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Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Richardson   [24 July 1837]1

My dear Sir

Will you excuse me troubling you with some questions, which I am very anxious to get answered, and do not know what work to refer to.— How far north do woods of any extent occur? Did I understand you to say that forest trees grew over ground, which at the depth of a few feet was perpetually frozen?—2 I suppose this as much as to say, that there may exist extensive woods, where the mean annual temperature is the below the freezing point.— What trees grow in such cold climates, & do they attain any size? Do plains covered with bushes, occur in any part of the extreme north. My object in these questions, is to be enabled to compare the mere quantity of vegetation, in parts of South America, where large animals formerly did live, and likewise in Africa where large animals are now living, with the quantity growing in climates far north, and extremely cold.3

If you would have the kindness to answer me briefly these questions, I should be greatly obliged, but I really I ought to apologise for asking you to take so much trouble.

In what part of your works could I find (if at all introduced) the account of the frozen sandstone: you were going to look for me, when I was at your house, but something interrupted us.—4 My government petition for assistance is in statu quo, and I think it will thus remain, for a long time. It was presented to the Chancellor of the Exchequer who did not receive it unfavourably, but said until Parliament met, he could give no answer.—5 I am working away at my journal,6 but get on very slowly:—building a pyramid is an insignificant task to writing a book; I had no idea what a hard working wretch an author, even on the humblest scale, mu⁠⟨⁠st⁠⟩⁠ be.—

Pray present my be⁠⟨⁠st⁠⟩⁠ respects to Mrs. Richardson,7 an⁠⟨⁠d⁠⟩⁠ | Believe me dear Sir | Yours most truly | Chas. Darwin

Monday Evening

36 Grt Marlborough Stt.—

Can you give me any idea, how far from shore the sea becomes converted into a mass resting on the bottom of ice on any very shallow coast? Do you suppose such a mass ever extends any number of miles to seaward?— Do you suppose in such case, that the ice during the winter becomes cooled down many degrees below the freezing point? If such is the case the mean annual temperature, of the stratum a few feet beneath the bottom of the sea near to such a frozen coast, may possibly fall below the freezing point; although during summer the ice might break away; precisely in the same manner as the ground a few feet deep is constantly frozen, though during each summer the surface is thawed.—8 Will you have the kindness to consider this question & tell me what you think.


The date is established by the postmark and the reference to Monday evening. In 1837, 24 July was a Monday.
CD evidently refers to a recent conversation with Richardson. The letter refers to a visit by CD to Richardson’s house; CD’s plan to make a visit in May or June 1837 was announced in his letter to Caroline Darwin, [19 May – 16 June 1837] (Correspondence vol. 2). CD was trying to estimate the quantity of vegetation necessary for the survival of large quadrupeds in different environments (see nn. 3 and 8, below). In Journal of researches, p. 102 n., CD quoted some of Richardson’s data on forest growth and the depth of frozen soil in the Arctic, citing the author’s ‘Zoological Remarks’ (pp. 475–522 in Back 1836). Richardson completed publication of his four-volume Fauna Boreali-Americana; or, the zoology of the northern parts of British America (J. Richardson 1829–37) in 1837, having studied the area as surgeon and naturalist on John Franklin’s first two polar expeditions.
To determine whether the large South American quadrupeds could have survived in an area with little vegetation, CD considered extant mammals in Africa, as well as the evidence from carcasses preserved in the frozen ground of the Arctic where the quantity of vegetation was comparable (Journal of researches, pp. 98–103). CD concluded that ‘luxuriant vegetation’ was not necessary to the survival of large mammals in any of these regions, including the plains near Bahia Blanca and the Rio Negro, where he had found fossils of quadrupeds during the Beagle expedition (ibid., pp. 103–5; see also pp. 293–5).
In an account of the topography and geology of the North American Arctic, Richardson described sand near the Mackenzie river that had ‘frozen into a hard sandstone’ (Franklin 1828, Appendix I, p. xix). CD’s query may have related to understanding how mammal carcasses had been preserved in frozen mud at the bottom of shallow Arctic seas (see Journal of researches, pp. 295–8), or to the means of survival of large quadrupeds in the extreme climate of the South American pampas (see ibid., pp. 102–4, 293–6; see also nn. 2 and 3 above, and n. 8, below). Richardson was cited by CD for information on ice and the geology of the North American Arctic in Journal of researches, pp. 619–20, and in the letter to Edward Sabine, 16 March [1857] (Correspondence vol. 6). For bibliographies of Richardson’s works, see Curvey and Johnson 1969, and Huntley et al. 1972.
With the support of the presidents of the Linnean, Zoological, and Geological Societies of London, CD was seeking government assistance to pay for approximately 150 engravings to illustrate the zoological collections of the Beagle voyage (Zoology; see Correspondence vol. 2, letter to Francis Beaufort, 16 June 1837 and n. 2). The Treasury had provided similar assistance to Richardson for J. Richardson 1829–37 (see ibid., Minutes of the Board of the Treasury, 25 August 1837). A preliminary application was submitted on CD’s behalf to Thomas Spring Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer, by their mutual friend, John Stevens Henslow (see ibid., letter from J. S. Henslow to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, T. S. Rice, 21 June 1837). CD’s own formal request for £1000 followed on 3 August 1837 (see ibid., letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, T. S. Rice, 3 August 1837) and was granted by mid-August 1837 (see ibid., letter to J. S. Henslow, 16 August [1837]). See also Browne 1995, pp. 367–70.
In 1837, CD worked on Journal of researches from 13 March to the end of September (see Correspondence vol. 2, Appendix II).
In Journal of researches, CD questioned whether the stratum on the bottom of shallow coastal seas could remain frozen and thereby preserve carcasses of large quadrupeds. For CD’s conclusions, which do not include data from Richardson, see ibid., pp. 297–8, 625–6. No answer to this letter has been found; however, see this volume, Supplement, letter to John Richardson, [11 August 1837] and n. 3.


Back, George. 1836. Narrative of the Arctic land expedition to the mouth of the great Fish River, and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean: in the years 1833, 1834, and 1835. London: John Murray.

Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin. Voyaging. Volume I of a biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Franklin, John. 1828. Narrative of a second expedition to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1825, 1826, and 1827. London: John Murray.

Richardson, John. 1829–37. Fauna Boreali-Americana; or, the zoology of the northern parts of British America. Assisted by William Swainson and William Kirby. 4 vols. London and Norwich: John Murray; Richard Bentley; J. Fletcher.


Questions about woods in cold, northern climates; about JR’s reference to frozen sandstone; about how far out from the shore the sea may become frozen.

His petition for assistance from the government is in statu quo; he is working at his Journal [of researches].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Richardson
Sent from
London, Gt Marlborough St, 36
25 JY 25 | 1837
Source of text
Scott Polar Research Institute (MS 1503/16/1)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 366F,” accessed on 13 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13 (Supplement)