Finding Washington's First Fossils
A Geological Mystery
For the past few years, I have been writing a book about the fossils of Washington state with my friend, Liz Nesbitt, Curator Emerita at the Burke Museum. Liz is an invertebrate paleontologist, super knowledgable about all things fossil in the state, and a wonderful person to write a book with. Our book, tentatively titled Spirit Whales and Sloth Tales: Fossils of Washington State, should be out this fall or next spring; I will be certain to let you know.
Working on the book, I became interested in the human connection to fossils. The earliest association I found was through the Wanapum people of eastern Washington. At least 9,000 years before present, they made elegant tools out of 15.8-million-year-old petrified wood. Another example, which does not have a date but must go back deep in time comes from near Kent, Washington, where there is a location known in Lushootseed as bsskwEd, or “where there is a waterfall.” In Puget Sound Geography, ethnographer T. T. Waterman wrote: “Mink was coming upriver once, bringing with him his lunch which consisted mostly of mussels. The world suddenly changed. The lunch is still there on [the] west bank. You can pick fossil mussels out of the rock.”
The first possible non-Native to collect was Archibald Menzies, naturalist on George Vancouver’s expedition, which sailed into Puget Sound in 1792. Well known for his collecting (at dinner with the Viceroy of Chile, instead of eating nuts, which were new to him, Menzies pocketed them to take back to England), he sent a catalog of items he collected to his friend Joseph Banks. The list included two boxes of fossils from the PNW. Supposedly sent to Banks then to the British Museum, the fossils no longer exist.
Two Scotsmen merit the honor for first written observations of fossils: John Scouler and David Douglas. They arrived together on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ship William and Anne, and entered the mouth of the Columbia River on April 7, 1825. Scouler was 20 and the ship’s surgeon. Douglas was 24 and a superb botanist. Scouler is the first to mention fossils. On April 17, Scouler wrote in his journal of seeing fossil shells, including “very imperfect fragments of a species of Solen” and what he called “the handsomest…a species of Venus,” found in rocks that withered with “a smart blow of the hammer.”
Although it is clear from Scouler’s journal that he spent time on the north side of the Columbia River, and wrote specifically about the rocks he saw there, it’s not clear where he saw the shells. Paleontologist Jim Goedert, who is an expert on the Oligocene (~25 million year old) fossils near Knappton, WA, along the Columbia River, told me that Scouler’s Solen could be the deep-water clam Acharax but the genus Venus is too complicated to guess what Scouler saw without a specimen. Sadly, no record exists of any fossils he may have collected.
Two months later, just above the Great Falls of the Columbia, David Douglas wrote in his journal (June 20): “Many large trees in a petrified state are to be seen lying in a horizontal position between the layers of rocks, the ends touching water in many places…some of both measure 5 feet in diameter.” Paleontologist Greg Retallack told me that near Stevenson are large stumps of Metasequoia, the dawn redwood. The species was long thought to be extinct but then living specimens were found in the 1940s in China. Yet again, there is no trace of any fossils that Douglas may have collected.
Finally, in late June/early July 1841, geologist James Dwight Dana collected a specimen that still exists, though it’s unclear if he got it south or north of the border. He was part of the US Exploring Expedition, captained by Charles Wilkes. Dana wrote in the expedition report of collecting “near the mouth of Fraser’s River,” which would place it in Canada. In 1951, however, paleontologist Ralph Chaney called Dana’s fossil “the first fossil plant specimen ever collected in the western United States.”
When Chaney sought out this specimen, he found that it no longer existed but ended up finding another wonderful specimen collected by Dana from what appears to be the same location. A tag on this one indicates that it was collected at Birch Bay, mouth of Frazer River, B. Columbia. Chaney also mentions a third specimen, probably collected by George Gibbs in 1858 as part of the NW Boundary Commission “near the Dana locality.” It is labeled Birch Bay, WT (or Washington Territory). Gibbs collected numerous fossils during his work, many clearly labeled as coming from Birch Bay, WT.
I want to believe that Dana’s collecting took place south of the border because it’s the earlier date. Journal entries from other members of the Wilkes’ Expedition don’t mention collecting anything (but that’s not surprising) and Dana’s journals haven’t been published. The journal writers also make it clear that they spent about ten days surveying and charting area around Birch Bay and the Fraser River, so it’s entirely possible Dana simply wrote Fraser’s River because it was a better known locality.
The other problem though is the geology. According to retired Western Washington University paleontologist George Mustoe, there aren’t any outcrops of fossiliferous rock around the mouth of the Fraser River or around Birch Bay. He suspects that Dana may have picked up his specimens to the south around Bellingham Bay, where there is “ample opportunity” to collect fossil-rich rock such as Dana’s earliest-known specimen.
We may never know who was the first naturalist to collect fossils in Washington but based on the available evidence, Dana seems the most likely to have been that person, probably in the area of Bellingham Bay. Whoever it was though started a process that continues to this day. People are still collecting, researching, describing, and naming fossils from the state. Stay tuned for more discoveries.
Thanks to David Buerge, Jim Goedert, Shusheng Hu, George Mustoe, Liz Nesbitt, and Greg Retallack for information incorporated into this newsletter.
And, once again, it’d be wonderful to you at one of my talks.
March 12 - IslandWood - Bainbridge Island - 3pm - I will be talking about Homewaters, followed by a Happy Hour. Sure to be fun.
March 15 - History Cafe - MOHAI - 6:30pm - I will be talking about Homewaters. Live and virtual.
Looking forward to the book!
Also, while you're here, if you haven't looked at the peat layer along the east end of North Beach, it's worth a look. Don't know where else that crops up in this region. :)