I Read Dead People’s Mail: Mysteries of the Darwin Letter

Earlier this month, the F.B.I. Art Crimes Team returned a letter from Charles Darwin, dated May 2, 1875, to an unnamed addressee, to the Smithsonian Institution Archives.  This event was the culmination of some good old-fashioned sleuthing, but one mystery remains--who was the unnamed recipient in the letter? 

Dawrin letter

Group from Survey of Colorado at Camp
Although Darwin never named his correspondent, there are clues in the letter to help solve, or at least point the finger, at who it was. 

First, the date: May 2, 1875.

Second, the body of the letter: Darwin writes, “My dear Sir,  

I am much obliged to you for your kindness and for the favour [sic] which you have done me in sending your Geological Report of the Yellowstone River & your Preliminary Field Report of Colorado and New Mexico.”

The letter’s date, and the publications Darwin acknowledges, indicate that the mystery man is very likely Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden who led an expedition to the West in 1873, also known as the Hayden Survey. Hayden also published the two reports mentioned by Darwin in this letter.  But why is this letter in the George P. (Perkins) Merrill Collection?

George P. Merrill was a geologist and contemporary of Hayden who had access to Hayden’s papers while he was writing his two histories of American Geology.  Two Darwin letters (the one returned and another undated one) are in the autograph file Merrill compiled of American Geologists and other notable persons. And, I guess it’s fair to say that, Merrill may have been the first to “appropriate” Darwin’s letter of May 2, 1875.  So there you have it, many mysteries solved with the help of archives and archivists.


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George P. Merrill

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