Charles Lyell Drawing in Nova Scotia

This online article relates to the “Working With Charles Lyell Workshop” at the University of Edinburgh, February 8-9, 2024. These topics are part of a larger project examining the ‘culture of geology’ and connections between Edinburgh and Nova Scotia.

This article focuses on Charles Lyell’s notebooks from his visit to Nova Scotia in July and August of 1842. Notebooks #103 and #104, include labeled drawings, itineraries, travel notes, Lyell made while in Nova Scotia. The notebooks served as a device for Lyell to gather and record information as well as generate new ideas. Lyell’s studies resulted in the publication of his two-volume book Travels in North America and Nova Scotia in 1845.

Lyell’s Nova Scotia notebooks record the significant sites, people and details experienced during travel across Nova Scotia. Charles and his wife Mary had already been in North America for a year and done extensive traveling. Nova Scotia was their final destination during this first of several trips to North America. A working summer holiday in Nova Scotia.

People & Notebooks

The people that Charles and Mary Lyell connected with in Nova Scotia can be studied with a postcolonial framework. Lyell was a famous geologist benefiting from networks of the British Empire. Lyell also connected broadly with local specialists and regional guides.

The most significant local contact was (John) William Dawson, a twenty year old natural scientist from Pictou, Nova Scotia. William Dawson had only recently returned to Nova Scotia after spending a year at the University of Edinburgh in 1840-41.

In a family letter written (Aug 9) from Pictou, Mary Lyell wrote that on Monday August 1, 1842 –

Mr Ross the Postmaster & his wife very nice people were very attentive to us, & Charles found a young naturalist, a Mr Dawson of great use.

William Dawson was already an accomplished young naturalist, educated at the Pictou Academy. In 1855, Dawson recognized the personal significance of Lyell’s visit to Nova Scotia. In the dedication of his book, Acadian Geology, published in Pictou and Edinburgh, Dawson wrote –

To a young naturalist labouring in a comparatively remote and isolated position, no aid can be more valuable than the encouragement and co-operation of those who, from the vantage-ground of a high scientific reputation, and in the great literary centre of Ango-Saxon world, are prosecuting similar pursuits. For such benefits, most freely and generously bestowed, I am indebted to you; and I gladly avail myself of the opportunity afforded by the publication of this volume, to express, in dedicating it to you, my grateful sense of your kindness in guiding my humble efforts as a geological observer.

Acadian Geology title page and dedication.

During his visit, Charles Lyell was able to connect those in Nova Scotia who shared an interest in geology. Lyell’s visit established a community of geologists in Nova Scotia, which Dawson nurtured and benefited from.

While summarizing the historical context of geological studies in Nova Scotia, Dawson said –

The year 1842 forms an epoch in the history of geology
in Nova Scotia. In that year Sir Charles Lyell visited the province, and carefully examined some of the more difficult features of its geological structure, which had baffled or misled previous inquirers. Sir Charles also performed the valuable service of placing in communication with each other, and with the geologists of Great Britain, the inquirers already at work on the geology of the province, and of stimulating their activity, and directing it into the most profitable channels

Some other significant Nova Scotians that Dawson was referring to included the Wolfville physician and naturalist Dr. E. Harding, the Parrsboro physician geologist Dr. Abraham Gesner, Cape Breton mining manger Richard Brown, and a local mineral developer George Duncan. Lyell’s notebooks mention these people but also others not mentioned in his Travels published in 1845.

Lyell’s visit to Nova Scotia played a critical role in the later geological achievements of William Dawson in Nova Scotia. Dawson also recognized the importance of seeing Charles Lyell drawing in his notebooks during his visits in Nova Scotia.

Limited though his time for observation was, he always seized the salient and important points of any formation or locality, and I have been often struck by the truthfulness and completeness of the sketches which he gave of phenomena, with reference to which his opportunities of collecting information were very imperfect.

50 Years of Work in Nova Scotia, Scientific and Educational, Dawson (1901)

Maps & Planning

Lyell did research in preparation for his Nova Scotia visit. This included consulting the first geological map of Nova Scotia, produced by Charles Jackson and Francis Alger. These two geologists from Boston published the Remarks on the Mineralogy of Peninsula of Nova Scotia in 1828 through 1832.

Lyell spoke with Francis Alger just before traveling to Nova Scotia (Notebook 89), so he likely obtained a copy of their geological map at that time. Lyell cites Jackson and Alger’s map as a reference in Travels (1845).

Geological Map of the Peninsula of Nova Scotia with a Section. Jackson and Alger (1832).

The itinerary that Lyell sketches out after speaking with Alger was very optimistic for travel during the Age of Sail. Lyell considered traveling from Windsor to Clementsville to see the fossils from the iron mines, and on to New Brunswick, Joggins, Pictou, and even Cape Breton. However, Lyell’s plans would change after he arrived in Nova Scotia. Walking along the shores of the Bay of Fundy offered many interesting geological observations. The changes and evolution of Lyell’s travel plans are found throughout his notebooks.

Drawings & Places

In his book Travels in North America and Nova Scotia Lyell dedicated four chapters to his visit to Nova Scotia. Lyell’s trip has been summarized in a four-part video series using his published account as well as drawings from his Notebooks (103 and 104).

A new poster has been developed to highlight a selection of significant geology destinations and drawings from the Nova Scotia trip. The drawings and published figures are shown in relation to a geological map published by Dawson in 1855.

These digital transcriptions of Lyell’s notebook drawings will increase accessibility for new research. A publication of this work is being prepared for submission to the journal Atlantic Geosciences.

Notebooks & Finding Fossils

Charles Lyell used his notebooks to record places where collections were obtained, inventories of boxes to be shipped, and listed names of those who provided samples from sites he had not personally visited.

In Travels in North America and Nova Scotia (1845), Mr. George Duncan from Truro, accompanied Charles Lyell and William Dawson on a geology excursion up the Shubenacadie River. Lyell also credits Mr Duncan for sending him fossils from the limestone in Brookfield.

The fossil collection was sent with a letter to William Dawson, four months after the trip up the Schubenacadie River, In the letter, George Duncan asked him to forward the fossils to Lyell and urged Dawson to further impress upon Lyell on the importance of Nova Scotia geology.

 I understand Mr L intends visiting N S next year we must endeavour to excite his mind with maters of fact that Nova Scotia affords and not allow our great fossil Beds of shells, vegetables – Coal, Plaister, Fishing & Tides to go unnoticed   We must endeavour to make Nova Scotia the Key to Geology …

George Duncan (Truro) to William Dawson (Pictou), Dec. 1842. McGill Archives MG 1022-2-1-006-0008

Recently, these Brookfield fossils have been digitally curated at the Natural History Museum by Consuelo Sendino (2019).

The Lyell Collection at the Earth Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London (UK). Biodiversity Data Journal 7: e33504

The Brookfield fossil samples within the Lyell Collection can now be identified as collected by George Duncan, in the fall of 1842.

NHM-UK_PI B 16629

Tim J Fedak – Adjunct Professor, Dalhousie Earth & Env Sciences






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