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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Orton   4 January 1869

Rochester, New York, U.S.

Jan. 4. 1869.

Charles Darwin, Esq

Dear Sir—

I take the liberty to make a request.

I have lately returned from a Scientific Expedition, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, across equatorial America, via Quito, the Napo and the Amazons.1 My party made collections in every department of Natural History, to which I added a continuous series of barometrical and other physical observations across the continent, an account of which was published in Silliman’s Journal for last September.2 I made a special study of the geology of the Ecuadorian volcanoes and the Amazonian valley. Of fossils, I found at Paita on the coast three forms additional to those described by D’Orbigny in your ‘Observations’,— Cinthium laeviuscula, Ostrea gallus and a new sp. of Ampullina.3 In the high valley of Quito near Riobamba, I discovered a vast deposit of mammalian bones, chiefly of the mastodon, horse, tapir and llamas.4

In the valley of the Amazons at Pebas, 2200 miles above Pará, I discovered a bed of fossil shells in the peculiar clay formation which overspreads the whole valley. Those determined are Neritina pupa (a familiar West Indian sp.), new sp. of Turbonilla, Mesalia and Tellina, and representatives of a new genus related to Isocardia.5 You will recollect that Bates, Wallace and Agassiz found no fossils in the Valley, and the glacial theory of the last rests somewhat on that “negative evidence”.6 You may be interested also, in the fact that on a little lake on the slope of Antisana, 13,300 ft. above the Pacific, I found a grebe-like bird with undeveloped wings and scarcely able to walk, but at home on the water.7 Associated with it were Penguins (in appearance): they were so shy we failed to secure one.

I will also state that I met a peccari, a “cock of the rock” and fine reptilian sp. common to both sides of the Andes,—Esmeraldas and Napo.8

The collections are in the hands of eminent naturalists, and will be reported on at an early day.9 I am myself preparing, and have nearly ready for the press, a Narrative of the Expedition, modeled after your charming Voyage of the Beagle,10 weaving in the most important scientific results.

And now, my dear Sir, this is the burden of this letter,—I desire the high honor and privilege of dedicating this work on “The Andes and the Amazons” to one whose name is so pleasantly associated with our southern continent.11

With the very highest respect I am, dear Sir, | Your obedient Servant | James Orton.

CD annotations

3.1 In the … valley. 3.2] scored pencil


Orton led an expedition to the Andes from 1867 to 1868; the expedition was sponsored by Williams College, Massachusetts, and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (Elliott 1979). Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is in Pichincha province in the north central part of the country. The Napo river flows through north-eastern Ecuador and Peru into the upper Amazon river.
Orton refers to his paper ‘Physical observations on the Andes and the Amazons’ (Orton 1868). The American Journal of Science and Arts was popularly known as ‘Silliman’s Journal’ after its founder, Benjamin Silliman.
In South America, p. 130, CD referred to fossil gastropods from Paita (a province in north-western Peru) that had been described by Alcide Charles Victor Dessalines d’Orbigny. In Orton 1868, p. 116 n., Orton mentions Cerithium laeviuscula, Ostrea gallus, and Ampullina ortoni.
Riobamba is a city in Chimborazo province in central Ecuador. The deposit of bones is mentioned in Orton 1870, p. 154.
Pebas is a town in north-eastern Peru on the banks of the upper Amazon; Pará is a region (now state) in northern Brazil. The species Neritina pupa, Turbonilla minuscula, Mesalia ortoni, Tellina amazonensis, as well as two others are mentioned in Orton 1870, p. 283. The passage is scored in CD’s copy (see n. 11, below).
Orton refers to Henry Walter Bates, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Louis Agassiz. In Orton 1870, p. 282 n., Orton refers to A journey in Brazil for Agassiz’s view that the sandstone deposits in the area had resulted from glacial drift and showed no sign of marine origin (see J. L. R. Agassiz and Agassiz 1868, pp. 250, 411, and 424).
Antisana is a volcano in north central Ecuador near Quito. The grebe was later identified as Podiceps occipitalis (the silvery grebe; see Orton 1870, p. 146). CD had collected specimens of this bird (identified as P. kalipareus in Zoology pt. 3, p. 136) during the Beagle voyage.
Esmeraldas and Napo are provinces in northern Ecuador on the western and eastern sides respectively of the Andes.
For a list of the naturalists who identified and catalogued the specimens collected, see Orton 1870, pp. xii–xiii.
Journal of researches.
Orton refers to The Andes and the Amazon (Orton 1870). The dedication reads, ‘To Charles Darwin, M.A., F.R.S., F.L.S., F.G.S., whose profound researches have thrown so much light upon every department of science, and whose charming “Voyage of the Beagle” has so pleasantly associated his name with our southern continent, these sketches of the Andes and the Amazon are, by permission most respectfully dedicated.’ CD’s annotated copy is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 644–5).


Elliott, Clark A. 1979. Biographical dictionary of American science. The seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Westport, Conneticut: Greenwood Press.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

Orton, James. 1868. Physical observations on the Andes and the Amazons. American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 46: 203–13.

Orton, James. 1870. The Andes and the Amazon; or, across the continent of South America. New York: Harper.

South America: Geological observations on South America. Being the third part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1846.

Zoology: The zoology of the voyage of HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. 5 pts. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1838–43.


Describes the novelties found on his recent expedition to South America sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

Wants to dedicate to CD book [The Andes and the Amazon (1870)] which is modelled on Journal of researches.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Orton
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Rochester, N.Y.
Source of text
DAR 173: 37
Physical description
3pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6542,” accessed on 15 November 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17