National Park ServiceU.S. Department of the Interior
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument View of the Painted Hills (Photo by Sue Anderson)



For a number of years I have been gradually accumulating material for a thorough revision of the Tertiary floras of the Pacific slope. Fossil plants are known to occur at numerous points within this area, and their study and identification has already furnished valuable data bearing on the geological history of the region, and when still further exploited it is confidently expected that they will afford more exact data for the use of geologists. This investigation is progressing satisfactorily, and at no distant day it is hoped to have it in form for final publication.

From time to time various members of the United States Geological Survey, as well as others not connected with this organization, have sent in small collections of fossil plants for determination. These have been studied and reported upon as fully as the condition of the problem permitted, so that the determinations could be immediately available to geologists, but with the reservation that none of the questions could be fully settled until all known material had been studied and properly correlated.

The rich fossil plant deposits in the John Day Basin, as set forth more fully in the historical account which follows, have been known for a period of nearly fifty years, but their study has been carried on in a more or less desultory manner. There has also been considerable confusion as to the horizons whence these plants came. As various species of plants described originally from the John Day region were detected in various other localities in Oregon, and in surrounding areas, as central Washington, western Idaho, and northern California, it became more than ever apparent that a thorough study of all material obtainable from this type area would be necessary before any definite or satisfactory conclusions could be reached.

The immediate incentive for this revision was furnished by the receipt of a considerable collection of plants, made by Dr. John C. Merriam in 1900 while he was in charge of an expedition into this region made under the auspices of the University of California.

When these plants were submitted to me for study, it was thought possible to present their description, together with a revision of our knowledge of the previously known forms, within a space sufficiently small to permit the publication of the matter as an appendix to a paper on the general geology of the area, then in preparation by Dr. Merriam. But it soon became apparent that this could not be adequately done within the space available, and a short preliminary report was prepared for and published by Dr. Merriam.a The results of a complete restudy of all available fossil plant material from the John Day Basin are now presented.

aA contribution to the geology of the John Day Basin: Univ. Cal., Bull. Dept. Geol., vol. II, No. 9, April 1901, pp. 269-314.

I wish to record my great indebtedness to Dr. Merriam, who not only accompanied me at a considerable personal sacrifice on a trip through the region in 1901, but placed unreservedly at my disposal all material bearing in any way on the problem then in the paleontological museum of the University of California. To Dr. Arthur Hollick I am indebted for the loan of all material from the John Day region belonging to Columbia University, and now deposited in the New York Botanical Garden at Bronx Park. This material, together with the rich collections belonging to the United States National Museum, represents practically all now known to have come from the John Day Basin.


The John Day Basin is situated in the north-central portion of the State of Oregon. It lies mainly in Grant County, but extends also into the northeastern portion of Crook County and the southern portions of Gilliam, Morrow, and Umatilla counties. It is rudely rectangular in outline, and is almost completely surrounded by the Blue Mountains, whose rugged eastern ridges rise to a height of over 6,000 feet, those to the west being lower and made up largely of Tertiary lavas, which form regular and often flat-topped ridges.

John Day River, with its numerous branches and tributaries, draining an area of approximately 10,000 square miles, has a general westward course through the basin, which it leaves on its west side through a gap between the north and south ranges of the Blue Mountains; thence its course is north to the Columbia.

When viewed from an eminence the basin presents a rough and rugged appearance and bears abundant evidence of former volcanic activity in the shape of ridges and plateaus, often several thousand feet in height, made up of volcanic flows of various kinds, as well as vast deposits of ashes, tuffs, and occasionally sands and gravels. Around these ridges and plateaus the water courses have cut deep and often narrow canyons, especially in the soft ashes and tuffs, but occasionally also through the massive basalts, rhyolites, and andesites.

The area of land under cultivation is extremely limited, being confined to the scattered narrow bottoms along the main streams. With the exception of a growth of pines along the higher ridges, the tree growth is confined to a fringe of cottonwoods and willows along the water courses and a few scattered junipers on the lower ridges. The remainder of the country, when not too rugged, is or was formerly covered with a luxuriant growth of grasses, but overstocking has already seriously impaired the value of the ranges for grazing purposes.


