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Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Florissant, Colorado:
Settlement, Scientific Pioneers, and Monument Status

Florissant Settlement

The small town of Florissant Colorado is located along U.S. Highway 24 just 56 km west of Colorado Springs. Judge James Castello (1814-1878) emigrated from Florissant, Missouri following his interest in gold during the mid 1860s to what is now Fairplay, Colorado. In 1870 he moved to a mountain valley just west of Colorado Springs, building a home and hotel. Two years later, Judge Castello added a trading post, general store, and post office. He christened his new settlement Florissant, a name derived from the French word for “flowering” ( site).

The grassy mountain valley just south of Florissant held treasures past and present. Summer wildflowers, a petrified forest, and shale containing fossil leaves and insects attracted the attention of both tourists and scientists. Scientific interest in Florissant blossomed early.

Scientific Pioneers of Florissant

For nearly 140 years scientists have been studying Florissant. If, on average, a career spans 30 years, then over 4 “generations” of scientists have worked at this fossil site. This scientific work, accumulated over lifetimes, has illuminated the changing geology and ecology of Florissant during the late Eocene, approximately 36-34 Ma. The rich fossil assemblage allows scientists to estimate the paleoclimate and paleoelevation at the time of deposition. Studies on the microscopic structure of Florissant lake shales have revealed the possible role of biofilms in fossil preservation. Volcanic sediments and key mammalian fossils allow scientists to test and corroborate multiple techniques for determining the age of the Florissant Formation. Comparisons between younger and older fossil deposits provide insights into paleoclimates, biogeography, and the evolution of plants and animals during the Paleogene.

This summary will highlight the work of key individuals to gain an appreciation for the important work accomplished by people past and present. A more complete and in-depth history of the scientific work at Florissant can be found in The Fossils of Florissant (Meyer 2003) and History of paleontology at the Florissant fossil beds, Colorado (Veatch and Meyer, 2008). Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Leopold and Meyer, 2012) and A History of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument: In Celebration of Preservation (McChristal, 1994) also provide some interesting perspectives on the history of Florissant.

Albert Charles Peale (1849-1913), a geologist working with the Hayden Survey, explored the Florissant Valley in 1873. Peale mentions the fossil lake deposits and notes the existence of 20 to 30 stumps of silicified wood, known to the locals as “Petrified Stumps.” Members of the Hayden Survey collected vertebrate, insect, and plant fossils that would later be described by other scientists.

Three students from the College of New Jersey organized what is now known as the Princeton Scientific Expedition of 1877. The goal of the expedition was to collect vertebrate fossils in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. In 1877, the three students, William Berryman Scott (1858-1947), Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935), and Frank Speir Jr. (?) spent two days in July collecting fossils at Florissant. These two days would prove to be very fruitful. At least 180 of the expedition’s plant and insect fossils became type specimens. A new species of fish was also discovered. Charlotte Hill (1849-1930) and Adam Hill (1834-?), homesteaders who lived near the Big Stump, shared some of their fossil finds with the three students. The Princeton Scientific Expedition of 1877 marked the start of an important relationship with the Hills and scientific investigators. Charlotte Hill was the first person to find a fossil butterfly at Florissant--the first of its kind to be found in America. This butterfly would latter be described by Samuel H. Scudder.

Leo Lesquereux (1806-1889) was a watchmaker, bryologist and paleobotanist. Lesquereux initially pursued a teaching career, which was cut short after suffering hearing loss. Lesquereux’s hearing loss was the result of an illness during the 1830s, just two years after getting married. Treatments for the hearing loss left him deaf. Lesquereux gave up teaching and joined his father as a watchmaker. In his spare time he collected mosses, which would eventually lead to a scientific career. To read a more detailed account of Lesquereux’s life, visit the Leo Lesquereux Autobiography on the American Philosophical Society website.

Lesquereux is best known for his work on the origin of peat, the study of living mosses, and Carboniferous fossil flora. Lesquereux was the first to describe fossil plants from Florissant, naming over 100 new species sampled from the Hayden Survey, the Princeton Scientific Expedition of 1877, and fossils purchased by Scudder from Charolette Hill. Lesquereux described a rose plant found by Mrs. Hill, naming it Rosa hilliae (Lesquereux 1883) in her honor. Lesquereux was the first person to write a scientific paper on Florissant and in 1883 he published Contribution to the fossil flora of the Western Territories, which included his work from Florissant.

