Records of Tennessee's diverse geology of complex mountains, rivers, valleys, rocks, minerals, soils, and earthquakes began with reports by literate travelers. The first such report was made by Father J. F. Buisson St. Cosme, who survived a Memphis-area earthquake in 1699. A legion of geological observers followed, including John D. Clifford (1778-1820), Louis Phillipe (1773-1850), and Ferdinand von Roemer (1818-1891). Of the three, von Roemer was the only specialist, a Ph.D. in paleontology, who collected Tennessee fossils and wrote descriptions of them from his home in Europe. The other two were generalists: Clifford described rock sequences, and Louis Phillipe, who later became king of France, described landscapes. Dozens of other travelers followed in their wake, publishing reports of their journeys, or leaving behind manuscripts or oral traditions.

From these various sources European geologists produced speculative maps of eastern North America, including aspects of Tennessee geology. Two early efforts were made by Jean Etienne Guettard (1715-1786) and William Maclure (1763-1840). Although neither man ever visited Tennessee, Guettard's map, displayed in Paris in 1752, summarized the region's mineral wealth, and in 1809 Maclure published the first geological map of eastern North America.

By 1810 well-read Tennesseans had begun to appreciate the state's topographic complexity and the regional distribution of rocks, sediments, and resources. Popular interest in geology broadened when the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes created Reelfoot Lake. By 1820 Nashville had established the Museum of Natural and Artificial Curiosities for the State of Tennessee and the related Tennessee Antiquarian Society. The museum displayed geological specimens, and the society researched, among other things, the distribution of fossils in the state.

In 1827 Gerard Troost, a Dutch geologist who had recently migrated from New Harmony, Indiana, opened a natural history museum in Nashville. He soon joined the University of Nashville faculty and began teaching the first geology course in a Tennessee college. In 1831 he became the first Tennessee state geologist, a position that also included the duties of state assayer. Tennessee was the fourth state to establish a geological survey. While other states quickly abandoned their efforts to provide geological information, Troost remained in his posts as state geologist and as the senior professor of science at the University of Nashville until February 1850, when he was near death. Troost came to Tennessee as an internationally esteemed scholar, and his descriptions of Tennessee geology were published in many journals and in several languages. Initially the legislature did not provide for the publication of his work, but in 1834 it began issuing biennial geological reports.

Troost blended the duties of teaching and research by permitting students to work in the field and welcoming novice scientists from distant states as unpaid apprentices. His efforts produced a lasting legacy, as Troost's proteges performed the initial geological surveys in ten states, and many became professors and editors of academic journals.

As the study of geology grew more visible, it expanded into the schools. By 1836 Troost had introduced a two-term sequence of general courses–physical geology followed by earth history–to the curriculum at the University of Nashville. Although such courses are standard in today's schools, the introduction of geology was an important innovation in 1836. By the late 1840s most men's colleges in Tennessee offered instruction in geology, and it was almost equally popular in female academies.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s orators at county fairs offered speeches on geology, and local intellectual journals published original geological articles written by professionals and amateurs. Beginning in 1819, two East Tennesseans, John H. Kain and Jacob Peck, built on their provincial interests in geology to provide contributions to the national geological literature. Middle and West Tennessee also produced nonprofessional local experts such as Andrew H. Buchanan and Josiah Higgason. Backing the work of professionals like Troost, local experts made important contributions from 1840 to 1860. R. R. Dashiel wrote on West Tennessee, Tolbert Fanning on Middle Tennessee, and Richard O. Currey, an East Tennessee geologist, published A Sketch of the Geology of Tennessee in 1857. With the arrival of the Civil War, though, these scientific activities ceased.

Gradually, through the efforts of professionals and amateurs, a geological literature evolved for each grand division of the state. Troost maintained the broader perspective and higher academic standards. As state geologist, he crisscrossed Tennessee on horseback, studying all areas. He described soils, mapped coal beds, visited iron furnaces, and brought recognition to obscure resources. He established the sequence of rocks in all parts of the state and made chemical analyses of rocks, waters, and soils. Troost met a cross section of the population, including mine owners, farmers, and innkeepers. He often made two long trips per year. In an era when few state officials traveled the back roads, he was almost singularly well known.

