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Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889 and 1999. Virtualology.com warns that these 19th Century biographies contain errors and bias. We rely on volunteers to edit the historic biographies on a continual basis. If you would like to edit this biography please submit a rewritten biography in text form . If acceptable, the new biography will be published above the 19th Century Appleton's Cyclopedia Biography citing the volunteer editor





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James Gates Percival

PERCIVAL, James Gates, poet, born in Kensington, Connecticut, 15 September, 1795; died in Hazel Green, Wisconsin, 2 May, 1856. He was a morbid and sensitive child, preferring books to sports or companions, and inclined to melancholy. When he was five years old and had begun to spell, but not to read, a book on elementary astronomy was brought to his home one Saturday from the district school to be returned the next Monday. James spelled out the first sentence, which so excited his interest that by dint of hard study he mastered its contents before its return. At fourteen years of age he composed an heroic poem. He was graduated at Yale in 1815 at the head of his class, his tragedy of "Zamor," which was subsequently included in his first published book forming part of the commencement exercises. After teaching for a short time in Philadelphia he studied medicine and botany, was licensed to practise, and made several unsuccessful attempts to establish himself, first in his native town and afterward in Charleston, South Carolina But his interest was concentrated in literary work, and in the composition of his poems of "Prometheus " and "Clio," both of which gained him reputation, and were published in Charleston in 1822. He was appointed assistant surgeon in the United States army, and professor of chemistry at the United States military academy in 1824; but the duties proved too laborious, and he resigned in a few months to become a surgeon in the recruiting service in Boston, Massachusetts While in that city he contributed to the " United States Literary Magazine," edited, among other works, Vicesimus Knox's " Elegant Extracts" (Boston, 1826), and published a collection of his poems (2 vols., New York, 1826). He removed to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1827, where he published the third part of his tragedy " Clio," translated with notes Malte Brun's "Geography" (3 vols., Boston. 1834), and assisted in preparing the scientific words in the first quarto edition of Noah Webster's " Dictionary of the English Language." He had a strong taste for natural history, and at this time he began to interest himself particularly in the study of geology, on his own account making an examination of the ranges of trap rock in Connecticut in 1834. The following year, with Professor Charles U. Shepard, he was appointed to make a geological and mineralogical survey of the state. To this work he bent all his energies, making a plan of the country and traversing the state. After many difficulties, much delay, and the consequent dissatisfaction of the legislature, he rendered his "Report of the Geology of the State of Connecticut" (New Haven, 1842), containing an enormous accumulation of material. Notwithstanding the fact that the closeness and brevity of its descriptions make this work one of the driest that was ever issued, it is a monument to the knowledge and industry of its author, he accomplished an extended topographical survey of the state, and a thorough examination of its trap ridges, and their relation to those of the associated sandstone, and brought out as its result a system of general truths in regard to fractures of the earth's surface. He contributed metrical versions of German, Slavonic, and other lyrics to the New Haven journals in 1841--'4, and composed and published his " Dream of a Day" (New Haven, 1843). He was engaged by the American mining company to survey their lead region in Wisconsin in 1853, and in the following year was appointed geologist of that state. His first report was published in 1855, and he was preparing another at the time of his death. Dr. Percival was a man of great learning, and is described by an eminent scholar as " having taken all knowledge for his province."

He read ten languages with fluency, was a philologist, geologist, botanist, musician, and poet. His habits were eccentric, and by nature he was retiring and inclined to melancholy. Although he was without vices, the shiftless management of his pecuniary affairs brought him into many difficulties, but he left a library of more than 10,000 volumes of learned, scientific, and miscellaneous works which was sold by his executors for $20,000. William Cullen Bryant said of his poetry: " While he was one of the most learned of poets, he was also one of the most spontaneous in the manifestations of genius. He wrote with a sort of natural fluency which approached nearer to improvisation than the manner of most of our poets." A complete collection of his poetical works, including those already named, and some posthumous verses, was published, with a biographical sketch by Erastus North (2 vols., Boston, 1859). See his " Life and Letters," by Julius H. Ward (1866).

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