He lives in an ordinary neighborhood in West Haven, Conn., but that’s misleading. Those who know George Reber Wieland in the first half of the 20th century would probably say it’s truer that Wieland, a paleobotanist at Yale University, lives in the distant past.
He has furnished his backyard in Cretaceous plants, horticultural specimens dead for millions of years that he has plundered from the quiet of old stone forests in places such as the Black Hills of South Dakota. He has planted them side by side with living relatives of plants from that era, including living specimens of plants called cycads.
He’s especially interested in fossilized cycads from the southern Black Hills. He writes the book on them, literally, when he publishes two volumes titled American Fossil Cycads in 1906 and 1916.
In 1920, he files for 320 acres at the outskirts of the Black Hills under the provisions of the Homestead Act “in order that the cycads might not fall into unworthy hands,” as the Hot Springs Star reports in 1938.
In 1922, President Warren G. Harding signs a proclamation establishing Fossil Cycad National Monument after scientists such as E.C. Finney tell him, “The area is probably one of the most interesting fossil plant localities and known amongst scientific men the world over.”
But it’s too late – the site has already fallen into hands that can’t be trusted.
“By the 1930s, most of the fossilized plants called cycads were depleted from the surface at Fossil Cycad National Monument,” writes Vincent Santucci, a senior geologist/paleontologist with the National Park Service who has studied the curious history of that little-known monument. “Years of neglect, unauthorized fossil collecting, unchallenged research collecting and a general misunderstanding of paleontological resources, lead to the near complete loss of the resource in which the monument was named and designated.”
And who has led the way in all that unauthorized fossil collecting and unchallenged research collecting?
“Largely one scientist who was at Yale University was doing most of the removing – George Wieland. He had a scientific interest in the collection, but he almost seemed to become obsessed with the resource. Partly through his frustration with the federal government, he ended up collecting it all, or at least he did a lot of the collecting,” Santucci told the Capital Journal in a recent interview. “Ironically, he was also the person who was interested in getting it established as a monument. If you look at it from that perspective, he had a hand in both getting it established and getting it abolished.”
When Wieland dies in 1953, the site, once so rich in fossils, has few advocates left anymore, and there is very little left on the surface to protect. At the request of the National Park Service, the site is de-authorized as a national monument in 1957.
It’s the South Dakota national monument that few South Dakotans even know ever existed.
Yet visitors who linger in natural history museums know very well about the fossil cycads from South Dakota that flourished in the last great age of dinosaurs some 120 million years ago.
“There are qualities, particularly the degree of preservation, that lend themselves to making them stand out,” Santucci said. “The thing about the cycads from South Dakota is that they are some of the best-preserved cycads in the world. According to George Wieland, the Yale professor, they preserve features that he had never seen preserved elsewhere in the fossil record.”
Ancient animals, prehistoric plants
Oddly enough, Wieland isn’t a paleobotanist when he begins his career. The young scientist then is more interested in ancient animals than in ancient plants.
“During the summers of 1895 and 1896, Wieland collected vertebrate and invertebrate fossils from the eastern Black Hills under the sponsorship of Edward Drinker Cope,” the Dictionary of American Biography supplement for 1951-1955 reads.
And after Wieland dies, a Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists news bulletin from October 1953 remembers him with a brief item that notes, “Although best known for his studies of fossil cycads, he began his scientific career as a vertebrate paleontologist, collecting and describing the giant sea turtle, Archelon ischyros, from the Pierre shale of South Dakota.”
That is still the largest turtle ever known to exist, and there is a famous photo of Wieland standing beside that enormous fossil at Yale University.
After Edward Drinker Cope’s death in 1897, Wieland went on to study at Yale with Othniel Charles Marsh, who had been Cope’s great rival in “the Bone Wars” to unearth more and better fossils.
Marsh sent him back to the Black Hills in about 1897 or 1898 to gather specimens for the Peabody Museum’s collections, and while there, Wieland met Lester Ward of the U.S. Geological Survey. Ward had been collecting fossilized “cycadeoids,” a kind of ancient plant, since 1893.
F.H. Cole of Hot Springs first discovered the fossilized cycad beds near Minnekahta, in the southern Black Hills, in 1892.
Wieland became progressively more interested – or perhaps more accurately, obsessed – with the fossil cycads as his professional career continued. In the colorful history of American fossil scientists, he ranks up there along with his teacher, O.C. Marsh.
“The two of them compete for wildness and idiosyncrasies and colorfulness,” said Barbara Narendra, an archivist at Yale University. “All he used to talk about was cycads. He was a pest. He had what he called a ‘fossil glen’ at his home.”
Information at Yale University’s website said it is principally through Wieland’s efforts that Yale accumulated a collection of 1,000 specimens, making it the world’s largest collection of cycadeoids.
