USA's Forgotten Man: Charles Doolittle Walcott

Robert Guy Williams
History of Geology
April 2007


Born in New York Mills, New York in 1850, was Charles Doolittle Walcott. His father had a mill for cotton, but he died when Charles was only two. "It is guessed that the widowed mother moved in with the grandparents" in Utica New York, and it is here that he went to school, from eight to eighteen, when he left school. He, like other boys of the time, gathered birds' eggs and butterflies, but these were soon destroyed. It was seeing the handle of a geologist's hammer in the basket of Col. E. Jewett, a geologist and the curator of the "New York State Cabinet"- the museum, who showed the boy his fossils that roused his interest in fossils (1). His interest in the fossils led him to meet Louis Agassiz at Harvard, to whom he sold some of his trilobites (1a). During the war, he worked on Rust's farm for the summer, and later came there to board and work. He married one of the Rust girls, Lura Ann Rust, who was unfortunately in ill health, and died a couple of years later (2, ibid p. 4).

Col. Jewett was a friend of the State Paleontologist of new York, James Hall. In 1876 Charles accompanied Hall as an unpaid assistant, but later got paid $50 a month. It was as this assistantship that Walcott finally was noticed. He became permanent Geological Assistant to the United States Geological Survey. On the Colorado Plateau, he measured a section from Cenozoic-Mesozoic border down to the Devonian, about two miles, Kanab Creek (3). Some of the work on the old Pioche-Panaca Road. Where this was, was finally discovered some hundred years later. He had worked there for three days, and found eleven species of trilobites. Some of his work was sought in 1933 to 1936, and it was finally found by Linda B. McCollum and Brian B. McCollum (4).

While he was still Hall's temporary assistant, he published on his own, one of the first publications of the presence of appendages in trilobites: “”Preliminary Notiice of Discovery of the Natatory and Brachial Appendages of Trilobites” (5).

U.S. Geological Survey

In 1894, Walcott became the third director of the US Geological Survey, and served there for 13 years. As the director, John Wesley Powell did not get along with the Congress, it slashed the budget of the survey, and then it slashed Powell's. Walcott then became the director. In a couple of years, he had the organization running efficiently, and expanded its work on water resources, more topographical mapping, and the study of the national Forests (6). In 1902, he met Andrew Carnegie, and became one of the founders and incorporators of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. (6b).

Walcott was a visitor in England and Wales, in 1888. This was the time of the "Crucial visit in the resolution of the Taconic-Cambrian=Ordovician question." At this time, he spent seven weeks, attending the fourth Session of the International Congress of Geologists in London. Here, the discussions centred on Lower Paleozoic stratigraphical classifications and paleontology. His visit, with his colleagues, was mainly collecting Cambrian-Ordovician fossils during a three week field trip in Wales. The visit "cemented his belief in the recognition of Cambrian and Ordovician as strategical systems, in preference to the Taconic, of North American usage (6a).

"In 1902, his colleagues thought of Walcott as the third most important Geologist in America, (behind C.K. Gilbert and T.C. Chamberlin.see Yochelson 2001 (6d).


In 1907, they made Walcott the fourth director of the Smithsonian Institution. Here, he was near the cradle of power, and got along well with everyone. He, and Helen Breese Stephens, were married in the 1888, when he was thirty-eight. (6b) Helen and Charles had four children. About 20 years later, they started to go to Canadian mountains, the first time to Mount Stephen B.C. and the next year, to Alberta. Helena Ridge, which is northeast of Castle Mountain, he named for his wife, who was killed in a train accident in Bridgeport Connecticut, in 1911 (6c).

In 1914, he married his third wife, Mary Morris Vaux, who was an artist at the Smithsonian. (Her name was pronounced in the U.S. fashion, Vox rather than its French origin as Vau.) She was an avid naturalist, and many of her pictures hang in the Smithsonian (6b). In 1909, they found the now world famous Burgess Shale (7). The stories of its finding are quite numerous - which is true? My favorite was the one told at his obituary (8): "One of the most striking of Walcott's faunal discoveries came at the end of the field season of 1909, when Mrs. Walcott's horse slid going down the trail, and turned up a slab which at one attracte her husband's attention. Here was a great treasure – wholly strange Crustacea of Middle Cambrian time - but where in the mountains was the mother rock from which the slab had come? snow was falling, and the riddle was left for another season, but next year the Walcotts were back to Mount Wapta, and eventually the slab was traced to a layer of shale, later called the Burgess Shale, 3000 feet above Field.” B.C.

Actually what happened is in Walcott's own notes, "While we were collecting from the Middle Cambrian, a stray slab brought down by a snow slide showed a fine phyllopod crustacean on a broken edge. Mrs. W. and I worked on the slab from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening, and took back one of the finest collections of Phyllopods that I have ever seen." (9) The last time Walcott worked there was when he was 67, in 1917. He had brought back some eighty thousand specimens, and he did publish several papers on them, labelling them all as "preliminary". In his job at the Smithsonian, he never went over them adequately, and this was left for some fellow paleontologists to do (10). Thus we see that one of the finest paleontologists was deprived of his acclaim, while he was administering the Smithsonian. His honors include:

Photograph of Charles D. Walcott standing on the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, 1912. Photograph from Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Group 95, Box 24. Taken from SEPM (11).


  1. Record unit 7004 of Smithsonian Archives by William R. Massa .Jr.
    1a.) ibid.
  2. ibid p. 4.
  3. Hintze, Lehi F.: Walcott’s Grand staircase at Kanab Creek in southern Utah – its Remarkable First measurement http://gsa/
  4. McCollum Linda B and Brian: Charles Doolittle Walcott Mystery at Pioche Nevada McCollum
  5. Golden Era of Trenton Falls Paleontological and Stratigraphical research (1843 to 1899) No author listed p. 6 and 7.
  6. GSA Today January 1996 p. 9 also --- a voice from the Cambrian: no author.
    6a.) Bassett, M.G., Yochelson, E.L. proceedings of the Geologists Association vol. 115, No.1 (2004), p. 63-75 (14) Publisher Geographical Society Publishing House.
    6b.) AllExperts Free Encyclopedia
    6c.) Helena Ridge 2862 m (9390 ft.)
    6d) Yochelson, Ellis L.: “Charles D. Walccott ”A Few Comments on Stratigraphy and Sedimentology Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.
  7. Gould, Steven Jay: Wonderful Life p. 1–13. WW Norton & Company, New York 1989.
  8. ibid p. 71 quoting his former research assistant, Charles Schuchert.
  9. ibid p. 72.
  10. ibid p. 24.
  11. Yochelson, Elllis L.: Charles D. Walcott A few Comments on Stratigraphy and Sedimentation” “The Sedimentary Record vol. 4. No 1. SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology.
  12. Yochelson, Ellis L.: Charles Doolittle Walcott, Paleontologist, Published by Kent State University Press 1998.