John Day Fossil Beds
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Chapter Seven:

The John Day Fossil Beds have attracted the serious attention of scientists for nearly 140 years. The flora and fauna of past geological epochs, so remarkably preserved in the scattered sites of the upper John Day basin, have helped to chart the complex story of the earth's deep past. Prominent nineteenth and twentieth-century scholars have made pivotal discoveries in the John Day beds, leading to dozens of published reports, scientific articles, and scholarly papers. Specimens from the John Day deposits are held in paleontological collections around the world. Today, ongoing paleontological research at the Monument continues to build upon the pioneering work of the early scientists, and is best understood within the context of those efforts.

Thomas Condon, Pioneer Geologist

Thomas Condon, Congregational minister and amateur geologist, settled in The Dalles in 1861. Fascinated by fossil plants and vertebrates, Condon established a "cabinet" wherein he displayed the curiosities of nature. His interest encouraged others in the region to bring him their discoveries to see if he could identify the specimens. Condon's reputation grew rapidly. He read journals and books to expand his scientific knowledge, delivered public lectures in The Dalles, and eagerly greeted learned travelers when he knew they were in the city, inviting them to visit his home, view his collections, and share what they knew about geology and fossils. His keen collecting, avid research, good mind, and generous spirit helped generate local interest in the region's paleontology and, in turn, soon connected Condon with a national network of scholars and collectors (Clark 1989).

Sheep Rock
Fig. 54. View of Sheep Rock in the "Turtle Cove," Sheep Rock Unit (OrHi 86089).

Condon's expeditions to the John Day country commenced in the fall of 1865 when he secured permission to travel with the U.S. Cavalry from Fort Dalles on a reconnaissance of the region. Condon collected fossils and rock specimens, including items from along Bridge Creek and from the locale around Sheep Rock which he christened "Turtle Cove." Following the expedition, Condon delivered lectures in The Dalles and Portland to share his discoveries (Clark 1989: 175-176). Whenever Condon could secure permission to travel with the military, he set out for the John Day country. In the fall of 1867, the editor of the Mountaineer (The Dalles, Oregon) reported on Condon's growing collection and that he had returned from the field with "new and beautiful geological specimens," several of which were "entirely new to the scientific world" (Clark 1989: 197).

Condon's reputation and knowledge of fossil deposits drew others to the region. In the late 1860s he had several visitors eager to see his collections. These included Clarence King and Arnold Hague, both engaged in work on the survey of the fortieth parallel for the U.S. Geological Survey. Graduates of the Sheffield School of Science, the preeminent program in geology at Yale University, King and Hague encouraged Condon in his work and reported his discoveries to others. William P. Blake, state mineralogist of California and a university professor, also met Condon and examined his fossil collection. Blake volunteered to take some of the fossils to colleagues in the East for identification (Clark 1989: 197). Blake shared the fossils with Dr. John S. Newberry, a scholar who had worked in Oregon during the Pacific Railroad Surveys in the 1850s, and James Dwight Dana of Yale. Newberry was so impressed that he solicited specimens from Condon for the Smithsonian Institution. Condon gathered items on the John Day, Bridge Creek, near The Dalles, and in the Columbia Gorge and, in February 1869, shipped them east (Clark 1989: 205-207).

Condon commenced formal sharing of information about the region in "Geological Notes From Oregon," an essay published in 1869 in the Overland Monthly and Outwest Magazine. The focus of this report was the great landslide which nearly dammed the Columbia River in the Cascades region of the Columbia Gorge. To assist his collecting further, Condon hired a rancher, probably Sam Snook who lived at Cottonwood on the John Day River, to assist in the fieldwork. In 1870 Condon sent additional specimens from Currant Creek, Bridge Creek, and McBee's Canyon — all sites in the upper John Day basin (Clark 1989: 207). Condon's observations and writing led to publication in 1871 of "The Rocks of the John Day Valley," also in the Overland Monthly.

Word of the fossil beds spread. In 1871 amateur geologist William de Gracey (Lord Walsingham) passed through the upper John Day while on a hunting expedition. De Gracey collected specimens at Turtle Cove and Bridge Creek, some of which were noticed in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (Bettany 1876: 259).

In 1871 Othneil C. Marsh, professor of paleontology at Yale, led the first university-sponsored scientific expedition to the John Day Fossil Beds. Condon had corresponded regularly with Marsh and shipped specimens to him. Marsh arrived in October with a dozen Yale students, all weary after weeks in the field in Kansas and Wyoming. The Yale party traveled 600 miles by lurching stagecoach from Salt Lake City to Canyon City, arriving on October 17. A military escort from Fort Harney accompanied them to the John Day deposits, where they were met and guided by Thomas Condon. In spite of their fatigue and deteriorating weather conditions, the students and their professors, accompanied by Condon, collected eleven boxes of material between October 31 and November 8. The group then moved on to The Dalles where Marsh studied Condon's collection for three days. Marsh was particularly intrigued with the bones of a three-toed horse and tried to purchase the specimen; Condon declined to sell it. Subsequently Marsh published on the specimens viewed or collected during the 1871 expedition. The species included two rhinoceros and one oreodon, the latter a specimen presented by Condon to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University (Clark 1989: 236-237; Schuchert and LeVene 1940: 124-126).

Condon's circle of contacts continued to grow. His connection with Marsh led to correspondence in 1871 from Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Cope, a rival and at times a bitter foe of Marsh, wanted specimens. Next came a request from Professor C. D. Voy of the University of California, Berkeley, volunteering to exchange fossils from California for those Condon was finding in Oregon. At almost the same time, Joseph Le Conte of the University of California announced a trip to Oregon and proposed that Condon join him in the field (Clark 1989: 230-235).

In less than five years, Condon's pioneering geological work had attracted major American scholars. He had linked them through correspondence and specimens to the unique deposits of the John Day region. Governor Lafayette Grover in 1872 named Thomas Condon Oregon's first State Geologist, a position which ultimately led to his leaving the ministry and assuming professorial responsibilities at the new University of Oregon in Eugene (Clark 1989: 252-254).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002