Tag Archives: geology

Indiana’s “Pot of Gold”

Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1903

Though you won’t become a millionaire panning for gold in Indiana, today’s recreational gold hunters have a lot of fun sloshing around Hoosier creeks in search of the shiny metal that led many a conquistador to his doom.  Around 1900, however, Indiana farmers and geologists explored the possibility that the hills of Brown, Monroe, and Morgan counties might become something of a Klondike.

Mining for gold in the Eastern United States might sound far-fetched, but it goes back over two centuries.  While Spanish explorers who crisscrossed parts of the South and Southwest were fooled by El Dorado myths, the soils of the Southeastern U.S. do hold significant quantities of the mineral.  In fact, until the discovery of California’s huge deposits in the 1840s, most domestic gold came from North Carolina, home of America’s “first gold rush.”

The South’s gold industry began in 1799, when a 17-pound nugget turned up on the farm of John Reed, a former Hessian soldier.  An illegal immigrant, Johannes Ried had deserted from the British Army and settled near Charlotte after the war, anglicizing his name. Reed had apparently never seen gold and didn’t know what the shiny yellow rock his son had found was.  For three years, he used it as a door post. Finally asking a jeweler to appraise it, Reed got swindled: he sold the big nugget, actually worth thousands of dollars, for just $3.50.


North Carolina gold


Fortunately, Reed and other North Carolina farmers soon caught on. By the 1830s, placer mines on farms around Charlotte gave way to heavy-duty mining operations.  At their peak, these mines employed about 25,000 people.  With deep-vein mines wreaking havoc on the land and destroying good agricultural sites, Southern gold mining may have played a role in the exodus of Southerners to fertile land in the Midwest.  Yet the mines were a big boon for the U.S. government, which authorized a new branch of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte in 1837.  Although it was still the poorest state in the South, North Carolina produced the first gold coins ever minted in the U.S.  These replaced English and Spanish coins legally used by Americans as currency.

Begun by Germans, the Southern gold industry also attracted thousands of immigrants, mostly from places with a long history of mining, like Cornwall, Wales, and Germany.  Many joined the rush to California in 1849, around the time the Carolina gold rush peaked. Others came to the Midwest, settling in places like Wisconsin, originally a federal lead mining district.

Gold mining never really took off in Brown County, Indiana.  But when Southerners flocked into the uplands in the 1830s, they began finding gold there, too.

The irony is that one of the historically poorest Hoosier counties got an unexpected windfall from the glaciers that stopped on its doorstep and spared most of it from being flattened.  That gift was Canadian gold, originally delivered to Earth — so the theory runs — by asteroid collisions four billion years ago.

While artist colonies found a different sort of gold in Brown County’s rustic hills, farmers — most of them with Southern Appalachian roots — found the allure of gold hidden in creek beds worth pursuing.  By the 1920s, traditional upland farming practices, heavy logging, and hogs wandering loose through the woods had seriously degraded Brown County’s soil.  The situation was so bad that by the time of the Great Depression, much of the county was nearly abandoned.  Conservationists were able to snatch up plenty of cheap land for the new park, created in 1929, plus other degraded land later added to the Hoosier National Forest and Yellowwood State Forest.  Though considered the crown jewel of the state park system today, Brown County was no wilderness a century ago.  And the presence of gold there must have appealed to cash-strapped farmers eking out a basic livelihood.


Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893
Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Locals had been panning gold in streams like Bean Blossom Creek, Lick Creek, and Bear Creek since at least the 1840s, often turning up enough of the mineral to supplement their small income from crops and livestock.  In 1897, one prospector told of making as much as $27 a day — over $700 in today’s money — but nobody here was getting filthy rich.  Yet in 1903, Indiana State Geologist Willis S. Blatchley came down from Indianapolis to weigh in on an old debate about whether Brown County could sustain a serious gold mining operation.

Blatchley wrote several reports, intended for a popular audience. He described how the glaciers that once covered Indiana in ice five-hundred feet thick lugged gold-bearing rocks down from Hudson Bay, depositing them in “terminal moraines,” piles of rubble left where the ice sheets stopped.  Water erosion then washed the gold out of the moraines into streams, dispersing it over several counties south of Indianapolis, where it turned up as tiny flakes in creek beds. Primitive panning and placer mines would help sift the gold out from mud and gravel, but more intensive mining to get all the gold wasn’t traditionally considered worth the effort.


