Early Academic Period


Photograph by: Carlton E. Brett, View up "The Narrows" Toward Sherman Falls (in the Background)






Samuel Latham Mitchell


Image from Fisher, 1978







Wood cut by N. Orr and Co. publishers of:

Trenton Falls, Picturesque and Descriptive,1868

a subsidiary volume embracing the original essay by John Sherman. edited by N. Parker Willis


The Golden Era of Trenton Falls, 1915 by:

Charlotte A Pitcher

& Fierstine Printing House, Utica, NY.



Professor Amos Eaton


Image from: Fisher, 1978


"Tabular View of North American Rocks"

Modified from: Eaton, 1828



James Renwick


Image from:









James Ellsworth DeKay

(1792 to 1851)

Image from:














Early Academic Period (1790's to 1836)

During the same period of time when the great natural scientists of Europe were developing and debating both the basic tools for geological research and the relative age relationships of various stratal units, American naturalists began to investigate the natural resources and history of their own continent. With the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the State of New York, the expansion of settlements along the Mohawk River to regions further west proceeded rapidly. The first surveys for land grants were done by educated individuals who considered themselves naturalists but had no geological training.

The following discussion introduces those individuals who, through their influence, initiated geologic investigations of the Mohawk Valley region. These first geological studies in New York State formed the foundation of American geology. Moreover it is through their legacy that we have come to know Trenton Falls and its geological and paleontological history. For this reason, Trenton Falls has been an inspiration for generations of geologists.

Samuel L. Mitchell, John Sherman, Amos Eaton, James Renwick, James DeKay

(click on the geologist's name above for more information about them and their contribution to the study of Trenton Falls.)


The first naturalist known to have worked in the Mohawk Valley region was Samuel Latham Mitchell. He initiated the earliest informal geological survey of New York State in the years 1793-1796. Although this eminent early North American naturalist had no official training in the geological sciences, his medical education at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland no doubt introduced him to the studies and ideas of the great James Hutton. Through his interest in the geological arrangement of strata and the distribution of fossils, Mitchell represents the first geological pioneer in New York State Geology (Fisher, 1978). However, Mitchell only briefly surveyed the distribution of rock units near prominent landmarks in the vicinity of important settlements along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers . His studies, therefore, do not document the occurrence of strata along West Canada Creek at Trenton Falls . Due to the proximity of the site to the Mohawk River, it is believed that his work would have brought him to the village of Olden Barneveld, now referred to as Trenton, and hence to the gorge itself. >>Back to Top


JOHN SHERMAN (1772-1828)

John Sherman was not the first visitor to Trenton Falls, but was one of the first to appreciate the geological context of the chasm. This Unitarian pastor had great interest in the falls and pondered the geologic record contained within the strata. Despite the delay in publishing of his own manuscript written in 1827, Sherman had already influenced the public by opening his "Rural Retreat" at the Falls and by bringing Trenton Falls to the attention of eminent geologists of his time. John Sherman might be considered the "Father of Trenton Falls Geology", and perhaps the lowest fall in the chasm is rightly named Sherman Falls in his honor.

In 1806, Sherman moved from Connecticut to the hamlet of Olden Barneveld (now known as Trenton Falls), where he was hired as pastor. Because of his fascination for the beautiful falls he bought a tract of land nearby in 1822 from the Holland Land Company. In addition to constructing the first of a series of buildings to be utilized as a hotel and resort for tourists visiting the falls, he also made significant improvements toward accessing the deeply incised gorge. Thus "through his instrumentality the now celebrated Trenton Falls were prepared for examination and brought into public notice" (Sherman, 1827, p.23; from a concluding statement by William Williams).

The enthusiasm John Sherman displayed for the falls is described in the introduction to the book The Golden Era of Trenton Falls , where Charlotte A. Pitcher introduces him. Although not a geologist, “Mr. Sherman”, she writes, "was captivated with the wonders of the ravine of the West Canada Creek, Kanata or Amber River.”

