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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Sketch of David Dale Owen

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 48‎ | December 1895

PSM V48 D156 David Dale Owen.jpg


DAVID DALE OWEN was born at Braxfield House, near New Lanark, Scotland, June 24, 1807. He was the fourth son and sixth child in a family of eight children. All but the first born, a son, lived to adult age. His father, Robert Owen, the celebrated philanthropist, was a native of North Wales.

Robert Owen, after working in the drapery business in London and elsewhere, entered into partnership with a mechanic, at eighteen years of age, in the manufacture of cotton-spinning machines. A year later he took a position as superintendent of a mill employing five hundred hands, and at twenty-two years of age he became a partner in an old-established spinning concern of Manchester. Having become attached to Miss Anne Caroline, the eldest daughter of David Dale, proprietor of large mills at New Lanark, near Glasgow, he arranged with his partners to buy the works of the father, and soon after obtained for himself the hand of the daughter. They were married in 1797. Undertaking the management of the works ("government" he called it), he steadily improved the condition of the factory hands, which had been there as elsewhere bad to a degree now almost incredible. Some of his measures were opposed by his partners, and led to several dissolutions of partnership through which he retained the management, but he was forced to retire in 1829 when fifty-eight years of age. In spite of what he spent for the workers, Owen always made the business pay well. For several years beginning with 1815, he worked for the passage of Acts of Parliament beneficial to factory operatives. Becoming convinced that social reform could be best secured through communism, he bought from the Harmony Society a tract of thirty thousand acres, and the buildings of their settlement at New Harmony, Ind. The Harmony Society was prosperous but wished to change its location. Coming to America in the spring of 1825, he organized a community of about nine hundred persons on a provisional plan. He returned to Scotland to look after his business, leaving his two oldest sons at New Harmony.

William Maclure, of Philadelphia, a man of means and devoted to philanthropy and the advancement of science, took part in founding the community. He heard of Owen's scheme on returning to the United States after an attempt to found an agricultural labor school in Spain, and believed that it would afford favorable conditions for carrying out his cherished idea of an educational institute founded on rational principles. He accordingly bought a large tract of land in New Harmony and vicinity, and removed thither his library and collection of minerals, which were extensive, and his valuable scientific apparatus. He induced Gerard Troost, C. A. Lesueur, and Thomas Say, also Joseph Neef, the Pestalozzian, to come into the community with him, to act as instructors in the institution proposed. When the society was divided into a manufacturing and educational, and an agricultural branch, Maclure became the leading spirit in the educational division.

Owen visited New Harmony a second time in the winter of 1825-'26. His third visit was made in the spring of 1828, and by that time so many troubles had arisen that the community was disbanded. The failure of the undertaking was due to the one great cause that makes all communistic enterprises impracticable in the present age—the imperfections of human nature. In the same year Mr. Owen went to Mexico, on the invitation of the Government, to put his ideas into practice there, but effected nothing because the Government insisted that the state religion of the proposed community should be Roman Catholic. Some experiments were afterward tried by him in Great Britain, and he continued to advocate his views with voice and pen until his death, in 1858. His followers received the name of "Owenites." He published a considerable number of writings, including an autobiography.

David Dale Owen's early education, which was received from a private tutor, included the English branches, the rudiments of Latin, and a course in architectural drawing. He was also trained in the use of carpenter's tools in the mechanical department connected with his father's mills. He was for a time a pupil in the grammar school, or academy, at New Lanark. His father, while traveling on the continent of Europe, had visited the celebrated educational institution of Emanuel von Fellenberg, at Hofwyl, Switzerland, and was so much pleased with the system pursued in it—neither moral, physical, nor intellectual development being neglected that he sent there first his two oldest sons Robert Dale and William—for a three years' course, and after their return sent David and his younger brother Richard, in 1824, also for three years. The studies of the more advanced classes were partly elective, and David Dale and his brother chose chemistry, drawing, and modern languages in addition to the prescribed mathematical and literary course.

David Dale and Richard returned to Scotland in September, 1826, the former being then nineteen years old. They entered the classes in physics and chemistry conducted by Dr. Andrew Ure, author of the Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines, at Glasgow, where their mother then resided. Their father was absent at New Harmony. For that place the two younger sons set out in November, 1827, going by a ship from Liverpool to New Orleans, thence up the Mississippi by steamer, reaching the settlement on the Wabash early in January, 1828.

