Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden

American geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden (1829-1887) explored the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions, his dedicated efforts providing the foundation for the U.S. Geological Survey and for the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.

Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden studied to be a physician, until a chance encounter with a noted paleontologist drew him to the yet unmapped northwestern territories of the United States and a relentless career as a geologist and explorer. Through his work in mapping the states of Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho, Hayden set the foundation for the activities of the U.S. Geological Survey, and his forward-thinking advocacy of preserving pristine wilderness areas resulted in the creation and preservation of Yellowstone National Park at a time when the nation's interests were in developing the wealth of natural resources west of the Mississippi.

Undeterred by Humble Beginnings

Hayden was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1829, the son of Asa and Melinda (Hawley) Hayden. His father died when he was ten, and his mother remarried soon afterward. As was not uncommon in such circumstances, Hayden was sent to live with an uncle who owned a small farm outside of Rochester, New York. Helping on the farm during the summer months, Hayden spent the winter working as a teacher at a local school from the time he was sixteen. At age eighteen he determined to leave the farm and make it on his own. With little money, he hiked south to Ohio's Oberlin College, where he gained the help of the college president and enrolled in 1847. Shy, often distracted, and poorer than most of his fellow students, Hayden nonetheless proved to be an able student, and he graduated in 1850.

After graduating from Oberlin College, Hayden returned to upstate New York and enrolled at the Albany Medical College, having decided to pursue a career in medicine. During his years in Albany, he became the friend of James Hall, the New York state paleontologist, who introduced the young medical student to the increases in understanding of ancient history made as a result of evidence gleaned from the discovery of fossils. Despite receiving his M.D. from Albany in 1853, Hayden decided to postpone his career temporarily; instead he decided to explore the world of natural science shown to him by Hall.

Participated in First Trek Westward

In the spring of 1853, shortly after receiving his diploma, the twenty-four-year-old Hayden joined an expedition sponsored by Hall and led by paleontologist Fielding B. Meek that collected fossils in the Badlands located in southwest South Dakota, east of the Black Hills. The region gained its well-deserved name due to the difficulty of traversing its terrain due to the many deep gullies and steep hills that cut across its barren surface. The trip was a success—many fossils were uncovered and brought back to Albany—although as a novice Hayden participated little in the actual excavation. Instead, he spent his time mapping the vertical geological strata occurring in the area of the excavations, this work eventually incorporated into a larger study and published.

The following year, under the sponsorship of the American Fur Company, Hayden returned to the region and traveled the Missouri River basin; Within two years he mapped his way as far north as Fort Benton, Montana. The trip required physical strength, endurance, and perseverance, all qualities the then twenty-five year old Hayden possessed. Most of the trip was made on foot, passing through untraveled forests and over rocky terrain, and Hayden and his followers carried with them limited provisions so that they could cover maximum distances. Along the way temporary camps were established to facilitate scientific study of the area. At one such camp, made near the confluence of the Missouri and the Judith Rivers, Hayden and his party made a momentous discovery, although it did not perhaps seem so at the time. A collection of unusual teeth uncovered and collected at this location were later determined by paleontologist Joseph Leidy to be those of the dinosaurs Trachodon, Troodon and Deinodon, making Hayden's 1854 expedition the first in North America to uncover dinosaur remains.

In 1856 Hayden signed on with Lieutenant G. K. Warren of the Topographical Engineers to explore the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, as well as the Black Hills of the Dakota territory. Two years later he rejoined Meek in a trip through the Kansas wilderness, and in 1859 he traveled to Montana with Captain W. F. Raynolds to reconnoiter the headwaters of the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Snake, and Madison Rivers under the leadership of former trapper and topographer Jim Bridger. It was during this trip, as Hayden took in the natural beauty of this undisturbed region, that the idea of setting aside part of these western lands for posterity was first discussed. Although their expedition was cut short by bad weather, the Yellowstone region became the focus of several mapping expeditions over the next decade, Bridger often serving as guide.

Civil War Resulted in Interest in Western Resources

The outbreak of the U.S. Civil war in 1860 prompted Hayden to use his medical training in defense of his country. He enlisted in the Union army and worked as a surgeon near the battlefields of the Carolinas, retiring from active service at the war's end having attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. Three months later, Hayden accepted a position as professor of geology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Civil War, by taxing the country's many resources, indirectly prompted the surveys that would uncover the beauty of the western United States, a region that was in 1867 still divided into territories. The General Land Office (GLO) alerted Congress to the demands that the increasingly industrialized northeast was making on existing natural resources east of the Mississippi, and in response Congress, on March 2, 1867, authorized funding of a geological study to determine the location of natural resources along the fortieth parallel, the route of the Transcontinental Railroad then underway, to be undertaken by Clarence King and the Corps of Engineers, as well as a GLO-led survey of Nebraska, which had achieved statehood only the day before.