John Sherman, as a graduate of Yale College, pastor of the Unitarian Church, and principal of the Trenton Academy, was a well-educated man. During his career as owner and operator of the "Rural Retreat" at Trenton Falls, he had been intrigued and curious about the arrangement of strata and fossils within the gorge itself. He introduced many now-famous individuals to the gorge, inviting geologists such as Amos Eaton, Professor Renwick, Dr. DeKay and their students. Through this association, John Sherman undoubtedly learned many concepts only beginning to be used in the study of geology at that time.

Although the "Golden Era of Trenton Falls", in reference to the book by Charlotte Pitcher , was not reached before his death in 1828, Sherman was able to complete an article entitled "A Description of Trenton Falls, Oneida County , New York." In this text Sherman was the first to document the geomorphic arrangement of waterfalls within the gorge and the physical arrangement of strata exposed in the gorge. He also documented some of the fossil occurrences and other unique characteristics of the rocks. At the time he was the leading expert on Trenton Falls.>>Back to Top

AMOS EATON (1776-1842)

The expansion of the American Frontier including western regions of New York State in the late 1700's and early 1800's, generated extreme interest in developing faster routes for transportation of natural resources and other goods between the frontier and eastern markets. Subdued geomorphic features and fairly navigable rivers in the central portion of the region made it potentially the easiest route to both the Great Lakes and to the Ohio Valley. If the state could establish an all-water route to the west, New York would benefit financially from trade. As such, the effort was put forth to investigate the feasibility of constructing such a route.

Through the support of Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York State, the lawyer and self-trained geologist Amos Eaton was hired to complete a survey of the proposed Erie Canal District. The intention was to map out the best route based on the geological characters of the land. In performing this task, Amos Eaton authored "A Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District adjoining the Erie Canal, " published in 1824 with the support of Stephen Rensselaer. In this text based on his field work during the years 1823-1824, Eaton presents a "Tabular View of North American Rocks" to include four major classes of North American Rocks: Primitive, Transition, Secondary, and Superincumbent. Each of these was further broken into more than 25 divisions and subdivisions ( Fisher, 1978 ). The details of his work, although controversial, provided the first American rock nomenclature based on the lithologic characteristics of various strata. In doing so, he improved on the practice of using fossils only for correlation, as was employed by the Europeans William Smith, James Hutton and Charles Lyell.

During the survey of the Mohawk/Erie Canal District, Amos Eaton was introduced to Trenton Falls by John Sherman, owner and proprietor of the first hotel and residence there. The falls on West Canada Creek were later investigated in their geological context by Professor Eaton of the newly formed Rensselaer School opened at Troy, New York in 1824, and his colleague Professor James Renwick of Columbia College. Through the innovative use of field study in their curriculum, Eaton and Renwick introduced their students to many geological localities in the region of the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys, including Trenton Falls. In 1830, Eaton wrote in his description of the "Travelling term of Rensselaer School", concerning his innovative use of field experience to accompany the formal education of students: "Wednesday 7.- Students visit Trenton Falls on foot, about fifteen miles north of Utica" (Eaton, 1830, p. 137). He stated that he had "traveled through the whole rout four times, and reviewed important parts of it very often...," thus suggesting that he had begun taking students there at least four years earlier. This fact is supported by the statement of John Sherman in his article dated 1827, to the effect that Eaton had classified the exposure of rocks as belonging to his "Transition Class." Sherman's descriptions of the geology of Trenton Falls were at a technical level of understanding, and probably were influenced by Eaton and Renwick's teachings.

Eaton's contributions to the understanding of geology and the establishment of American Geology were undoubtedly influenced by Trenton Falls. Moreover, due to Eaton's innovative teaching program of field study, Trenton Falls undoubtedly influenced the careers of many of his students including James Hall, Ebenezer Emmons, James Eights, Lewis Beck, and Joseph Henry, all of whom held highly revered positions in North American Geology. In fact, "by 1860, seven graduates of Eaton were in charge of geological surveys throughout the country, a feat unmatched by any university to this day" (Fisher, 1978).>>Back to Top

JAMES RENWICK (1790-1863)

James Renwick was born in Liverpool, England in 1790 and graduated at age 17 from New York 's Columbia College in 1807. As he was an exceptional student, he was hired in 1813 as an instructor in natural and experimental philosophy and chemistry at Columbia. By 1820 he was the chair of the natural sciences department, a position he held until he retired in 1853. Concurrently with his teaching responsibilities, Renwick worked as a topographical engineer in the U.S. Military.