Willis S. Blatchley, 1918 (2)
Geologist and entomologist Willis S. Blatchley, 1918. He served as State Geologist of Indiana from 1894 to 1910 and was also well-known in Florida.

Blatchley was one of Indiana’s great naturalists and took a strong interest in mining.  Born in Connecticut, he grew up on farms in Putnam County, whose unusual geology and rich wildlife got him interested in nature, especially rocks, bugs, and butterflies.  At Indiana University in the 1880’s, Blatchley studied with the great ichthyologist David Starr Jordan and geologist John Casper Branner. Pioneer Hoosier scientists, Jordan and Branner, later became the first and second presidents of Stanford University in California.

Ironically, Branner, who served as Arkansas State Geologist while still a faculty member at IU, was famously burned in effigy in 1888 after he exposed bogus gold and silver mines in the Ozarks, dashing the hopes of optimistic capitalists and investors there.  One of Branner’s assistants on the Arkansas surveys turned out to be future U.S. president Herbert Hoover, who majored in geology at Stanford after Branner left his job in Bloomington to head the new department. (Hoover went on to get his first job after college as a gold-mining engineer in Western Australia and later worked for the Chinese Bureau of Mines and in Russia.  Before he went into politics, Hoover was an internationally-recognized mining expert and even published a standard textbook on the subject.  In 1912, he and his wife also made the definitive translation from Latin of a 16th-century German mining classic, De re metallica.)


De re metallica
Herbert Hoover once studied with IU geology professor John C. Branner.

On the heels of a new hunt for Hoosier gold, Branner’s former student W.S. Blatchley’s trip to southern Indiana in early 1902 was covered by the Indianapolis News.  The News was excited to announce “great gold discoveries,” and the Chicago Tribune reprinted the story almost verbatim the following winter. The exciting gold finds of 1902, however, were on Highland Creek, between Martinsville and Brooklyn in Morgan County.

Leading the hunt for Highland Creek’s gold was a former California miner, F.F. Taylor, and R.L. Royse, an “Indianapolis gold and diamond prospector.”  Taylor ran a hydraulic operation on the creek, called “The Black Eye Flumes,” a name inspired by all the ridicule heaped on Indiana gold mining. Though most experts remained skeptical, the flamboyant Royse announced his confidence that Indiana was soon destined to become the “richest placer gold state” in the Union.


Terre Haute Daily Tribune, February 22, 1903
Terre Haute Daily Tribune, February 22, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903 (2)
Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903 (4)
Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Taylor and Royse tried to disprove what a previous State Geologist, John Collett, had said about Indiana gold.  Collett, who died in 1899, quipped that he thought there was enough gold in Brown County to pay off the national debt, but that it would “take the dollar of gold mined and an extra dollar to mine every dollar of it.”  The brash prospector R.L. Royse, however, insisted that not only was he going to make a fortune in Morgan County:  soon enough, he said, he would come to downtown Indianapolis and “pan some gold out of Washington Street.”  (He had already claimed to have found gold in a North Indianapolis street sewer.)

William E. Stafford, known as “Wild Bill,” was one of the colorful prospectors scouring the creeks of Morgan and Brown counties. The reporter for the News gave Stafford a long write-up in 1902. This “Hercules of the gold diggings” would reappear in the Chicago Tribune a year later.


Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (2)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (1)

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (3)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another man who panned gold on Hoosier streams was “Uncle” John Merriman.  Merriman, who lived until 1906, was the son of Hoosier pioneer William Merriman.  (William was born in Virginia in 1786, just three years after the end of the Revolutionary War.) Originally from Morgan County, John had lived around Ellettsville and Bloomington, then moved over to Fruitdale in Brown County in the 1870s, where he ran an orchard.  Panning gold helped supplement his small income.  In spite of a bad kidney ailment, Merriman took enough interest in gold to venture out to the California gold fields in the 1880s.

Like many men who went west, the Hoosier prospector never struck it rich.  But in 1903, the 69-year-old helped show State Geologist Blatchley around Brown County’s own “gold fields.”


