Sunday, November 23, 2014

Paleontology of the Santa Fe Trail

As the note says with my bio, I am a "researcher and writer who has been helping to inventory and catalog the fossil resources of the National Park Service." A lot of the work I've done has been geared around Inventory & Monitoring networks. The I&M program groups parks with significant natural resources into networks based on their geography and the types of natural resources they contain, with geology and paleontology being among these natural resources. We are gearing up to prepare a revised and updated summary for the Southern Plains Network (SOPN), which includes 11 units in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. Although the I&M networks have served as the broad framework for a lot of our work, only 270 of the various units of the NPS are included. Granted, most of those that aren't included are usually small urban sites with little paleontological potential (except for fossiliferous building stone, which is more abundant than you might think; you can scarcely go past a large building in Washington, D.C., without finding Salem Limestone, aka Indiana Limestone, or in other words uncounted itty-bitty fragments of Paleozoic marine invertebrates), but it would be foolish to a priori dismiss them. Thus, when I work on a network, I also like to cover the non-network units that are geographically within that network. In the case of the Southern Plains Network, one of those is the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.

Click to make bigger, or go here to get the actual thing (NPS).

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail commemorates the namesake trail, which was in use from 1821 to 1880. At its outset, it connected the frontier of the United States with the Mexican frontier. The Santa Fe Trail was fundamentally a trade route, and was started to bring American goods to Santa Fe, then within northern Mexico. The trail followed a west-southwest route from Missouri into what is now Kansas, splitting into two main trunks: the Mountain Route, which entered what is now Colorado and turned south near the Rockies; and the Cimarron Route, which continued on about the same heading as the undivided trail. Wars, tribal unrest, and the disorder of "Bleeding Kansas" influenced where travelers began their journeys and which route they took. The spread of the rail system from the mid-1860s on clipped chunks from the trail until 1880, when the railroad reached Santa Fe.

During its heyday, the Trail was used by teams of explorers working to plot routes for the rail lines that would make it obsolete. The United States took over the land that became the southwestern states as a consequence of the Mexican–American War (1846–1848). With the nation now expanded to the Pacific (the Oregon question having also been settled in 1846), planning for a transcontinental railroad began in earnest, and expeditions were dispatched to find promising potential routes. These expeditions included scientists who were both geologists and paleontologists, albeit not quite as we might think of them. There wasn't nearly as much known about geology then, of course, and to be a geologist then you also had to be a reasonably competent paleontologist because of the necessity of recognizing various guide fossils; how else were you supposed to tell the Carboniferous from the Permian, after all? Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden and Fielding Bradford Meek, whose names are often linked, are perhaps the most famous of the pre-Civil War railroad survey geologists. For the Santa Fe Trail, though, the most important is John Strong Newberry, who described the main trail and Cimarron Route through the course of two expeditions in the Southwest, once returning from the Colorado River on the Ives expedition (1857) (Newberry 1861), and once traveling to the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers on the Macomb expedition (1859) (Newberry 1876; it would have been published sooner, but the Civil War delayed it).

Newberry's reports are in essence a mid-19th century "Roadside Guide to the Geology of the Santa Fe Trail" (which is really helpful for someone in my position; the trails are the most challenging class of NPS units to describe, because they cover a lot of territory and don't have the same kind of boundaries that a monument or park has). Of course, there is archaic terminology for formations, species, and locations, but this is an occasion when it would be extremely stupid to look a gift horse in the mouth. Not only are they geologic documents, but they are also historic documents, written at a time when the Southern Plains were far different from what they are today. It's always a pleasure to come across this kind of history. Newberry did us an additional favor with detailed descriptions of the paleontology, perhaps due to the fact that logistics prevented extensive collecting. He identified about a dozen locations as notably fossiliferous, from Pennsylvanian and Permian sites in eastern Kansas with faunas of brachiopods, bivalves, gastropods, and echinoids, to Lower Cretaceous sandstones with leaf fossils in Kansas and New Mexico, to Upper Cretaceous rocks with bivalves and ammonites in New Mexico.

Newberry was not the first geologist to have a look at the trail. He was preceded slightly by Jules Marcou, who was part of another expedition (the Whipple party) looking at potential southerly routes for a railroad. Marcou's trail-related work occurred in the area of Pecos Village, and from his descriptions of the geography I suspect he was collecting fossils in or near the largest unit of Pecos National Historical Park (he speaks of an area where there was only space for the road and the river, and Glorieta Mesa comes closest to those two features in the area of the park). He described a few of these fossils in his ambitiously titled Geology of North America (Marcou 1858).