While his teaching duties occupied his time during the fall and winter months, Hayden meanwhile had continued to explore the northwestern regions of the United States. In the spring of 1866, with the sponsorship of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, he returned to the Badlands. Now, in 1867, the thirty-eight-year-old professor was tapped as head of the newly formed U.S. Geological Survey for the Territories to undertake the needed survey of Nebraska for the GLO. Hayden's pioneering work for this organization—backed by only $5,000 in federal funds as opposed to King's $100,000—provided the basis for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Competing with fellow surveyors King, John Wesley Powell (the Colorado basin, 1870, 1872), and Lieutenant George Wheeler (Nevada and Colorado, 1870, 1871) for federal appropriations, Hayden continued to lead small, government-funded expeditions to Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah between 1868 and 1869 and surveyed the geology and wildlife of much of this region. Cope often served as the official paleontologist on these travels, while invertebrate fossils were the domain of J. S. Newberry and fossil plants that of Lesquereux. William Henry Jackson often joined these excursions, serving as Hayden's photographer. In 1877 Hayden assisted the botanical survey of Hooker and Gray.

Hayden undertook his exploration of the Rocky Mountain region without reliable maps; these were developed during his travels. Roads and railways were rare west of the Mississippi; the only passages through the vast American west were made along the trails made by trappers and Native Americans, or on the trails used by pioneering families traveling westward. Despite such conditions, Hayden traveled quickly, determined to cover as much distance as possible before weather, waning provisions, or the start of fall classes at the University of Pennsylvania forced his return east.

By 1870 Hayden had created a system whereby uniformly scaled maps noting topography and geology throughout the territories could be created. He proposed this system to Congress and it was adopted by the Department of the Interior. Hayden married Emma C. Woodruff, daughter of a Philadelphia merchant, on November 9, 1871; in their forties at the time of their marriage, the couple would have no children. Hayden remained at the University of Pennsylvania until the following spring, resigning at that point to devote all his time to government work.

Staunch Advocate of Preserving Yellowstone Region

From 1871 to 1872 Hayden made what is considered his most noteworthy contribution to the nation when he requested funding to survey the Missouri and Yellowstone territories. His thirty-four-member team set out in seven wagons from Ogden, Utah, in the spring of 1871. Among Hayden's party were photographer Jackson and guest painter Thomas Moran, who captured the beauty of the region, while geologist George Allen, mineralogist Albert Peale, topographical artist Henry Elliot, botanists, and other scientists collected countless specimens and other data. Moran's paintings especially were useful in promoting Hayden's dream of preserving this area, and he made a concerted effort to bring images of Yellowstone before the American public by publishing articles in magazines, lecturing to groups, and otherwise advocating for preservation of the region. Following his presentation to Congress of a 500-page report containing pictures of the region, an area encompassing 2,219,791 acres in what would become southwestern Wyoming and spreading into the future states of Idaho and Montana, a bill was introduced setting aside Yellowstone as public land. Signed on March 1, 1872, by President Ulysses S. Grant, the bill's timing was crucial; eleven years had passed since the first rail line, the Northern Pacific, was laid to the north across Montana, and movement into the west by both settlers and business interests was on the rise. The nation's first national park, Yellowstone remained undisturbed except by tourists, a site of geothermal activity that takes the form of geysers such as "Old Faithful" and the Mammoth Hot Springs, as well as lakes, mud springs, waterfalls, and other areas of great natural beauty and geological interest.

The work of nineteenth-century surveyors such as Hayden and his colleagues gave definition to the vast western lands first traversed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's famous expeditions of 1804-1806.The results of Hayden's efforts—the topographical maps and reports of geological formations in the northwest territory, as well as the discovery of such interesting geological formations as the Mount of the Holy Cross in central Colorado—were combined with those of King, Powell, and Wheeler under the newly formed U.S. Geological Survey in 1879, with King as director. While leadership of this new organization was controversial due to the competition between its founding members and its work in collaboration with U.S. mining interests, Hayden accepted the position as chief geologist of the Montana territory.

Within a few years of his appointment in Montana, Hayden was forced to discontinue his travels, debilitated by years of arduous activity and the rapid progress of the disease locomotor ataxia. He resigned in 1886 and died the following year in Philadelphia at the age of fifty-eight. The Montana territory achieved division into various states shortly after Hayden's death: Montana in 1889, Wyoming in 1890.

Known for being impulsive and quick to action, Hayden was generous with his time and knowledge. His physical endurance and mental perseverance were qualities that allowed him to make outstanding contributions to the growth and appreciation of the western United States. During his career Hayden was an esteemed member of several societies, among them the National Academy of Sciences and geological societies in Great Britain, Austria, and Russia. In honor of his work, over forty organisms or geological features now bear his name, including towns and lakes in the states he traversed, a moth, a species of wildflower, and a fossil dinosaur.


Bartlett, Richard, North American Exploration, Volume 3: A Continent Comprehended, University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Cassidy, James G., Ferdinand V. Hayden: Entrepreneur of Science, University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Foster, Mike, Strange Genius, 1994.

Merrill, Marlene D., editor, Yellowstone and the Great West: Journals, Letters, and Images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition, University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

White, C. A., "Frederick V. Hayden", National Academy of Science Biographical Memoirs, Vol. III, 1895.


"The Four Great Surveys of the West," U.S. Geological Survey Web site, http://pubs.usgs.gov (April 10, 2000).

Yellowstone National Park.com, http://222.yellowstonenationalpark.com (February 5, 2002).