Missing Fossils

When Thomas Jefferson forwarded Lewis and Clark's scientific specimens to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, they were registered by the Society's librarian, John Vaughan, upon their arrival. But peculiarly, that one register was only for the shipment of materials sent by the explorers from Fort Mandan in 1805; it was never expanded. The rest of the collections that came in after the end of the expedition were either entered into another register—one not found now—or else they were redistributed to their respective researchers without anyone formally recording their arrival.

The Fort Mandan shipment of specimens was registered in the so-called "Donation Book" that was compiled for the Lewis and Clark materials received in November 1805.1 A separate section was devoted to geological specimens, which noted several fossils2 all but one of which are missing now. We point out that many, if not most, of the collections were passed along to the researchers who were then examining the expedition's treasures, and thereafter the specimens were absorbed into personal or other institutional collections, the original data lost.3

The "Donation Book" entries were sequentially numbered by Vaughan, who seems to have transcribed notations that were written by Meriwether Lewis in the field. We can be reasonably certain of this because the text for item no. 9, the fossil fish jaw found by Sgt. Gass, is nearly identical to the text on the label that had accompanied the specimen. To some of Vaughan's entries an identification has been added, presumably by Vaughan from personal observation or from some later communication received by him. The following accounting lists all of the fossil specimens known to have been received in Philadelphia; the numbers are Vaughan's itemization in the register, which seems to reflect only the order in which the specimens were unpacked. The numbers omitted from this list are associated with items other than fossils.

"7 Petrefaction on the Missouri May 30, 1804"

On this date the expedition traveled some 14 miles on the Missouri River in the vicinity of today's Portland, Missouri. It had rained heavily during the day and previous night, another indication that the inclement weather may have serendipitously exposed specimens for the explorers passing by.

"9 a Petrified Jawbone of a fish or some other animal found in a Cavern a few miles distant from the Missouri S side of the River. 6 Aug. 1804, found by Searjant Gass"

This is the specimen of Saurocephalus lanciformis, the sole known survivor of Lewis and Clark's fossils.

"24 Carbonated wood found on the Std side of the Riv near fort Mandane 60 feet above high water mark in the Bank Strata 6 Inch thick."

This item, together with nos. 64 and 66, are the only indications of paleobotanical material collected by the expedition. Just what the appearance was of these specimens is impossible to know, hence any hope of identifying them from their descriptions is gone. However, references to "carbonated wood" very probably indicate a black, carbonized form of wood such as the kinds familiar to paleontologists who collect in many formations of Cretaceous age.

"39 Petrefactions obtained on the River ohio in 1803"

The locale could have been anywhere between Pittsburgh and the Mississippi River, of course, but this otherwise testifies to Lewis's observations of natural history at work even before the formal explorations began. There is also a possibility that these could have been additional specimens that Lewis had collected at Big Bone Lick.

"59 A Specimen of calcareous rock, a thin Stratum of which is found overlaying a soft Sand rock which makes its appearance in many parts of the bluffs from the entrance of the River Platte to Fort Mandon." [Added later by Adam Seybert: "Mass of Shells."]

This may be the only record of invertebrate fossils collected by the expedition. From this description, however, it is impossible to know whether they were marine or freshwater organisms, or whether they were collected from a very fossiliferous horizon or from a formation that had been formed from coquina, which is essentially a "hash" of shell material such as sometimes found in coastal plain environments.

"60 Found on the River Bank 1[?] Aug. 1804 (petrified [blank] nest)"

If the collection date was on 1 August 1804, the expedition had camped at Council Bluffs.4 What was meant by a "petrified nest" of any kind is difficult to guess. A possibility is that it was in fact a nest, which had been encrusted by calcium carbonate, or travertine, if it occurred in the vicinity of a tributary of heavily mineralized water.

"64 Specimen of Carbonated wood with the loose sand of the sand-Bars of the Missouri & Mississipi, it appears in considerable quantaties in many places." [Seybert: "carbonated wood."]

"66 Found in the Bluffs near Fort mandan." [Seybert: "Petrefied wood."]

In addition to these specimens, several more entries in the "Donation Book" are noted without any kind of identifying characteristics. Some of these could have been fossils as well, but which will never be known. It is possible that fragments of William Clark's "fish rib" (the possible dinosaur bone mentioned earlier) may have been among the unspecified materials registered by Vaughan, but this, too, will never be known unless the specimens are fortuitously re-discovered.

1. "Lewis & Clark Expedition Donation book containing a list of dried leaves &c. collected in the far West by Meriwether Lewis," American Philosophical Society (Manuscripts Coll., 917.3 L58).

2. See the fully transcribed list in Moulton, Journals, 3:473-478.

3. The rocks and minerals, for example, were given to Adam Seybert, a member of the American Philosophical Society and preeminent American mineralogist. He retained the specimens in his collection. When the Academy of Natural Sciences was founded, in 1812, the collection was purchased by a member of the Academy and donated to that institution. The original catalogues (Seybert's original and an 1825 recataloging by him) are in the Archives of the Academy, and they note about three dozen specimens attributed to "Capt. Lewis." However, only a few specimens are identified with any certainty today as having come from the Lewis and Clark expedition, even though the Seybert Collection remains in the special cabinet built for it in 1825. For an overview, see Earle E. Spamer et al., "A National Treasure: Accounting for the natural history specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition (western North America America, 1803-1806)," Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, vol. 150 (2000), 47-58.

4. Moulton, Journals, 2:432-435.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program