During the next three years they kept up and increased their knowledge of chemistry by repeating the experiments of Dr. Ure's course. Desiring to extend his knowledge of chemistry and geology, David Dale Owen in 1831 returned to Great Britain. He had as a companion Henry D. Rogers, and they both lived at the house of Owen's father in London while attending the lectures of Dr. Turner at the London University.

After about a year abroad Owen came back to the United States. Soon after his return he was stricken with Asiatic cholera, which was epidemic in this country in the summer and fall of 1832, but was fortunate enough to survive the attack. Wishing to increase his knowledge of anatomy and physiology as an aid in the study of paleontology, he entered the Ohio Medical College, in Cincinnati, and was graduated in the spring of 1836. He devoted the summer following his graduation to gaining practical experience in field geology. To this end he accompanied at his own expense Dr. Gerard Troost, who was then engaged on the State Survey of Tennessee.

Dr. Owen married, March 23, 1837, Caroline C. Neef, the third daughter of that pioneer of Pestalozzian education in America, Joseph Neef.

Dr. Owen had been appointed State Geologist of Indiana and immediately after his marriage he entered upon the duties of this position. He made a preliminary reconnoissance in 1837 and 1838, his report upon which was published immediately after its completion and reissued in 1859. Geological science being little understood in the West when this document first appeared, a brief introductory exposition of the leading formations was given in it, after which the rich deposits of coal, iron, and building stones within the limits of the State were described.

The Hon. James Whitcomb, then Governor of Indiana, was soon afterward appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office, and Congress having ordered a survey of the Dubuque and Mineral Point districts under the direction of his bureau, he selected Dr. Owen, with whose ability he was well acquainted, to conduct this examination. These districts comprised eleven thousand square miles of the Northwest Territory, now included in the States of Wisconsin and Iowa, and the object of the examination was to enable the commissioner to reserve from sale those sections found to contain mineral wealth. But a short time was allowed for the work, hence it became necessary to organize a large force. The difficulties involved in such a rapid prosecution of the survey are indicated in the report presented by Dr. Owen to the commissioner, April 2, 1840. "In one month from the day I received my commission and instructions," he says, "(to wit, on September 17th), I had reached the mouth of Rock River; engaged one hundred and thirty-nine subagents and assistants; instructed my subagents in such elementary principles of geology as were necessary to the performance of the duties required of them; supplied them with simple mineralogical tests, with the application of which they were made acquainted; organized twenty-four working corps, furnished each with skeleton maps of the townships assigned to them for examination, and placed the whole at the points where their labors commenced, all along the line of the western half of the territory to be examined. Thence the expedition proceeded northward, each corps required, on the average, to overrun and examine thirty quarter sections daily, and to report to myself on fixed days at regularly appointed stations: to receive which reports and to examine the country in person, I crossed the district under examination, in an oblique direction, eleven times in the course of the survey."

It was in the spring of 1840 that William Maclure died. As administrator of his estate, his brother Alexander engaged Dr. Owen to assort the very extensive collection of minerals and fossils which Mr. Maclure had made in the course of his geological exploration of the United States and his travels in this country, Europe, and the West Indies. Specific suites were to be distributed to certain schools and colleges, and the remainder was to be retained by Dr. Owen as the nucleus of a museum. These directions were duly carried out. With regard to the portion remaining in Dr. Owen's hands The American Geologist[1] states: "To this latter Dr. Owen subsequently added largely, by purchase from Dr. Krantz, of Germany, illustrative fossils of every period; among others an ichthyosaurus, from the Lias of Würtemberg, larger than the one in the British Museum. Another interesting and valuable specimen was a nearly complete skeleton of a gigantic megatheroid animal (the Megalonyx) which he exhumed near Henderson, Ky. The entire collection some years after Dr. Owen's death was purchased by the Indiana University, and unfortunately nearly all consumed by fire, when the new university building, including the museum, laboratory, and library, was destroyed."

Dr. Owen was again called into the service of the Government in 1847, being appointed United States Geologist and directed to make a survey of the Chippewa land district. His Preliminary Report, made in the following year to the Hon. R. M. Young, then Commissioner of the Land Office, was a document of one hundred and thirty-four octavo pages, and was accompanied by three hundred and twenty-three lithographs from his own sketches, and numerous maps, diagrams, etc.

