"Seward Surveys"


View of Upper High Falls



Establishment of the first New York State Geological Surveys (1836 to 1844)

The New York Geological Survey of 1836-1842, otherwise referred to as the "Seward Surveys" in reference to William Henry Seward, then Governor of New York State, "left a more impressionable legacy upon American geology than any other that preceded or succeeded it" (Fisher, 1978). In consequence of Seward's staunch support, and the dedication and prodigious efforts of the State Geologists, the Geological Survey became a model of government-sponsored surveys then and now. It also contributed greatly to the nomenclatural foundation of American stratigraphy, and to the value of paleontology for correlation purposes.

The following discussion focuses on several individuals who made significant contributions to the advancement of geology and paleontology, in part through their research associations with Trenton Falls during the era of the "Seward Surveys."

Amos Eaton, William Seward, Timothy Conrad, Lardner Vanuxem, James Hall

AMOS EATON (1776-1842)

By 1830, Eaton, founder and first professor of the Rensselaer School (now RPI), had already published a textbook and geologic map of the State of New York as well as developed his nomenclature for lithostratigraphic units. In addition to his success on the Erie Canal surveys, Amos Eaton made contributions to the foundations of American Geology through the education and mentoring of his students. Several of these students went on to be "geology titans" (Fisher, 1978). Not only had Eaton influenced their understanding and knowledge of the natural world, but by 1836 he was able to help establish the precedent of state sponsored geologic study. Through his pioneering efforts many of his students, including James Hall and Ebenezer Emmons, obtained their first geology appointments. >>Back to Top


While Governor William Marcy was responsible for establishing legislation that started the Natural History Surveys, the responsibility of overseeing their progress was left to his successor William Henry Seward. It was due to the ardent support of this individual that the "Seward Surveys" were carried out by way of the appointment of not one, but four state geologists. Each of these four chief geologists: William W. Mather, Ebenezer Emmons Sr., Lardner Vanuxem, Timothy Conrad and James Hall (to replace Conrad), with their assistants, was assigned one of four geological districts. Together they had the great task of surveying the entire State of New York. With modest initial funding, these geologists and their assistants went to work surveying their respective districts. The annual reports of field work from 1837 to 1841 documented their progress, with final reports filed in 1842 to 1843 summarizing their findings. (Fisher, 1978) >>Back to Top





William Henry Seward




Timothy Conrad was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and developed, at an early age, a fascination for shelled organisms. Through his dedication to these organisms, he developed a career for himself working as a conchologist and paleontologist. Based on his well-received studies of fresh-water unionid bivalves, Conrad was recommended for a position on the first Geological Survey of New York. In 1836, he was assigned the responsibility of surveying the third geological district which included central New York State , the majority of the Mohawk River Valley and West Canada Creek (Fisher, 1978). In this capacity, Timothy Conrad was the first geologist who documented the geology of the Trenton Falls area. His first annual report on the "Third District” in 1837 provided a physical description of lithology and an estimate of stratal thickness of the deposits at Trenton Falls . He also mentioned, perhaps because of his love for molluscs, the capacity of these deposits to yield numerous "organic exuviae" including bivalves and trilobites (Conrad, 1837).

Conrad was replaced as chief geologist of the third district after the first annual report was published. He was re-assigned to the task of cataloging, describing, and curating the immense numbers of rock and fossil specimens collected in the initial year of the surveys. As the first State Paleontologist, Conrad made contributions to the understanding of Trenton fossil specimens. He grouped them as part of his "sixth group" in the Second Annual Report of the New York State Geological Survey (1838). Unfortunately, Conrad, distracted by his ongoing projects on Tertiary molluscs, left the Survey in 1841 before the completion of his work (Fisher, 1978). His failure to produce a summary document on New York State fossils was looked upon negatively, and it probably contributed to the demise of the surveys, which were discontinued in 1842.>>Back to Top


Lardner Vanuxem was trained as a geologist in Paris, and upon his return to the U.S., was appointed to the chair of chemistry and mineralogy at South Carolina College. He completed a one-year survey of the geology of South Carolina in 1826. Vanuxem was first employed by the New York State legislature in the years 1826-1827 to complete a feasibility study, complementary to the initial work of Eaton, for the construction of the Erie Canal. Although this work was funded by New York State, his responsibilities included geological reconnaissance of neighboring states including: Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio (Wilson and Fiske, 1999). During the completion of his surveys, Vanuxem focused on the chemical description of rocks and minerals and their interaction with the atmosphere. In addition, Vanuxem was among the first to make biostratigraphic correlations between Cretaceous strata of America and Europe (Elliott, 1996). He was also appointed to the faculty of the Rensselaer School by Eaton.

When the New York State Legislature approved the establishment of the New York surveys in 1836, Vanuxem was appointed, along with William Mather, Ebenezer Emmons Sr., and Timothy Conrad, to chief geologist positions on the survey. At the conclusion of the first field season, Conrad and Vanuxem voiced a desire to modify the initial geological district boundaries to more accurately complete the survey. In 1837, Professor Vanuxem was re-assigned to the third geological district (instead of the fourth), and continued in the active work of the survey until 1841. In his place, James Hall, the young student of Amos Eaton, was then appointed to the fourth district (Fisher, 1978).