Samuel Hubbard Scudder (1837-1911), F.C. Bowditch (?-1927) and Arthur Lakes (1844-1917) arrived in Florissant in August of 1877, just weeks after the Princeton Scientific Expedition. The trio collected for 5 days. Scudder, an American entomologist and paleontologist, made the first measurements of Florissant lake deposits near the Big Stump. Arthur Lakes, a geologist, often captured his fieldwork with sketches and watercolors. Lakes made the first sketch depicting the geology of Florissant during this trip. He later made a watercolor of his sketch entitled “Map of Sedimentary Lacustrine basin at Florissant near South Park, Supposed to be Upper Miocene, drawn by A. Lakes, Colorado, Feb 20, 1878” (Meyer, 2003, p. 9). Scudder acquired many excellent specimens from the Hills and would later visit the area two more times.

Scudder became very familiar with the insects of Florissant, working with specimens collected as part of the Hayden Survey. During his career, Scudder described roughly 600 species and produced 23 papers on Florissant. Much of Scudder’s early work on Florissant was included in his 1890 monograph The Tertiary Insects of North America. Scudder was the first person to use the insect fauna to interpret a warmer paleoclimate for Florissant.

Scudder described and named possibly the finest butterfly compression fossil known to exist, which was found by Charlotte Hill. The butterfly, Prodryas persephone (Scudder 1878), is now housed at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University (Pick & Sloan, 2004, pp. 64 & 65). The name persephone alludes to Persephone, the daughter of Zeus. As a ninth grader, Frank M. Carpenter, saw a picture of P. persephone in Scudder’s book Frail Children of the Air, which inspired his career studying insect fossils (Brosius, 1994, p. 120). Frank Morton Carpenter (1902-1994) became one of the most influential paleoentomologists of his time, working as the curator of fossil insects at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology for over 60 years.

T.D.A. Cockerell (1866-1948) of the University of Colorado organized expeditions to Florissant from 1906 to 1908. Cockerell studied both plants and animals and published more articles on Florissant than any other paleontologist. Cockerell was the first to document the different collecting sites at Florissant. He was also the first person to describe tsetse fly specimens from Florissant, the discovery of which was a great surprise as living species are restricted to sub-Saharan Africa. S.H. Scudder described Palaestrus oligocenus in 1892 believing it was in the family Oestridae. Flies in this family are commonly known as botflies, warbler flies, heel flies and gadflies. The larvae of all of these flies are internal parasites to mammals. At the turn of the century better preserved specimens showing a clear proboscis were discovered. Cockerell recognized the new fossils and Sudder’s earlier specimen as belonging to the genus of tsetse flies Glossina. Tsetse flies are sanguivores, feeding on the blood of vertebrates. Glossina oligocena (Cockerell in 1908) is twice the size of living species (Gimaldi and Engel, 2006, p. 545).

Harry D. MacGinitie (1896-1987) was a paleobotanist who spent most of his career teaching at Humbolt State College in northern California. Early in his career MacGinitie worked for the University of Colorado where he was encouraged by Cockerell and Childs Frick (1883-1965), an American vertebrate paleontologist, to revise earlier work on the fossil plants of Florissant. MacGinitie excavated new sites at Florissant in 1936 and 1937 to collect additional specimens. In 1953 MacGinitie published the culmination of this work in his classic monograph Fossil Plants of the Florissant Beds, Colorado. MacGinitie revised the work of earlier paleontologists and was the first to consider Florissant fossil plants as a community, comparing them with modern vegetation. MacGinitie also used the fossil plant community to make inferences about the ancient ecology, climate, and elevation of Florissant.

The development of new technologies and techniques allow scientists to collect empirical data not accessible to explorers of the past. Thus, Florissant is a frontier that still has its modern day pioneers. A few examples are in order. Fossil Flora and Stratigraphy of the Florissant Formation, Colorado (Evanoff, Gregory-Wodzicki, and Johnson, 2001) includes papers exploring the stratigraphy, geochronology, paleoclimatic implications of the leaf and pollen floras, updates on megafossil flora, climatic implications from tree ring analysis of permineralized Sequoioxylon pearsallii specimens, identification of fossil dicots, and a review of paleoelevation estimates. This volume extends the work of MacGinitie.

