Skip Navigation

The Permian System in Kansas

Prev Page--Introduction || Next Page--Permian Rocks

Historical Aspects

Permian Recognized in Kansas

As is often true in science, controversy exists over who first recognized the existence of Permian rocks in the state of Kansas. As stated by Prosser (1895), four people were involved: Major F. Hawn, G. C. Swallow, F. B. Meek, and F. V. Hayden. According to Prosser's 1895 account, it seems reasonable that Professor Swallow should be credited with the first public announcement that rocks containing Permian fossils occurred in Kansas. This is based on a letter from Swallow read by B. F. Shumard to the St. Louis Academy of Science on 22 February 1858 (Shumard and Swallow, 1858) and publication of a letter from Swallow to J. D. Dana, dated 16 February 1858, in the March 1858 issue of the American Journal of Science (Swallow, 1858). Later that year Meek and Hayden (1858) reported probable Permian rocks in Kansas in the Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences.

As quoted by Prosser (1895), the original description given by Swallow (1858) in the Transactions of the Academy of Science St. Louis (v. 1, p. 111-112) would be, based on fossils collected by Major Hawn, as follows: "I can have no doubt that the rocks are Permian, since the proof is very conclusive in my mind . . . All of the described fossils, with perhaps two exceptions, are identical with Permian species of Russia and England, while all of the new species appear to be more nearly allied to Permian forms than to any other."

Original Description

To improve on the general aspects of the Permian of Kansas as given by Prosser (1895, p. 685) would be difficult:

The region under consideration is a belt of country varying in breadth from fifty to seventy-five miles, extending across the state from south to north in an approximate northerly direction. Topographically, it is a region with high hills that (sic) generally have rounded slopes capped by escarpments of massive limestone and flint. The valleys are narrow, and the landscape as a whole presents an attractive appearance quite at variance with the preconceived idea of the plains of Kansas.

As can be seen from a geologic map of the state (fig. 1), this statement is inaccurate only in that it omits the exposures of Permian rocks in the counties west and southwest of Wichita, Kansas.

Figure 1--Geologic map of Kansas with generalized geologic cross section along I-70.

Simple geologic map of Kansas with cross section along route of I-70.

The primary basis for recognizing the Permian, and other geologic systems/periods, are the fossils contained in the rocks, and this is well demonstrated by the discussions of those fossils collected and studied by the early scientists and travelers in the state. As a result, discussions focused on the comparison of the collected fossils rather than on details of the lithologic sequence. Thus, it seems to us appropriate to consider the above quote from Prosser (1895) as close as we might hope to get to an original description of the Permian in Kansas.

Past to Present

Nineteenth Century

It was recognized in the mid-1800s that rocks of Permian age occurred in Kansas, based on the fossils they contained; however, they were considered as part of the Carboniferous (Mudge, 1866, p. 5) and consisted mostly of massive magnesian limestones and calcareous and arenaceous shales (Mudge, 1866, p. 10). Permian rocks, as then understood, were included in the Carboniferous of the first geologic map of Kansas (Mudge, 1875) and the 1878 colored version (Mudge, 1878). However, this complete sequence of the Kansas Permian was not treated in publications until the mid-1890s (Haworth, 1895a; Prosser, 1895, 1897). As pointed out by Merriam (1963), the red-bed sequence in Kansas, now considered to be Leonardian and Guadalupian, received considerable attention during this time and into the next century. It was important, and thus necessary, to determine whether the red-bed sequences in Kansas were Permian or part of the Mesozoic. Thus, much discussion focused on the age of these beds and they were, at different times, considered Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic, as well as Permian. Such divergent views were based on lithologic similarities and to some extent on the age significance of fossil plants and vertebrates. Hay (1893), one of those early workers on the red beds of Kansas, suggested that they belong to the Permian, based on lithological similarities to the red beds in Texas from which Cope (1888, 1894) had described Permian vertebrates (Prosser, 1897, p. 80). Cragin (1896), in a detailed description of the Kansas red beds, also considered them to be Permian.

Early Twentieth Century (1900-1959)

Discussions during the early 1900s focused on questions of classification of the Permian sequence in Kansas, mainly on the names and extent of formations and larger units, like stages. Obviously, the red beds were still an important topic of study. At this time and well into the century, the U.S. Geological Survey, and some State surveys, including Kansas, considered the Permian as an epoch of the Carboniferous Period (Wilmarth, 1925). Wooster (1930, p. 33), a faculty member at Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, listed the Permian as a sub-period of the Carbonic Period that he referred to as the "Age of Salt and Gypsum."

