Fossil Discoveries and Collectors in Pre-territorial Washington (1792-1841)

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 3/17/2023
  • Essay 22692

Washington state has fossils ranging in age from 12,000 years old to more than 500 million years old. People have made use of them for thousands of years, but not until non-Native people arrived were they collected, described, and scientifically named. It’s unclear who was the first to do so in present-day Washington, but it most likely was James Dwight Dana, who collected specimens around Bellingham Bay near the Canadian border in 1841. One of them still exists and is owned by Yale University’s Peabody Museum.

Abundant Fossils

Well known for its modern plant and animal life, Washington also has a rich abundance of fossils. Mammoths in downtown Seattle. The curious outline of a rhinoceros on the Columbia Plateau. Evolutionarily significant whales on the Olympic Peninsula. The fossils range in age from Ice Age mammals only 12,000 years old to marine invertebrates more than 500 million years old. And, for about as long as people have been in the region, they have incorporated the fossils into their lives.

The earliest association comes from the Wanapum people of Eastern Washington. At least 9,000 years before present, they made elegant tools out of 15.8-million-year-old petrified wood, which comes from the Priest Rapid Member of the Wanapum Formation of the Columbia River Basalts. These trees lived when the area was warmer and wetter (about 50 inches of rain per year). Similar forests are found today in the Appalachian Mountains in the Southeastern U.S.

Part of what makes the petrified wood intriguing is that it is preserved in igneous rock, rarely the type of rock that preserves fossils; most fossils are found in sedimentry rocks. The high proportion of upland trees, such as Douglas fir, mixed with a typical high diversity of lowland forest trees, has led geologists to propose that the petrified forest resulted from an eruption-generated mudslide, or lahar, which carried the trees down slope. During the next eruption of Columbia River basalt, the hot lava flow buried the lahar deposit and the logs. They were exposed only when the current Columbia River cut through the rocks.

Another example, which does not have a date but must go back deep in time, comes from near Kent, where there is a location known in Lushootseed as bsskwEd, or "where there is a waterfall" (Waterman, 133). It was formerly known by settlers as Langston’s Ferry. We know the Native name because of work conducted by Thomas Talbot Waterman (1885-1936). In 1918, he moved to Seattle to be an Associate Professor at the University of Washington. During his time working in the region, Waterman interviewed numerous Native residents, often with a goal to seeking out place names so that he could compare different locations, particularly in regard to folklore. He eventually produced but never published Puget Sound Geography, which contains hundreds of place names in Lushootseed.

For the spot near Kent called bsskwEd, Waterman wrote: "Mink was coming upriver once, bringing with him his lunch which consisted mostly of mussels. The world suddenly changed. The lunch is still there on [the] west bank. You can pick fossil mussels out of the rock" (Waterman, 133). No fossils are known from this location, but as Coll Thrush wrote in Native Seattle in reference to Waterman "his maps are consistenly bad" (Thrush, 210). In addition, an 1889 United States Geological Survey Bulletin by Charles A. White (1826-1910) referred to many 37- to 47-million-year old marine invertebrate fossils from the vicinity, though none are mussels.

One of the larger fossils in the area is a mollusk known as Batissa newberryi. They were several inches long and would have been obvious. (There is some debate as to whether Batissa is a valid scientific name, but at present not enough work has been done to rename the species; the specific epithet honors John Strong Newberry [1822-1892], a naturalist who collected in the Columbia River gorge as part of the Pacific Railroad Survey in 1855.)

A Collector Visits in 1792

The first known, non-Native naturalist to visit the region was Archibald Menzies (1754–1842). Born in Scotland, he was the botanist on George Vancouver’s expedition, which sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca in April 1792 and Puget Sound in May 1792. Well known for his collecting (at dinner with the Viceroy of Chile earlier in the expedition, instead of eating nuts, which were new to him, Menzies pocketed them to take back to England), he gathered more than 400 species new to science including madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

Menzies also collected many fossils on the expedition. Though it’s not clear exactly where, he passed by several areas in what is now Washington where he could have found fossils, including spending several days around Birch Bay and Bellingham Bay, the latter which has many well studied fossil localities. Menzies eventually sent the fossils and two catalog lists to his friend and patron Joseph Banks (1743–1820), a wealthy and influential English naturalist -- "A Box of Fossils containing 103 different kinds, marked and number from New Georgia [land around Salish Sea]" and "A Box of Fossils from the Northern parts of the Coast of America and Lavas from the Owhyhee marked and numbered from 1-80."

As a trained botanist and surgeon, Menzies most likely would have been aware of fossils and possibly known of the controversies surrounding them. Did they represent extinct lifeforms? Could they be from dragons, particularly if the fossils were large? How did they figure in a non-evolutionary view of the world? Were they connected to Noah’s Flood? Not until Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which helped popularize the idea of Earth being millions of years old, was published in 1830, and Charles Darwin’s 1855 book On the Origin of Species did the modern ideas about fossils and the great age of the Earth begin to germinate widely. It would be interesting to know what Menzies thought.