For more than a quarter of a century the John Day Basin has been widely known for its abundant deposits of plant and animal fossils. The first of its fossil riches to be discovered were mammalian remains in the form of teeth and fragments of bones from the Crooked River region, brought back by a company of soldiers who traversed the region in 1861. Some of these fossils fell into the hands of Rev. Thomas Condon, then located in The Dalles. Condon recognized the value of the discovery, and early in the following year he obtained permission to accompany a party of soldiers taking supplies to the military post at Harney Valley. On the way out they passed through the Crooked River region, where Condon obtained fossils, and on the return trip by way of Camp Watson, a post long ago abandoned, he discovered rich plant deposits on Bridge Creek. In 1863 and 1864 Condon spent some weeks in each season in exploring along Bridge Creek and John Day River, in the latter region discovering and naming Turtle Cove, a locality which has afforded a large proportion of the vertebrate remains thus far brought to light in this region.

In the fall of 1871 Prof. O. C. Marsh, of Yale University, in company with a large party of students and others, under the guidance of Condon, made an extended trip through the basin, collecting vertebrate remains, principally from what are now known as the "John Day" and "Mascall" beds. From this date until 1877 parties in the employ of Marsh continued collecting throughout the region, but they appear to have procured only animal remains. As these vertebrate remains were found in such abundance and so well preserved, the region continued to attract students. Thus in 1878 and 1879 collections were made for Prof. E. D. Cope; in 1882 for the United States Geological Survey, under the direction of Professor Marsh, and in 1889 by Prof. W. B. Scott, for Princeton University. In 1899 and 1900 Dr. John C. Merriam, with a large party, collected extensively throughout the region in the interests of the University of California. His attention was mainly devoted to securing vertebrate remains, but he also obtained a small and extremely interesting collection of plants from Cherry Creek, Clarnos Ferry, Bridge Creek, Van Horn's ranch, and other places. These plants will be noticed later.

As already stated, Professor Condon was the first to discover the rich plant beds on Bridge Creek. His collections from this locality, from Currant Creek, and possibly other places within the basin, were probably made during several years, and were ultimately placed in the hands of the late Dr. J. S. Newberry, of Columbia University, for study. As the partial results of his study Dr. Newberry published, in March, 1883, brief characterizations of fifteen new species of plants.a These species, as well as several others, were more fully described and figured in his Later Extinct Floras of North America,b a posthumous work issued under the editorship of Dr. Arthur Hollick in 1898. The publication of the latter work, containing as it did the illustrations, made it possible for the first time to be certain of Newberry's species. All, or nearly all, of the material on which Newberry's work was based ultimately became the property of the United States National Museum, where it now is.

a Proc. U. S. Nat. Mus., Vol. V, 1883, pp. 502—513.
b Mon. U. S. Geol. survey vol. XXXV.

Probably about 1870 Mr. C. D. Voy, a well-known collector of San Francisco, California, made a collecting trip through the basin. He obtained plants from Currant Creek, Bridge Creek, and from a new locality known later as Van Horn's ranch or Belshaw's ranch. These specimens, through the munificence of Mr. D. O. Mills, were presented to the University of California, where they now are. This material was all submitted to Prof. Leo Lesquereux for determination. The exact date on which it came into his hands is uncertain, but it must have been in or before 1878, for a part of the species—certain of those from Van Horn's ranch—were, owing to insufficient labeling, included in his Fossil Plants of the Auriferous Gravel Deposits of the Sierra Nevada,c published in that year. The remainder, now known to have come from Currant Creek, Bridge Creek, and Van Horn's ranch, though mainly labeled simply "John Day Valley, Oregon," was described by Lesquereux in his Cretaceous and Tertiary Floras.d This work bears the date of 1883, and as it contains descriptions and figures of many of the same species that had been submitted to Dr. Newberry, though of course under different names, it becomes a matter of much importance to fix more exactly the actual time of issue. In the case of Newberry's paper the actual date is easily fixed by the date on the final signature as March 21, 1883. From a note in the first page of the Cretaceous and Tertiary Floras it appears that the manuscript was submitted by Professor Lesquereux on September 27, 1882, and was received by the Director of the United States Geological Survey on October 12, 1882.

c Mem. Mus. Comp. Zool., Vol. VI, No. 2.
d U. S. Geol. and Geog. Surv. Terr., Mon. VIII, 1883, pp. 239—255.

