John Goldie in North Anerica
Part 1: Niagara Falls and the Theory of Evolution

P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica, a Missouri Botanical Garden Web Site
January 14, 2006


Reprinted from Clintonia Vol. 4, Issue 5, Pages 1-5. September 6, 1989.

PART 1: Niagara Falls and the Theory of Evolution

by P. M. Eckel
Buffalo Museum of Science
Buffalo, NY 14211
[Present address: Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO 63166-0299]

Among the many travel diaries, collecting journals and other literature written by natural historians who visited Niagara Falls in the Nineteenth Century is a slim volume by the botanist John Goldie. The diary contains his observations on a trip in 1819 when he was twenty-four years old to what was known as Upper Canada and "Some of the New England States" including western New York. Mr. Goldie's name has come down to us commemorated in the fern Dryopteris goldiana (Hooker) Asa Gray, better known as Goldle's Fern, The original diary is curated by the Toronto Public Library. An edited version appeared in print in 1897, and a summary of his experiences was published in the Journal of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society in 1822 (Spawn, 1961).

Goldie's diary is interesting because he came to the North American continent from Scotland just before many of the Victorian Ages' major scientific accomplishments were achieved, and before the major actors of the period came on stage. This was Goldie's first professional challenge and his mind was fresh with the expectations of his recent schooling, at that point based mostly on the authority of books and teachers, rather than that of his own experience. It was out of Scotland that Niagara received scientific attention of some international consequence in the early and later Nineteenth Century.

The distinguished botanists Sir William J. Hooker and his son Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker both were to have interests in Niagara Falls. The elder botanist was director of the Glasgow Botanic Gardens where Goldie received his education, and he underwrote Goldie's North American trip and the following publication in the Philosophical Society. To the elder Hooker is attributed authorship of the fern named after his protege. David Douglas, another Scot, would visit Niagara Falls in 1823 as part of a North American trip sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society, and whose specimens from Niagara were cited in Hooker's Flora Boreali-Americana (1840; Zenkert, 1934). Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, later to become director of Kew Gardens, himself visited Niagara Falls in the company of Dr. Asa Gray in 1877, and later delivered an address before the Royal Institution of Great Britain a year later, citing the flora of Goat Island as one of two excellent examples of the distinctive richness of the Great Eastern Forest region of the United States (Turrill, 1953).

It is difficult, from the vantage of two centuries, to imagine a well educated natural historian, or scientist, such as young Goldie was, to have entertained a world view which organized the biological world according to patterns other than the ones we take for granted today, with our classifications reflecting evolutionary relationships among organisms. Every time we use binomial nomenclature, such as Dryopteris goldiana, to name a species, we are using a name in which is hidden the modern taxonomist's decision on the evolutionary relationship of Goldie's new fern to other existing ferns.

Yet in Goldie's day, species of plants and animals were organized under a completely different system of relationships. The profound change in biological thinking which began to take definite form in Goldie's generation had just begun. For details regarding the nature of early systems for organizing the organic world, I refer the reader to a treatment of the subject by Loren Eiseley (1961), but it may be sufficient to state that in Goldie's day heresy still controlled the boundaries of scientific thinking. Theory must not contradict religious edict. I can only suggest the significance of some of Goldie's interesting comments in his diary with particular reference to his experience when visiting Niagara Falls, and review how Niagara Falls came to be used as a natural timepiece against which theories based on premises involving great vistas of time could be demonstrated.

It was because Goldie approached the Falls from the north, from York (the area around Toronto), with his mind full of pleasant apprehensions derived from the literature he had read, that he made the interesting exclamations forming the introduction to this paper. At Queenston, Ontario, he, perhaps like any young man living in the age of Napoleon, was "anxious to get upon the field of battle" - the Battle of Queenston Heights - to walk upon the recent battle grounds of the War of 1812, which had concluded with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, and to meditate upon the death of the Englishman General Brock and the "fruits of Pride and Ambition" motivating the still rather unformed American nation to attempt to add further British dominions to their territory.

