A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900]

Author: William Maclure  | Date: 1817

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From Observations on the Geology of the United States of America, pp. iv–vi, 14–21, Philadelphia, 1817.

In all speculations on the origin, or agents that have produced the changes on this globe, it is probable that we ought to keep within the boundaries of the probable effects resulting from the regular operations of the great laws of nature which our experience and observation has brought within the sphere of our knowledge. When we overleap those limits, and suppose a total change in nature’s laws, we embark on the sea of uncertainty, where one conjecture is perhaps as probable as another; for none of them can have any support, or derive any authority from the practical facts wherewith our experience has brought us acquainted. The equator has been supposed to have been once where the poles are now, to account for the bones of the animals now living near the tropics being found in the higher latitudes; yet without any change either in the poles or equator, it is certainly not impossible but even probable, that these animals, before their tyrant man obstructed their passage, might migrate to the north during nearly three months of the summer; and might have a sufficient quantity of heat, and a much greater abundance of nourishing vegetable food, than the torrid zone could afford them at that season.

There does not appear to be any thing either in the climate or food that could prevent the elephants, rhinoceroses, etc. from following the spring into the north, and arriving in the summer even to the latitude of 50 or 60 degrees, and retiring to the warmer climates on the approach of the winter; on the contrary, it would appear to be the natural course of things, and what I believe our buffaloes in the uninhabited parts of our continent still continue to do; that is, to migrate in vast droves from south to north, and from north to south, in search of their food, according to the season.

The birds and the fish continue their migrations, passing by roads out of the reach of man; the natural change of place which their wants require, has not been barred and obstructed by the united power and industry of the lords of the creation.*


The short period of time that mankind seem to have been capable of correct observation, and the minute segment of the immense circle of nature’s operations, that has revolved during the comparatively short period, renders all speculations on the origin of the crust of the earth mere conjectures, founded on distant and obscure analogy. Were it possible to separate this metaphysical part from the collection and classification of facts, the truth and accuracy of observation would be much augmented, and the progress of knowledge much more certain and uniform; but the pleasure of indulging the imagination is so superior to that derived from the labour and drudgery of observation—the self-love of mankind is so flattered by the intoxicating idea of acting a part in the creation—that we can scarcely expect to find any great collection of facts, untinged by the false colouring of systems.

The peculiar structure of the continent of North America, by the extended continuity of the immense masses of rocks of the same formation or class, with the uniform structure and regularity of their uninterrupted stratification, forces the observer’s attention to the limits which separate the great and principal classes; on the tracing of which, he finds so much order and regularity, that the bare collection of the facts partake somewhat of the delusion of theory.

The prominent feature of the eastern side of the continent of North America, is an extended range of mountains, running nearly north-east and south-west from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi, the most elevated parts as well as the greatest mass of which consists of primitive as far south as the Hudson river, decreasing in height and breadth as it traverses the state of New Jersey. The primitive occupies but a small part of the lower country, where it passes through the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland, where the highest part of the range of mountains to the west consists of transition, with some intervening rallies of secondary. In Virginia, the primitive increases in breadth, and proportionally in height, occupying the greatest mass, as well as the most elevated points of the range of mountains in the states of North Carolina and Georgia, where it takes a more westerly direction.

Though this primitive formation contains all the variety of primitive rocks found in the mountains of Europe, yet neither their relative situation in the order of succession, or their relative heights in the range of mountains, correspond with what has been observed in Europe. The order of succession from the clay state to the granite, as well as the gradual diminishing height of the strata, from the granite through the gneiss, mica slate, hornblende rocks, down to the clay slate, is so often inverted and mixed, as to render the arrangement of any regular series impracticable.

No secondary limestone has been found on the south-east side of the primitive, nor any series of other secondary rocks, except some partial beds of the old red sandstone formation, which partly cover its lower edge; in this, it seems to resemble some of the European chains, such as the Carpathian, Bohemian, Saxon, Tyrolian and Alpine or Swiss mountains, all of which, though covered with very extensive secondary limestone formations on their north and west flanks, have little secondary limestone on their southern and eastern sides.

The old red sandstone above mentioned, covers partially the lower levels of the primitive, from twelve miles south of Connecticut river to near the Rappahannock, a range of nearly four hundred miles; and though often interrupted, yet retains through the whole distance that uniform feature of resemblance so remarkable in the other formations of this continent. The same nature of sandstone strata is observable, running in nearly the same direction, partially covered with wacke and greenstone-trap, and containing the same metallic substances. The above uniformity is equally observable in the great alluvial formation which covers the southeast edge of the primitive, from Long island to the gulf of Mexico, consisting of sand, gravel, etc. with marsh and sea mud or clay, containing both vegetable and animal remains, found from thirty to forty feet below the surface.

Along the north-west edge of the primitive, commences the transition formation, occupying, after the primitive, some of the highest mountains in the range, and appears to be both higher and wider to the west in the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and part of Virginia, where the primitive is least extended, and lowest in height. It contains all the varieties of rocks found in the same formation in Europe, as the mountains in the Crimea, etc. and resembles in this the chain of the Carpathian, Bohemian and Saxon mountains, which have all a very considerable transition formation, succeeding the secondary limestone on their northern sides. Anthracite has been found in different places of this formation, and has not yet been discovered in any of the other formations in North America.