But the letter of transmittal to the then Secretary of the Interior bears date of November 1, 1883, and as this must have preceded by some months the actual issue of the volume, it is clear that Newberry's paper has precedence, and all names of species established by him, when in conflict with those given by Lesquereux, must stand.

By far the largest collection of fossil plants from this region was made in the summer of 1880 by Maj. (then Capt.) Charles E. Bendire, of the United States Army, who made a short tour through the basin with a large party of the Seventh United States Cavalry. He collected at Bridge Creek, Cherry Creek, and Van Horn's ranch, securing mainly plants, but also a few fish and mammal remains, and this entire collection was presented by him to the United States National Museum. The fish remains were described by Cope, a and the plants were submitted to Lesquereux, whose report on those from Van Horn's ranch and Cherry Creek was published in 1888. b Lesquereux's report on the Bridge Creek material was prepared and submitted at the same time, but on account of the difficulty in securing figures of the supposed new species, was not published. This manuscript has been in my hands for some years awaiting revision, and, so far as possible, has been incorporated in the present work.

a Am. Nat. Vol. XXIII, 1889, p. 625.
b Proc. U. S. Nat. Mus., Vol. XI, pp. 13—24, Pls. V—XIV.

As a preliminary to the preparation of this work, I went over very carefully every specimen in the collection of the United States National Museum from Van Horn's ranch and Cherry Creek, as published upon by Lesquereux. In the case of the specimens from Van Horn's ranch the matrix is so distinctive that no difficulty was experienced in making certain that they actually came from this locality, but when the collection from Cherry Creek was taken up, it at once became evident that some mixing of specimens must have occurred. Lesquereux enumerated thirty species in his paper above quoted, but they are preserved on very different kinds of matrix and represent certain well-known species that have never before been reported from the John Day region. Specimens of some of the matrix of the suspected species were sent to Dr. Merriam, of the University of California, for the purpose of ascertaining whether be had noted matrix of this character at Cherry Creek. It proved to be wholly unlike anything observed by him at this locality, thus in a measure confirming my suspicion of a possible mixture. I am uncertain where the doubtful specimens came from, but from the character of the matrix as well as from the species represented, it seems more than possible that they may have come from the Green River beds of Wyoming. As doubt was thus cast on all of the Cherry Creek material in the United States National Museum collection, I visited the locality myself in the summer of 1901, in company with Dr. Merriam, and made as full a collection as possible. This absolutely confirmed the theory that Lesquereux had inadvertently confused at least two localities under the name of Cherry Creek. The typical matrix at Cherry Creek is a hard, yellowish-brown sandstone, which fractures very irregularly, making it difficult to obtain perfect impressions. Only the species known to have come from there, or preserved on matrix so similar as to leave no reasonable doubt that it is the same, are included in the following enumeration.

As already stated, Dr. Merriam obtained small collections of fossil plants during the field seasons of 1899 and 1900. These were submitted to me for determination, and a more or less tentative report was incorporated by Dr. Merriam in his report above mentioned on the geology of the John Day Basin.

During the field season of 1901 I visited the John Day Basin under the guidance of Dr. Merriam and made collections of plants at Cherry Creek, Bridge Creek, and Van Horn's or Belshaw's ranch and vicinity. At the close of the field season some weeks were spent in thoroughly going over the type collections of plants in the paleontological museum of the University of California. It was at this time that the fact was developed that a part of the Van Horn's ranch material had been included by Lesquereux in his Flora of the Auriferous Gravels of California. Inasmuch as these species were mainly the ones upon which rested the correlation between the beds in the John Day Basin and the Auriferous gravels, the detection of the error was of the utmost importance.

 Previous  Contents  Next 
ParkNet U.S. Department of the Interior FOIA Privacy Disclaimer FirstGov