Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Robert Thomas Hill
The Father of Texas Geology

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840

Robert Thomas Hill, born in Nashville, Tennessee on August 11, 1858, saw the American Civil War up close, and, grew to near adulthood in the years following. In 1874 he left home, boarded a train, and rode, literally, to the end of the line, which at the time was Waco, Texas. There, he continued west on foot, not realizing such was very suspicious behavior in Texas. He managed to join a wagon train to Comanche, Texas, where young Robert began a lifelong love of Texas’ wide open spaces—and the ground under those spaces. Before he died in 1941, “he almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for all future geological studies in the Texas region.1

“His initial discovery in 1887 of the Comanche Cretaceous Series in Texas firmly established as his life’s work the reconnaissance of the Texas Cretaceous. Within a twenty-year period, during which he divided his time between the Texas region and the West Indies, he mapped the Cretaceous strata over their full extent of exposure, subdivided the Lower Cretaceous into groups and formations which have since become standard, conducted the first scientific expedition down the Rio Grande through the Big Bend country, established the basic physiographic divisions and character of the Greater Texas Region, delineated and named the Balcones Fault Zone, and discovered the westerly belt of faulting now known as the Texas Lineament.”

“Hill was the first Texan to recognize and stress the intimate relationships between geology and geography and the economic and cultural development of the land. For this reason, he was an advocate of a state geological survey and was instrumental in the establishment of two such organizations. His investigations of soils and of resources in artesian water led to improvements in farming and ranching over large areas of the state. In later years, as a witness in the Texas-Oklahoma boundary suit of 1921-22, he helped to win for Texas 450,000 acres of farm and grazing land and millions of dollars in oil. His published reports were used as guides by geologists and drillers during the early days of oil exploration in Texas.”

“Throughout the many years of his career Hill never lost sight of the importance of a widespread understanding of the natural conditions of the land which one calls one’s own, and he never ceased in his attempts to translate science into comprehensible terms for the people of Texas. The last ten years of his life were dedicated almost exclusively to writing popular articles on Texas geology and history for the Dallas Morning News.”

“Hill received many honors during his lifetime, among them the honorary degrees of Doctor of Laws from Baylor University and Doctor of Science from Southern Methodist University. He was recognized by most learned scientific societies in America, and long before his death was acclaimed as the ‘Father of Texas Geology.’”2

But in 1874, the young Hill still needed employment in Comanche, a town full of “Indian fighting frontiersmen,” where “buffalo and antelope meat sold for three cents a pound,” and where “cattlemen ran their stock full speed through the streets.” He began working for a newspaper but soon joined excursions tracking across the wilds of Texas. He joined a team of surveyors first and then a cattle drive from Uvalde up the Western Trail to Dodge City, Kansas.3

On these out-of-town trips and on trips to Comanche’s nearby Round Mountain, with its fossils and exposed rock strata, Hill fell in love with Texas geology. He ordered a book on geology and began to learn. “This book initiated Hill into a lifelong study of the Cretaceous, not because it explained the geology of Comanche, but because it did not. ‘Who likes to drop a subject before he has mastered it? My career as a geologist was then started.’”4

In pursuit of a career in rock, Hill managed to get conditionally admitted to Cornell University, studied the geology of the surrounding New York state, and chaffed at the tameness of the school. He finished school in 1885 and was scheduled to graduate in 1886. However, just before graduation, Cornell informed him that he would not be awarded a diploma because of his deficiency in Latin. Hill walked away and began his career instead. In 1887, after doing geological research that was good enough for another, more experienced geologist to try to steal credit for, Cornell changed its collective mind and sent him the diploma.5

The job Hill got was with the United States Geological Survey. Hill was hired by John Wesley Powell himself, director of the Survey since 1881. After doing traditional, but excellent, research, Powell sent Hill to Austin to lobby for the creation of a state geological survey. “Knowledge of the topography and geography of state lands was essential to the expansion of rail lines. Trains were then the main facilities for providing access into the states and opening them to immigration and settlement. Mapping of the lands led to increased knowledge of their geology, which in turn revealed exploitable mineral and energy resources and agricultural potential. The economy of the states was thus enhanced and their people were favorably affected by centrally organized geological surveys.” The bill was defeated that year (1887)—“The Lower Silurian! What’s that got to do with raising potatoes”—but the bill finally passed into law in 1888.6