Perhaps as a result of the ongoing work of the state geologist, the legislature funded new positions for a state engineer and an assistant in 1836. Although these appointments soon lapsed, the office of state geologist remained politically and economically valuable, and Troost eventually took over the duties of planning rights of way for roads and railroads. After Troost's death in 1850, political conflicts over the appointment of a successor delayed the filling of the office for four years. In 1854, as a compromise, the governor appointed Charles A. Proctor of Ducktown to the position of state assayer, and the legislature named James M. Safford of Lebanon state geologist.

Proctor left few records of his work, but modern state assayers, who trace their origins to Proctor's part of Troost's job, inspect mines and gather statistical information on mineral production. Unlike Proctor, Safford left an impressive record of his solitary work, matching Troost's accomplishments in the period 1854-60. Originally a full-time employee, Safford requested part-time status in 1856 and became a three-month appointee in 1871. Both before and after his appointment, he taught at Cumberland College in Nashville.

In 1869 Safford summarized his earlier work in a state-published masterpiece, The Geology of Tennessee. With J. B. Killebrew, another Tennessee scientist, he adapted this for use as a textbook in secondary schools. New editions appeared at least through 1900. Usually called Elementary Geology of Tennessee, the popular book enhanced the esteem of geology within Tennessee. A competing text published by W. G. McAdoo and H. C. White in 1875 bore the same name, Elementary Geology of Tennessee. Bolstered by these and other books, geology flourished in secondary schools and colleges.

In the unstable early post-Civil War years, Safford left Cumberland and moved through several teaching jobs before obtaining a part-time position at Vanderbilt University, where he primarily taught chemistry. He retained his position as state geologist while working part-time for the Department of Agriculture and also, apparently, for the Tennessee Board of Health. His state publications in geology, public health, water supply, and agriculture continued, and in 1876 he made a failed attempt to organize a proprietary summer field school in geology.

After the Civil War, the federal government expanded geodetic surveying, and geological reports were incorporated into the U.S. Census publications. These changes, coupled with the founding of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 1879, had a positive influence on state work. In the early 1880s USGS geologist Ira Sayles began work in East Tennessee, and others soon followed. State Geologist Safford worked closely with several federal agencies.

By the 1880s a few Tennesseans were once again affluent enough to become dedicated amateur naturalists. However, there was now a clearer separation between amateur and professional science than there had been in the antebellum years. In 1885 the Nashville-based Southern Geologist began publication to serve the interests of amateur geologists. The scientific community embraced a new professionalism. Safford's papers grew more academic, and Vanderbilt established a short-lived D.Sc. program in geology that produced two graduates.

Safford retired as state geologist in 1899 and left Vanderbilt in 1900. His last paper on Tennessee geology appeared in 1902. The state legislature took no action toward filling his position until two years after his death in 1907, when the general assembly passed the Tennessee Geological Survey Act of 1909. The renewed survey, which continues today as the Tennessee Division of Geology, expanded the earlier one-person operation and provided for the orderly succession of the office of state geologist. Despite gaps in tenure, the discontinuities from Troost to Safford and from Safford to 1909 may be more apparent than real. Since Troost began his work, the legislature has always seen a need for geological services.

To generalize on legislative mandates, the survey created in 1909 was expected to guide the state in evaluating land for purchase, sale, or other purposes; shape resource-related legislation and conserve resources; attract new capital and immigrants; aid in establishing local industries; enlarge the output of farms, mines, and factories; study geology, physics, and chemistry as they relate to resources; provide geographical data; gather information on metals and ores, fuels and fertilizers, forests, roads, water, and soils; and advise on land reclamation. Over the next decades, the survey developed other roles in the coordination of state and federal programs, including providing education about the state's geology and resources; serving as an archivist for geological records and specimens left by defunct companies and for items collected in compliance with resource-related laws; and housing a small, semi-independent agency generally called the Tennessee Oil and Gas Commission.

For almost ninety years the new survey has performed most of its tasks well. It issued several notable publications and provided a massive bibliography of Tennessee geology and allied disciplines to foster research by industry, government, and academia. Survey research has also promoted specific industries such as clay and phosphate mining.

Initially the management of state coal and prison lands absorbed much of the agency's time and, in the case of large holdings, seemed to require on-site management. For example, one study involved a nine-thousand-acre block, the Herbert Domain, acquired in 1907. Gradually, however, the mission of the survey fragmented. By 1937 forestry, parks, and geology were separate agencies. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service assumed primary responsibility for mapping soils, and the study of lakes, streams, and flood prevention passed to the USGS and other federal groups. Eventually the U.S. Bureau of Mines published mineral resource data.