John Merriman panning for gold
“Uncle” John Merriman panning gold around 1900. Merriman had been in the papers before. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported in 1899 that he lived on “1,000 acres of barren land” and subsisted on brown sugar alone while out searching “for the yellow metal.”

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (4)
W.J. Richards panning gold. Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blatchley wrote of men like John Merriman that some “do little else than pan gold along the streams.”  The geologist did some panning himself on Bean Blossom Creek, where children went out looking for gold after floods and snow melts. Merriman came with him. Blatchley wrote that Merriman averaged about $1.25 a day — approximately $30 in today’s money.  Both men thought that modern machinery could increase the yield.

Some panners, like W.W. Young — alias “Old Man” Young — sent their gold off to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.  “Old Man” Young found fourteen ounces of gold in nine months of panning and got a receipt from the mint for $250.07, equivalent to about $7,000 today. Young was considered “quaint . . . the most peculiar character in any of the Indiana diggings.  He will not permit anyone to be near him, and will not pan as long as there is anyone in sight.”


Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (5)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blatchley’s report states that local Indiana “drift gold” averaged 22 carats, compared to 16-18 for California gold and 14-16 for Alaskan Klondike gold.  In other words, Hoosier gold was actually superior to the stuff out West.

Yet he also recognized that shortage of local water sources during the summertime, when many streams ran almost dry, would seriously hamper mining of the mineral.  “By constructing permanent dams in several of the valleys enough water could probably be conserved to tide over the dry season.”  Taylor proposed sluicing water out of the White River, but the plan never really took on.

For a while, rumor even had it that birds had gotten interested in mining.  Gold in duck craws?  The tales you’re about to hear sound like an old St. Nicholas story.  But for now, we’ll assume these aren’t just tall tales.


Indianapolis News, February 21, 1903 (2)
Indianapolis News, February 21, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ultimately, however, predictions about great yields of gold in southern Indiana weren’t justified.  The slough of excited stories in the Indianapolis press about gold mining going on just “twenty-three miles from the golden dome of the Indiana State House” died out after 1903.  But that didn’t stop two men from Ohio from coming to Brown County, panning the stuff, and buying a farm with their profits in 1908.

Today, gold prospecting is said to be the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation of Indiana and many other states.  (In 2010, when the price of gold hit almost $1,500 an ounce, the Wall Street Journal hosted a video about the revival of recreational gold-seeking in Vermont, where it’s a great way to get outdoors, but “more about the experience than the riches.”)  Brown, Morgan, and Monroe counties are still the most popular places for gold prospecting in the Hoosier State, but Blatchley reported many other counties where the mineral turned up, including a few in northern Indiana like Cass and Warren.

But watch out, Indiana!  Don’t hunt on private property unless you have permission first . . . even if you think you’re as clever as this guy:

Indiana Jones and Golden Idol


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Killed by a Meteorite

meteorite lancashire

While tucked away virtuously in bed at his farmhouse one winter night, according to a hair-raising story from 1879, an old man in the Wabash Valley was literally blown to pieces by a cascading meteorite.

Twelve years later, the editors of the Indianapolis Journal were still getting mail about this widely-syndicated news piece, so they decided to publish a flashback.  Here’s an excerpt from the 1891 article:

It was in January 1879 that a special telegraphic dispatch came to the Indianapolis Journal describing the fall of a meteorite near Attica, Fountain County, a large stone of unknown composition that, whirling through space, came crashing through the roof of the farmhouse of Leonidas Glover, a widower, who lived alone.  The meteorite [struck Glover], who was in bed, supposedly asleep, and horribly mutilating him, continued its course and buried itself in the earth beneath the house.  Of course the lonely widower was instantly killed, and when the neighbors the following morning discovered the remains, there was great excitement, all of which was given in harrowing detail in the dispatch.

Due to the juiciness of the 1879 storyteller’s technique, let’s look at the original tale itself.

The killer Fountain County meteorite made the rounds of many American newspapers, going viral in those early days of syndication.  A “Covington special” to the Indianapolis Journal relayed the original claim, but here’s a version as it appeared in the Tiffin Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio, on January 30, 1879.