Numerous studies of fossil plants (Sellards, 1900a, 1900b, 1901a, 1901b, 1908a), insects (Carpenter, 1926, 1930a, 1930b, 1930c, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1939, 1943, 1950; Dunbar, 1923, 1924; Sellards, 1903, 1904, 1906, 1907, 1908b, 1909; Tillyard, 1923, 1924a, 1924b, 1925a, 1925b, 1926a, 1926b, 1926c, 1926d, 1928a, 1928b, 1928c, 1931, 1932a, 1932b, 1936, 1937a, 1937b, 1937c, 1937d, 1937e), and vertebrates (Williston, 1908, 1911a, 1911b, 1914), mostly from the Permian red-bed and evaporite sequence, appeared early in the century. Williston's studies of Permian vertebrates began in 1897 (1897a, 1897b, 1898), and Carpenter's study of Permian insects continued into the 1960's (1966). In 1929 one of the earliest county geologic maps of an area of mostly Permian outcrops, Cowley County, was published (Bass, 1929), as well as a stratigraphic study of the Luta (now Cresswell), a Permian limestone (Boos, 1929). Interest in the oil and gas contained in the Permian rocks of Kansas and adjacent areas also occurred during this period (Heald, 1916; Fath, 1921).

Permian cyclicity, for which the upper Paleozoic sequence in Kansas is so well known, was first documented by Jewett (1933) and was followed in 1937 by another classic paper, this one on the depth of deposition of the Big Blue Series (now Wolfcampian) in Kansas by Elias (1937).

By 1940 the boundary between the Carboniferous and Permian was decided for the Kansas sequence (Moore, 1940) and a standard classification was available by the 1950s. Based on Moore (1948), the standard for some years, was the Kansas Rock Column (Moore, Frye, et al., 1951) and accompanying chart (Moore et al., 1952). Some modifications were made in the late 1950s as noted by Merriam (1963).

As the classification stabilized, more effort was focused on mapping bedrock geology and detailed stratigraphy. Some examples are bedrock geologic maps of Chase County (Moore, Jewett, et al., 1951), Elk County (Verville, 1958), Lyon County (O'Connor, 1953), Marshall County (Walters, 1954), Morris County (Mudge et al., 1958), and Riley and Geary counties (Jewett, 1941). Most stratigraphic studies were on Wolfcampian units; some examples are Hattin (1957) on the Wreford Limestone, Imbrie (1955) on the Florena Shale Member, Lane (1958) on the Grenola Limestone, Newell (1940) on the Whitehorse Sandstone, and Swineford (1955) on Permian red beds.

Late Twentieth Century (1960-1999)

Studies similar to those of the late 1950s characterize the early 1960s with more county mapping and stratigraphic studies. An early paper, often cited, that addressed paleoecology of the time was Laporte's (1962) study of the Cottonwood limestone. Mudge and Yochelson (1962) agreed with the placement of the Carboniferous-Permian contact at the top of the Brownville limestone, and in 1963 Merriam published his geologic history of Kansas. McCrone (1963) documented the Red Eagle Limestone. A year later, 1964, the Kansas Geological Survey symposium volume on "cyclic sedimentation" (Merriam, 1964) appeared, containing important contributions to the study of the Permian of the state. All these have been important in publicizing the uniqueness of the geology of Kansas, and the 1963 bulletin by Merriam has been useful in introducing the geology of the state to the general public.

Useful lithofacies and depositional environments of the Permian in Kansas relative to the paleotectonics of the United States appeared in McKee and Oriel (1967) and Mudge (1967).

Although Haworth (1895b), Fath (1921), and Bass (1929) had written on oil and gas in Kansas, regional studies focusing on petroleum exploration of the Permian sequences in central and western Kansas appeared in papers by Rascoe (1962, 1968) and Rascoe and Adler (1983). At about the same time, studies on the petrography of evaporites (Jones, 1965) and the palynological content of evaporites (Shaffer, 1964) appeared. Studies characterizing Kansas Permian salt deposits to assess their suitability as high-level radioactive-waste repositories were conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Angino and Hambleton, eds., 1971; Bayne, 1972). Tasch (1958, 1961, 1963, 1964) made useful contributions in regard to these evaporitic sequences in his studies of microfossils and the limnological aspects of the distribution of some of these occurrences.

The Wreford Limestone was the focus of studies by Cuffey (1967), Warner and Cuffey (1973), Fry and Cuffey (1976), Lutz-Garihan and Cuffey (1979), Simonsen and Cuffey (1980), Cuffey and Hall (1985), Pachut et al. (1991), and Pachut and Cuffey (1999). Twiss (1988) and Twiss and Underwood (1988) provided detailed descriptions of the Beattie Limestone and Barneston Limestone, respectively, and attempted to interpret them in terms of the phases proposed by Elias in 1937.

Waugh and Brady (1976) addressed the potential of copper in the Permian rocks of Kansas.

The depositional environment of the black shales in the Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian Subsystem) and some in the Permian sequences in Kansas has been debated. Heckel (1977) extended the study by Schenk (1967) on the origin of these beds. Studies of conodonts from these units sparked additional debate in the early 1980s, and to some extent, that debate continues today.