Keeping a sharp lookout for looters
But it’s also partly why South Dakota no longer has easily obtainable fossil cycads at the location Wieland once sought to protect by filing a Homestead Act claim on it.
For example, there is a photograph of Wieland from 1935 as he is supervising a Civilian Conservation Corps crew during a fossil cycad test excavation. His crew of 13 CCC workers opened six to eight excavation pits.
“Wieland reported that the excavation was a brilliant success with over a ton of uneroded specimens collected,” Santucci writes in his paper about the history of the monument.
But that same year, 1935, regional geologist Carrol Wegemann, who had been at work mapping the rock strata of the monument, sounds the alarm at what’s going on.
“The Wieland-Wegemann dispute started in 1935, when Wegemann accused Wieland of stealing fossils collected during the November 1935 excavation. Wegemann stated that Wieland had removed all of the original surficial specimens and had taken them back to Yale University before donating the land to the government. This feud escalated when Wegemann shut down the 1935 excavation at Fossil Cycad,” Santucci writes.
The superintendent of nearby Wind Cave National Park, Edward D. Freeland, then got involved, defending Wieland against Wegemann’s “unfortunate manner” and “continual rudeness.”
Wegemann writes to the assistant director of the National Park Service, who chooses a middle course, scolding Wegemann for being “discourteous” and suggesting that Wegemann should have first communicated his concern about the unauthorized taking of fossils to Freeland “so that orders for stopping the work of excavation could have been given by him.”
A modern researcher’s interest
Santucci worked in South Dakota early in his career and became especially interested in the history of Fossil Cycad National Monument while working at Petrified National Forest in Arizona.
“We thought that story might be helpful to visitors coming to Petrified National Forest,” Santucci told the Capital Journal. “The issue we were dealing with is that visitors were coming in and they were collecting petrified pieces of wood.”
Santucci titled his paper, “Fossil Cycad National Monument: A case of paleontological resource mismanagement.”
No matter what the resource, or for what purpose someone is making an unauthorized collection, the outcome is the same – things of incredible value are taken away from the public.
“In our view, they’re priceless. They’re priceless both in scientific and in educational value. If you can inspire a kid from telling the story of fossil cycads or fossil dinosaurs, you can’t put a price on that,” Santucci said.
Saving the fossils
Even while being accused of fossil theft, Wieland continues to encourage protection of the site from which he has apparently excavated more than a ton of fossils in 1935 alone. He even recruits Yale University architecture students for proposals on the design of a visitor center at the site. He pushes for funding for Fossil Cycad National Monument.
But there is the problem of those missing fossils on the surface.
Consequently, Fossil Cycad National Monument never officially opens to the public, Santucci said, and it never has a visitor center or public programs about the fossil resource.
Though Secretary Will Robinson of the South Dakota Historical Society makes some effort to get the site transferred to the historical society (“The National Park Service thinks Fossil Cycad National Monument is a white elephant and wants to get it off its paper,” he writes in 1955), the site is ultimately transferred to the Bureau of Land Management.
To this day, it’s not unusual for South Dakotans to know absolutely nothing about it.
Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc. in Hill City, agrees that it’s accurate to give Wieland both praise and blame for this South Dakota footnote in history.
“I think that it is fair to say that Wieland should get the credit for the establishment of Cycad National Monument, and for its demise. Vince (Santucci) has it right,” Larson said.
But Larson – whose research institute competes with university researchers for fossil finds – doesn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing for the public that the fossils were removed.
“In the long run, it was probably a good idea that the fossil cycads were collected. There was no protection for them at the site, weathering takes its toll, and certainly collectors (academic and private) would have eventually depleted the site. In the end, Wieland saved the fossils,” Larson said.
“Cycads occur in other sites around the Hills, and every once in a while someone finds a nice specimen. Fortunately it’s OK for people to collect petrified wood and these isolated specimens are able to be saved, too. Without these collectors and without the depletion of the defunct Cycad National Monument, our knowledge of this diverse and interesting group of fossil plants would be only a fraction of what we do know today. Cycad National Monument is gone, but the cycads still exist and are now safe within collections at Yale, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and numerous other museums and private collections.”
Darrin Pagnac, one of the curators of collections at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, said the university has four or five cycads in good condition from when a road-widening project in the 1980s brought them to light. At least one is on display in the university’s musem.
This summer of 2014, Santucci and some colleagues plan to revisit the location Wieland once sought to protect.
“I worked with a team of geologists last year and we developed a digital geologic map for the site. We’re going to try to look at that fossil-bearing unit and see where else it is exposed to see if there are additional fossil cycads,” Santucci said. “We’re probably not going to do any excavating. What we’re going to do is walk over the surface where that same unit is exposed.”
Doubtless they’ll think of George Reber Wieland and his stealthy efforts to protect a national resource from unworthy hands.