Mt Whitney

Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1896)

Josiah Dwight Whitney

Josiah Dwight Whitney, (1819-1896). Photo by Silas Sellack

There is no arguing that Josiah Whitney figures prominently in California’s history. But in my opinion, he was a pompous ass, out of touch with the (then) emerging revelations of modern science.

Josiah Dwight Whitney was the eldest of 13 children[1]. He was born on November 23, 1819 in Northampton, Massachusetts. He entered Yale in 1836 studying Chemistry, Mineralogy and Astronomy. After graduation he took on as an unpaid assistant to Charles T. Jackson, a physician-turned-geologist, who was heading a Geological Survey in New Hampshire. Being one who never to stay any where too long, Whitney prepared to attend Law School at Harvard when he heard about and attended a lecture by Charles Lyell on Geology. He was so impressed he changed his career plans and sailed to Europe where he studied Geology for the next five years.

He returned in 1847 as a “full fledged” Geologist. He was hired by Charles Jackson with whom he had worked earlier.[2] When Jackson was dismissed, the survey results were published by Whitney, and Jackson’s other assistant, John Wells Foster, in 1850.

Whitney then put together a book, The Metallic Wealth of the United States (1854) which became the standard text for the next 15 years. During the 1850’s he took part in a number of geological surveys in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. He published results with his associates until 1862, but not before he took another position, this time with California as the State Geologist in 1860.

He was taken on as an economic geologist to assess the state and report back on other mineral resources in the state (Gold was discovered in 1848, and they were highly motivated to see if the state had any other gems up its sleeves). But, Whitney had more lofty ideas and wanted to provide, not just a mineral survey, but also botany, zoology and paleontology. So he immediately went to work on completing the survey in Missouri’s Lead region. He then went on to publish two more volumes on paleontology.

The legislature, frustrated at his pace, slowly cut funding hoping to get him back on track. Finally, in 1867, they cut funding altogether. The survey was disbanded in 1868 (which is the same year John Muir first entered the valley). In 1865, Whitney was appointed to the faculty at Harvard, but he requested and was granted an indefinite leave of absence to complete the California Survey. Which, of course, he didn’t.

In 1868, he began his teachings for Harvard and lead students through field work in Colorado the next year. He still had not finished the survey. Finally, he took up residency at Harvard in 1874, the same year California actually stripped him of his title. He then, finally, finished the survey, but on his own time and with his own money. Whitney’s association with Yosemite continued, off and on, through out his life. In addition to the survey, he actually was one of the original commissioners that would oversee the California Grant. In later years, he would become a charter member of the Sierra Club.

Whitney’s resume and accomplishments were fine; impressive, as a matter of fact. This, undoubtedly, is how he got the position as California State Geologist in the first place. Mount Whitney[3],[4] and the Whitney Glaicier at Mount Shasta were named after him (admittedly, by colleagues of his own survey). But it appears that in addition to being well qualified due to his field work, he was arrogant, snobby and a crotchety old man with little regard for position or protocol. According the California Department of Conservation’s website, Whitney’s disappointment in budget cuts (which he brought on himself) manifested itself with insults to the whole legislature “…characterizing that body as corrupt, reckless, stupid, malignant, and jackasses ….”  Whitney also refused a personal request from then Governor Newton Booth, stating that the Governor was a ‘dealer in whiskey by trade’, and ‘a spiritualist by profession.’[5]

In addition to Whitney’s skills at diplomacy, he could even become embroiled in professional controversy. In 1868, John Muir walked into the valley for the first time. By the early 1870s, he had herded sheep, worked the saw mills in the valley, explored much of the back country, and discovered a number of “living” glaciers in the area. He formed his opinion that it was glaciation that gouged out the valley. Whitney jumped on this with his usual tact and delicacy. He called Muir an “ignoramus” and a “…mere sheep herder…” for daring to refute his theory. According to Mr. Josiah “It’s Not My Fault” Whitney, the valley was caused by “faulting” which occurred when two parallel faults (which are now the north and south rim of the valley) gave way and the ground just sank down. He went on to say that there are no glaciers anywhere near Yosemite Valley. He even had members of his survey suppress what evidence they found for glaciers and the work the glaciers played on the rocks. Whitney went to his grave standing by his “findings” in spite mounting evidence to the contrary.