Papers exploring the history of scientific work on Florissant, the role of biofilms in fossil preservation, paleoclimate, biogeography, spider identification, mammal fauna, preservation and conservation of fossil wood, as well as the development of a web-based paleontological database, were published together in Paleontology of the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation, Colorado (Meyer and Smith, 2008).

Herbert W. Meyer is a paleontologist with the U.S. National Park Service. In addition to his scientific papers, he is also author of The Fossils of Florissant (Meyer, 2003), the most important and detailed book on Florissant. The book is a true gem. Meyer has a gift for making scientific work public. Over a period of 130 years more than 1,700 fossil species have been described in more than 300 publications and dispersed to roughly 15 museums. Meyer has been instrumental in developing an on-line database, which digitally updates and archives this previously dispersed work (Meyer, Wasson, and Frakes, 2008, pp. 159-177).

Early work at Florissant clearly revealed this site to be a paleontological “goldmine”. One would think the site would have received national monument status early on, but this was not to be. Private owners used the fossil site to attract tourists. I was one of those tourists and remember visiting the Big Stump at the Colorado Petrified Forest as a small child in 1964. Literature recounting the commercial history of Florissant can be found in The Fossils of Florissant (Meyer, 2003) and Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Leopold and Meyer, 2012). In the late 1960s, real estate developers mapped out a plan to build a subdivision of A-frame cabins on the fossil beds. The Defenders of Florissant was formed by concerned citizens and scientists including Estella Leopold and Beatrice Willard. The battle between these two groups got the attention of the U.S. Congress. In the end the area was granted protection from private interests when President Richard Nixon signed the act into law allowing for the purchase and establishment of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Colorado Petrified Forest, 1964
Wynona and Don Viney stand by the “Big Stump”
Peggy Ashworth holds Mike Viney age 2 ½

Establishment of a Monument

In 1969 Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was established on 2,428.1 ha (6,000 acres) of land to preserve one of the world’s most important Late Eocene fossil deposits. The famous fossil site is situated in a mountain valley just south of the town of Florissant in Teller County, Colorado. At an elevation of 2,560 m Ponderosa Pine, Quaking Aspen, Douglas-fir, and Englemann Spruce make up the dominant trees of this montane life zone. Large mammals found in the area include elk, mule deer, coyote, foxes, bear, and mountain lions. Birds, squirrels, and mice live in the meadows and along the ridges. The Florissant Formation provides a window into the Late Eocene, illuminating an environment much different from the one we enjoy today. Rocks that make up this beautiful mountain landscape hold clues to the area’s geologic and biologic past.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Entrance Sign


Brosius, L. (1994). In pursuit of Prodryas persephone: Frank Carpenter and fossil insects. Psyche 101: pp. 119-126. doi: 10.1155/1994/89176

Evanoff, E., Gregory-Wodzicki K.M. and Johnson, K.R. [Eds.], (2001). Fossil Flora and Stratigraphy of the Florissant Formation, Colorado. Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, series 4, number 1.

Grimaldi, D. & Engel, M.S., (2006). Evolution of the Insects. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Leopold, E.B. and Meyer, H.W. (2012). Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

McChristal, J. (1994). A History o Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument: In Celebration of Preservation. Available as a pdf on the National Park Service E-Library:

Meyer, H.W. (2003). The Fossils of Florissant. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Meyer, H.W., Veatch, S.W. and Cook, A. (2004). Field guide to the paleontology and volcanic setting of Florissant fossil beds, Colorado (pp. 151-166). In Nelson, E.P. and Erslev, E.A. [Eds.] Field Trips in the Southern Rocky Mountains, USA. Geological Society of America Field Guide 5.

Meyer, H.W. and Smith, D.M., [Eds.], (2008). Paleontology of the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation, Colorado. Geologic Society of America Special Paper 435.

Meyer, H.W., Wasson, M.S., and Frakes, B.J. (2008). Development of an integrated paleontological database and Web site of Florissant collections, taxonomy, and publications. In Meyer, H.W., and Smith, D.M., [Eds.], Paleontology of the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation, Colorado (pp. 159-177). Geological Society of America Special Paper 435.

National Park Service website for Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado. Homesteaders and Settlers page:

Pick, N. and Sloan, M. (2004). The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

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