1541 to 1864
1. A place 'wholly unfit': Geology in Kansas, 1541 to 1864On a summer's day in 1541, a group of weary Spanish explorers looked across the seemingly endless plains they called Quivira. Though the boundaries of the place were not yet established, the Spaniards were in Kansas, somewhere north of the Arkansas River, as far north as they would go. No geologists made the trip--geology as a distinct science did not exist at the time--and yet the explorers made the first European observation about Kansas geology: there was no gold. That conclusion was certain and stark and final. The Spanish expected to see cities with gold-paved streets and inhabitants wearing ornaments made of marvelous metals. Instead they found natives wearing practically nothing, living in houses of grass and mud. They found fertile prairie and herds of buffalo. But no gold or silver.
During the years from 1541 to 1864, other explorers followed the Spanish and in the process came across deposits of coal and lead and zinc. Settlers had found oil seeps and salt marshes; by 1864, oil wells had been drilled in eastern Kansas. A few frontiersmen developed an awareness of the geologic part of their environment. Yet they did not know if other minerals remained to be found in eastern Kansas and they knew virtually nothing about the geology of western Kansas (Merriam, 1984). What was known had usually been learned by happenstance, not by design. When, in 1864, Governor Thomas Carney signed, a law creating the first geological survey of Kansas, he was attempting to end that ignorance of Kansas's geologic wealth.
Even before Carney's action, Kansas had been the scene of several hundred years of exploration, most of it tangential to geology. Those early years of geological reconnaissance are described in this chapter. That reconnaissance was important because it turned up information about the state's resources, such as coal. It was important because it produced a tantalizing glimpse of the geology in western Kansas, where major discoveries awaited only the westward progress of the frontier. But mostly that reconnaissance was important because it set the stage for later geologic study of the state, providing the background for the detailed studies that would come.
European and early American explorationThe first phase of Spanish exploration produced only incidental findings about plains geology. As far as the explorers were concerned, their most important finding was negative. Though they searched with remarkable singularity, they found no precious metals in Kansas. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's (1510-1554) celebrated, circuitous ride through Kansas in 1541 was in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold: Cibola. Although Coronado left Kansas as empty handed as the Spanish explorers who followed him, that initial failure did not deter exploration of the state. Other explorers, most of them French, crossed the Great Plains. Again, most of their geologic observations were incidental, but this time they focused less on precious metals. The French explorer M. Veniard de Bourgmont passed through the Kansas River valley in 1724 and made the first recorded remarks on the red quartzite glacial erratics in northeastern Kansas (in Du Pratz, 1763). This expedition may also have encountered the Smoky Hill Buttes and outcrops of Dakota Formation sandstone in central Kansas before heading south toward New Orleans. Before leaving, however, the French noted the possible economic gain that could come from this part of the Louisiana Territory. As early as 1720, they were working lead mines in neighboring Missouri (Rabbitt, 1979, p. 11).
American explorers made their entrance into Kansas when Louisiana was sold to the United States. Some liked what they saw; others did not. In 1804, Lewis and Clark wound their way around the northeastern tip of the state and their journals recorded impressions of a region that was "some of the most charming bottom lands and uplands by no means bad" (Lewis, 1969, p. 385). In 1806 Zebulon Pike (1779-1813) started his trek across Kansas, saw more of the state than Lewis and Clark, and came back less favorably impressed. "These vast plains of the western hemisphere," he wrote, "may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa; for I saw in my route, in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful form of the ocean's rolling wave, and on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed" (in Jackson, 1966, p. 27-28). Pike, who was eventually arrested by Spanish authorities, saw only one asset in the plains: they would stop American migration and thereby somehow increase the longevity of the Union.
Exploration continued. In 1819 Major Stephen H. Long (1784-1835) was given orders to reconnoiter the plains and help the army establish a fort in the area. Long, an experienced engineer, took with him a group of scientists that included Edwin James and Augustus Edward Jessup. A portion of Long's party, including Jessup, moved through eastern Kansas and managed to get as far west as today's Riley County before an encounter with Pawnee Indians sent them packing back to Council Bluffs. Jessup's report was among the first descriptions of Kansas by a scientist; in it he commented on those geologic features that are still the most readily apparent in eastern Kansas: the abundant limestone, the fossils, the flint. Some of the limestones, he wrote, "embrace numerous masses of chert ... This occurs of various colors, and these are arranged in spots or stripes. Some specimens have several distinct colours arranged in zigzag lines" (in James, 1905, p. 212). Jessup also noted the presence of coal strata.
