Notable Scientists and History of Florissant Fossil Beds

Topic Overview
The land that is now Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was first occupied by Native Americans. Homesteaders began to settle in the area and collect fossils in the 1870s. One of the most important homesteaders in the history of the fossil beds was Charlotte Hill. She collected many of the fossils that are now types (see “What’s in a name” theme page) and provided them to scientists to study and publish. The early, prominent scientists who studied and published on Florissant fossils include (dates of publications): Leo Lesquereux (plants, 1873-1883), E.D. Cope (fish, 1874-1883), Samuel Scudder (insects, 1875-1900), T.D.A. Cockerell (multiple groups, 1906-1941), H.F. Wickham (beetles, 1908-1920), and H.D. MacGinitie (plants, monograph published in 1953). These specimens are housed in numerous museums including: the Smithsonian, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Before the area was set aside as Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in 1969 it was under private ownership. Giant petrified tree stumps such as the “Big Stump” and the “Trio” were owned by different landowners who independently promoted their sites as tourist attractions.

Local homesteader Charlotte Hill
 
Prominent scientists who studied Florissant fossils from left to right: Scudder, Lesquereux, Cockerell, MacGinitie.

Topic In Depth
Early Homesteaders and Scientific Expeditions
Native Americans inhabited Colorado and the surrounding area long before Europeans arrived in the 1870s. Florissant had a few homesteads, including that of Charlotte and Adam Hill. Charlotte Hill and her family collected fossils from the Florissant Formation and found numerous important specimens. She provided many of her fossil finds to visiting scientists including the Princeton Scientific Expedition in 1877. The Princeton Scientific Expedition, composed of 22 members including 18 college students, was only in Florissant (central Colorado) for two days, but obtained hundreds of fossils, primarily from Charlotte Hill. One of these, Rosa hilliae, was a rose named after her. The Hayden Survey was a government-sponsored scientific expedition in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains from 1867 to 1878. In 1873, the Hayden Survey explored Colorado and ultimately produced a geologic map of the state in 1877. This expedition also recovered fossils from Florissant. 

Early Scientists
Leo Lesquereux
Years of Florissant publications: 1873-1883
Leo Lesquereux examined the fossil plants from the Hayden Survey and published on the Florissant material.
E.D. Cope
Years of Florissant publications: 1874-1883
E.D. Cope described the fossil fish from Florissant. He was involved in the Hayden Survey. Cope is most well-known for his participation in the “Bone Wars” with fellow vertebrate paleontologist O.C. Marsh. This long and intense rivalry centered on the discovery and race to publish on new discoveries of dinosaur bones in the west.
Samuel Scudder
Years of Florissant publications: 1875-1900
Scudder studied and published on more than 600 species of insects from Florissant. He collected at Florissant in August, 1877 and then again in 1881 or 1882 and 1889.
C.T. Brues
Years of Florissant publications: 1906-1910
C.T. Brues described over 140 new species of wasps and bees from Florissant.
T.D.A. Cockerell
Years of Florissant publications: 1906-1941
T.D.A. Cockerell (University of Colorado) described a slew of fossil insects, spiders, plants, and mollusks from the Florissant Formation in addition to modern insects from the area.
H.F. Wickham
Years of Florissant publications: 1908-1920
Approximately 38% of the fossil insects from Florissant are beetles. These were described by H.F. Wickham between 1866 and 1933. In total, Wickham described 356 species of beetles in 15 publications.

More recent work
The plants were revisited in the work of H.D. MacGinitie. He excavated at Florissant in 1936 and 1937 and published an extensive monograph on the fossil flora in 1953. In this he reduced the number of fossil plant species from Florissant by about half by synonymizing many of the former names. His work continues to be one of our primary references on the plants from the Florissant Formation. It is a different story with the fossil insects, which still need to revised after more than a century. Work to update all of the insect taxa since the publications of Scudder and Cockerell has not been undertaken. More recent research on Florissant fossils has been completed by A.L. Melander (flies), Estella B. Leopold (pollen and spores), D.J. Nichols (pollen and spores), Steven R. Manchester (plant macrofossils), Dena M. Smith (plant/insect interactions), Frank M. Carpenter (insects), Jaelyn J. Eberle (mammals), Elisabeth A. Wheeler (wood), and Herbert W. Meyer (primarily plants) among others. In total, there have been over 330 publications that cite Florissant specimens with 152 contributors (including co-authors). 