The geography Goldie began to encounter as he mounted the Heights above Queenston astonished him - not because of their intrinsic nature, but because of the gap between his expectations and the reality before him. The almost secluded concentration of erosive power in the narrow but relatively deep gorge of the Niagara River amid flat tableland gripped his intellect. As soon as he breasted the top of Queenston Heights his unbelieving eyes saw that "instead of there being a declivity, it was all level to the South & West. - "There is no perceptible rise in the land all the way to Lake Erie . . . so that it seems as if the Falls had been originally at this place."

Even before Goldie climbed the escarpment up from the lake plain, he beheld the watergap, the entrance to the two hundred feet .or so of gorge depth that lay before him. "This ridge [which he later understood to be instead the wall of the tableland to the south] is continued of exactly the same appearance on the opposite side of the river, and look as if at some period they had been joined." Goldie was observing the continuity of rock strata exposed on facing or matching gorge walls, highly evident here due to the increased north-facing exposure of bright red layers of shale and sandstone. The stratigraphy of Niagara Falls struck him immediately - a situation which would not have happened had he arrived from the south. The modern science of geology, particularly that of the processes of stratigraphy and sedimentation, had just begun to be profoundly revised, notably through study by one of his countrymen, James Hutton, and Goldie was able to speculate on the "origin" of Niagara Falls from observations of rock features, and to formulate the temporal idea of a "period" preceding the existence of the Falls itself.

To what do we attribute Goldie's astonishment at the levelness of terrain? "Instead of high rocks & precipices above the Falls, and low valleys & glens below them, all is perfectly level to appearance . . . there is nothing to be seen in the banks of the River that would lead you to expect any such thing as Falls at this place." Indeed, "there is no perceptible descent in the ground all the way from Lake Erie to Queenstown so that the height of the falls is caused by the greater depth of the bed of the River below than above them."

On the thirteenth of July, Goldie took the bridge over to Goat Island and stood looking down into the boiling cauldron of the plunge pool. The bridge had only been opened a year or so before, so Goldie may have been the first botanist of note to visit the previously inaccessible island. "It is a singular circumstance how the solid rock came to be cut to so great a depth, all the surrounding country being level - From viewing the country here a Person would readily conclude that the Falls originally were at Queenstown - But the time requisite for their receding so far, by the wearing of the rocks, would be a vast deal more, than, what we believe to be the duration of this earth in its present form - People who live here inform me that in the space of 30 years passed the Horse Shoe Fall has assumed its present shape from being nearly straight - Should the World continue as long as they will require to go two or three miles up the river then the Falls will be completely destroyed, for above that the bed of the river is not composed of rocks but sand."

Here is the crux of the matter; time. How far away in time the origins of things are is a question fundamental to a perspective on the relationship between the present and the Beginning and, of course, the End. Goldie, a devout Scottish Christian, saw the Beginning in God's seven-day creation, and the ending in the Day of Judgment - an event which could very well happen before Niagara had time to erode upriver into softer sediments and collapse into rapids. Goldie saw that the evidence of Niagara Falls favored the great epochs of time required to explain all geological phenomena, evidence which would be fundamental to explaining the upcoming biological theories which would also require epochs to be consistent.

The young John Goldie was a naturalist who lived in a "pre-Darwinian" time. As a young man, he appeared to be interested, although at arms length, in the revolt of the British colonists on the east coast of North America and their further outrages against the British crown beginning in 1812. Even as he protested, in his diary, the abuses of the disloyal or revolutionary colonists, he watched with interest. As a devout Scots Christian and an intellectual, he may have also have observed with similar interest the blasphemous theories in the natural sciences which demanded more time for the workings of natural processes than allowed in the few millennia the Christians had been willing to acknowledge during the past two thousand years of European history (Eiseley, 1961). Bishop James Ussher's formulation, written around 1650 and based on accumulated inferences in the Bible, had placed the beginning of the world at 4004 B.C. The literal interpretation of the Bible was becoming increasingly difficult to integrate into scientific observations of the earth and solar system.