The scope of his examination was then enlarged so as to embrace a fuller survey of portions of the Northwest Territory, lying mainly within the present States of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. This task required five years of field work and a final year of laboratory and office work, ending with the year 1852. A large appropriation was made by Congress for illustrating and printing Owen's report, all the details of publication being committed to him. The result was a finely illustrated quarto volume of six hundred and thirty-eight pages, many of the illustrations being from the original drawings of Dr. Owen, who had great facility in sketching. In this volume he applied for the first time the medal-ruling style of engraving to cuts of fossils.

In an article on Geological Surveys in Missouri Mr. Arthur Winslow says of Owen's reports up to this time: "These reports supplied the guiding lines along which later stratigraphic work in the Mississippi Valley was done. Without attempting here to present the history of this work, its bearing upon the future work in Missouri calls for brief mention. In the Indiana reports Owen makes a separation of the rocks, in harmony with the English classification, into 1. Bituminous coal formations. 2. Mountain limestone. 3. Grauwacke. 4. Crystalline and inferior stratified rocks. In the succeeding reports, as the results of wider observation and more thorough study, the classification was changed and differentiated until, in the final report, we find a classification which, not only in its general features, but in many of its details, is still adhered to in Missouri."

From 1854 to 1859 Dr. Owen was occupied with the geological survey of Kentucky, having been appointed State Geologist by Governor Powell. The results of his explorations were published as the work progressed, and compose four large octavo volumes. Dr. Robert Peter, of Lexington, Ky., performed the chemical work of the survey and made a special report upon it.

Toward the close of his labors in Kentucky, in October, 1857, Dr. Owen was commissioned to conduct a geological survey of the State of Arkansas. His principal assistant in the Kentucky survey, Mr. E. T. Cox, filled the same position in the new work. The chemical assistant on the latter survey was Dr. Elderhorst, author of a work on the blowpipe. Various incidents in his several surveys prove Dr. Owen to have been a man of indomitable perseverance. Once, while on the Red River of the North with a Canadian voyageur, the fowling-piece used by the latter for procuring game was discharged in such a way as to lodge a number of shot in Dr. Owen's shoulder. But he did not permit the accident to delay him an hour. Again, the summer occupied with the field work of the Arkansas survey, a considerable part of which was necessarily spent in the rich and malarious bottom lands. proved very detrimental to his health, bringing him home in the autumn with a hue denoting serious derangement of the liver. Yet he not only persevered in his explorations, but occupied himself in winter with laboratory work, usually until midnight. He did not desist even when suffering acutely from his last illness, but dictated the closing portions of his report until within forty-eight hours of his death. Between Dr. Owen and Governor Conway, who had given him the Arkansas appointment, there always existed the most cordial good feeling, and the latter provided every facility for the prosecution of the survey. Toward the end of 1860 postal communication between the North and South was considerably interrupted, for the breach which culminated in civil war was already opening. Yet the Governor, at considerable pains, succeeded in sending safely to New Harmony several thousand dollars due from the appropriation, and required for the publication of the second volume of the report. Dr. Owen had died, and the issuing of this volume, for which he had left full instructions, fell to his brother and administrator. Prof. Richard Owen. The latter also executed a second survey of Indiana, for which his brother had been appointed in 1859, with the understanding that Richard should do as much of the work as might be necessary.

The labors above outlined resulted in undermining the originally good constitution with which David Dale Owen had been endowed. Malarial fever, complicated with rheumatic attacks which threatened the heart, terminated his career of usefulness November 13, 1860. He left a widow, two sons, and two daughters. Dr. Owen's character was marked by integrity and amiable simplicity; his kindness and liberality were well known, and his scientific work was always conscientiously performed. His fondness for chemistry led him to build at a cost of ten thousand dollars a laboratory fully equipped, which served as a material evidence of his good taste in architecture. His architectural taste was further evinced in the artistic design which he submitted for the Smithsonian Institution building. He also tested many varieties of building stone before the selection of material for that structure was determined.

His artistic skill enabled him, besides richly illustrating his reports, as above noted, to leave good portraits in oil of members of his family. He transmitted to London views of the fossil Sigillaria found erect in situ twelve miles from New Harmony, with a description, which were presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science by Sir Roderick Murchison. He subsequently conducted Sir Charles Lyell to the locality while the latter was his guest at New Harmony in his second visit to the United States.

  1. Sketch of the Life of David Dale Owen, M. D., August, 1889, to which source acknowledgment is due for the greater portion of the material entering into the present article.s