A Defining Time: The California State Geological Survey and its Temperamental Leader, Josiah Dwight Whitney, by Karen Merritt, CSHE 9.20 (August 2020)


Josiah Dwight Whitney’s accomplishments as California’s State Geologist and director of the California State Geological Survey from 1860 to 1874 have been well-recognized. Whitney and his associates brought to the Survey the best science of their era that shaped their exploration, mapping, and collection of plant, fossil and mineral specimens. For the first time, they created a comprehensive physical definition of a state only haphazardly explored and described up to that time. Whitney’s self-certainly in his expertise and personal views often led to tumultuous, even self-defeating, relations with California’s elected officials. Nevertheless, they appointed him to two state commissions with ground-breaking goals. The first, which he headed, offered advice on what a new state university should do and be. The second oversaw management of the federal lands known as the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Big Trees Grant, assigned to California for preservation of their unique scenic landscapes. While previous historians have passed lightly over Whitney’s contributions to these defining enterprises, Whitney’s grounding in the state’s Survey led to his distinctive contributions to these commissions and are worth a closer look.        

Publication date: 
August 20, 2020
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)