As one of its geologic findings, the Long expedition confirmed Pike's impression of the west as desert. After returning, Long wrote of an area that was "almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence" (in James, 1905, p. 20). The region's only positive point, he continued, was that it might "serve as a barrier to prevent too great an extension of our population westward, and secure us against the machinations or incursions of an enemy..." (in James, 1905, p. 20). The efforts of Pike, Long, and others produced the label of Great American Desert, a tag that stuck on the area until well after the Civil War. Reports that came back from the west convinced many Americans that the region was uninhabitable--at least by European standards--and might best be left to its original inhabitants, the Indians (Billington, 1967, p. 452).
Such pronouncements might seem discouraging, but they hardly halted westward movement, and Kansas continued to be invaded by the missionaries, traders, trappers, hunters, and early settlers who were the leading edge of American expansion. As these people moved into the frontier, their main concern was finding life's necessities. Most of the time food was not a problem, especially in the beginning when bison and other game were plentiful. But the scarcity of timber on the plains--a scarcity that was more and more evident as settlers moved farther west in Kansas--meant that they had to redouble their search for minerals, particularly stone for building houses and coal for heating. Often, in the eastern part of Kansas, settlers found what they needed. In 1828, Isaac McCoy, a Baptist missionary to the Indians, reported coal along the Neosho River about four miles south and two miles east of present-day Chanute. The river bank "abounded with coal," McCoy declared. "From other specimens of less note, and the concurrent testimony of all acquainted in the country there can be no doubt that coal exists therein in great abundance" (in Barnes, 1945, p. 421). McCoy saw more than coal. He mentioned lead mines in Missouri and "valuable salt springs on the Neosho, and farther south, some of which I saw, and one of which they were profitably working" (in Barnes, 1945, p. 422).
Geologic reconnaissance beginsAs exploration and travel across Kansas accelerated in the 1830s and 1840s, so did the pace of geologic observation. Most efforts were connected with railroad and government surveys (see Gries, 1984), and much was learned through incidental observations of the geology by military expeditions (Goetzmann, 1965; Bartlett, 1962). Again, the reports were concerned largely with the availability of water, building stone, and valuable minerals. Reports of coal excited special interest.
At this point, however, geologic notations took on a different tone. Certainly explorers were still on the lookout for minerals that might have economic benefit. But at the same time--mostly in the eastern third of Kansas--naturalists were making geologic observations. They had more than just an economic interest in whether or not coal, for instance, was available in the state. Now, in the late 1840s and early 1850s, scientists were beginning stratigraphic classification in Kansas, going beyond the exploration that frontiersmen and survey parties had undertaken. In essence, geologists were beginning to stir in Kansas, and the first phase of detailed geologic reconnaissance was beginning.
Not that interest in the economic aspects of the state's geology had waned. If anything, concern over mineral deposits and fuel sources had burgeoned. Kansas was not organized as a territory until 1854, and prior to that time relatively few whites had settled in the area. But with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the state took on territorial status and settlement began in earnest. Entering the picture was the issue of slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the slavery question to be settled by popular sovereignty, and in Kansas that amounted to a slavery versus abolitionist free-for-all as both sides made valiant efforts to influence the decision. Even geology was pressed into service in an attempt to attract settlers favorable to one side or the other. One abolitionist writer declared that "with her coal and mineral resources in general, she [Kansas] has the elements of an empire State.... If Kansas should become a free state and attract to herself an emigration which should introduce eastern mechanical skill and experience, she would at once furnish manufacturers of wood, iron, leather, hemp and a countless variety of articles, for an immense country both above and below here" (Boynton and Mason, 1855, p. 40, 76). The propaganda effort, for it was basically that, even extended to trying to erase the lingering notion of Kansas as the Great American Desert. "We conclude, that what we have called the eastern district, does not end abruptly at the edge of a sandy desert, but that its western portion changes its character gradually. ... We are, however, quite satisfied, that a good farming region extends much farther westward, in Kansas, than has been generally supposed, and that future investigation will very much reduce the dimensions of what has been called the American Desert" (Boynton and Mason, 1855, p. 33-34). Geology was enlisted in the propaganda effort, the efficacy of which it is difficult to gauge. Still, the influx of settlers in the 1850s did renew the demand for raw materials and resulted in a clamor for building stone and coal.
As the pace of geologic investigation quickened, so did its sophistication. In 1853, George C. Swallow (1817-1899), the first state geologist of Missouri (and later the second state geologist of Kansas), undertook systematic studies of the geology of western Missouri that often carried him into eastern Kansas, making his some of the earliest and most extensive investigations of Kansas geology. Born in Maine, he studied in Bowdoin College under Parker Cleaveland (1780-1858), whose Elementary Treatise on Mineralogy and Geology was a landmark synthesis of American mineralogy and made the author one of the foremost mineralogists in America during the first half of the 1800s. Graduating in 1843, Swallow taught in Maine schools and then accepted the chair of chemistry and natural sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia (Broadhead, 1899). Swallow must have cut an impressive figure during his study of frontier geology. He was over six feet tall and wore a long, full beard. His eyes were deep set.
