Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,205

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,205


This is the grave of Benjamin Smith Lyman.

Born in 1835 in Northampton, Massachusetts, Lyman grew up pretty well off, went to Harvard, graduated in 1855, and went into teaching. But teaching school was not what he planned to do with his life, as was the case for many of the young men who went into teaching in these years (women would mostly take over this job after the Civil War since you could pay them less and control their behavior at the cost of their job). His wife’s uncle was a surveyor and he brought the young man onto a trip to survey Broad Top Mountain in Pennsylvania. This got him super interested in the natural world and so he decided upon a career in mining engineering. That was no easy life either (read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose for life in that career, but skip the last chapter which may be the worst chapter of any book ever written). But it was interesting if you liked traveling to obscure places for low pay.

Lyman took this seriously. He worked for the new state of Iowa for a bit to get a little experience. Then he went to the best school he could, in Paris, and studied there in 1859 and 1860. Then he studied in Germany through 1862. He then returned to the U.S. and evidently bought himself out of Civil War service, as many rich men did. He worked as a mining engineer for the next several years, first in Pennsylvania and then in the Southwest, which was the real mother lode of American miners developed after the Civil War. He also started working in Asia, doing some jobs for the British in India in 1870. He proved fairly innovative in his work. He invented the idea of contour maps for underground mineral deposits, which he developed in the 1860s and published a description of how to do it in an American scientific journal in 1873.

It was his growing interest in Asia that brings Lyman to our attention. To this point, he’s just a mining engineer, about which there isn’t much that makes him different than a lot of other people at this time. Not exactly the profession of legend or historical memory. But after India, Lyman went to Japan. This was just after the Meiji Restoration and Japan was modernizing fast. It was a period when an American could really make an impact as the Japanese modeled their rapidly growing nation after the burgeoning nation across the Pacific that had forced their own nation out of isolation less than two decades earlier.

Japan brought Lyman on board to survey its mineral deposits. This was a big deal. Mining in Japan had long been controlled by a contract system that was notoriously inefficient. The new leaders of Japan needed an outsider to end that system and bring the critical industry into the nineteenth century if the nation was to become the global power its new leaders dreamed. Lyman was the man to do this. In doing so, he helped build the coal industry in Hokkaido. He also became one of the first Americans to spend a lot of time in that nation and he did a lot to publicize the nation, both in terms of writing for curious Americans and in terms of doing scientific legwork to help industry and just knowledge generally. He became the Meiji’s chief engineer in 1873 and stayed in Japan for the next six years. He worked to bring western mining companies into Japan and develop partnerships with Japanese investors and the government. He worked to develop waterpower. He did scientific research on soil. He did early anthropological work on the Ainu. He also built a more permanent structure of Japanese geologists to continue the work with native geologists when he returned to the U.S., which happened in 1881.

The last two years, he lived there without working, just to finish his reports and learn more about the nation. He also studied the Japanese language carefully and became an important linguist in explaining how to speak it to westerners. He also spoke to the questions of the day if you were an American and didn’t understand anything about this strange new country that we were engaging with. For example, Americans often talked about how Japanese men looked like women. I don’t get that, but there was a lot of discourse about the “feminine” look of Japanese men. Lyman would be consulted on something like this too, about which he said he agreed but that the reason is that Japanese men struggled to grow facial hair. To say the least, Lyman did not have this problem and had one of the epic Gilded Age beards so popular in the U.S. after the Civil War.

Lyman also had some reformer tendencies and became known as a passionate advocate of vegetarianism as a time when this was seen as freak show stuff in the United States. He became a vegetarian in 1864 and remained so for the rest of his life. Not sure how this would have played in the elite circles he ran in when he lived in Japan, but of course people in Asia generally ate less meat then because of the cost so it’s not as if such a diet was impossible. He later published a vegetarian cookbook in 1917. This reformism isn’t so surprising given that way back when he was a teacher, he lived for awhile in Concord and got to know both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and became enamored of the reformist politics of the transcendentalists, even though he was younger than they. One of the things he did with his vegetarianism is introduce Americans to Asian cuisine, one of the first to do so, writing about chutneys he ran into while in India, for example.

Upon his return to the U.S., Lyman reestablished himself in Northampton. He was rich now. He published a whole bunch of reports and books on Japan that he paid for himself. He became one of the nation’s leading experts on Japan and gave talks about the nation. In this, he was important because connections between Japan and the U.S. would grow and grow and grow until not long before World War II. He mostly didn’t work after 1895 but did make an exception to return to Asia in 1906, when he surveyed the coal deposits of the Philippines and got to visit Japan one last time.

Lyman died in 1920. He was 84 years old.

Benjamin Smith Lyman is buried in Bridge Street Cemetery, Northampton, Massachusetts. If you would like this series to visit other American travelers to Japan, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Hersey is in Tisbury, Massachusetts and James Curtis Hepburn is in Montclair, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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