The necessity of such a class or division of rocks as the transition, has been doubted by some, nor is it now generally used in the south of Europe; but such rocks are found, and in very considerable quantities, in almost every country that has been examined. There are only two classes, the primitive or secondary, in which they can be placed. They are excluded from the primitive, by containing pebbles, evidently rounded by attrition when in an insulated state, and by the remains of organic substances being found, though rarely, in them; and yet many of the variety of transition rocks, such as the grey wacke slate, and quartzose aggregates, are hardly distinguishable from primitive slate and quartz when fresh; it is only in a state of decomposition, that the grain of the transition rocks appears, and facilitates the discrimination.

If they are placed with the secondary, they would form another division in the class, already rather confusedly divided; as their hardness, the glossy, slaty, and almost chrystalline structure of the cement of a great proportion of the transition aggregates, would exclude them from any division, as yet defined, of the other secondary rocks. Besides the objections arising out of their individual structure, the nature of their stratification removes them still further from the secondary, and makes them approach still nearer to the primitive. They are found regularly stratified, generally dipping at an angle above twenty and not exceeding forty-five degrees from the horizon; whereas, the secondary rocks are either horizontal or undulating with the inequalities of the surface. A bed of grey wacke, or grey wacke slate and transition limestone, runs south-west from the Potomac to near the Yadkin river, a distance of two hundred miles, from one to five miles in breadth, having the primitive formation on each side, dipping the same as the primitive, though at a less angle, the strata running in the same direction; and from its relative situation, dip, and stratification, bearing no characters of the secondary, not having been yet found alternating with secondary rocks, it cannot be classed with them, without destroying all order and introducing confusion. To class it with the primitive, would be making the primitive include not only aggregates composed of pieces of different kinds of rocks rounded by attrition, but also limestone with a dull fracture, coloured by organic or other combustible matter, which it loses by being burnt. It would perhaps add to the precision of the classification, if this class was augmented by placing some of the porphyritic and other rocks in it, which are more of an earthy than chrystalline fracture, but which at present are considered as primitive.

It might have been as well if, when giving names to the different classes of rocks, all reference to the relative period of their origin or formation had been avoided; and in place of primitive and secondary, some other names had been adopted, taken from the most prominent feature or general property of the class of rocks intended to be designated, such as perhaps chrystalline in place of primitive—deposition or horizontal in place of secondary, etc.; but as those old names are in general use, and consecrated by time and long habit, it is more than probable that the present state of our knowledge does not authorise us to change them. The adoption of new names, on account of some new property discovered in the substance is the cause of much complication and inconvenience already; and if adopted as a precedent in future, will create a confused accumulation of terms calculated to retard the progress of the science. When we change the names given to defined substances, by those who went before us, what right have we to suppose, that posterity will respect our own nomenclature?

On the north-west side of the transition formation, along the whole range of mountains, lays the great secondary formation, which, for the extent of the surface it covers and the uniformity of its deposition, is equal in magnitude and importance, if not superior, to any yet known: there is no doubt of its extending to the borders of the great lakes to the north, and some hundred miles beyond the Mississippi to the west. We have indeed every reason to believe, from what is already known, that the limits of this great basin to the west, is not far distant from the foot of the Stony mountains; and to the north, that it reaches beyond Lake Superior, giving an area extending from east to west from Fort Ann, near Lake Champlain, to near the foot of the Stony mountains, of about fifteen hundred miles, and from south to north from the Natchez to the upper side of the great lakes, about twelve hundred miles.

This extensive basin is filled with most of the species of rocks, attending the secondary formation elsewhere, nor is their continuity interrupted on the east side of the Mississippi by the interposition of any other formation except the alluvial deposits on the banks of the large rivers. The foundation of most of the level countries is generally limestone, and the hills or ridges in some places consist of sandstone: a kind of dark coloured slaty day, containing vegetable impressions, with a little mixture of carbon, frequently alternates with all the strata of this formation, the whole of which is nearly horizontal. The highest mountains are on the external borders of the basin, gradually diminishing in height towards its centre.

* Until lately we have restricted nature to two modes of acting; by fire, and by water: now, it is found, that she can change and metallize rocks in the dry way, without any solution or fluidity; and the galvanic pile may be formed in the stratifications of a mountain, as well as in a chemist’s laboratory. These are two other modes wherein we must now allow her to change and modify the surface of this earth; and who can say how many more means yet unknown, she may possess? each of which, when found out by accurate and impartial observation, must make a change in former theories.


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Chicago: William Maclure, "Observations on the Geology of the United States," A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900] in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], ed. Kirtley F. Mather and Shirley L. Mason (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1939), 168–173. Original Sources, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4UF5SD2L5A2UT3G.

MLA: Maclure, William. "Observations on the Geology of the United States." A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], edited by Kirtley F. Mather and Shirley L. Mason, New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1939, pp. 168–173. Original Sources. 4 Jun. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4UF5SD2L5A2UT3G.

Harvard: Maclure, W, 'Observations on the Geology of the United States' in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900]. cited in 1939, A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], ed. , Hafner Publishing Company, New York, pp.168–173. Original Sources, retrieved 4 June 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4UF5SD2L5A2UT3G.