After receiving Menzies’ collection, Banks sent them to the Duke of Portland, who passed them along to the British Museum. Unfortunately, the fossils no longer exist, so it’s unclear if Menzies actually collected any fossils within Washington.

1825: Scouler and Douglas

Two other Scotsmen merit the honor for first written observations of fossils: John Scouler (1804-1871) and David Douglas (1799-1834). They arrived together from England on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ship William and Anne, and entered the mouth of the Columbia River on April 7, 1825. Scouler was 20 and the ship’s surgeon. Douglas was 24 and a soon-to-be-famous botanist. Scouler would eventually have a long career as a naturalist and professor at Andersonian University in Scotland, where his interests included geology, anthropology, and botany. Despite his many contributions to natural and human history, Scouler is often overlooked relative to Douglas, who, although he died young, is honored by more than 80 species bearing his name. He also introduced hundreds of plants now found in gardens around the world.

Scouler is the first to mention fossils. On April 17, Scouler wrote in his journal: "The fossil contents of this rock, although not very varied, are abundant. They consist as far as my examination extended entirely, of shells. A [illegible] of large size and good preservation was by no means uncommon. The handsomest shell may probably [be] a species of Venus. Those parts of the rock that were unusually hard were the richest in this shell; but easily fell out entire from a smart blow of the hammer. I also founid great abundance of a small species of ------ & very imperfect fragments of a species of Solen" (Scouler, 171).

Although other entries in Scouler’s journal show that he spent time on the north side of the mouth of the Columbia River, and wrote specifically about the rocks he saw there, it’s not clear where he saw the shells. According to paleontologist Jim Goedert, who is an expert on the Oligocene (~25 million year old) fossils near Knappton, along the Columbia River, Scouler’s Solen could be the deep-water clam Acharax. However, the genus Venus is too complicated to guess what Scouler saw without a specimen.

If Scouler did collect his fossils on the Washington side of the Columbia, they most likely came from the Lincoln Creek Formation, a fossil-rich layer of rock that formed in a relatively deep (600 to 1,500 feet) marine basin. The fossils include sharks, sponges, gastropods, barnacles, echinoderms, marine mammals, seeds, birds, and wood. No record exists of any fossils Scouler may have collected.

Two months later, just above the Great Falls of the Columbia (modern day Bonneville Dam), Douglas wrote in his journal (June 20): "Many large trees in a petrified state are to be seen lying in a horizontal position between the layers of rock, the ends touching the water in many places. There seem to be two kinds, a soft wood and a hard; one I take to be Pinus balsamea, the other a species of Acer, which must be A. macrophyllum, being the only hard wood of large dimensions on the place; some of both measure 5 feet in diameter" (Douglas, 127).

In the past, if a fossil looked like a modern representative, the name of the presumed living relative would be used. Paleontologists no longer use modern names, such as Pinus or Acer, to describe fossil trees because the fossils are unlikely to be the same as ones growing today. This means that Douglas’ names are invalid, but no one disputes that there is petrified wood on the Washington side of the Columbia River in the region that Douglas visited.

According to Gregory Retallack, a retired University of Oregon paleontologist, there are large stumps of Metasequoia, the dawn redwood, near Stevenson, which could be what Douglas saw. (The species is known from many fossil specimens and was long thought to be extinct but then living trees were found in the 1940s in China; they are now cultivated worldwide, including at the Seattle Art Museum’s Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle.) The petrified stumps come from the Eagle Creek Formation, which formed around 19 million years ago and consists of sediments that washed off of an early Cascade Range intermixed with volcanic deposits. In addition to the petrified wood, the Eagle Creek rocks contain several dozen species of fossil plants. Yet again, there is no trace of any fossils that Douglas may have collected.

Dana's Groundbreaking Research

In spring 1841, geologist James Dwight Dana (1813-1895) arrived in the Pacific Northwest, becoming the first American born and trained scientist to reach this region. He was part of the United States Exploring Expedition, which had been at sea since 1838 with a goal of scientific research and surveying. He and other naturalists and botanists collected more than 60,000 specimens. By the time the ships reached the Pacific Northwest, many, if not most, of the crew disliked their commander Charles Wilkes.

The expedition would eventually publish 19 volumes, including Volume 10 (published in 1849), devoted exclusively to geology and written by Dana. In the section focused on fossils, he lists many marine invertebrates from Astoria, Oregon (including four species of Venus but no Solen), as well as plants. (Still a few years before Darwin’s book, when Dana published this volume the term paleontologist had at least come into existence, even if few used it; Dana listed himself as a geologist, a term first used in 1778.) Dana writes: "Plants ... Near the mouth of Fraser's River, a dark blue slate was observed by a party from the Vincennes [one of the expedition’s ships], and specimens obtained, one of which is represented in figure 10, plate 21 ... It is supposed to pertain to the tertiary formation of the coast, and to be of the same age as that of Astoria. The leaves are all beautifully preserved, as shown in the figure" (Dana, 729).