Tourism (pre-National Monument)
In 1887 the railroad reached Florissant and brought tourist trains to see the wildflowers in the early 1900s. The tourists also collected pieces of petrified wood that were scattered on the ground. Loose pieces of petrified wood quickly disappeared from the landscape. The land that is now Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was privately owned for many decades. Two neighboring families (with various ownership changes through the years) promoted the petrified stumps on their property as tourist attractions. This caused heated competition and a long-running feud. Most recently, the Singer family owned the Colorado Petrified Forest which included the “Big Stump.” They wanted the land preserved as a unit of the National Park Service, in part, because they observed how much petrified wood was being taken from the area. In contrast, their neighbors, who operated the tourist attraction Pike Petrified Forest that included the “Trio” did not support the establishment of a National Monument. The Pike Petrified Forest closed in 1961. The Singer family owned their land until a few years after the establishment of the National Monument. 
In the early days there was an effort to saw the “Big Stump” into smaller pieces and ship it via the railroad to the World’s Columbian Expedition in Chicago in 1893. Luckily this was unsuccessful. The remnants of the saw blades are still visible in the “Big Stump” today. 
 

The “Big Stump” with remnant saw blades indicated with blue arrows. 

In another bit of history, Walt Disney visited what is now the Monument on July 11, 1956. He spoke to Toby Wells, a young (~12 years old) boy who conducted tours of the petrified forest and showed Disney the petrified trees. Surprisingly, Disney bought a petrified stump for his 31st anniversary as a gift for his wife Lillian. This stump is now on display in Frontierland in Disneyland. 

Public collecting is still available today for a fee at the Florissant Fossil Quarry, owned by the Clare family, to the north of the National Monument. 

Establishment of the National Monument
The National Park Service had surveyed the area between 1959 and 1962 and deemed it “nationally significant” and “threatened by development.” Most of the landowners in the area were receptive to preserving the land; however, real estate developers had a different plan. The first bill proposing this area as a National Monument was introduced in 1962. This effort did not go anywhere and the bill was reintroduced (in various versions) in 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969. Congress was slow to review the bill and real estate developers were moving in to build summer cottages on the land. A few landowners were interested to preserve the area, whereas others wanted to see it developed as real estate prices had increased significantly. Three women from the greater Denver area, Dr. Estella Leopold, Dr. Betty Willard, and Vim Wright, established the group the “Defenders of Florissant.” This group was composed of scientists, conservationists, and concerned citizens. They hired lawyers Victor Yannacone (Environmental Defense Fund, New York) and Richard and Tom Lamm (Colorado) to help delay the developers long enough so Congress could pass the bill establishing the Monument. Multiple court motions were denied, primarily by Judge Chilson, but the delay (in the form of a temporary restraining order against the developers) was finally approved by Judge Murrah. The work of Yannacone and Lamm became the foundation of environmental law. Eventually, the National Monument was established when the Bill was signed by President Nixon on August 20, 1969. 
 

From left to right: Estella Leopold, Bettie Willard, Vim Wright. This photo was taken during the 25th anniversary celebration of the monument in 1994.

When the Monument was formed in 1969, money was appropriated for a paleontologist. However, the first permanent paleontologist, Herb Meyer, was not hired until 1994. Some of the early park superintendents did not understand the value of fossils and did not think they would be of interest to the general public. Today, exploring the stumps and rich fossil history is the primary reason people visit the park.  

For more details on the establishment of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument see: Leopold, E.B. and Meyer, H.W. (2012) Saved in Time. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. 

For more details on the history of paleontology at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument see: Veatch, S.W. and Meyer, H.W. (2008) History of paleontology at the Florissant fossil beds, Colorado in Meyer, H.W. and Smith, D.M. eds. Paleontology of the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation, Colorado. The Geological Society of America Special Paper 435.