By the 1960s, the era of the modern Tennessee Division of Geology, groundwater studies were transferred to the USGS and to newly formed state agencies. The Oil and Gas Commission was relocated, and a Tennessee Earthquake Network evolved to record, and perhaps eventually predict, earthquakes. Robert A. Miller also led the division and became a mainstay of the conservation movement, promoting work in environmental geology and guiding public land acquisition for aesthetic purposes. In the same period, women entered the geologic fields. Jessie K. Maniatis apparently became the first female geologist in the state when she went to work for the Tennessee Division of Geology in the late 1960s. Today, women geologists teach in colleges, develop careers in industry, and work for government agencies.

The proliferation of governmental geologists has parallels in industry and academia, though it is difficult to arrive at a precise count since geologists are spread over a number of activities, including engineering, oil exploration, environmental consulting, water supply management, and mining. The state maintains standards for the registration of geologists who sign state forms relative to the regulation of pollution abatement and building foundations. However, in other areas, such as academia, geologists are unregistered. Indeed, quite a few certified earth science teachers in junior and senior high schools would qualify for registration as geologists if they chose to work in industry.

In the early 1970s the state introduced earth science as a standard junior high school subject. Related courses became electives in senior high schools. Since earth science texts stress geology, most Tennessee secondary school graduates possess some knowledge of the science.

The most visible academic geologists teach in junior colleges and colleges. A survey suggests that approximately thirteen hundred students took freshman-level geology courses in Tennessee colleges during the fall of 1995. Eight schools offer degrees in the field. The University of Tennessee has a Ph.D. program. Information on master's degrees is less precise since some schools offer advanced degrees in geology, while others offer master's degrees in such fields as science education that can include geology.

One result of a strong presence of geology in schools is a diffuse public interest. The Tennessee Conservationist popularizes geology while The Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Sciences offers detailed studies. Geology also plays an important role in major museums from the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis to the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. Even small facilities, such as state park museums, have geological displays.

Some museums and schools are meeting grounds for adolescent and adult groups that foster a personal involvement in geology. Many Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops collect rocks and study maps while working toward geology merit badges. Memphis and Nashville have long-lived rock hound clubs. Such groups come and go in smaller towns across the state. Perhaps every college has had a cave club or a geoclub. Tennesseans subscribe to hobby magazines such as The Lapidary Journal and flock to the National Speleological Society (NSS). The Nashville Grotto of the NSS issues a newsletter, and the Tennessee Cave Survey transcends the boundaries of local grottos, publishing on all Tennessee caves.

In many ways the study of Tennessee geology is closely linked to its historical past. In the early days, Guettard made a map, Louis Phillipe described the land, Clifford recorded the rocks, and von Roemer added details. Tennesseans still need maps, analyses of landscape, rock descriptions, and added details. At least thirty-five government agencies and a far greater number of businesses regularly use topographic maps. The state is covered by 804 standard USGS maps, called 7 1/2' quadrangles. The Tennessee Division of Geology sells these maps and offers access to, or has records of, 480 maps that detail the distribution of rocks within small areas. Most modern geologic maps come with a pamphlet describing mineral resources. Map-pamphlet sets are products of the Division of Geology. Currently only four states have more complete geologic map coverage.

In 1831 a political appointment made Gerard Troost the sole member of one of the first scientific agencies in the Tennessee community. The Division of Geology now plays the same role. It serves businesses that supply coal, crushed rock, and myriad other mineral products. The division's newsletter reaches most mineral industries and most geologists in Tennessee. In addition, the division offers bibliographies, lists of mineral producers, a directory of geologists, cave bulletins, and more. Most significantly, the division is a place where interested people can come to talk about geology. Universities, federal offices, and other state agencies also welcome geological inquiries.

Suggested Reading

Elizabeth Cockrill, “Bibliography of Tennessee Geology, Soils, Drainage, Forestry, etc., with Subject Index,” Tennessee Geological Survey Bulletin 1B (1917); James X. Corgan, ed., The Geological Sciences in the Antebellum South (1982), History of Geology and Geological Education in the Southern and Border States. Earth Sciences History 4 (1985), and “Notes on Tennessees Pioneer Scientists,” Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science 53 (1978): 2-7; Charles W. Wilson Jr., State Geological Surveys and Geologists of Tennessee (1981)

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  • Article Title Geology
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 15, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018