The Megatherium Club

Learn about the Megatherium Club, named after a giant extinct sloth that once roamed South America, which consisted of an eccentric group of young naturalists aiming to understand the natural world, and build the Smithsonian’s collection in the mid to late 1800s. 

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Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden (1829-1887), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-657]. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, a geologist and original Megatheria, was an eccentric club member, according to Robert Kennicott. Hayden’s early life began in Westfield, Massachusetts on September 7, 1828. Hayden’s parents, Asa Hayden and Melinda Hawley, were a somewhat troubled pair. His father, an alcoholic, passed away when Hayden was ten, and his mother sent him away to live with his aunt in Rochester, Ohio. Though abandoned by his birth parents at a young age, Hayden would muster up the drive to become a great naturalist.

Hayden’s biggest accomplishment was his explorations of the American West, specifically that of Yellowstone National Park. Between the Warren Expedition of Topographical Engineers, 1856-1857, and Washburn-Doane Expedition of the Upper Yellowstone, 1870, Hayden made Yellowstone known to the public, and earned credit for it becoming the first national park of the United States.

Before Hayden began his studies as a geologist, he attended Oberlin College and entered its Theological Department in 1850. A year later, he moved to Cleveland to study medicine and natural history with J. P. Kirkland and J.S. Newberry. The beginning of 1853 marked Hayden’s first work as a naturalist when he paired up with another Megatherium Club member, Fielding B. Meek, and took a field trip up the Missouri River to the Dakota Badlands. After working in the field together for some time, the two published writings, including findings from their 1854 trip to the Upper Missouri Basin, where they discovered the first dinosaur and soft-shelled turtle remains in America.

In 1861, the Civil War broke out, provoking Hayden to enlist in the Union army and became “a surgeon of volunteers”; Hayden held his position in the army until returning to his studies in 1866. The following years of Hayden’s life consisted of publications, building connections, and falling in love. He had a reputation among his colleagues and friends that he fell in love “quickly and regularly” Robert Kennicott even remarked, “A jolly good fellow is Hayden who always falls desperately in love several times a month and is always just about to marry but will never do so I’ll bet a hat…” However, despite most convictions, Hayden met his wife Emma Woodruff in 1867 and they were engaged in 1870.

Before passing away in Philadelphia on December 22, 1887, Hayden marked his time by receiving a medical degree, writing manuscripts, partaking in the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, making Yellowstone known to the public, and becoming an active Megatherium Club member. Because of Hayden’s accomplishments, his colleagues named 45 species and genera for him, and his name was also given to more than 40 topographical structures.

Geologist, member of Warren expedition and Reynolds survey, surgeon with U.S. Army, surveyed Nebraska Territory. SIA Acc. 11-006 [MAH-6834].

Geologist, member of Warren expedition and Reynolds survey, surgeon with U.S. Army, surveyed Nebraska Territory. SIA Acc. 11-006 [MAH-10407].

In camp near Salt Lake City with mountains in the background, survey leader Ferdinand V. Hayden enjoys a fresh-air meal with assistant chief James Stevenson, topographer Frank Bradley and wife Emma Woodruff Hayden. Hayden graduated from Albany Medical School with a burning desire to be a naturalist. His career began in 1853 when he spent a year in the Dakotas collecting for an Indian agent. In February 1856 he joined the Warren survey of the Dakota territory. After serving as a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War, the government needed specialized information about the Trans-Mississippi West and thus launched Hayden on his exploration of the territory. 32113-G or MAH-32113G.

Hayden Survey Group (United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, 1871-1877) seated at a field luncheon table outside a tent. L to R: unknown; Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker; unknown; Asa Gray; Mrs. Strachey; Mrs. Asa Gray; unknown; Dr. Lambourne; James Stevenson; Lt. Gen. Sir Richard Strachey, R.E.; Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden; unknown. Black servant stands to the right of the group. Hooker, president of the Royal Society of London, was making a botanical tour of the United States with Professor Asa Gray of Harvard. Gray and Hooker subsequently published an essay on the geographical distribution of plants in the Rockies, a reflection in their interest in Darwinian evolution. Specimens from the survey were deposited at the Smithsonian Institution. 19660 or MAH-19660.

Group portrait from 1872 of the Hayden Yellowstone survey party (United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, 1871-1877). William Henry Holmes and F.V. Hayden are included in the group.

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