Millions of years ago, in what would become southwestern Indiana, there was a collection of trees. Today, their stumps are still standing upright, but underground some thirty feet, near Blairsville. David Dale Owen described them for science, and years later, the species was named in his honor.
Astonishingly, no specimen of Didymophyllum owenii seems to have survived in any museum or university collection.
The chain of events started in the early 1840s. Workmen were excavating on the Kimball property, located just over Big Creek from Blairsville, Indiana, near the bridge on the Evansville-to-New-Harmony road. The men encountered some heavy blocks of rock, and as the blocks were uncovered, it became clear that they were fossilized tree stumps.
David Dale Owen learned of them and visited the site. His observations, their role in the spread of his reputation, the fate of the type specimen, and Lesquereux's naming of the species in Owen's honor, are recounted here, largely in the words of Owen, his contemporaries, and Lesquereux.
One of the earliest published descriptions appeared in the New Harmony newpaper, Indiana Statesman, March 18, 1843.
Reception of a paper on Western Geology by the Scientific Public of EnglandThe writer of this article, Samuel Bassett, went on to explain how the larger issues concerning Western Geology in Owen's Memoir were all very well received at the Manchester meeting. It is of particular interest, for present purposes, that the fossilized tree stumps from Blairsville attracted so much attention at this meeting of influential scientists.
To the Editor of the Indiana Statesman: Sir: Having been the bearer of a Geological Memoir prepared by your fellow-townsman, Dr. David Dale Owen, on the subject of the Geology of the Western States, and having been present when that Memoir and its illustrations were presented at the annual meeting of the principal scientific society of Britain, it has occurred to me that some account of its reception might interest your readers.
The Memoir was intended for the Geological Society of London, and was furnished by Dr. Owen, with a letter addressed to its President, Mr. Murchison. On my arrival in Manchester, in June last [i.e., 1842], I saw it announced in the papers that a meeting of the British Association for the Promotion of Science, would take place there in a few days afterwards; and knowing that almost every distinguished scientific man in Great Britain, and many from the European continent, would be present; and perceiving also that Mr. Murchison would preside over the Geological Section, I spoke to the Managing Committee, showed them the documents of which I was the bearer, and at their urgent request, decided to await the meeting.
... [Mr. Murchison] especially admired the drawings, and asked where Dr. Owen had procured an artist to execute them; and when I told him, that Western Geologists had to be their own artists, he repeated that they were exceedingly well executed.
On the second day of the meeting, Mr. Murchison introduced the Memoir to the notice of the Association, giving a brief sketch of its contents, and exhibiting the Illustrations. A discussion ensued, in which almost all the distinguished Geologists of Great Britain joined... The remarks and discussion lasted about two hours; and I was several times appealed to, to answer questions relative to the drawings. The representation of the fossil trees found at Blairsville, in this county, attracted particular attention. Mr. Murchison asked me if I knew whether they were correct drawings. I replied that I did, having been present at the excavation; and, as the day was very wet, having held an umbrella over the Dr. while he sketched them, "Oh, then," remarked Dr. Buckland, "we may depend upon their accuracy. A man's imagination is not likely to be over-heated under such circumstances."
Owen's Memoir was published in The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 2 (1846) 433-447. Included is a brief description of the tree stumps, but Owen read a more detailed paper about them to the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists, published in the American Journal of Science 45 (1843) 42-43:
They were discovered about twelve miles from New Harmony, in excavating in a slaty clay on the banks of Big Creek, a tributary of the Wabash, for the purpose of laying the foundation of a saw and grist mill, and forming a rag dam. The stratum in which they are imbedded is one of the upper members of the Illinois coal-field.This paper goes on to tell that Dr. Owen "exhibited a model, quarter the natural size of the smallest stump excavated." This is presumably the same "Cast or model of the stump of a fossil tree, [representing] but one-fourth the size of the original specimen, which is nearly two feet in height, and from nine to ten inches in diameter," donated by Dr. Owen to the museum of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP); this description of the cast appears in the Proceedings of ANSP 1 (1843) 270-271. The ANSP article also indicates that the area of excavation was about 3000 square feet, thus suggesting that additional specimens remain, and notes that the trees were thought to be of a species of palm.
From the first commencement of the excavation from twenty to twenty five fossil stumps have been seen. Dr. Owen has disinterred only three himself. These were found standing erect, with from five to seven main roots attached ...