Since the world began, for Goldie, catastrophically (in seven days), most grand natural features owed their awesome sublimity to God's power. Huge short-term cataclysms were postulated to have thrown up the world's mountains and vast ocean deeps. But Goldie saw the cataclysmic environment of Niagara arising not in a tortuous terrain of faults and volcanics, but of flat, smooth, undisturbed farm and woodland. The regional flatness from continental glaciers and the Ice Age would be devised later in the century by Louis Agassiz - who also visited Niagara Falls, but for those of Goldie's time, the flat terrain studded with boulders bearing little relationship to the region's bedrocks was evidence of the scouring influence of episodes of great floods.

James Hutton (1726-1797), considered the father of historical geology, was also a Scotsman. He had written his Theory of the Earth in 1785 and in it he had formulated "the discovery of time in the last decade of the Eighteenth Century," just as infinite space had been formulated in the seventeenth - the, product of astronomical discovery (Eiseley, 1961). Hutton had laid down scientific rules by which earth processes occurred, emulating those of Newton for physics, and had substituted natural for supernatural forces to explain the perceptible phenomena of the earth. The subtle, eternal processes of erosion were central to much of the length of time required to explain the existence of particular landforms. Niagara's more spectacular erosion events would be much more easily calibrated than the minute changes of sediment in the Scottish streams in which Hutton observed models of the geological processes he described. John Goldie was educated in Scotland. Perhaps it was the challenge of Hutton's ideas, published in two volumes in 1795, three years after Goldie was born, that was to color Goldie's impressions as he viewed the Falls in 1819. Hutton read his own Theory of the Earth before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785 and published this paper in their Proceedings in 1788 (Eiseley, 1961). Goldie also appeared in a publication of that Society, in 1822, with an account of his two year experiences in North America (Spawn, 1961).

Geology was to provide a means of calibrating periods of earth-time by systematizing evidence of life and its organization contained in the rocks (fossils). Geology set the time required for the development of life forms throughout the duration of the planet. These ideas were essential to the framework of time and development and living processes later articulated by Charles Darwin in his theory of the evolution of living things.

There may have been no intellectual relationship between John Goldie and his contemporary Charles Lyell (1797-1875) who was a few years Goldie's junior other than their familiarity with Hutton's thinking. Lyell's Principles of Geology was to "destroy the reigning geological doctrine and introduce unlimited time and the play of natural forces once more into geology" (Eiseley, 1961). Lyell was to have a profound effect on the formative thinking of Charles Darwin, in many ways his protege. Lyell, in addition to his geological interests, wrote on issues of biology, formulating the ideas of competition between all organic beings, the "struggle for existence." He "anticipated Darwin in the recognition of ecological change which could promote extinction" (Eiseley, 1961). It would take Darwin, however, to "grasp the principle [of evolution] in its full creative role" (Eiseley, 1961). The issue of recession rates of Niagara Falls, loose (recent) riverbed sediments on the banks of the Niagara River at Goat Island and the Silurian (Niagara group) fossiliferous beds exposed in the Niagara River Gorge were to provide evidence of three time-frames by which other events could be correlated, and Charles Lyell and his collaborator, the American geologist and paleontologist of the New York State Geological Survey, James Hall, were to investigate all three at Niagara. It was Hall who systematically worked out the fossil sequences in the Niagara Gorge during 1837-1843 (J. M. Clarke in Grabeau, 1901).