Swallow's work was as notable as his appearance. In the first annual report on the geological survey of Missouri, Swallow discussed the geology of northeastern Kansas, describing the Carboniferous rocks north of the Kansas River. Although Swallow did not find economically important amounts of coal during the trip, he was convinced that the strata of eastern Kansas--which had previously been correlated with the lower Carboniferous age, a coal-lacking period--were actually of the upper Carboniferous. The result, he was convinced, was that "the whole of this vast region is underlain by productive coal beds" (Swallow, 1855, p. 153-154).
This increasing knowledge of the state's geology coincided with the final stages of geology's coming of age as a discipline. As it was practiced during the initial phases of the west's exploration, geology was far different than at the time of Swallow's investigations. Well into the 1700s, geology was part of that nebulous realm known as "natural philosophy" and it was hardly a specialty. Geology amounted to little beyond the collection of curious or particularly entrancing specimens and the development of expertise necessary for mining. In America, the growth of geology as a discipline lagged far behind Europe, to the point that as late as the 1810s, a competent professor of natural philosophy could admit total ignorance of even the basics of mineralogy (Greene and Burke, 1978, p. 51).
Still, geology was maturing. By 1800, it had entered a more modern phase, characterized by development of field-tested ideas about stratigraphy, the development of classification schemes for minerals, and the proposal of a variety of theories about the earth's creation. The most famous of the debates about rock formation was in full swing while Lewis and Clark were exploring the American hinterlands. The Neptunists, usually citing Abraham Gottlob Werner (1750-1817) as their source, proposed a series of primordial seas that were responsible for the various rock formations, and classified formations by age according to the seas that created them. This catastrophic viewpoint carried the day into the 19th century, when the paradigm of geology shifted to uniformitarianism. This maturation of geology occurred simultaneously with the exploration of the American West. At about the time Isaac McCoy was searching for coal on the banks of Kansas rivers, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was preparing to recapture uniformitarianism in his Principles of Geology. Shortly after Swallow made observations on eastern Kansas, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) wrote The Origin of Species, firing the most profound salvo in the fight over evolution of organisms and altering geologic thought in the process.
Such, then, was the state of geology in America during the early 19th century. Geology was also characterized by increasing professionalism that was spreading through much of American science. The first half of the 1800s served as a transition period, as American science began to shape itself into the variety of mature disciplines, including geology, that appeared by mid-century. At the same time, the science of geology throughout the world was undergoing its own development, so that by 1840 geologists were ready to tackle the more specialized problems of stratigraphy, mountain building, and the rest.
Occurring simultaneously with the exploration of Kansas, geology's growing professionalism was evident during the opening of the plains. When exploration parties passed through Kansas, few geologists went along because there were few full-fledged geologists in the nation. As later parties moved west, the level of geologic reconnaissance improved, reflecting the maturation of the discipline and the changing paradigms of geology. For example, when Jessup explored eastern Kansas with the Long expedition, he questioned the classification system of primitive, secondary, and modern formations. Thirty years later, by the time Swallow arrived in eastern Kansas, the modern classification scheme was in use and the level of expertise had increased appreciably.
The Permian controversyNot only was the development of geology reflected in writing about Kansas, but findings from the Kansas landscape contributed to the growing knowledge of American geology. The first and most notable of those findings was the first recognition of Permian strata in North America, which was based on fossils from Kansas; it also engendered the first major fight over scientific priority in the state. Central in the battle was Frederick Hawn, a civil engineer who worked with railroad surveys in Illinois before moving to Missouri (Broadhead, 1898). In 1854, Hawn was appointed deputy surveyor for Kansas and Nebraska (Taft, 1953, p. 293). Not trained as a geologist, Hawn apparently had a geologic bent, often collecting rock samples during his surveying. In 1855, Hawn picked up several samples around the confluence of the Smoky Hill and Saline rivers, somewhere west of Fort Riley. Unable to identify some of the fossils in the collection, Hawn sent several of the rocks--those he thought were Cretaceous--to F. B. Meek (1817-1876), at the time an assistant to James Hall at Albany, New York. The fossils he thought were Carboniferous went to Swallow at Columbia. That much, at least, is clear.
