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Cabot Community History Project - CABOT'S WONDER BOY, ZERAH COLBURN, 1804-1839

1804 September 1, Zerah is born in Cabot to Abia and Betsy Colburn, the 5th of 8 children.

-August, Zerah's remarkable ability to calculate is discovered and he exhibits his ability at Court Day in Danville.

-October-November, Zerah displays talents for state legislators in Montpelier and visits Burlington. Zerah and father visit Dartmouth College enroute to Boston. President John Wheelock offers to educate Zerah at no cost. Father declines. He hopes to realize more immediate financial gains.

-November 25, Zerah and Abia arrive in Boston.


-January, Zerah and Abia visit New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. , Utica, New York, Boston, attempting to arrange patronage, but it is not sufficient for Abia's desire.

-April, Zerah and Abia rejoin rest of family who was visiting relatives in Norwich, Vermont for one week. Zerah would not see his mother again for 13 years. Abia would not see his wife again.

-Travel throughout Eastern seaboard from Portland, Maine to Lancaster, Richmond, Virginia. A traveler named Amos Kendall, after having encountered the father/son between Windsor, VT and Hanover, NH observed:

Zerah and his father (who was a very ignorant man) had become entirely spoilt by the attention and money which had been bestowed upon them and by their impertinence and vanity made themselves very obnoxious to the other passengers. The desire of the father to have his son educated had been superseded by ïthe cursed lust for gold...'


-January 12, While sailing from Norfolk to Charleston, SC, the Colburns were stranded for two days when the ship ran aground and sank.

-April 3. On advice from Boston supporters, the Colburns set sail for England where, it was hoped, the financial response might be more to their liking.

-May 12, Zerah and Abia arrive in London and took rooms in a boarding house. Noted American inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, visiting in London, wrote:

Zerah Colburn has excited much astonishment here and as they are unwilling just now to allow any cleverness to the Americans, it was said in some papers that he was a Russian.


-January 13, Engraving published of him from a drawing by T. Hull, Esq., engraved by Henry Meyer.

-September, Zerah and Abia travel to Ireland and Scotland giving exhibitions and looking for patronage.


-March, Colburns return to London.

-August, Zerah and Abia travel to Paris where Zerah is examined by scholars at the French "Institute".

1815 -March 2, John Quincy Adams, serving as foreign minister to Briton prior to his service as President, visits Paris and notes the following in his diary:
Zerah Colburn came this morning with his father and another man, whose name was not mentioned to me. . . . Even now he cannot do a common sum in the rule of three, but he can by a mental process of his own extract the roots of any power or number and name the factors by which any given number is produced. . . . Zerah is certainly an astonishing and promising boy; but if his promise is ever to realize anything, the sooner his father commits him to the tuition of the Polytechnic School the better.

- March 21, Zerah views the return of Napoleon to Paris after his banishment to Elba. His description: The peculiarity of his appearance was in his countenance. His form had nothing remarkable. His frame was large and tall, his neck short. He was thin and spare in youth but grew corpulent in maturer years.

-May 30, American author Washington Irving assists in gaining admission for Zerah to the Royal College of Henry IV, previously known as Lyceum Napoleon.


-January, Zerah returns to London and visits renowned British chemist and physicist Michael Faraday.

-July 26, Zerah and Abia meet with the Earl of Bristol who is so impressed with Zerah that he agrees to place him at Westminster School, to keep him there until the completion of his studies, probably 7 or 8 years, and to pay for his tuition, board, and other incidental expenses.

-September 19, Zerah enters Westminster School.

1819 May, Abia Colburn withdraws Zerah from Westminster School after dispute with Earl of Bristol.
1820 Abia proposes that Zerah try his hand in the theater, "which might be productive of pecuniary advantage." A drama tutor is engaged and Zerah is cast in several productions with no financial gain. Similar efforts in Ireland meet with no success.

Zerah begins to be employed as an assistant in a school and shortly thereafter opened a day school himself.

Colburns destitute.

1822 December, Abia's health begins to decline.

-Zerah meets Thomas Young, M.D., who is Secretary to the Board of Longitude of England. Zerah soon begins astronomical work for the Board of Longitude.

-February 14, Abia Colburn dies of consumption (tuberculosis) in London, at age of 54 years, 3 months, and 8 days, and is buried in a pauper's grave.

-May 24, Having secured funds from Lord Bristol, Zerah boards a vessel to return to the United States, 13 years and 3 months after his departure.

-July 3, Zerah arrives at mother's house in Cabot about sunset. He does not recognize his mother nor does she recognize him. She has not heard from her son or husband since they left for England in 1812. He starts a school in Cabot that lasts for two months. He seems to have diminished abilities to calculate for the rest of his life.

-December, Zerah moves to Fairfield, New York to work as an assistant at the academy there but does not find the work rewarding.


Zerah removes to Burlington, has a religious experience, joins the Congregational Church and returns to Cabot in the late fall. In December, he requests an "honorable dismission and recommendation" from the Congregational Church because of a doctrinal conflict and joins the Methodist Society in Cabot.

Zerah begins circuit riding for seven years, first in Canaan, NH, then the next six years in eastern Vermont.

1829 Zerah marries Mary Hoyt who bears him 6 children, 5 daughters and 1 son, none of whom develops their father's ability in calculation. The son is a casualty of the Civil War.
1833 G. and C. Merriam publish Zerah Colburn's memoir in Springfield, MA.
1835 The Reverend Zerah Colburn is appointed Professor of Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish Languages and English Classical Literature at Norwich University, Norwich, Vermont.
1839 March 2, Zerah Colburn succumbs to consumption. The same disease that claimed his father 15 years earlier.