Parish separated from the rest of the parish by Concordia Parish — was visible on the other side of the Mississippi River, well that would be priceless.


Alexander Maconochie Centre, Australian Capital Territory, Australia



Alexander Maconochie Centre

Geographically savvy Australian prisoners might appreciate being being locked-up at the Alexander Maconochie Centre assuming anyone could truly appreciate such a loss of freedom (map). It was constructed within the borders of the diminutive Australian Capital Territory.

Why would this tiny dot upon the Australian continent require its own prison? Primarily for a single reason: "prisoners were transferred into the New South Wales prison system and the ACT reimbursed NSW for the cost of holding those prisoners." ACT believed it would be cheaper to handle its own prison population instead of paying NSW. Also prisoners would be closer to their families for visitation purposes.

I couldn’t find any photos of the Alexander Maconochie Centre with the proper licenses to share. The centre was new, accepting prisoners only since 2009, so there wasn’t much available. The Canberra Times offered a a representative slideshow though.


San Marino


San Marino
San Marino by fdecomite, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

On the subject of small, I imagined geo-criminals might commit felonies in various microscopic nations simply for the novelty. San Marino appeared to be a decent possibility (map). The European press seemed enamored of San Marino’s prison population, too. The Telegraph featured The ‘world’s most pampered – and bored – prisoner’ in 2011.

The 30-year-old man has his meals brought to him from a local restaurant because it is not economical to lay on a canteen service for him alone. He enjoys the exclusive use of a gym, library and television room and occupies one of six cells which make up San Marino’s only jail, which is tucked into a wing of a former Capuchin monastery… But his lonely penance is about to come to an end – a second inmate is expected to be incarcerated in the next few days.

Der Spiegel followed up in 2014 with "San Marino: Tiny State, Big Baggage." It focused on inmate Piero Berti, a former national head of state who’s holiday meal "consisted of risotto with parmesan, followed by roasted turkey with seasonal vegetables, and fruit for dessert. It was accompanied by wine."


Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, New York, USA



Sing Sing Correctional Facility

On the other hand, Sing Sing was a much more notorious place in spite of it’s charming Hudson River views and its 4-star rating on Yelp. This was a dismal place designed for hardened criminals since the 1820’s, with several hundred people executed onsite using the legendary electric chair Old Sparky.

Sing Sing didn’t make the list because of its accommodations. I added it because the Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson Line commuter train ran directly through the facility! Walkways crossed above the tracks connecting both sides of the prison (for guards I’d suppose, not prisoners). Imagine hanging out in the prison yard and watching the trains pass through all day long. Better yet, imagine commuters riding through a prison, hearing a thunk and wondering if an inmate had jumped onto the roof of the car in an escape attempt like in the movies.

Surely there must be better geo-oddity prisons. How about the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland? It’s surrounded by West Virginia on three side. Are there other candidates?

On September 17, 2014 · 3 Comments

Hardly Tropic

On September 14, 2014 · 1 Comments

Technically, the tropics would be an area hugging the equator between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, between approximately 23°26′-or-so north and south. The two latitudes marked the extent the sun might appear directly overhead if only briefly on a single day, the summer solstice. Tropics also had a more widespread definition that included mild, lush areas in general. I could understand placenames in South Florida incorporating Tropic, Tropical or Tropicana, for example, because the Tropic of Cancer almost clipped it. Utah? Not so much.

Tropic, Utah


View near Tropic, Utah
View near Tropic, Utah by Texas Dreaming, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Yet, that’s what I noticed in the Twelve Mile Circle reader logs. The visitor arrived on the site from Tropic, Utah (map). I’m sure it was a fine town full of lovely people in a wonderful setting. I had no quarrel with the town although its name surprised me.

Tropic was a gateway to Bryce Canyon National Park. I’ve been to Bryce and it’s great, albeit not what most observers might consider tropical, geographically or stereotypically. It snows in Bryce Canyon. Roads close. Rangers lead snowshoe hikes. The park holds a winter carnival. That didn’t sound like The Tropics to me.(¹)

The Town of Tropic did its best to put a happy face on its inherent contradiction.

It was suggested by Andrew J. Hansen to call it "Tropic". To support the suggestion, he stated that people would come to their little valley where peaches, apples, grapes and other semi-tropical fruits would be found. The name Tropic was adopted; with the population of about 15 families.

The name appeared to be a late 19th Century marketing ploy. Town founders focused optimistically on the warmer months and ignored the rest of the year. That didn’t make it tropical though. For Tropic, Utah to be genuinely tropic it would need to be relocated to a latitude at the southern tip of México’s Baja Peninsula.

Let’s go ahead a flog that dead horse a bit longer because, honestly, I don’t have anything better to do this morning.


Tropic of Cancer Beach, The Bahamas



There were precious few places named for the magical lines that marked a tropical transition. One was Tropic of Cancer Beach on Little Exuma in The Bahamas (map). It was truth in advertising too. The Tropic of Cancer did indeed cross through the beach. A line marking the approximate location could be seen in the first few frames of the YouTube video I borrowed.

It might be ill-advised to draw a comparison between the name of the beach and the harmful effects of long-term overexposure to sunlight. Nonetheless I shall note that it was probably a better option than Melanoma Beach. Ignoring that inconvenient fact, its shimmering blue waters, white sand, and light breeze certainly seemed stereotypically tropical!


Hualien, Taiwan


Tropic of Cancer - Valley_01
Tropic of Cancer – Valley_01 by Vincent's Album, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Of course the world wasn’t filled solely with sandy beaches and there were plenty of tropical places that one didn’t necessary think of as meeting the palm tree and umbrella drink stereotype. For instance, the Tropic of Cancer cut through Taiwan, placing half of the island nation within the tropics. Taiwan recognized the line with several markers spread geographically across its landmass including a remarkable specimen in Hualien (map).

The most amusing notion of tropical latitude would be that the boundaries drift over time. Currently the lines are moving slightly towards the equator by a few feet each year as part of a complicated cycle. Any monument marking the actual Tropic of Cancer would become noticeably incorrect almost immediately unless it could be moved. That won’t work for the Taiwanese monument. It’s already on the wrong spot by definition.

However, it’s been done correctly along a highway in Mexico, Carretera 83, near Victoria (map) in the state of Tamaulipas.


America’s Most Spurious



Tropic, OHIO?!?

Utah may not be the tropics although it was still better than a considerably more confounding occurrence I discovered in the Geographic Names Information System: Tropic, Ohio. That was quite the oxymoron. A little additional research traced its name to a nearby coal mine. I guess they ran out of suitable names.


(¹) That’s not to say it never snows in the tropics as defined geographically. There are exceptions. If all these years of writing 12MC have taught me one thing, it’s that very few statements are absolutes.

On September 14, 2014 · 1 Comments
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