Writing Geology: 19th Century Travelers Describe Scotts Bluff

Writing the geology essay is coming along well. I am pleased with the richness of the sources, and if anything I have too much I could write about rather than too little. I have completed a draft of the first section, which provides an overview of the study of geology and the way in which the landscape at Scotts Bluff formed. I am now close to finishing a draft of the second section, which looks at how white travelers from the 1830s through the 1860s have described the geology, landscape, and wildlife at the bluffs.

What has been most remarkable as I go back over my primary sources and mesh them with the narrative is how many of these 19th century travelers provided surprisingly accurate descriptions of the geologic compositions of features such as Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. Many of these writers were spot-on in their speculations about the formation of these landscapes and the role of erosion in shaping rock features. While a few of these writers may have dabbled in studying geology or nature, most were novices who simply made empirical assessments of rock formations based on what they saw.

As a historian, I find this reassuring. Historians do not need to be afraid of science: it is merely the empirical study of what we see before us, and digging into the layers to explore deeper if explanations for what we see are not readily apparent. Reading the geologic landscape is very similar to reading historic documents. In fact, Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, observed in 1830 how very similar the disciplines of history and geology are, noting that both require studying the past to understand the present. Lyell built the foundations for the modern study of geology by arguing that scientists should use the earth’s present natural laws to determine how the earth has gradually changed over time. The travelers of the 19th century, whether or not they even knew about Lyell’s work, were in fact doing just as he recommended. They were looking for clues in the landscape to tell them about forces that had shaped the landscape over time.

The wealthy British tourist Richard Burton, traveling by stagecoach through Mitchell Pass at Scotts Bluff in 1862, remarked how erosion had created the badlands that made passage through the bluffs so treacherous:

“The route lay between the right-hand fortress and the outwork, through a degraded bed of softer marl, once doubtless part of the range. The sharp, sudden torrents which pour from the heights on both sides, and the draughty winds—Scott’s Bluffs are the permanent head-quarters of hurricanes—have cut up the ground into a labyrinth of jagged gulches steeply walled in. We dashed down the drains and pitchholes with a violence which shook the nave-bands from our sturdy wheels. … The descent was abrupt, with sudden turns and one place showed the remains of a wagon and team which had lately come to grief.” ∞

Edwin Bryant, who traveled overland through Nebraska on his way to California in 1846, wrote about the geology of Chimney Rock:

“It is composed of soft rock, and is what remains of one of the bluffs of the Platte, the fierce storms of wind and rain which rage in this region, having worn it into this shape. The column which represents the chimney, will soon crumble away and disappear entirely.” §

Of course, their understanding of deep geological time was still a bit weak—most travelers were more willing to ascribe a faster rate to natural processes than is actually true. Like Bryant, many emigrants speculated that Chimney Rock and other landmarks were eroding so quickly that they would disappear within a few decades at most! Thankfully, we know erosion does not work quite so quickly, and we are still able to enjoy and study the North Platte Valley’s rock formations today.


∞ Richard F. Burton, The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861; rReprint with introduction and notes by Fawn M. Brodie, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), 87-88.

§ Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California. 1848. pp.101-102. Accessed in online database, “Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869,” BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/TrailGuides/id/2984/rec/8.

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