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Paleontological chart

Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864).
Elementary geology.
New York: Mark H. Newman & Co., 1847.
Eighth edition.
362 pp., numerous illustrations with two folded illustrations, one of which hand-colored.

I must admit to a fundamental weakness for the writings of pre-Darwinian scientists, especially in their efforts to reconcile Genesis with geological and paleontological evidence. Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864) and Hugh Miller (1802–1856) are among my favorite authors before November 24, 1859 (the exact publication date of Darwin’s On the origin of species), for their books are intelligible attempts to balance religion and natural history. One of Hitchcock’s most successful publications is entitled Elementary geology, appearing in 32 (!) editions between 1840 and 1870. I adore Elementary geology for one simple reason, its hand-colored “paleontological chart,” neatly folded in my copy before reviews of earlier editions and the title page.

J. David Archibald, of San Diego State University, systematically explains the significance of this chart in a paper in the pages of the Journal of the History of Biology (volume 42, number 3, pp. 561–592). Simply put, Hitchcock’s sees his chart as an elegant graphic illustration of accumulated paleontological data — making it one of first successful efforts to explain the history of life over time on this planet on a single printed sheet. It is worthy of analysis by none other than Edward Tufte.

Hitchcock did not imagine that his chart would have evolutionary implications, since he deftly attacks in this book any hints of non-deific organic transformation in the literature of his day. On page 96 in this particular edition, he denounces, for example, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829): “Hence we learn tha hypothesis of Lamarck is without foundation, which supposes there has been a transmutation of species from less to more perfect, since the beginning of life on the globe: that man, for instance, began his race as a monad, (a particle of life endowed with vitality,) and was converted into several animals successively; the ourang-outang being his last condition, before he became man.” [Emphasis in original]

It’s not surprising that the chart vanished in all editions of this work published after the appearance of On the origin of species. Hitchcock, and his son, were not ready to provide unintentional ammunition to Darwin and his supporters.

My collection includes several other works by Hitchcock, including his magnificent Ichnology of New England (1858) and Supplement to the Ichnology of New England (1865) on the dinosaur trackways of the Connecticut Valley. However, I really prize Elementary geology because of that beautiful chart. It has been rebound fittingly in blue half leather with marbled boards, appropriate protection for that miraculous folded graph.

Martha's Vineyard

Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864).
Final report on the geology of Massachusetts.
Amherst: J.S. & C. Adams, 1841.
Four parts bound in one volume, 831 pp., with 275 woodcut illustrations (Figure 30 hand-colored) and 55 plates (portion of plate 54 hand-colored).
Bookplate on inside front cover, ex libris Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841–1906)

It was plate 45, a lithographic illustration of fossil footprints, known in 1841 as “Ornithichnites or footmarks of extinct birds”. The plate was matted, in a bin of a now extinct print shop on Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. With a little research, I tracked down the source of the plate, Edward Hitchcock’s magnificent Final report on the geology of Massachusetts. Such a terrible title for such a romantic, breathtaking book! The Final report really is a long, rambling, delightful love letter to Massachusetts, its geology, landscapes, shorelines, mountains, islands, and residents. Hitchcock could have certainly taken the title of one of Lord Bryon poems, “She walks in beauty” (1813), and renamed this book, “Massachusetts walks in beauty.” It would have been a more fitting heading than Final report, a work taking Hitchcock, and his artistic wife Orra, over 10,000 miles around the state and a decade to complete. Orra created many of the illustrations in this work, so valued by print dealers, ever ready to guillotine this book into so many frameable moments.

The Final report on the geology of Massachusetts appeared in 1841 in four parts, I. Economical geology; II. Scenographical geology; III. Scientific geology; and IV. Elementary geology. It is all written in an accessible style but the most charming section is “scenographical” which Hitchcock introduces in this fashion:

“I have supposed that my account of the Geology of the State would be quite imperfect, without some notice of our Scenery. Strictly speaking, indeed, scenery is not geology: and yet the contour of a country owes its peculiarities in a great measure to the character of the rocks found beneath the soil: so that the geologist, by a mere inspection of the features of the landscape, can form a very probable opinion of the nature of the rock formations. ... From these and other considerations that might be named, we may safely assume, that the peculiarities of natural scenery depend chiefly upon geological causes; and hence I have thought it would not be a misnomer, to denominate a description of natural scenery, Scenographical Geology. With the modifications of natural scenery by human agency, I have little or nothing to do in this place. My chief object will be to call the attention of men of intelligence and taste, to those striking features of our scenery, that are the result chiefly of geological changes, and which produce landscapes abounding in beauty and sublimity. A few of the more frequented of these spots are well known: but very many of them have cost me much time and labor to discover; quite as much indeed, as to find out new localities of rocks and minerals: although the two objects could be conveniently prosecuted together. Some of them are yet too little known to have received a name; and in a few instances I have ventured to supply this deficiency. It will not be expected that I should describe these spots with the vividness and minuteness of the poet and the painter. My chief object has been to direct the attention of gentlemen of taste, intelligence, and leisure, to these spots; that sometime or other, their beauties and sublimities may be faithfully depicted, both on canvas and in language. In this way I hope that many of our citizens, in their excursions for relaxation and health, instead of following the beaten track to places of fashionable resort, where more is often lost in morals than is gained in health, may be induced to climb our own mountains, and traverse our own deep glens and gorges, where they will find unsophisticated nature, with the dress given her by her Creator, scarcely marred by the hand of man.” (pp. 227–228, emphasis in original)

In addition to details on Massachusetts’ natural beauty, this document includes some of the most extensive early descriptions of what we now know as dinosaur tracks from the Connecticut River valley. Hitchcock was to devote considerable energy into deciphering these Mesozoic records, leading to his fabulous books Ichnology of New England (1858) and Supplement to the Ichnology of New England (1865). Three of the earliest uses of photography in scientific books in the United States — John Collins Warren’s (1778–1856) Remarks on some fossil impressions in the sandstone rocks of Connecticut River (1854), J. Deane’s (1801–1858) Ichnographs from the sandstone of Connecticut River (1861), and Hitchcock’s Supplement (1865) — all were dedicated to solving the track puzzle in New England.

Hitchcock’s introduction to the Final report provides a most fitting tone:

“Let me here, also, testify to the universal disposition which I have found manifested in every part of the Commonwealth, to forward the objects of the survey. For ten years, — I might in truth say twenty, — I have spent a principal portion of my time in wandering over the State. I have climbed all her mountains. I have penetrated her most sequestered valleys and glens. In short, I have traveled within her boundaries not less than 10,000 miles; not with rail road speed, but rather with a geological, which is nearly synonomous with a pedestrian pace: yet have I everywhere met with a hospitality that has supplied all my wants, and with intelligence enough to understand and appreciate, and a disposition to forward, the objects of my commission. These circumstances have given a deep interest to my geological excursions, and make the retrospect of them among the happiest recollections of my life; while they have greatly exalted my opinion of the kindness, intelligence, and happy condition of our population, and increased my attachment to my native State.” (p. iv)