Alexander Winchell

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Alexander Winchell
Alexander Winchell3.jpg
1st Chancellor of Syracuse University
In office
Succeeded by Erastus Otis Haven
Personal details
Born December 31, 1824 (1824-12-31)
North East, New York
Died February 19, 1891 (1891-02-20) (aged 66)
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Nationality American
Occupation Geologist, author
Known for Adamites and Preadamites: or, A Popular Discussion (1878), Pre-Adamite hypothesis

Alexander Winchell (December 31, 1824, in North East, New York – February 19, 1891, in Ann Arbor, Michigan)[1] was a United States geologist who contributed to this field mainly as an educator and a popular lecturer and author. His views on evolution aroused controversy among his contemporaries; today the racism of these views is more cause for comment.[2]



Winchell graduated from the Wesleyan University of Middletown, Connecticut, in 1847.

Early career[edit]

He then taught at Pennington Male Seminary of New Jersey, Amenia Seminary of New York (where he had previously been a student), an academy in Newbern, Alabama, and the Mesopotamia Female Seminary of Eutaw, the last of which was founded by him. He became president of the Masonic University at Selma, Alabama, in 1853.


In 1854 Winchell entered the service of the University of Michigan as professor of physics and civil engineering. Eventually he became professor of geology and paleontology at Michigan.[3][4]

In 1859, Winchell was appointed as State Geologist of Michigan for the newly formed second geological survey of the state. He held the post until 1863 when the state did not appropriate funding to continue the survey. The survey was resumed in 1869, and Winchell was reappointed in April. Owing to conflicting opinions between Winchell and his superiors, he resigned in 1871.[5]

He stayed at Michigan until 1872.[6]

Illustration from Winchell's Preadamites, 1888.

Cotton Growing Venture[edit]

In 1863 Winchell took up a lease on a cotton plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi, under a plan devised by Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to lease plantations along the Mississippi River to loyal men from the North, who would hire black laborers on terms prescribed by the army. Winchell organized the Ann Arbor Cotton Company and sold stock to the university’s president, whereupon he received a leave of absence to engage in cotton planting.

General Thomas set wages at a low level ($7 per month for men, $5 for women, minus the cost of medical attention and clothing). Even then, many lessees defrauded the freedmen of their earnings. In the winter of 1863–64, the Treasury Department briefly assumed control of the Mississippi Valley labor system, mandated a substantial increase in black wages, and contemplated leasing the plantations directly to the freedmen. Winchell complained that the Treasury’s regulations were “framed in the exclusive interest of the negro and in the non-recognition of the moral sense and patriotism of the white man.” [7]

Needless to say, the venture brought him nothing but problems, and after Winchell returned to Michigan in 1864, his brother Martin, who was managing the plantation, was killed by guerrillas. [8]

Syracuse University[edit]

In 1872, he was appointed chancellor of Syracuse University. The depression of 1873 affected both his personal finances and those of Syracuse, and these troubles led him to resign this position in 1874.

Late career and controversy[edit]

In 1875 he worked as a professor of geology and zoology at Vanderbilt University.[6] There, his views on evolution, as expressed in his book Adamites and Preadamites: or, A Popular Discussion (1878), were not acceptable to the University administration because they diverged from Biblical teaching. Today the views on the "inferiority of the Negro" (quote from his 1878 book) would probably have been the focus of controversy.[2] In any case, he was obligated to resign in 1878.

He then returned to the University of Michigan, where he was professor of geology and paleontology.[6]

His work in geology was not so significant as his teaching and popular lectures and writing in this field. He was much concerned with reconciling science and religion.[3] He was an advocate of theistic evolution.[9]



  1. ^ "Sketch of Alexander Winchell". The Popular Science Monthly. 41: 837. 1892. 
  2. ^ a b Michon Scott (2011). "Rocky Road: Alexander Winchell". Retrieved May 29, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b George P. Merrill (1936). "Winchell, Alexander". Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 
  4. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Beach, Chandler B., ed. (1914). "Winchell, Alexander". The New Student's Reference Work. Chicago: F. E. Compton and Co. 
  5. ^ Segall, R. Thomas (1980s). "A Brief History of the Michigan Geological Survey" (PDF). Michigan Geological Survey, Department of Natural Resources: 2. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 31, 2010. 
  6. ^ a b c "Chancellors Papers: Alexander Winchell". Syracuse University Archives. Retrieved May 29, 2013. 
  7. ^ Eric Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 93-94
  8. ^ Bentley Historical Library, Biography;idno=umich-bhl-86321;view=reslist;didno=umich-bhl-86321;subview=standard;focusrgn=bioghist;byte=99990985
  9. ^ Hampton, Monte Harrell. (2014). Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era. University of Alabama Press. pp. 245-246. ISBN 978-0-8173-1831-4
  10. ^ "Proof of Negro inferiority". OCLC Classify. Retrieved 30 Mar 2018. 

External links[edit]