Monday, March 25, 2013

Dr. John Allen Veatch: A Wayfaring Pioneer in Science and Politics

One hot summer day I was leading a field trip to a site not far from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. As the Colorado sun climbed to its meridian in a blue sky, we explored the local areas where paleontology presented itself in a profusion of mystery and wonder. The most interesting sites to me were narrow and deep slot ravines, cut from clay mining decades ago that now exposed fossil dinosaur tracks, fossil foliage, and a prehistoric rainstorm—where individual rain drops were preserved in mud that had turned, over time, into a layer of sedimentary rock. By the time I arrived with my field party to the mined out slot ravines, the sun was shining directly into them, making the temperature in the ravines seem like the heat of an assayer’s oven.

By the afternoon, we needed a place to cool off from a long day in the summer heat, so I took my group to the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum. Once we went inside, we were greeted with welcomed cool air flowing from air conditioning vents. In this excellent museum, I showed my field party—a group of people of mixed ages and backgrounds—the section where Colorado gold ore and gold nuggets glittered in the light. Everyone’s eyes were wide, and I could see the sparkling gold reflected in their eyes. A number of jaws silently dropped. All of these gold specimens were from historic Colorado mining sites. Soon, I lost the group as they spread out to look at the fabulous Colorado crystals, rocks, and fossils on display.

I knew on the lower level in the museum the location of an uncommon mineral with an unusual name: veatchite, a strontium borate. I saw this mineral in the museum’s case on a previous trip. After a good hour had passed I went back upstairs and herded my entire group to the lower level of the museum, where I showed everyone that specimen of veatchite in the mineral cabinet.  I wished I could tell them I discovered it, but I had not. This specimen was named after one of my ancestors.  Even though I can’t claim to be its namesake, veatchite and especially the man it was named for had an impact on my life. Is it possible that the passions of your ancestors, especially if they are on both sides of your family, can become your passions?

Image of Veatchite at the Colorado School of Mines Musuem.
© by Steven Wade Veatch
John Allen Veatch was a surgeon, surveyor, and scientist. He was born March 5, 1808, the first of eight children in a Kentucky frontier family. John Veatch’s mother died when he was fourteen. This was a very difficult time for his family. Money was scarce. The Veatch family decided to move to Spencer County, Indiana to start a new life. Another part of the Kentucky Veatch family—attracted by good farmland—moved from Kentucky to northeast Missouri. I am a direct descendent of the Missouri group.
Dr. J. A. Veatch, courtesy photo.

 At the age of nineteen, John Veatch knew that he had to make his own way in the world and look for fresh opportunities. He returned to Kentucky where he started his studies of medicine under a practicing physician, Dr. John Work in Louisville and soon became part of his practice. I noticed in those days it did not take as long to become a medical doctor as it does today.

John Veatch had a restless side to him, and after he had learned as much as he wanted to about the medical profession, he decided to leave Kentucky in 1829. He moved to Louisiana on the Pearl River near Covington and landed a job teaching school. He married Charlotte Edwards in 1831 and had two children:  Andrew Allen Veatch was born in 1832 in Covington and a year later Samuel Houston Veatch was also born in Covington. Samuel Houston Veatch was named after the great Texas General Sam Houston. Charlotte Veatch was so impressed with his "manners and distinguished presence” that she decided that her newborn child would be named Samuel Houston.

In 1834, Dr. Veatch moved to Texas with his family. While in Texas he bought land in Hardin, Trinity, and Jefferson counties. He later obtained additional land in the Zaval Land Grant from the Mexican government. This land would become, fifty years later, sites (Sour Lake and Spindletop) of significant oil discoveries and was some of the most valuable land in Texas. Although he no longer owned all of his holdings in the original Zaval Land Grant at his death, his grandson inherited what was left, 284 acres of oil land in the central part of the Sour Lake District.

The Texas Handbook describes Dr. Veatch as a giant man, standing 6' 4" tall and weighing over 200 pounds. His complexion was fair; he had blue eyes and auburn hair. Is it too much of a stretch to think some of those traits still exist in the Veatch bloodline? After all, I’m 6’ 2” and mild tempered. And, more to the point, I’m also a geologist. I like to think Dr. Veatch would have been proud of me and interested in my geological studies.