Also active on the eastern Kansas–Missouri segment of the trail were Hayden, Meek, and two geologists operating out of Missouri, Benjamin Franklin Shumard and George C. Swallow. Unlike Newberry, these four got heavily into the taxonomic side of things, naming about 50 species of marine invertebrates, primarily bivalves and brachiopods from Permian and what we would now call Pennsylvanian rocks (Meek and Hayden 1858, 1859, 1860, 1864; Shumard and Swallow 1858; Swallow and Hawn 1858; Swallow 1860; Meek 1876). Fellow 19th century luminaries Timothy Abbott Conrad (1857) and James Hall (1856) got into the fun as well. Trail locations like Council Grove, Kansas, the valley of Cottonwood Creek, and Lexington, Missouri are all over their work, along the occasional direct reference to the trail. Unfortunately, many of the original specimens are no longer extant, because Shumard's and Swallow's collections were mostly lost in the fire that destroyed Academic Hall at the University of Missouri in 1892. I haven't run across any figures of these specimens, either. As is usual for this era, locality information is also minimal, although to be fair it's not as if they had township-range-section grids or a lot of landmarks to work with. Hook and Cobban (1980) did manage to reconstruct the original locations of some fossils collected on the New Mexico part of the trail, though, including the type specimens of the biostratigraphically useful ammonite Prionocyclus macombi and the bivalve now known as Cameleolopha lugubris.

Plate II from the larger volume containing Newberry 1876 and Meek 1876; 3a-d is Prionocyclus macombi. This specimen can be found in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, as USNM 20259.

Postscript: An interesting bit of information, and the thing that got me looking into the trail in the first place: fossiliferous limestone previously used as farm boundary stones in north-central Kansas has been used for NPS trail markers in Missouri, at Marshall and Arrow Rock (Fairchild 2007). There is a nice clear photo of a bivalve in one of the stones at the link, and someone versed in these rocks (by geography I'm supposing Upper Cretaceous, Western Interior Seaway) could probably tell what genus is represented.


Conrad, T. A. 1857. Descriptions of Cretaceous and Tertiary fossils. Pages 141-174 in W. H. Emory. Report on the United States and Mexican boundary survey, made under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior. Volume I, Part II. A.O.P. Nicholson, printer, Washington, D.C.

Fairchild, K. October 8, 2007. 2 stone posts places in Saline County to mark Santa Fe Trail. The Marshall Democrat-News, Marshall, MO.

Hall, J. 1856. Descriptions and notices of the fossils collected upon the route. Pages 99-105 in Chapter IX, No. 1, in Route near the Thirty-Fifth Parallel, explored by Lieut. A. W. Whipple, Topographical Engineer, in 1853 and 1854. Part IV. Report on the geology of the route. Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Volume III. A. O. P. Nicholson, printer, Washington, D.C.

Hook, S. C., and W. A. Cobban. 1980. Some guide fossils in Upper Cretaceous Juana Lopez Member of Mancos and Carlile shales, New Mexico. Pages 38-49 in F. E. Kottlowski and staff. New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources Annual Report, July 1, 1978 to June 30, 1979. New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, Socorro, NM.

Marcou, J. 1858. Geology of North America. Zurcher and Furrer, Zurich, Switzerland.

Meek, F. B. 1876. Descriptions of Cretaceous fossils collected on the San Juan exploring expedition under Capt. J. N. Macomb, U.S. Engineers. Pages 119-133 in J. N. Macomb. Report of the exploring expedition from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the junction of the Grand and Green rivers of the Great Colorado of the West in 1859. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. U.S. Army Engineer Department.

Meek, F. B., and F. V. Hayden. 1858. Remarks on the lower Cretaceous beds of Kansas and Nebraska, together with descriptions of some new species of Carboniferous fossils from the valley of Kansas river. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 10:256-266.

Meek, F. B., and F. V. Hayden. 1859. Geological explorations in Kansas Territory. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 11:8-30.

Meek, F. B., and F. V. Hayden. 1860. Descriptions of new organic remains from the Tertiary, Cretaceous, and Jurassic rocks of Nebraska. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 12:175-185.

Meek, F. B., and F. V. Hayden. [1864.] 1865. Palaeontology of the Upper Missouri. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge 14(172).

Newberry, J. S. 1861. Geological report. In J. C. Ives. Report upon the Colorado River of the West. U.S. 36th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Executive Document and House Executive Document 90(3).

Newberry, J. S. 1876. Geological report. Pages 9-118 in J. N. Macomb. Report of the exploring expedition from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the junction of the Grand and Green rivers of the Great Colorado of the West in 1859. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. U.S. Army Engineer Department.

Shumard, B. F., and G. C. Swallow. 1858. Descriptions of new fossils from the Coal Measures of Missouri and Kansas. Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis Academy 1(2):198-227.

Swallow, G. C. 1860. Descriptions of new fossils from the Carboniferous and Devonian rocks of Missouri. Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis 1:635-660.

Swallow, G. C., and F. Hawn. 1858. The rocks of Kansas, with descriptions of new Permian fossils by G. C. Swallow. Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis Academy 1(2):173-197.

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