Once again, it is not clear specifically where Dana collected his figure 10 specimen in late June or early July 1841. The mouth of the Fraser River is in Canada, but in a 1951 report on fossil trees paleobotanist Ralph Chaney (1890-1971) called Dana’s fossil "the first fossil plant specimen ever collected in the western United States" (Chaney, 197).

When Chaney sought out specimen 10, which ended up at the New York Botanical Garden, he found that it no longer existed, but he did discover another wonderful specimen collected by Dana from what appears to be the same location. (The NYBG later donated its fossil collection to the Yale Peabody Museum, at Yale University, where the specimens reside.) A tag on the one Chaney came across indicated that it was collected at Birch Bay, "mouth of Frazer River, B. Columbia."

In his paper, Chaney also mentions a third specimen from "near the Dana locality" (Chaney, 197). It is labeled Birch Bay, WT (or Washington Territory). It was most likely collected by ethnologist, naturalist, and geologist George Gibbs (1815-1873) in 1858 as part of the Northwest Boundary Commission, which spent four years surveying the 409-mile British/U.S. boundary from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. Gibbs collected numerous fossils during his work, which ended up with J. S. Newberry, who identified them. Many were clearly labeled as coming from Birch Bay, WT.

All of the rocks come from the Chuckanut Formation, a thick sequence of sediments rich in fossils from plants and animals that lived about 50 million years ago. When deposition occurred, neither the Olympic nor Cascade Mountains existed. What is now the landscape of the I-5 corridor was oceanfront property with a broad floodplain where rivers dumped sediments they had carried west out of what is now Idaho. The ecosystem was hot and wet and flourishing with a high diversity of subtropical plants, much like the modern Mississippi River delta. Fossils in the rocks include freshwater invertebrates, hundreds of large mammal tracks, and dozens of plant species.

In Chaney’s paper, he identified the fossils in Dana’s and Gibbs's specimens as Metasequoia, becoming the first to do so. Prior to Chaney, they had been labeled as Sequioa (the big tree of California) and Taxodium (swamp cypress); Dana and Gibbs used Taxodium. What this means is that the two nineteenth-century geologists found the very first fossil specimens of a legendary plant. (Chaney used Metasequoia occidentalis; the extant version is M. glyptostroboides.) Paleontologists refer to such specimens as the type specimen.

There are some obvious problems with geography. Birch Bay is in Washington, not British Columbia, as Dana wrote. Unfortunately, journal entries from other members of the Wilkes Expedition don’t mention collecting anything (but that’s not surprising) and Dana’s journals haven’t been published. The journal writers do, however, make it clear that they spent about 10 days surveying and charting the area around Birch Bay and the Fraser River, so it’s possible Dana simply wrote Fraser’s River because it was a better-known locality, or he was mistaken in where he thought he was.

The other problem though is the geology. According to retired Western Washington University paleontologist George Mustoe, there aren’t any outcrops of fossiliferous rock around the mouth of the Fraser River or around Birch Bay. He suspects that Dana may have picked up his specimens to the south around Bellingham Bay, where there is "ample opportunity" to collect fossil-rich rock such as Dana’s earliest-known specimen.

We may never know who was the first naturalist to collect fossils in Washington, but based on the available evidence, Dana seems the most likely to have been that person, probably in the area of Bellingham Bay. Whoever it was started a process that continues to this day. People are still collecting, researching, describing, and naming fossils from the state.


T. Waterman, Puget Sound Geography, edited by Vi Hilbert, Jay Miller, and Zalmai Zahir (Federal Way: Lushootseed Press, 2001); Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007); Charles A. White, "On Invertebrate Fossils from the Pacific Coast," Bulletin 51, United States Geological Survey, 1889; John Scouler, "Dr. John Scouler's Journal of a Voyage to N. W. America [1824-25-26.] II. Leaving the Galapagos Islands for the North Pacific Coast," The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 6, No. 2, June 1905, pp. 159-205; Journal Kept by David Douglas During His Travels in North America 1823-1827 (London: William Wesley and Son, 1914); Ellen J. Moore, "Molluscan Paleontology and Biostratigraphy of the Lower Miocene Upper Part of the Lincoln Creek Formation in Southwestern Washington," Contributions in Science 351, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1984, pp. 1-41; David B. Williams correspondence with Jim Goedert, February 23 and 24, 2023; Ralph W. Chaney, "A Revision of Fossil Sequoia and Taxodium in Western North America Based on the Recent Discovery of Metasequoia," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 40, No. 3, 1950, pp. 171-263; James D. Dana, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, Volume 10 (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845); David B. Williams conversation with George Mustoe, March 6, 2023.

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