In addition to his responsibilities with both Columbia College and the U.S. Military, Professor Renwick was a vigorous contributor to many scientific, engineering, political and philosophical publications. His own works included publications on diverse topics such as: “Origin of Natural Philosophy”(1922-1923); "Treatise on the Steam-Engine" (1830); "Life of De Witt Clinton, with Selections of his Letters" (1840); "First Principles of Chemistry" (1841). In addition to these published works he also is known for his printed materials for use in the classroom including "First Principles in Chemistry" (1838), and "Outlines of Geology" (1838). (Wilson and Fiske, 1887-1889).

Given his numerous responsibilities and broad range of interests, it is amazing that Renwick also took time to pursue research on the geology of Trenton Falls. Renwick and Amos Eaton were regular visitors to John Sherman's "Rural Retreat," along with their students. In fact, the earliest published record of the geological and paleontologic character of Trenton Falls was in 1824 in the Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. This volume includes an article by J.E. DeKay entitled "Observations on the structure of Trilobites, and description of an apparently new genus [ Isotelus gigas ]." In a 3-page addition to this article, Renwick became the first geologist to describe the “Geology of Trenton Falls.” He wrote sections on the: “Situation” (geographic location), “Depth and extent of formation”, “Chemical and external character”, “Mineral contents”, “Organic remains”, “Encrinites and Fungites”, and finally, the “Nature of the formation.” Although this brief publication was his only printed contribution to the study of Trenton Falls, James Renwick contributed greatly to the advancement of North American geology.>>Back to Top


James Ellsworth DeKay was born in Portugal in 1792, the descendant of an American Dutch family that had settled in America in the seventeenth century. When he was two years old, Dekay's family returned to the United States, but he lost his parents at a young age. He attended schools in Connecticut where he showed an early interest in natural history. Although he attended Yale from 1807 to 1812, it is not clear that he ever formally completed his studies. He enrolled in the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1818, receiving his M.D. in 1819. (Romero, 2002).

Given DeKay's leanings toward biology and natural history, his research interest gradually turned to the description and cataloging of biological specimens. In his work DeKay wrote more than 55 manuscripts on topics ranging from the description of modern fish and invertebrate species to fossil vertebrates (mammoths, marine reptiles) and invertebrates (his most direct tie to Trenton Falls). During the same period of time when the four district geologists were surveying the geology of New York State, DeKay was equally busy composing the Zoological Report of New York State. Though this task proved to be daunting and overwhelming for him, DeKay published a series of Annual Reports and a well-received Final Report in 1842.

DeKay's primary tie to the geology and paleontology of Trenton Falls was brought about not through his service to the New York State Survey, but through his association with Eaton, Renwick and the Lyceum of Natural History in New York. Although a few disarticulated specimens were previously known, John Sherman of Trenton Falls had discovered the most complete specimen of a rather large Trenton trilobite. Sherman brought his specimens to DeKay, who at that time was a practicing taxonomist, for description. With Sherman 's specimens, DeKay published his "Observations on the structure of Trilobites, and description of an apparently new genus" in 1824. In this article, DeKay not only named the fossil species but he named the genus, as he felt these trilobites were sufficiently different from any of Brongniart's five described genera. DeKay constructed the generic name of this trilobite from the Greek isos meaning equal, and telos meaning end or extremity, thus Isotelus to indicate the relatively equally apportioned cephalons and pygidia. The species name was selected based on the large size of the specimen, hence Isotelus gigas. This trilobite, "whose peculiar form and great size excited much curiosity" (DeKay and Renwick, 1824), was perhaps above all other Trenton fascinations the most emblematic of that locality.>>Back to Top





Samuel L. Mitchell


Plate XII

Plate XIII


© 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College