Sunday, November 16, 2014

National Park Service military sites and fossils

As of this writing, there are 403 units in the National Park System, although in practice the number of sites with some connection to the NPS is larger: there are many national trails, rivers, heritage areas, and affiliated units that are not included in that total. Of these, 252 are currently known to have some sort of paleontological resource, from the obvious (any unit with "Fossil" in the name, for example) to much more subtle occurrences, such as fossils in building stone at many East Coast units, or one unusual case in which a fossil fish (quite possibly from Fossil Butte National Monument, interestingly enough) is in the collections of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park because it had been in the holdings of one of the families that had owned the site.

Many NPS units preserve sites related to military campaigns, particularly the American Revolution and the Civil War. Given that so many NPS units have some connection to fossils, it should not be surprising that there is also a substantial crossover between military sites and fossils. In many cases, there is no particular connection between the cultural and natural history, although occasionally there are interesting coincidences. For example: Wilson (1951) used the General Mansfield monument just outside of Antietam National Battlefield as a locality landmark in the description of some trilobites (and, of course, there is the Antietam Formation, but it is not actually exposed within the battlefield itself); and Anchisaurus, which we met briefly back in January, is based on a specimen that was found while Springfield Armory was being expanded in 1855, making it part of the history explored at Springfield Armory National Monument. There are a few sites where the paleontology is deeply intertwined with the human history; two are described briefly below.

Colonial National Historical Park

Colonial National Historical Park, or COLO in the four-letter NPS acronyms, was established to preserve and interpret the history of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, with notable events from the Cape Henry landing in 1607, to the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, to the Civil War's Peninsular Campaign in 1862. What is not as widely known is the importance of Yorktown in American paleontology.

Shell beds have long been noted in the coastal plain of Virginia. Soon after English settlers arrived in Virginia, they began using them to make lime for mortar. Some of the earliest scholars of natural history in the colony, such as John Banister, made note of them as well (Ray 1983, 1987). Sometime in the 1680s, a large scallop shell, possibly collected by Banister, made its way to the British author Martin Lister, who figured it in his "Historiae Conchyliorum" along with a couple of other North American fossils. Lister did not know they were fossils, a fact which was apparently not recognized until the 1780s, and in fact misinterpreted the provenance of the scallop as from the Virgin Islands instead of Virginia. In 1824, Thomas Say described a species of scallop which he connected to Lister's specimen, and named it Pecten jeffersonius, in honor of our most paleontological President. It was later renamed Chesapecten jeffersonius, and is recognized as the first fossil illustrated from North America (Ward and Blackwelder 1975; Ray 1987), as well as the state fossil of Virginia. Chesapecten jeffersonius is characteristic of the Yorktown Formation, and is well-known from Yorktown, where shell beds were once widely exposed in the bluffs, now covered in protective rip-rap. Yorktown itself became a classic locality for the formation, and is the source of type specimens for dozens of fossil invertebrates, some found near landmarks such as the Moore House.

Lister's scallop as illustrated in 1687 or so (the publication history is unclear), later known as Chesapecten jeffersonius.

This is not the end of the story. During the Siege of Yorktown, Continental general Benjamin Lincoln made note of the fossils, and subsequently included his observations in a brief note published after hostilities (Lincoln 1783). On the British side, the German naturalist Johann David Schöpf, who had been a doctor with the German contingent, visited the battlefield shortly after hostilities and also reported the shell beds (Ray 1983).

Vicksburg National Military Park

Vicksburg National Military Park (VICK) preserves sites made famous by the Siege of Vicksburg and the Vicksburg Campaign of the Civil War. Vicksburg is also a classic Oligocene fossil locality, and in the decades before the war was visited by geologists all the way up to Charles Lyell (Lyell 1849). Like Yorktown, Vicksburg is the source for the type specimens of dozens of species of marine invertebrates. Also like Yorktown, there is an unexpected connection between the conflict commemorated by the park and paleontology (Kenworthy and Santucci 2006):

During the fighting at Vicksburg, there was at least one officer on the Union side who used his free time to collect fossils from this famous fossil locality. He had previously lost part of his right arm commanding artillery at the Battle of Shiloh (also represented by an NPS unit). This injury proved to be only a temporary setback for John Wesley Powell, who would later quite literally go down the Colorado River one-handed, and become the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The lighting was unforgiving, but if you'd like to see for yourself, Powell's monument is about halfway along the west stretch of Humphreys Drive (visible on the left side of the photo), Section 1, Arlington National Cemetery. Incidentally, fall is a great time to stop by.


Kenworthy, J. P., and V. L. Santucci. 2006. A preliminary investigation of National Park Service paleontological resources in cultural resource contexts, Part 1: general overview. Pages 70–76 in S. G. Lucas, J. A. Spielmann, P. M. Hester, J. P. Kenworthy, and V. L. Santucci, editors. America’s antiquities: 100 years of managing fossils on federal lands. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bulletin 34.

Lincoln, B. 1783. An account of several strata of earth and shells on the banks of York River in Virginia. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1:372–376.

Lister, M. 1687. Historiae conchyliorum Liber III. London, United Kingdom.

Lyell, C. 1849. A second visit to the United States of North America. Harper and Brothers Publishing Co., New York.

Ray, C. E. 1983. Prologue. Pages 1–14 in C. E. Ray, editor. Geology and paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina: I. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 53.

Ray, C. E. 1987. Foreword. Pages 1–8 in C. E. Ray, editor. Geology and paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina: II. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 61.

Say, T. 1824. An account of some fossil shells from Maryland. Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1st series, 4:124–155.

Wilson, J. L. 1951. Franconian trilobites of the central Appalachians. Journal of Paleontology 25(5):617–654.

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