Then the story becomes muddled. According to correspondence that followed--some of it published and some of it not--Meek soon realized that the fossils Hawn sent were not Cretaceous but might be of Permian age. The Permian system, designated and named in Russia by Sir Roderick Murchison (1792-1871) in 1841, consists of rocks about 220 to 270 million years old, although rocks of that age had yet to be identified in North America. In Kansas, Permian rocks generally occur in a north-south strip that corresponds roughly with the Flint Hills in the eastern part of the state, from Washington County in the north to Cowley County in the south (Moore and others, 1951). Permian formations also occur farther west, in the Red Hills of south-central Kansas, though their existence was not known at the time and, even after they were discovered, they posed stratigraphic problems well in to the 20th century.
The fossils Hawn discovered were from Flint Hills formations, and if they were actually Permian, their importance was evident. Realizing exactly that, Meek wrote to Hawn and asked that he send the rest of his samples, including the ones sent to Swallow at Missouri. But Swallow never mailed the remaining fossils, and while Meek waited, Swallow and Hawn prepared a paper (without telling Meek) announcing the discovery of the first North American Permian fossils and read it at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences of St. Louis on 22 February 1858. On 2 March 1858, Meek and Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829-1887)--his collaborator in studies of the geology and paleontology of the upper Missouri country since 1853--announced the same discovery (Meek and Hayden, 1858) to the Albany Institute and the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia. The outbursts that followed were predictable, with Meek and Hayden claiming that it was only through Meek's identification that Hawn knew the fossils were Permian. Meek and Hayden charged that in the rush to announce, Hawn had clearly usurped their right. The dispute's high point, or perhaps its low point, came later that year at the Baltimore meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when James Hall and Meek debated briefly about who claimed what and when they claimed it (Nelson and Fryxell, 1979, p. 194; see also Nelson, 1987).
In strictest terms, the priority for discovery went to Swallow and Hawn because their paper was, by a matter of days, the first published announcement of discovery. But in other terms, Meek's claim is certainly substantial: his announcement of the discovery was included in a letter dated 16 February 1958, while Hawn and Swallow transmitted their news in a letter dated 18 February of the same year; and it is clear, from correspondence now in Smithsonian Institution Archives, that Meek first noticed the possible Permian age of the fossils (Merrill, 1924, p. 370). But because of Swallow and Hawn's publication, the race for priority had no clear-cut winner and, as in any dispute, the jockeying for position went on for some time. As late as 1867, Hayden wrote in the American Journal of Science (Silliman's Journal) that in Swallow's 1865 report on Kansas geology "we regret to see that Prof. Swallow (doubtless inadvertently) here in an official report, uses language, which when taken in connection with the fact that he nowhere alludes to the labors of others in that region would lead some to think he had intentionally ignored the agency of any other parties in that discovery and was claiming it as wholly his own" (Hayden, 1867, p. 38).
In short, by 1858 scientific controversy had arrived in full force in Kansas. With it came other elements of geology that accompanied increased scientific activity. By 1858, more detailed geologic maps of part of Kansas were being produced. Before the mid-1850s, maps of the region's geology were little more than guesses, sometimes educated and sometimes not. For example, Edwin James drew a geologic map that included Kansas after his trip with Long in 1819 and 1820. In 1858, Hayden produced a map of Nebraska that showed the Permian extending well into Kansas, as far south as Butler County. A year later Hawn produced a geologic cross section across the Territory from east to west.
By 1864, then, many of the principals of geologic reconnaissance had made their appearance. Swallow was among the first on the scene and continued to write prolifically about Kansas geology for some time (Swallow, 1858; Swallow and Hawn, 1860). Hawn too continued to publish and map, although his conclusions often had to wait for further study and confirmation by others (Hawn, 1860). Finally, Meek and Hayden continued to publish, often carefully examining and criticizing the contentions of Swallow and Hawn. The work of these scientists, and others, established the following conclusions about Kansas geology: loess and red glacial erratics were common in northeastern Kansas; rocks of Carboniferous age, including coal, were common in eastern Kansas; Permian fossils occurred in the state; gypsum and rocks of Cretaceous age cropped out in central and western Kansas; and sandy alluvium covered much of western Kansas.
The upshot of this geological activity was that by 1864, when the first geological survey in Kansas was authorized, geologic investigations were already thriving in the state, but most were based on regional studies by the federal government operating in Missouri. Thus, much was left untouched because no organized, institutional source existed within the state to give impetus to systematic geologic reconnaissance. The economic stimulus of minerals, and the role they played in the settlement of frontier Kansas, were later almost certainly important in the creation of an organized survey. At the same time, the profession of geology was maturing, nurturing an intrinsic interest in geology, not only for the sake of economic benefits but for its contributions to knowledge about the earth. These two forces weighed not only in the coming debate over creation of a survey, but also influenced the shape of the institution once it was formed.
Kansas Geological Survey, KGS History|
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Web version February 2003. Original publication date 1989.