Department of Earth Sciences
Newton Horace Winchell School of Earth Sciences

Newton Horace Winchell


(December 17, 1839 to May 2, 1914)
by George M. Schwartz

Any attempt to do justice to the work of Newton Horace Winchell within a reasonable space is frustrated by the immensity of his accomplishment. Warren Upham's memoir to Winchell in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America (volume 26, pp. 27-46) contains almost 300 titles plus scores of subtitles for the 24 annual reports of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota. The six volumes of The Geology of Minnesota: Final Report of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota, which is the work of Winchell and his assistants, aggregate 4,130 pages, 261 plates, and 420 figures, as well as an atlas repeating the plates of the county maps and a summary of the county reports. This is not to mention dozens of papers in scientific journals.

Winchell was born in New York state and attended public school in Connecticut. He taught school in Connecticut and later at several towns in Michigan while attending the University of Michigan. He graduated in 1866 and received the Master of Arts degree in 1867. After geological work in Michigan, Ohio, and New Mexico, Winchell was asked to assume the work of the newly organized Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota, under the jurisdiction of the University, and at the same time to teach courses in geology, botany, and zoology. Thus in the autumn of 1872 Winchell came to Minnesota, where he remained until his death May 2, 1914.

For seven years, Winchell carried a heavy teaching load. He became a prominent member of the faculty. During this time, a yearly report grew out of the field and laboratory work. These reports recorded the amazing progress that was being made in unravelling the complex geology of the state. Moreover, when he accompanied the Custer expedition to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, Winchell prepared the first geological map of that important area.

One of Winchell's outstanding contributions was his estimate of the length of time since the last ice sheet retreated from Minnesota. The evidence was first published in 1877 as an article entitled, "The Geology of Hennepin County," a part of the fifth annual report of the Survey. Later, it was published in detail in volume II of the final report, in 1888. A large glacial boulder with a brass plaque stands at Franklin Avenue on the west rim of the Mississippi gorge as a memorial to this feat. (Winchell Trail)

Warren Upham writes in his memoir, "Among the many special investigations which Professor N. H. Winchell published during the forty-five years of his active work as a scientist, author, editor, none probably has been more widely influential on geologic thought and progress than his studies and estimates of the rate of recession of the Falls of St. Anthony, cutting the Mississippi River gorge from Fort Snelling to the present site of the falls in Minneapolis. This investigation, first published in 1876, gave about 8,000 years as the time occupied by erosion of the gorge, which is likewise the approximate measure of the time that has passed since the closing of the Ice Age, or Glacial Period, when the border of the waning ice was melted away on the area of Minnesota."

After completion of the final survey reports, Winchell devoted much of his time to the archaeology of the state. A review of this work is given by Upham in Economic Geology, volume 11, p. 6372. From 1906 until his death, Winchell worked at the Minnesota Historical Society, where he was in charge of the Department of Archaeology. In 1911, he completed the work of assembling all the earlier work on Indian mounds and published a monumental work entitled The Aborigines of Minnesota, which comprised 761 pages, 36 half-tone plates, 26 folded inserts, and 642 figures.

Winchell founded a monthly magazine called The American Geologist, which he edited during its existence from 1888 to 1905. Winchell was also one of the founders of the Geological Society of America, a chief organizer of the Minnesota Academy of Sciences, and president of several societies.

In many ways a typical example of Winchell's energetic methods is volume V of the final report, co-authored with U. S. Grant. It contains 881 pages of petrographic descriptions of Minnesota rocks. To train himself more thoroughly for this task, he went to Paris for one year, along with Mrs. Winchell and their daughter Louise. There, Winchell studied under Professor La Croix, perhaps the most noted mineralogist and petrographer of his time. The family had spent the three years previous to their departure studying the language under the direction of a colleague in the French Department of the University.

Mrs. Winchell is credited with being a great help in putting out The American Geologist, having read proof on early issues. Moreover, we know from manuscripts in Mrs. Winchell's hand that she was in no small measure responsible for transcribing some of the voluminous works of the Final Report. She was the mother of three daughters and of two sons who were prominent geologists: Horace Vaughn Winchell and Alexander Newton Winchell.

In spite of the great amount of time he devoted to his work, Winchell was, according to his daughter Louise, modest and retiring, and he was devoted to his wife and to his children, with whom he found time to play in the evening. Another of his interests was building houses. The first was located where the Walter Library on the University campus now stands. Others followed in due course, all of them built on land which is now part of the campus. The last Winchell house was on East River Road, near the present medical school.

It would be a great oversight not to mention Winchell's last contribution to the University he served so well and long. He called Professor Emmons, then Chairman of the Department, and offered to give his library to the Department. Later, he wrote a formal letter specifying that the volumes were to be kept with the Department, and the periodical series continued.

Winchell's tremendous capacity for work enabled him to take an active part in civic life. He was particularly involved in the problem of a water supply for the growing city of Minneapolis. His contributions to science, the University, and the people of Minnesota can never be fully acknowledged. During the early years of the 20th Century, it was often a matter of comment in geological circles that the Winchells formed a family of notable importance in the field. Newton Horace Winchell had been drawn into the science through the influence of his brother Alexander, a professor at the University of Michigan. Alexander was of some prominence as a result of his advocacy of the theory of evolution at Vanderbilt University, which in due time led to his transfer to Michigan.

N. H. Winchell soon became well known from his work at the University of Minnesota and he seems to have attracted young men of ability to him, several eventually becoming prominent geologists. Notable in the early years was Ulysses Sherman Grant, who worked with Winchell in northern Minnesota and cooperated in compiling Volume V of the Final Report. This proved to be only one aspect of the association, for Grant married Winchell's daughter Avis and later was Head of the Department of Geology at Northwestern University.

Later Winchell's two sons Horace Vaughn and Alexander Newton became prominent geologists. Horace was a mining geologist. Alexander was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and his son is now (was) a professor at Yale University. Equally interesting is the fact that Alexander's three daughters married geologists. At about the same time Avis Louise Dayton, daughter of Louise Winchell, majored in geology at the University of Minnesota; also, Louise's son Leonard -Vaughn Dayton majored in geology at Princeton University. The above perhaps lays too much stress on geology, as Newton Horace Winchell and his wife Charlotte had two daughters besides Avis Louise; they married into prominent Minneapolis families and have been followed by numerous descendants.

In the century since Newton Horace Winchell came to Minnesota in 1872 the clan has grown to proportions that furnish an interesting example of the manner in which America has been populated by families of truly exceptional ability. In view of the above it seemed desirable to recognize Winchell's descendants by a complete list. We are deeply grateful to George Draper Dayton, II for undertaking the tedious task of compiling the following tabulation. Winchell himself had published an extensive genealogy that brought the family history up to 1917.