Covington, Ind., Jan. 15. On Tuesday night last, Leonidas Grover, who resided in the vicinity of Newtown, Fountain county, met his death in a way that is probably without parallel in this or any other country. Mr. Grover was a widower living on his farm with a married daughter and her husband. On the evening referred to, the married couple had been absent on a visit to some neighbors, and upon  returning at a late hour, entered the house, finding everything, to all appearances, in usual order, and supposing that Mr. Grover had already retired, went to bed themselves.

Next morning the daughter arose, and having prepared breakfast, went to the adjoining room to call her father, and was horrified to find him lying upon his shattered bed, a mutilated corpse. Her screams brought the husband quickly to the bedroom and an inspection disclosed a ragged opening in the roof, directly over the breast of the unfortunate man, which was torn through as if by a cannon-shot, and extending downward through the bedding and floor: other holes showing the direction taken by the deadly missile. Subsequent search revealed the fact that the awful calamity was caused by the fall of a meteoric stone, and the stone itself pyramidal in shape and weighing twenty-two pounds and a few ounces, avoirdupois, and stained with blood, was unearthed from a depth of nearly five feet, thus showing the fearful impetus with which it struck the dwelling. The position of the corpse, with other surroundings, when found showed that the victim was asleep when stricken and that death, to him, was painless.


meteorite indiana


Despite the blatant tragedy of the scene, Hoosier scientists, especially geologists and sky-watchers, were enthralled and pounced on the report from Covington.  But in 1891, the Indianapolis Journal had to tell the story all over again.  The State Geologists in question here are Edward Travers Cox (1821-1907) and John Collett (1828-1899).  Cox, who was educated in the communal school at New Harmony in his youth, was especially eager to verify the tale.  (And with a name like “E.T.,” you’d expect him to be interested in things falling out of the sky)  Collett, who grew up in the Wabash Valley and “probably [knew] more about Indiana than anybody within her borders,” was also extremely curious.

The Journal recalled:

The news stirred all the local scientists, and the State Geologist, Professor Cox, at once took measures to secure the meteorite.  Maj. J.J. Palmer was dispatched to Fountain County with instructions to buy the stone, no matter what it might cost.  Meantime the State Geologist was overwhelmed with letters inquiring about the meteorite and asking for all information possible regarding it.

The State Geologist wrote an exhaustive article on meteorites, leaving a hole in which to place the heavenly bowlder when Major Palmer should return with it.  Professor J. Lawrence Smith was greatly interested in the matter, and it was understood that he was willing to give $500 for it.


increase lapham meteorite 3
Though I haven’t seen a picture of Cox or Collett examining a meteorite, here’s an image of the great Wisconsin geologist, Increase Lapham, looking at a 33-pound aerolite found in Washington County, Wisconsin, in 1871. Lapham was one of the founders of science in the Badger State.

Were E.T. Cox and John Collett aware of earlier claims about celestial debris causing human fatalities?  Before brushing all this off as hare-brained folklore, there were plenty of such stories.

A study by students at Oberlin College has turned up reports from many centuries about deadly stones dropping down from space and striking humans dead.  In China in the year 588, there were “10 deaths; siege towers destroyed.”  The study’s website, should we be able to trust it, also mentions this phenomenally horrible event:

The most incredible Chinese report is that of the Chiing-yang Meteorite Shower of 1490.  Supposedly, tens of thousands of people were killed during the shower in the Shansi province.  Yau, et al., tell us that ‘[t]he Chíing-yang incident seems rather implausible in terms of the total number of casualties and the narrow size distribution of the meteorite fragments,’ but they also point out its similarities to the Tunguska event, which would have devastated a populated area. [This was the asteroid that devastated Siberia in 1908.  If it had struck a more settled area, millions of people might have been killed.]

Also included on the study’s list:  “01/14/1879, Newtown, Indiana, USA – Man killed in bed.”

A more recent story about a meteorite strike comes from the American South, where stars really did fall on Alabama.  On November 30, 1954, Ann E. Hodges was napping on the couch when she thought a gas heater exploded in her house, then saw a grapefruit-sized rock on the floor, a busted radio, and a bad mark on her hip.  Her neighbors reported a fireball and thought an airplane had crashed.  The eight-pound rock that careened into her living room in Sylacauga, Alabama, was later examined by Air Force Intelligence and confirmed as a meteorite.  Hodges was profiled in Life Magazine that year.  According to the Decatur (Tenn.) Daily News, a lawyer from Indianapolis purchased the “Hodges Meteorite” and sold it to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where it still resides, the only space rock ever confirmed to have hit a human.


alabama meteorite 1


alabama meteorite 2
E.T. Cox and John Collett would have been thrilled to have something like the Hodges Meteorite housed at the Indiana State Museum.