Lesquereux's report in 1862
In 1859, David Dale Owen was appointed State Geologist of Indiana, and his brother Richard, Assistant State Geologist. The following year, D. D. Owen died. Richard became the State Geologist, and in 1862, he published a report of the Survey for the years 1859-60. On the staff of the Survey was Leo Lesquereux, one of the foremost paleobotanists of the nineteenth century. Lesquereux wrote, in his portion of the 1862 report:
The strata exposed on the bank of Big creek, at Blairsville, have the following section:Lesquereux's 1862 report appears to be the earliest publication in which the species is given a name. In the 1870 report of the Illinois geological survey, under the directorship of Amos Worthen, Lesquereux again describes the species, and a decade later he published another account:
1. Alluvial soil and clay ...................................... 5 ft.
2. Shales and shaly sandstone ........................... 15 ft.
3. Coal brash .................................................... 3 in.
4. Fire-clay and broken plants ........................... 6 ft.
5. Sandstone in bank ......................................... 6 ft.
6. Fire-clay and trace of coal ............................. 3 in.
7. Shales and shaly sandstone to level of the creek.
... In the sandstone No. 5 of the section, and perhaps in the fire-clay underlying it, very remarkable fossil remains of standing trees were discovered by Dr. D. Dale Owen. One of the largest specimens, preserved in the cabinet of this celebrated geologist, is two feet three inches high, from the base of the root, perfectly cylindrical, and thirteen inches in diameter at its top where it is broken... These trunks (many of the same species were found together) were first considered as the remains of Palm trees; but specimens found with their bark, still preserved, showed them to belong, or at least to be nearly related, to the genus Sigillaria, which has furnished to the Coal Measures a great many species of large trees, thus greatly contributing to the formation of the coal by their heaped remains. The Blairsville species, named Sigillaria Owenii from its discoverer, has its bark marked by double oval scars ...
Lesquereux's reports in 1880-1884
Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania, Report of Progress, Coal Flora, vol. 2 (1880) 507-509, vol. 3 (1884), 801, plate xcii.
In the first of these reports, Lesquereux places Owen's species in the genus Didymophyllum, rather than Sigillaria,. He writes (1880):
This species is represented by three specimens - trunks of standing trees, discovered by Dr. Dale Owen, and transferred to his cabinet with the roots still attached to them as they were found in place.Lesquereux then explains why he is changing the placement of this species from the genus Sigillaria to the genus Didymophyllum, erected by Goeppert, and completed by Dawson in 1862 with the species Didymophyllum reniforme. The reasons for the change are technical and are not restated here.
A search has shown that there is probably no specimen of D. owenii in the vast collection of the National Museum of Natural History (of the Smithsonian Institution), but that there is a specimen of D. reniforme.
An interesting footnote on page 507 of the 1880 report concerns the drawing of Didymophyllum owenii which you see on this page:
I have used for the description a beautiful figure of one of the trunks of Dr. Owen. It had been kindly prepared for my use by his draughtsman, Mr. Cappelsmith, of New Harmony. I hope to have this figure represented in a future publication.Here is Lesquereux's description in the 1884 report:
The trunk described under [the name Didymophyllum (Sigillaria) owenii] is here represented exactly with the measurements of its different parts. The circumference of the trunk, near the base, is 1.12m.; the preserved standing portion 70 cm. high, above the roots which abruptly curve to an horizontal direction in 6 or 7 primary branches 12 to 24 cm. in diameter. They are first forked at 20 to 30 cm. from their point of divergence from the trunk and measure at their ends, where they are broken, 3 to 8 cm. in diameter. The representation of the roots in "Coal Flora," [in 1879 and 1880 Pennsylvania reports of progress] was not made from exact measurements; these procured for me a long time ago (1861) by the kindness of Mr. John Chappells Smith, of New Harmony, having been for a long time missing. As the specimen has been lost in the destruction by fire of the Museum of Indiana University [in 1883; Richard Owen had sold D. D. Owen's museum to the university after his brother's death], that copy is worth to be preserved to Paleontology. The leaf-scars are represented first in a reduced measure, proportionally to that of the stems. Figs. 11, 11a, show them, natural size; Fig.11b, enlarged; Fig. 11c represents the scars nearly at the origin of the roots; Fig. 11d, the scars upon the roots.Shown on this webpage is Fig. 11 from Lesquereux's report, without the small figures 11a-d; a few misprints in the report have been corrected here.
Two notes about Lesquereux's references to John Chappellsmith are in order. First, it is not clear whether the drawing is by Chappellsmith or someone else, perhaps Owen himself. Concerning Chappellsmith's name, Lesquereux's spellings (Capellsmith and Chappells Smith) take their place among others. The truth is, this well-to-do artist, meteorologist, and radical writer on metaphysical subjects was born John Chappell Smith near Sheffield, England, but all of his known surviving letters and his many publications in The Boston Investigator give the spelling as Chappellsmith (or the pseudonym Eboracum). His illustrations of fossils are published in several of Owen's geological reports.
The copy which Lesquereux deemed "worth to be preserved to Paleontology" is Figure 11, plate xcii, of his 1884 report, based on Owen's specimen of Didymophyllum owenii, specifically, the specimen lost in the 1883 fire. (One wonders what happened to Owen's other two specimens.) In the absense of a museum specimen, the original drawing, especially if by Chappellsmith or Owen, would certainly be "worth to be preserved," too.