Dr. Veatch, during this time, wore more clothing than we do. Because there was no sunscreen, he wore shirts with high necks and long sleeves and long trousers during his field work. He also wore a wide-brimmed hat to have added protection from the sun. Since zippers and snaps had not been invented yet, he relied on buttons, hooks, and eyes for closure. He was characterized as a strong Democrat and was skilled in making friends. The Democrats at this time in history were the party of tradition—the successors of the Jeffersonian agrarians who looked back to the past and were suspicious of banks and corporations. Democrats had a strong commitment to states' rights, a limited federal government, and a continued agrarian ideal. The Democrats (during this time period) were composed of northern craftsman who felt vulnerable to the expansion of industry, farmers who were unhappy with tariffs, immigrants who wanted to maintain their own traditions, southerners who believed in the right to own slaves, and westerners who were in favor of land acquisition by any means, including war.

Dr. Veatch was a capable man and had many intellectual interests. Books became his college. He began to study botany and mineralogy while in Texas. Dr. Veatch was an emissary of science and medicine with wide sympathies, probity, and a strong sense of purpose. He was involved in the political movement seeking the independence of Texas. He was elected as a delegate from Bevil’s settlement (a pre-republic community of settlers between the Neches and Sabine rivers) to the Consultation of 1835, a crowded and raucous assembly that met to consider independent rule for Texas and even armed rebellion to achieve it.  Samuel Houston attended this consultation. Did my ancestor pound his fists on the table like some of the others at the meeting, demanding to be heard? Or did he merely stand on the sidelines, offering considered commentary later in the quiet of a side room conversation? Maybe he gestured and waited to be recognized, making the right point at just the right moment, helping Texas seal it history, if only for a few remembered years?

I’ve given my fair share of speeches in my own career as a geologist but, somehow what I learned about Dr. Veatch feels more impressive. He must have been considered an activist in his times. He even joined the militia during the battles for the independence of Texas. Surely he influenced others with his opinions.  For my part, I prefer exploring the landscape and playing a guitar in old mining camps. To each his own.

The following year (1836), the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed by Samuel Houston and the Battle of the Alamo occurred, where defenders, with infinite courage, held out for 13 days against General Antonio L√≥pez de Santa Anna's army. The rallying cries “Remember the Alamo!" filled the ranks of the Texan Army led by General Sam Houston. On April 21, his militia attacked the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto, where General Santa Anna was defeated and captured. The independence of Texas was now certain.

The Texas landscape is seemingly endless, like eternity. In the 1840s Dr. Veatch practiced medicine in the new settlement of Town Bluff, Texas. Summer in the area was beautiful: the sun’s light nurtured a landscape dotted with wild flowers that filled the mind with the music of nature. At sundown, the Texas bluebonnets and crimson clover blaze in the golden sunlight of evening while coyotes carefully stalk their prey.

The peaceful beauty did not last long—tragedy struck with the untimely death of Dr. Veatch’s wife Charlotte in 1844. Then the tensions between the United States and Mexico intensified and ultimately reached a breaking point: Between 1846 and 1848, the United States and Mexico went to war. In the war with Mexico, Dr. Veatch served as first lieutenant in Mirabeau B. Lamar’s Independent Volunteer Company during 1846-47. He was the surgeon for this military unit. He also raised a company of men in 1847 that included his two sons, Andrew Allen Veatch and Samuel Houston Veatch. Samuel Houston Veatch was only 14 when he served in his father’s company in the War with Mexico. Later Dr. Veatch served as a Captain in the Texas Mounted Volunteers, who defended the Texas frontier from 1847-1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, ended the war between the United States and Mexico. By the end of the war, Mexico lost nearly half of its territory—the American Southwest from Texas to California.

By 1850, Veatch had moved to San Antonio and continued amassing widespread landholdings in Texas. Dr. Veatch married Ann M. Bradley while living in San Antonio. She had five children from her former marriage—all born in Alabama. Restless for adventure, Dr. Veatch gathered his reins and rode for California where many men were still searching for a golden bonanza. Following a crumbling marriage, Dr. Veatch and Ann divorced while he was in California. His sons Andrew and Samuel came with him to California and kept busy while they panned gold in the gravel bars of streams and rivers.  California continued to experience a large number of people coming into the state looking for gold deposits. It was during Dr. Veatch’s explorations in California that he discovered large deposits of borax (borate related minerals or chemical compounds) in Lake County in 1856.  I can see the site in my mind: the mineral pools, water running over stones, and natural gardens of cactus. Nothing moves other than heat waves, a slight breeze, and a lizard running over a rock slab. As a result of his work there, he published “The Report of Dr. John A. Veatch to the Borax Company of California” in 1857. Subsequently borax became “white gold.” Borax, boric acid, and other compounds of boron were used for medicine, the preservation of food, in glass blowing, and in other industrial applications.