The controversy was so vociferous that the US Geological Society launched an investigation to settle the matter in 1913 (7 years after the death of Whitney and a year prior to the death of Muir). Their findings weren’t completed and published until 1930, which showed that John Muir was, essentially, correct.

Was this faux pax his only issue? Hardly.

In a previous controversy early in 1866, Josiah, “I am the State Geological Head” Whitney declared a human skull (known as the Calaveras Skull) found at a mining site to be an authentic relic from the Pliocene era (2 to 5 million years ago). This would make it the oldest known example of homo sapiens. It was refuted by a newspaper account from San Francisco in 1869 that reported a miner had placed the skull in that mine IN ORDER to play a practical joke on Whitney. In 1879 Thomas Wilson of Harvard ran a fluorine analysis which indicated the skull was of a much more recent origin. Whitney, of course, never recanted.

Another morsel I found was of Josiah “You Mean That was Today?” Whitney. Whitney, as we know, was the head of the geological survey and was to ascended and name Mount Dana in honor of the Geology Professor at Yale, James Dwight Dana. However, Whitney, himself didn’t make the trip that day because he was …”not feeling well…” (likely story), but did make the climb the next day.

Josiah “It must have one of them French Indians” Whitney name Illilouette Creek and Falls after, what he said, was the Native American name for it. However, the local Native Americans called it “Tululowehack”[6]. According to James Hutchings, one of the first settlers in Yosemite Valley, “…I have never questioned a single Indian that knew anything whatever of such a word [Illilouette]; while everyone, without exception knows this cañon either by Tooloolaweck or Toololloweack; the meaning of which, …is the place beyond which was the great rendezvous of the Yo Semite Indians for hunting deer…”[7] According to Lafayette Bunnell, “…The name ‘Illilouette’ is not Indian, and is, therefore, meaningless and absurd…”[8]

In summary, I think Josiah Whitney was a dork. That’s too bad. Having grown up in California, where the name “Whitney” bantered prominently in the state’s history, I would have liked to believe he was, indeed, a man of good stature. It is disappointing to find out he’s just a guy and, in my opinion, a somewhat sorry one at that. As I mentioned in the history section of this blog, I am not disappointed in him because of his controversies. After all, mistakes happen. There’s nothing wrong with that. My problem with him was his callous disregard for anyone or anything that may have disagreed with him.

I will, however, say this on his behalf. His most well known namesake, Mt. Whitney, is, appropriately, over 200 miles out side of Yosemite National Park.


[1] There seems to be some difference opinion on that. Sources also say eldest of 8 and 12. But according to Life and Letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney by Edwin Tenney Brewster, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, he was the eldest of 13. I chose this reference since much of it was written and gather prior to Whitney’s passing.

[2] Jackson, was also quite the character who routinely swooped in after some one has made a discovery and claim it as his work. His leadership of the survey ended disastrously and was dismissed from the survey. The completion of the survey as handed over to his assistants, one of whom was Whitney.

[3] Really? All this time, I thought it was named after Eli Whitney because he, I’ve heard, once said, “Ain’t nobody will ever climb that cotton pickin’ mountain”

[4] Actually the tradition of naming a peak goes to those that first climbed it. That honor goes to a group calling themselves The Fishermen and they named it Fishermen’s Peak. The Whitney survey (which Whitney, himself, was not a part) tried a number of times to climb the peak, but kept taking the wrong path and, due to fog, actually ascended to the wrong peak at one point. By the time they finally made it, The Fishermen had already climbed and named it. Though they bantered their accomplishment around, it was never “recorded.” Because the survey published their accomplishment, it was their name that stuck.


[6] Or Tooloolaweack or Tooloolweack, depending on who you read.

[7] Yosemite Place Names by Peter Browning, Great West Books, 2nd Ed, 2005, p68. Where he cited, “Hutchings, In the Heart, 440)

[8] Discovery by Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, 1880, 203