Emmons was born at Middlefield, Massachusetts, on May 16, 1799, son of Ebenezer and Mary (Mack) Emmons. Emmons prepared for college under Rev. Mr. Halleck and entered Williams College at age 16 and graduated with the class of 1818. He later studied medicine at Albany, New York, and after taking his degree practiced as a doctor for some years in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. His interest in geology was kindled in early life, and in 1824 he had assisted Prof Chester Dewey (1784-1867) in preparing a geological map of Berkshire County, in which the first attempt was made to classify the rocks of the Taconic area. He still longed to pursue his interest in geology, so decided to attend the Rensselaer School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). There, he was inspired by the eminent professor Amos Eaton, and graduated from Rensselaer in its first class in 1826. While thus giving much of his time to natural science, undertaking professional work in natural history and geology in Williams College, he also accepted the professorship of chemistry and afterwards of obstetrics at Albany Medical College.
Geological Survey of New York
The chief work of his life was, however, in geology, and he has been designated by Jules Marcou as the founder of American Paleozoic stratigraphy, and the first discoverer of the primordial fauna in any country. In 1836 he became attached to the Geological Survey of the State of New York, and after lengthened study he grouped the local strata (1842) into the Taconic and overlying New York systems. The latter system was subdivided into several groups that were by no means well defined. Emmons had previously described the Potsdam sandstone (1838), and this was placed at the base of the New York system. It is now regarded as Upper Cambrian.
In 1844 Emmons for the first time obtained fossils in his Taconic system: a notable discovery because the species obtained were found to differ from all then-known Palaeozoic fossils, and they were regarded as representing the primordial group. Marcou was thus led to advocate that the term Taconic be generally adopted in place of Cambrian. Nevertheless, the Taconic fauna of Emmons proved to include only the lower part of Sedgwick's Cambrian.
Emmons made contributions on agriculture and geology to a series of volumes on the Natural History of New York (1848). He also issued a work entitled American Geology, containing a statement of the principles of the science with full illustrations of the characteristic American fossils (1855-1857).
The overthrust in New York which places Lower Cambrian rocks in contact with Middle Ordovician rocks is named for him, known as Emmons' line, formerly Logan's line. It is a segment that extends from Canada through Vermont, New York, and farther south. It traverses through the city of Troy, New York and the Poesten Kill Falls and Gorge. He named the Adirondack Mountains (1838) and Taconic Mountains (1844) and acquainted the public with these regions.
A scientific disagreement with New York State Geologist James Hall regarding the age of the rocks in the Taconic System led Emmons to leave New York state. Emmons held that the Taconic System rocks, were of Cambrian age, but Hall was convinced that they were Ordovician in age. (Emmons was ultimately found to be correct.) As a result of the dispute, Emmons was banned from the practice of geology in the state of New York and sued Hall for slander and libel. In 1851, after losing the lawsuit, Emmons was hired by the state of North Carolina for the newly created position of State Geologist. He continued in that position until his death in 1863, at his plantation in Brunswick County, North Carolina.
Adirondack mountain climber
Emmons gave the Adirondacks their name in 1838. The name "Adirondacks" is an Anglicized version of the Mohawk ratirontaks, meaning "they eat trees", a derogatory name which the Mohawk historically applied to neighboring Algonquian-speaking tribes; when food was scarce, the Algonquians would eat the buds and bark of trees.
Emmons who was studying the geology of the Adirondacks led the first recorded climb of Mount Marcy on August 5, 1837. Emmons party was looking for the headwaters of the East Fork of the Hudson River which it found at Lake Tear of the Clouds on the mountain.
- "Biography on RPI's website". Ees2.geo.rpi.edu. Retrieved 2013-04-16.
- "Ebenezer Emmons, Father of the Taconic System (Geological Society of America abstract)". Gsa.confex.com. 2005-03-15. Retrieved 2013-04-16.
- "Ebenezer Emmons (1799-1863), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute". Ees2.geo.rpi.edu. Retrieved 2013-04-16.
- D. J. Cherniak, Ebenezer Emmons (1799-1863)
- Ebenezer Emmons, History of the New York State Museum
- Donaldson, Alfred L., A History of the Adirondacks, New York: Century, 1921. OCLC 1383265. (reprint), pp. 34-35
- Lauren Long, The Post-Standard. "First reported trek up Mount Marcy occurred 175 years ago". syracuse.com. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
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