Veatchite, a borate mineral, was discovered in 1938 at the Sterling Borax Mine in Tick Canyon, Los Angeles County, California. Veatchite was named to honor John Veatch. The Sterling Borax Mine is the type locality for veatchite.  To have a new species of mineral or fossil named after a person is a high honor in the world of science. Sometimes, a new mineral, plant, or animal species is named after the scientist who first worked with it, or it can be named after a colleague, a poet, or anyone to honor that person. Generally, the discoverer has the privilege of naming the new species. Since veatchite was not discovered until decades after Dr. Veatch’s investigations, the new mineral was named to honor his scientific work and contributions. Dr. Veatch passed away before the great fortunes were made in the borax industry by 20-mule teams pulling wagons full of borax to processing plants. Dr. Veatch, however, at the time of his death, was far from penniless; he still owned some of the most valuable land in Texas that contained “black gold.”

Dr. Veatch put much in motion when he conducted his studies on the mineral waters in California. While still in California, Dr. Veatch also explored and surveyed Carros Island (off Lower California) in 1858, and then he was the curator of conchology (study of molluscs) at the California Academy of Sciences from 1858 to 1861. He also authored several scientific papers during this period.

In 1862, Dr. Veatch moved yet again.  I think he sought out the wild places where the thunder roared, dust devils whirled, and where he could study the Earth where it revealed itself in the rock record. This time he headed for the gold and silver fields of the Comstock Lode in Nevada—the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States. The Comstock Lode discovery was announced in 1859, starting the “Rush to Washoe” and the establishment of Virginia City almost overnight. Dr. Veatch arrived, after the dust of discovery settled, in 1862—to explore a new mining district. It is hard for any geologist to resist the call of a new discovery of ore and have the chance to study the geological conditions that formed it.

Dr. Veatch practiced medicine and worked in geology in the Comstock Mining District for two years. His son Andrew was superintendent of the reduction works of the Central Mill in the district. Andrew Veatch studied mining and became a prominent mining engineer. I’m not certain how Andrew died, only that he didn’t outlive his father and was sadly buried in 1872, at the young age of 40, in California.  Mentzelia veatchiana or Veatch's blazingstar, when discovered and described by scientists, was named to honor Andrew Veatch.  Samuel Houston Veatch served in the Confederate army and became a Christian minister.

By 1865, Dr. Veatch married a third wife, Samanthe Brisbee. After Dr. Veatch left Virginia City, he worked as a geologist in San Francisco. He maintained an office at 712 Montgomery Street. If his desk was anything like mine, and I like to think it might have been, it surely was cluttered with mineral samples, dusty scales, rock fragments next to a petrographic microscope, and stacks of colorful geologic maps.

Dr. Veatch made an unsuccessful attempt to become state geologist of Oregon in 1868 while still working in San Francisco. He remained in San Francisco until 1869, when his wife Samanthe died.

After his disappointment of not becoming Oregon’s state geologist and the loss of his wife, Dr. Veatch moved to Oregon to join the faculty of Oregon’s first medical school—Willamette University Medical School (in 1913 it became the University of Oregon School of Medicine). He was the professor of chemistry and toxicology. Unfortunately, Dr. Veatch did not hold his new position very long; he died of pneumonia in Portland on April 24, 1870. A new plant species was officially named in 1873 by the California Academy of Science in honor of Dr. Veatch for his pioneering botanical work: Garrya veatchii or Canyon siltassel.  Lotus dendroideus variety veatchii; and Acmispon dendroideus variety veatchii or San Miguel Island deerweed were also named to honor Dr. Veatch.

At the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum, the group that I led on the field trip that summer day would not know this story of Dr. Veatch by looking through the glass case at veatchite. I did gather the story, and piecing together Dr. Veatch’s life and sharing his name  has helped me to find meaning in my life and helped me to understand why we I enjoy geology so much. In the quest to understand my own life’s path, I believe that the groundwork of my ancestors paved the way for me to do the work I was born to do and that I am now doing today.  

In contrast to Dr. Veatch and countless other wanderers in our nation’s early history—I remain tied to Colorado—just as some of my other ancestors did in the Caribou, Nederland, and Cripple Creek mining camps of Colorado. I made a commitment to Colorado’s mountains, mines, minerals, and fossils to stay in one place so that I could really know the geology of the ground I walk over.


  1. His first wife's name was Charlotte Sheridan, not Edwards.

  2. This was interesting. And what an honor to have a mineral named after you - WoW!
    I found your blog when I had signed up to take the Publish Writing Class at the Mining Museum in Colo Sprgs. Alas, the class was canceled. I do hope all is well with you and yours. Do you have plans to possibly hold another class in the near future?
    We are both members of the Pike Peak historical Society in Florissant. I am the newsletter editor.