Rock and Bone Man: Indiana State Geologist John Collett

Just like any quick exploration of Hoosier State Chronicles turns up exciting history hidden in dusty newspapers, Hoosier farmers were unearthing plenty of odd finds in their fields in days gone by.

Often, they had recourse to the expertise of John Collett, Indiana’s venerable and fascinating State Geologist. A writer for the Indianapolis Journal in March 1890 remarks (in an article on celery farms) that the Santa-like John Collett “probably knows more about Indiana than anybody within her borders.”


John Collett


Collett’s own story is as interesting as any of the geological and paleontological finds he studied. He was born in 1828 on the 5,000-acre farm of his father, Stephen Stevenson Collett, near Eugene in Vermillion County.  The Colletts had founded that small western Indiana town and also helped lay out Newport on the Wabash River, still the county seat.

Collett’s father and grandfather were major government surveyors in the Maumee and Wabash valleys, going back to the time when Indiana Territory stretched as far north as Lake Superior.  During the waning days of the fur trade in the Midwest, Stephen S. Collett even conducted business with the famous John Jacob Astor when Astor was still based at Mackinac Island, Michigan.  Later a Terre Haute merchant, John Collett’s father also served as an early state legislator for Parke and Vermillion counties.

One explanation of how the future State Geologist grew to be 6′ 2″ (a huge stature for the time) comes from the 1888 History of Vermillion County.  Of his grandfather, Revolutionary War veteran John Collett, Sr., the history says:  “One good characteristic he exhibited in the training of his children, was that he never allowed them to sleep in bed with their limbs ‘cuddled up;’ and the result was a peculiarly soldier-like erectness of stature enjoyed by his descendants.”

“Straight as a plumb line,” young John Collett had an early aptitude for mapmaking and geology, and grew up surrounded by the raw beauty of pioneer Indiana, a place that would be hardly recognizable to Hoosiers today.

Collett was educated at Wabash College (Class of 1847), where he once listened to a fiery eulogy on Edgar Allan Poe, but returned into farming.  One of the oldest stands of bluegrass in Indiana was said to grow on his large farm at Eugene.

Though he was a widely-renowned expert on rocks, fossils, and Hoosier landforms, Collett wasn’t appointed State Geologist until 1879.  (That position was first held by David Dale Owen, son of the famous New Harmony utopian socialist, Robert Owen, and then by David’s brother Richard, professor of geology at Indiana University.  Richard Owen was eventually replaced by Collett’s friend E.T. Cox.  Cox was educated in the communal school at New Harmony, a place that is not only the birthplace of American socialism, but in some ways the cradle of American geology.)


wyandotte map


Though Collett helped Cox on several geological ventures (they mapped the recently-discovered Wyandotte Cave together in 1878), he also farmed, not dedicating himself entirely to geology until the 1880s.  While serving as Assistant State Geologist, he also represented Parke and Vermillion counties in the State Senate.  Senator Collett spearheaded a bill to make public drunkenness a crime, supported holding livestock owners responsible for their cattle and pigs running loose, and promoted gravel roads when many of Indiana’s roadways were still morasses of mud in the winter and spring.

Collett also strove to make children’s education mandatory, build a state mental hospital, and provide homes for orphans.  In fact, the 6′ 2″, 200-pound Senator-Geologist, who had “piercing grey eyes” and a “snow white beard of patriarchal length,” was once hailed as “Patron Saint of the Children of Vermillion County.”  At Christmastime, back home on his 75-acre farm, “Uncle John” always sent a wagon-load of candy to kids in Eugene and another wagon-load to a Sunday school in Newport.  “You may well believe that he stands in higher estimation with the youngsters of Vermillion County than any other man on earth.”  Did he send them a wagon full of “rock candy”?


collett orphanage cayuga indiana
The Collett Orphanage in Cayuga was named for the family. The State Geologist left it a $200,000 endowment in his will.

Taking over from E.T. Cox as Indiana State Geologist in 1879, Collett ended up writing some of the standard books of the day on Midwestern geology and paleontology.  He produced the first geological map of Indiana ever published, in 1883.  He often spent money from his own pocket to keep geologists out in the field.  Collett’s scientific investigations helped Indiana become the greatest limestone-producing state in the U.S. and were also useful to coal miners and engineers.