Climate as an important control on Permian deposition began to enter interpretations (Olson and Vaughn, 1970) as a result of studies of global paleoclimatology and paleomagnetism. Documentation of paleosol profiles in the thick variegated mudrock sequences of the lower Permian in Kansas by Miller et al. (1996), coupled with the concepts of genetic, event, and eventually, sequence and cyclic stratigraphy (Boardman et al., 1995; Busch, 1988; Kutzbach and Ziegler, 1993; Mazzullo et al., 1997; Miller and West, 1993; and others), have revolutionized how we view the depositional environment of the Permian of Kansas. At about the same time, Permian climate models were being tested using paleobotanical data (Rees et al., 1999). Cyclicity in Leonardian evaporates on a regional scale, comparable in thickness and duration to pre-Leonardian Permian-Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) cyclothems, was suggested by Watney et al. (1988).

Jin et al. (1997) discussed the development of the chrono-stratigraphy of the Permian. At about the same time, detailed biostratigraphic studies that compared the Kansas Permian to that in the type area of Russia (Boardman et al., 1995; Davydov et al., 1995; Ritter, 1995; Chernykh et al., 1997; Boardman et al., 1998) have resulted in a more reasonable and recognizable lower boundary with the underlying Carboniferous.

Early Twenty-first Century

The Carboniferous-Permian boundary has been more firmly established in reports by Wang and Qi (2002) and Davydov et al. (2002). It has been proposed (Sawin et al., 2006) that the base of the Bennett Shale Member exposed in the Tuttle Creek Lake Spillway in northeastern Kansas be considered for the Carboniferous-Permian boundary stratotype in Kansas. Sawin et al. (2006) also suggested that the stratigraphic position of the Carboniferous-Permian boundary in the Tuttle Creek Lake Spillway section be considered as a potential North American stratotype. Although the lower boundaries for the Sakmarian, Artinskian, and Kungurian have been reported as "in" the Eiss Limestone Member, "near the base" of the Florence Limestone Member, and at the base of the Odell Shale, respectively, GSSPs (Global Stratotype Section and Point) for these boundaries have not been ratified by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (Sawin et al., 2008, p. 2). A worldwide Permian time scale that correlated marine and continental sequences has some significance for Kansas (Menning, 2001). Menning et al. (2006) published a global time scale for the Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian that includes the Pennsylvanian and Permian sequences in Kansas.

Benison and Goldstein (2001) established the presence of cyclic marine (sabkha) and hypersaline nonmarine evaporates (lacustrine salinas) comprising variegated and red-bed successions of the lower Permian Nippewalla Group. Interestingly, Benison (2006) compared these saline lacustrine deposits in the Nippewalla to strata on Mars. Sequence stratigraphy studies by Olszewski and Patzkowsky (2003)and Boardman et al. (2009) relate the eustasy and climate changes in the Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) and lower Permian of Kansas to an icehouse world, and Izart et al. (2003), using sequence stratigraphy, correlated globally the late Carboniferous and Permian. The potential usefulness of trace fossils in enhancing our understanding of Permian depositional environments and climate is illustrated by the work of Hasiotis et al. (2002) and Hembree et al. (2004, 2005).

Research on the role of climate relative to depositional environments regionally (Mack et al., 2003) and globally (Golonka and Ford, 2000; Gibbs et al., 2002; and Tabor and Montañez, 2002) continues. DiMichele et al. (2001, 2009) addressed how climate change affected plant communities during the later Carboniferous and early Permian. Beerling and Berner (2000) concluded that an increase in the pO2 during the Permian-Carboniferous would not have had a significant effect on the terrestrial carbon cycle. Beerling (2002) used fossil lycopsids to infer low levels of atmospheric CO2 during late Paleozoic glaciation. The model developed by Hyde et al. (2006) provided additional inferences as to the CO2 levels of the late Paleozoic.

The economic role and environmental impact of gas storage in the shallow Hutchinson Salt Member in central Kansas were brought to the forefront in January 2001. A major gas leak in well casing above a storage cavern in the salt appears to have been responsible for two explosions and surface gas leaks through unplugged abandoned wells in Hutchinson, Kansas. One theory suggests that an oriented-fracture cluster in a thin dolomite interval equivalent to the Milan Limestone Member in the upper Wellington Formation apparently permitted natural gas to migrate along the dolomite layer over a distance of 7 mi (11.3 km) (Watney et al., 2003). This hypothetical fracture cluster may have been created by focused reactivation and flexure along a structural lineament paralleling the Arkansas River. Mapped elongate patterns of halite dissolution in the uppermost Hutchinson Salt Member appear to have further enhanced flexure along the structural lineament.

The lithostratigraphy and petrophysics of the lower Permian Chase and Council Grove Groups were characterized in a five-year study that ended in 2004, utilizing some 60 cores and over 11,000 well logs from wells that produce natural gas from the Hugoton natural gas area ( The Hugoton natural gas area covers over 12,000 mi2 (31,030 km2) in southwestern Kansas and extends into the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma; this is the largest gas field in the western hemisphere.

Prev Page--Introduction || Next Page--Permian Rocks

Kansas Geological Survey, Geology
Placed on web April 27, 2010; originally published April 2010.
Comments to
The URL for this page is