Unfortunately, as far as anyone can tell, the whole Fountain County tragedy was a big hoax and Indiana’s best scientists were put on a wild-goose chase.

The Journal wrote in 1891:

When [Major Palmer] returned [to Indianapolis] he reported that he could find no one in Fountain County who knew Leonidas Glover, widower;  there was no demolished roof, no desolated household, no hole in the ground.

A demand went up from the scientific world for the impious wretch or wretches who had hoaxed them.  But the practical jokers took council of their fears and kept quiet until the storm of scientific wrath had passed by.  It then leaked out that the hoaxers were two young men of Crawfordsville, one of them a newspaper man.  It may be said that one of these, the newspaper man, was sufficiently punished for his connection with the affair.  He lost caste in his profession, and it took him several years to regain the confidence he had lost as an honest chronicler of the news.


meteorite indianapolis journal nov 30 1891


et cox
Indiana State Geologist E.T. Cox was duped by a fake extraterrestrial killer.

I’m indebted to Chris Woodyard over in Dayton, Ohio, whose amazing Haunted Ohio blog first brought this story to my attention.  Woodyard cites the historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who was accused of concocting the hoax himself.  Dunn recalled that when Major Palmer realized the Glover/Grover meteorite was a myth, he decided to “keep up the joke” at the expense of E.T. Cox and John Collett.  Dunn wrote:

[Palmer] secured a cobble-stone of appropriate size and colored it with black and red ink [to simulate blood]; also a rustic photograph which served for a portrait of the mythical Grover; and prepared plans of the non-existent house showing the course of the imaginary aerolite; all of which he put on exhibition in Joe Perry’s drugstore, then at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and Washington streets, where they were viewed by wondering hundreds.  Perhaps the most notable result was that the story was reproduced by Alexander Winchell, the noted geologist, in one of his scientific works.

Woodyard added that “In 1880 John Collett, who had succeeded Cox as State Geologist, was besieged by people asking to see the meteor.  So he asked Palmer to bring the stone to the state museum where it was displayed for many years as a genuine man-killing meteor. It seems to have been quietly taken off exhibition after Collett left office.”

George S. Cottman wrote about the bogus shooting star in the Indianapolis News on August 19, 1922.  He agreed that Major Palmer put it “on exhibition in the window of a Washington Street store, where thousands gaped at it and felt impressed by the strange fate of Leonidas Grover.”

Chris Woodyard doesn’t know the whereabouts of Palmer’s fake stone, and neither do I.  But George C. Harding, editor of the Indianapolis Journal in 1879, probably wanted to know more about the location of the man who gave him the false news to begin with.

Harding (called “the most picturesque character that ever appeared in Indianapolis journalism”) had concocted a couple of false stories for the Journal himself, including one that very month about a hanged murderer who was revived from the dead at a medical college.  But if he didn’t invent Farmer Leonidas Grover outright, Harding got his comeuppance.  After putting a moralizing editorial in his newspaper about  how death may strike us at any moment, he was forced to admit his own gullibility, writing this follow-up once he knew he’d been hoaxed:

We take it back in its totality.  The death was not a phenomenal one.  The aerolite did not come hurtling from the infinite depths of space.  It did not tear a ragged opening through the roof of Mr. Grover’s house, nor did it crash through his breast. * * * He didn’t die.  He didn’t get hurt.  He didn’t even get frightened.  He wasn’t there;  he isn’t anywhere now, durn him!  If Mr. Leonidas Grover ever should come into existence and get killed by an aerolite he will have to get someone else to write his obituary. . . We have precious little faith in thunderstones, anyhow.  The audacious villain who invented the canard is an unmeasured fraud and an infinite liar.  Hell gapes for him.  The devil beckons to him with his hands and horns and tail.  Eternal cremation with a brimstone accompaniment is his doom.


meteorite strathmore 1


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

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
Indianapolis Journal, October 12, 1890. Hoosier State Chronicles.

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


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com