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Letter 3082

Lincecum, Gideon to Darwin, C. R.

4 Mar 1861

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    Reports on the habits of the cutting ant of Texas, particularly its habit of planting shade trees to protect its mound from sun.

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Long Point. Texas.

4th. March. 1861.

Charles Darwin. M. A.

Down Bromley Kent. England.

Dear Sir.

Your kind letter of 27th January, was just one month on the way. I would not pester you again, but for the question contained in it.

You speak enviously of my ``long career in wild countries''. I might do the same, in regard to your oppertunities in the tame country of books and seminaries, pompous priests and legal superstition. But I don't, except your trip around the globe. If I can not have company whose minds are clearly free, I would prefer to go alone. And thus it has turned out with me through my long sojourn. I have had no associates, and my observations and conclusions, be them right or wrong, are not trammelled by the sway of other minds. Except five month's schooling, at a deserted log cabbin in the backwoods of Georgia, by an old drunkard, my mind has not been biased by training of any kind from designing man. In the canebrakes and unhacked forests on the borders of the above named state, with the muscogee Indian boys for my class mates, I learned my first lessons, in natures grand seminary. Here arose my first thoughts on the subject that is now, by yourself, and by me subscribed to, denominated Natural Selection''. Pardon this digression.

You ask, ``Do you suppose that the ants plant seeds for the ensuing crop?''— I have not the slightest doubt of it. And my conclusions have not been arrived at from hasty, or careless observation, or from seeing the ants do something that looked a little like it, and then guess at the results. I have, at all seasons, watched the same ant cities, during the last 12 years, and I know what I stated in my former letter is true. I visited the same cities yesterday, I find their crop of ant Rice, growing finely, exhibiting also, the signs of high cultivation; not a blade of any other kind of grass or weed, to be seen in 12 inches of the circular row of the Rice.

We have not only agricultural ants in Texas, but we also have a species, that are regular Horticulturalists. The mound, which is constituted of the sand that is thrown out from their cells below, and their extensive tunnels, is from one to two feet high, and sometimes spreding over an area of two or three square rods. It is upon this elevated ground that they plant their shade trees. They cannot stand our summer sun, and in those cities, of recent date, not having had time to grow the shade, no ant is ever seen on the mound, when the sun is 9 o'clock high in hot weather. They are compelled to perform their work during the night time, until the city is properly shaded. Neither can they travel out over the unshaded plains of a sunny day, to bring in the provisions for the indoor workers hence the necessity of tunnels, or underground passages to the trees, and patches of herbaceous plants that produces the leaves of which the food of this species, entirely consists. The sand which is taken out from their tunnels, is all thrown out upon the city mound. The excavation of these underground passages, are always commenced in the city, and extending outwards to some district—often four or five hundred yards—that produces plentiful crops of the kind of leaves upon which they feed; the amount of sand thrown out from them increases the elevation of the mound very considerably; the bore of the tunnel, for the purpose of allowing sufficient room for them to carry a piece of leaf through it that is as wide as a dime, sometimes larger, is generally an inch in diameter. Its outer terminus, most commonly, ends at two or three points, under the shade of a spreading tree, or in a garden or cornfield.

The holes where they come out, are always concealed, by being carefully, and ingeneously covered with dry leaves, bits of stick &c. When they enter a garden in this way, they seldom fail to ruin it, in spite of the efforts of the owner to prevent them. All kinds of fruit trees, many flowering shrubs and garden vegetables, are entirely trimmed of their leaves, and totally ruined. One gentleman on San Antonio River, had a very fine garden invaded by the cutting Ant, (the common name of the species in question) in great numbers, which were rapidly destroying his vegetables by night. As he had good irrigating facilities; he conceived the idea of surrounding his garden by a considerable ditch, and let a sluice of running water through it. All of which he accomplished in good stile, and for two or three days was boasting that he had outed the little pests. It was not long till he found that his garden was being cut up and damaged as bad as before he had surrounded it with water, but as they perpetrated their mischief at night, he could not discover how they had managed to cross his ditch. It was several days before he found the secret and then by accident found, at the root of a little flowering shrub in the garden the concealed terminus of one of their tunnels. On further search he discovered several other concealed holes. And now, forming a resolution that he would not be outdone by them, but that he would destroy them, cost what it might. So calling four or five negroes, with their impliments for ditching, set them to work, ditching and following the ant tunnels from inside the garden; he found that the tunnel passed at a dry depth beneath the water in the ditch, when it rose again within 18 inches to 2 feet of the surface, and at about that depth, he followed it to a large mound city of ants, distant four hundred yards. And now the only chance to destroy them was to dig out the city. This he was prosecuting at last account.

Their horticultural action is exhibitted in their nice judgement in the selection of the quick growing species of the heavy foilaged trees to plant for shade; of which they cultivate four or five kinds Celtis occidentalis, Viburnum dentatum, Ilex vomatoria, Zanthoxylum carolinanum, and the mustang grape vine; all beautifully ornamental. When they locate a city so far out on the bald prairie, that they cannot carry the seeds of the above named trees so great a distance through the grass, they collect and plant the seeds of the Argemone mexicana, a large, quick growing prairy weed, having spreading tops with large leaves, which under the ant culture, besides producing ample shade, is, with its large white flowers, quite ornamental.

It would require a considerable volume to describe this most interesting type of our ants. I will not bore you further on that topic. I have answered your single question; you must excuse me.

You may hower, say to your brother, that if he feels like it, and will put the proper questions to me, he will find, that these little Emmets can teach lessons to the genus homo even, that would be profitable to imitate.

You may be too much engaged, but if you feel any interest in it, this correspondence need not cease.

I remain Dear Sir | Very truly thine | Gideon Lincecum.

    Footnotes Add

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    f1 3082.f1
    CD's letter has not been found in the Lincecum collection in the University of Texas at Austin Archive. He wrote in response to the letter from Gideon Lincecum, 29 December 1860 (Correspondence vol. 8). According to his biographer, Lincecum made the following comment about CD's letter: `To Sir Charles Darwin I am indebted for the most polite letter I ever received.' (Burkhalter 1965, p. 213 n. 5).
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    f2 3082.f2
    The Muskogee Indians were the chief group in the Creek confederation, whose peoples were spread out over the south-eastern states of the United States until their resettlement in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in the 1830s. They were settled agriculturists with an elaborate social organisation (EB).
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    f3 3082.f3
    In his letter of 29 December 1860 (Correspondence vol. 8), Lincecum had described the apparent cultivation of a grain-bearing grass by a local species of ant.
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    f4 3082.f4
    Emmet is an archaic term for ant. CD may have told Lincecum the same anecdote about Erasmus Alvey Darwin that he related to Charles Lyell in his letter of 12 April [1861]. Referring to CD's interest in the social instincts and habits of ants, Erasmus predicted that someday they would find that ants even had `bishops'.
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    f5 3082.f5
    CD's annotations are editorial and relate to the reading of this and Lincecum's earlier letter at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London in April 1861 (see letter to George Busk, 5 April [1861]). The passages marked were those that CD suggested be deleted from the paper.
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