Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


From 1853 to the late 1870s, Ferdinand Hayden was known to the Sioux as "man-who-picks-up- stones-running." To his contemporaries in the sciences, he was either a fine geologist or an entrepreneur who gave the government and land speculators the information needed to sell large tracts of western land. For the eager U.S. public Hayden was the man who provided a series of government-financed guides to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.

Hayden was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, on September 7, 1829. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1850, and then earned a degree in medicine from Albany Medical School in 1853. His true love, however, was geology.

Hayden's extensive exploration of the American West began immediately upon his graduation with his first visit to the White River Badlands of Nebraska and South Dakota as an employee of James Hall, arguably the most respected paleontologist of the period. This trip was followed the next two seasons by an expedition funded by private interests that surveyed the upper Missouri River basin up to the mouth of the Bighorn River. The summers of 1856 and 1857 found Hayden accompanying his first governmental survey, the Warren expedition of Topographical Engineers, to examine the Yellowstone River and the region to the north. In 1858 Hayden joined his longtime friend, F. B. Meek, on a private survey of northeastern Kansas. In 1859 Hayden again joined the U.S. Topographical Engineers as the surgeon and naturalist of Cap. W. F. Raynolds's expeditions that, in two years, traversed the area of the upper Missouri, the Yellowstone, and the Bighorn Mountains. Hayden's explorations were interrupted in 1861 by the Civil War, which was the only time he truly used his medical degree, but were quickly resumed in 1866 when he returned to the Badlands under the sponsorship of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1867, Hayden took charge of a geological survey of Nebraska, an enterprise that he expanded into the most comprehensive scientific survey ever made of the American West. Through his reports of his expeditions to Nebraska and adjacent territories in 1867, southern and eastern Utah in 1868, southern and eastern Wyoming in 1870, the upper Yellowstone in 1871, eastern Montana in 1872, Colorado from 1873 to 1876, eastern Idaho and western Wyoming in 1877, and finally, the remaining sections of Wyoming in 1878, Hayden made the Great Plains known to the American public. The Yellowstone report was instrumental in the creation of Yellowstone National Park; the Colorado report was partly responsible for rapid settlement of that state in the late 1870s; and the Nebraska report clarified that the Great Plains was not a Great American Desert, but a richly endowed region, in which even the Sandhills of Nebraska would "yet become a fine pasture ground for herds of sheep, cattle, and horses."

Hayden's surveys, along with those of Clarence King, George Wheeler, and John Wesley Powell, were absorbed into the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879. Hayden was retained by the survey as a staff geologist. After three years in Washington, Hayden's health began to deteriorate, and it was thought that a field assignment might help to rejuvenate him. He was assigned to the usgs office in Montana. Hayden remained there until 1886, when it became obvious that his health was not going to improve, and he was forced to resign his position. He returned to Philadelphia where, after being confined to his home for more than a year, he died on December 22, 1887.

Michael Shambaugh-Miller University of Nebraska Medical Center

Bartlett, Richard A. Great Surveys of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Foster, Mike. Life of Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden: Strange Genius. Niwot CO: Roberts Rinehart, 1994.

Previous: Grasshoppers | Contents | Next: Insects

XML: egp.pe.033.xml