He lived part of the year in Indianapolis, but was often mentioned in newspapers all across Indiana.  Collett was called on to investigate and explain a sudden natural gas explosion in Shelby County in 1890 that left huge crevices in the earth; examine the famous mineral spring at Montezuma; weigh in on the Midwest’s freshwater pearl boom; study a meteorite discovered near Kokomo; and talk about mastodons in the Wabash Valley.  In 1891, he suggested incorporating more animals into American architecture.

Prehistoric animal bones were especially prone to turning up in the 1800s, as settlers literally cut their way into landscapes that had been left intact since the last Ice Age.  The draining of wetlands for agriculture — one of the biggest engineering projects of the 19th century — turned up remains of long-dead creatures, including ancient horses and giant beavers.  Railroad construction and mining also unearthed old relics.


mastodons collett


Geologist John Collett gave a talk in 1890 about “Remains of Big Animals” that were showing up in Indiana.  The talk was reported in the Indianapolis Journal on September 14.

One of the most interesting parts of that talk was when Collett remembered a man named Perrin Kent. Like’s Collett’s own father and grandfather, Kent was an early surveyor and settler.  Kent lived in Warren County, just north of where the geologist himself grew up.  He laid out Williamsport and Attica and lived near the boom town of State Line City.

The Warren County surveyor was also an ardent campaigner for Abraham Lincoln and a good friend of the “Prairie Lawyer.”  There is an interesting story here.  In February 1861, his 8-year-old grandson, William H. Kent, who later became a reporter for the Omaha World News, took a train ride with President-Elect Lincoln as he crossed over into the Hoosier State at State Line City, en route to Washington.  Years later, in a news article published in Omaha in 1911, Kent remembered a melancholy Lincoln looking back down the tracks in a “long and silent reverie” as they left for Williamsport, the next stop on the line.  This was the last time Lincoln ever saw Illinois — a surveyor’s line, a war, and eventually an assassin’s bullet all came between him and his home.

Collett, too, recalled a “strong story,” told to him by Perrin Kent. In 1842, Kent was working as a surveyor on part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Covington, Indiana.  Most of the actual digging of the canal was done by Irish laborers (who were typically paid in whiskey and added many of their own bones to Indiana soil.)

This stretch of the canal was cut through a virtual swamp.  Grubbing around in “miry peat,” the Irish must have felt like they were back home in Ireland. Collett had to preface the anecdote he was about to tell by stating that Perrin Kent was always known as “a man of unimpeachable veracity, and the story [was] vouched for by others who saw the same thing.”  As the geologist told his audience:

The route of the old canal there was a swamp, the old riverbed of the Wabash, twenty-five or thirty feet above the present bed of the river, and the old bed was filled with miry peat.  Here were found the huge bones of the lower jaw and the teeth [of a mastodon]. . .

Mr. Kent told me that the Irishmen working in the swamp split open the leg bones of the monster animal and extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere [“grave wax” formed from fatty tissues], and they used it as an excellent grease for their boots.  Think of it: those fellows greasing their boots with the marrow of animals that were perhaps contemporaries of Noah.  Using ex-mummies as fuel on an Egyptian railroad is not near as shocking to the mind of the archaeologist.


Kankakee-MastadonBones
Mastodon bones found in the Kankakee River near Walkerton, Indiana, courtesy of the Walkerton Area Historical Society.

With his store of fascinating anecdotes from a lifetime in the field, it’s not hard to imagine how Indiana’s great geologist became one of the most popular men in Indianapolis.   (He lived at 116 N. Illinois St., a block west of Monument Circle, at the site of today’s downtown Hilton Hotel.)   When he died of pneumonia in Indianapolis on March 15, 1899, at the age of 71, it was reported that he had lived modestly but “leaves a fortune” ($75,000).

Collett never married and was buried in Terre Haute, where his family had gone into business.  (His brother Josephus served as President of the Board of Directors at Rose Polytechnic, later Rose-Hulman.)  Terre Haute’s Collett Park bears the family name.

This clip from the Indianapolis Journal on December 14, 1884, offers one explanation for how Collett’s hair turned white:

John Collett -- Indianapolis Journal December 14 1884


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