Lardner Vanuxem was the first geologist to apply the practice of naming stratigraphic units after the localities where they are most prominently displayed. The term “ Trenton limestone” was chosen because of the great popularity of Trenton Falls. Prior studies used different schemes for identification of these or similar rocks, i.e. the "shelly metaliferous limerock" of Eaton (1830), and the "No. 2, Formation" of Pennsylvanian nomenclature (White, 1895). Due to the influence and popularity of the district reports, Vanuxem's designation “Trenton Limestone,” first used in 1838 (in the Second Annual Report of the Fourth District), and fully defined in 1842 (Geology of New York Final Report Part III) came into popular usage.

In his final report, Lardner Vanuxem (1842) distinguished two main divisions within the Trenton Limestone. The lower unit was defined as "a dark or black colored fine-grained limestone in thin layers, separated by black shale or slate, and which forms the great[est] mass ...." of the strata. The upper unit was separated as the thick-bedded "gray coarse-grained limestone" that caps the lower mass. Using this terminology then, the type section of the Trenton Limestone extends from the Trenton village falls (below the gorge) through the bridge at Prospect, New York, nearly 2.5 miles upstream (White, 1885).

Vanuxem described not only the strata of the Trenton limestone, but also contributed the description of 17 new fossils useful in identifying the age relationship of these rocks at Trenton and elsewhere. This list, combined with the previous work by Timothy A. Conrad and earlier description of a spectacular Isotelus trilobite by DeKay, helped to establish the renown of Trenton Falls.>>Back to Top

JAMES HALL (1811-1898)

The great James Hall graduated from Rensselaer school in 1832, at the age of 22. He was taught and mentored by Amos Eaton, co-founder of what is now called Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. At the time of his graduation, the Rensselaer school was becoming well-known for the education and advancement of American geology and paleontology and for some time, Troy was the "mecca" of North American geology (Fisher, 1978). After graduating, James Hall was retained by the school and his mentor to teach chemistry and natural sciences, and after only four years was promoted to full professor of geology. In the same year, 1836, he was hired to assist Ebenezeer Emmons Sr., chief geologist of the original second geological district of the New York State Geological Survey. A year later, after a reorganization of districts and the creation of the State Paleontologist position, Hall was promoted to Chief Geologist of the fourth district, a position which he maintained through the completion of the state survey in 1842. (Wilson and Fiske, 1887-1889)

In 1842, funding for the state survey was discontinued, as the job of the survey was perceived by the New York State Legislature to be completed. As chief geologist of the fourth district, James Hall clearly recognized the need for the Geologic Survey, and demanded that work continue on the rock and fossil specimens that were curated during the district surveys. Through his fiery persistence, work continued on these specimens beyond the initial survey period. In an effort to provide the public with access to these materials, the "Geological Hall" or New York State Museum was dedicated in 1855. During his reign as State Geologist (1837-1898), and as State Paleontologist (1843-1898), James Hall's career spanned 63 years of public service. "No other single person exerted as influential a role in the development of paleontology in North America during the 19th century than [he]" (Fisher, 1978).

Despite the fact that Hall was not the chief geologist of the Third Geological District of New York State, the district within which Trenton Falls lies, Hall eagerly embraced the geology of Trenton Falls. He recognized its importance for both paleontological research and stratigraphy. As State Paleontologist, a position which he took over after the vacancy of Timothy Conrad, Hall made significant contributions toward the collection and description of many fossil taxa from that locality. He included many of the taxa in the Paleontology of New York series that made him so popular.

Perhaps the most significant contribution Hall made to the study of the geology and paleontology of Trenton Falls, was his role in fostering the education and professional development of Charles Doolittle Walcott. In his tenure as the New York State paleontologist, Hall was known for the mentoring of students and for his omnipotent rule over the study and documentation of fossils from New York State and elsewhere. In this capacity, Hall hired a young budding paleontologist by the name of Charles Doolittle Walcott. Walcott and his boyhood employer were the "pre-eminent fossil trilobite collectors of Trenton Falls," and in this capacity Walcott earned a respectable living and a reputation for his work on trilobites (Yochelson, 1996). Yet through his meager beginnings at Trenton Falls, Walcott, like James Hall, became very influential in the history of North American geology, and in paleontology.

The study of collections of fossil specimens from Trenton Falls proceeded rapidly and in earnest during Hall's tenure as State Paleontologist. Borrowing the title of Charlotte A. Pitcher's 1915 book on Trenton Falls seems justifiable, for not only did Trenton Falls serve the public in an aesthetic sense, but also contributed greatly to the "Golden Era" of geological research in North America.>>Back to Top




Timothy A. Conrad

First Chief Geologist

"Third Geological District"

and First State Paleontologist








Lardner Vanuxem

circa 1837

Chief Geologist of the reapportioned

"Third Geological District."



James Hall

circa 1837


James Hall

Circa 1860

James Hall

Circa 1899


© 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College