Charles Lyell came to Niagara in 1841. There Lyell saw "a chronometer measuring rudely, yet emphatically, the vast magnitude of the interval of years, which separate the present time from the epoch when the Niagara flowed at a higher level several miles further north across the [North American] platform ..." at Queenston, Ontario and Lewiston, New York, as Goldie had suggested before, Lyell and Hall explored the sediments on Goat Island and the terrace on the adjacent mainland, determined the sources of the sediments upstream at Buffalo, from glacial debris, and the recent ages of the buried shells (the "testaceous fauna"). Mixed with these shells of species still living in the river then, and today, were found remnants of a Mastodon - an Ice Age mammal long extinct in the region, and in the world. This evidence suggested " . . . how far the two events before confounded together, the entombment of the Mastodon, and the date of the first peopling of the earth by man, - may recede to distances almost indefinitely remote from each other" (Lyell, 1855), And yet, for all the great age of Niagara's sediments and erosive development, compared to other strata explored in other areas of the earth, Niagara is young: "... however much we may enlarge our ideas of the time which has elapsed since the Niagara first began to drain the waters of the upper lakes, we have seen that this period was one only of a series, all belonging to the present zoological epoch; or that in which the living testaceous fauna, whether freshwater or marine, had already come into being. If such events can take place while the zoology of the earth remains almost stationary and unaltered, what ages may not be comprehended in those successive tertiary periods during which the Flora and Fauna of the globe have been almost entirely changed. Yet how subordinate a place in the long calendar of geological chronology do the successive tertiary periods themselves occupy! How much more enormous a duration must we assign to many antecedent revolutions of the earth and its inhabitants" (Lyell, 1855),

Such revolutions describe the evolution and extinction of floral and faunal assemblages, the present mechanisms and living evidences of which were to be detailed in Darwin's Origin of the Species and related works. Recognizable present-day organisms can be found in old sediments - how much older must be fossils representing organisms which had "come into being" and vanished bearing no representation to any living creature? Surely all species did not come into being at one time, and become extinct - this is a process that has gone on throughout previously inconceivable periods of time, and the present is only a recent expression of this living process of biological change. Lyell used the vastly older petrified sediments of Silurian rock expose in the gorge limestones and dolomites as models to compare to the distances of the cosmos discovered by astronomers in the century before his own, based on calculations of the earth's orbit, the distance of the sun to the nearest star and to "luminous clouds" in the night sky. "To regions of space of this higher order in point of magnitude, we may probably compare such an interval of time as that which divides the human epoch from the origin of the coralline limestone over which the Niagara is precipitated at the Falls. Many have been the successive revolutions in organic life, and many the vicissitudes in the physical geography of the globe, and often has sea been converted into land, and land into sea, since that rock was formed " (Lyell, 1855). Amadeus Grabeau, the well-known stratigrapher and sedimentologist, who issued publications for a time through the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, briefly described the subsequent geological interest in establishing the age of the Falls: "The length of time required for the excavation of Niagara gorge is not merely of local interest but serves as a basis for estimating the length of time since the disappearance of the Laurentian glaciers from this region, and incidentally it has served as a chronometer for approximately measuring the age of the human race on this continent" (1901). The age of the gorge, based on a variety of evidence, is presently estimated at 12,300 years (J. C. Bastedo in Tesmer, 1981).

John Goldie may have been a small actor on the stage of scientific advancement in the first decades of the Eighteenth Century. As he stood on the brink of the Niagara River on the soil of a young, rebellious nation, looking down into the chaos of the plunge-pool of the Falls, he may have seen the great challenges to civilization in the years ahead. That he welcomed those changes may be inferred from the fact that in 1844 he took his family and emigrated to North America from the land of his birth. He settled in Waterloo County, Ontario.

Literature Cited

Eiseley, L. 1961. Darwin's Century, Evolution and the Men Who Discovered it. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, New York,

Grabeau, A. W. 1901. Guide to the geology and paleontology of Niagara Falls and Vicinity. Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, Bulletin 7, No. 1; N.Y. State Museum Bulletin No. 45, Albany.

Lyell, C. 1855. Travels in North America, Canada, and Nova Scotia, with Geological Observations, London.

Spawn, William. 1961. In Goldie, 1819. Diary of a Journey Through Upper Canada and Some of the New England States. Privately Published, Toronto.

Tesmer, L H. 1981. Colossal Cataract. The Geological History of Niagara Falls. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Turrill, W. B. 1953. Pioneer Plant Geography. The Phytogeographical Researches of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Contributions from the International Biohistorical Commission, No. 1. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff.

Zenkert, C. A. 1934. The Flora of the Niagara Frontier Region. Bull. Buffalo Soc. Nat. Soc. 16; i-ix, 1-228.