The late 1880s were a transition period for Hill. He married Jennie Justina in 1887, and they spent time in Arkansas. He was working, and she became a rockhound, so they were able to go into the field together. She died in 1913. A second marriage turned out much less pleasant and ended in divorce. In 1888 Hill joined the faculty (one of a total of 15) at the University of Texas, teaching there for two years. Hill broke traditions, taking his students into the lab, the great outdoors above the city.7

In 1890 Hill left UT and returned to geological research. “In his earliest publications, his concern for the development of the natural resources of Texas is evident. It is also clear that he visualized the wealth of the state to lie not in its metallic ores, but in its artesian waters, soil, and common rocks. The soils of the Black Prairies, he emphasized over and over again, are the ‘finest continuous body of agricultural land in our country.’” “In Roads and Material for Their Construction in the Black Prairie Region of Texas, Hill presented on the basis of stratigraphy an explanation of the road problems that existed at that time and suggested suitable materials for the construction of better highways.”8

During the 1890s, Hill studied Texas for the U.S. and the Texas Geological Surveys. In particular, Hill studied water resources in Texas and the Southern Great Plains. In mid-decade he produced geological maps of the Austin Quadrangle, Balcones Fault Zone, the Edwards Plateau, and the Rio Grande Plain with particular emphasis to “artesian water strata.” This work was “without doubt one of the most important contributions to Texas geology in recent years.” Hill also studied several Caribbean Islands and areas in Central America producing reports for the USGS and writing reports for the National Geographic Magazine. Among his other achievements, he described how the gas cloud from an erupting volcano “then unknown among volcanologists,” was the deadliest part of that type of geological event. And he was almost killed learning that information.9

“Hill’s topographical atlas of 1900…represents a synthesized body of knowledge on Texas geography, in which individual geographic features are described and natural provinces of the region and their subdivisions defined…. Most of the names were originated by Hill and all the others, as Albritton has commented, were ‘canonized by him in the geological literature.’” “Published over seventy years ago [dating from the 1975 Alexander biography of Hill], Hill’s classification of physiographic provinces of the Texas Region is the one familiar to all Texas geographers and geologists today.”10

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During the late 1890s, Robert T. Hill was one of the leading geologists in the state, the nation, and in the field of geology. “By 1899 Hill’s Texas field work was nearly complete; he had traversed and studied most of the Texas region except for one remnant of virgin land which stretched between the Pecos River and the Rio Grande in Southwest Texas and extended into eastern New Mexico. A dramatic strip of country, named by Hill the Trans-Pecos region, it exhibits the most complex geological features to be found anywhere in Texas.”11

“The meanders of the Rio Grande, one of the longest rivers in America, had not been accurately charted along the 350-mile passage through the pit of the mountains of the Bloody Bend. The unsuccessful attempts of an international boundary survey team were recorded by Major William H. Emory in the Report of the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey published in 1857. The men had been able to map only portions of the river…. Robert Hill was not one to bypass a new geological frontier; neither was he one to miss an opportunity to be the first to describe unmapped physiography and geology. In 1869 his idol and friend, John Wesley Powell, had first explored the canyons on the Colorado of the West. Here along the Rio Grande, in the state he claimed as his own, lay an opportunity for Hill to accomplish what he considered to be a similar feat.”12

“It was a stroke of fortune for Hill when he received a letter from H.J. Ware, a frontiersman and land agent of Del Rio, who offered the following advice:
"I understand you are now in San Antonio on your way to El Paso to make the trip down the river…Buy no outfit, boats or anything until I see you. I can furnish you the only living guide who has ever made the trip from El Paso to Laredo by boat on the Rio Grande…."
Henry Ware was of inestimable help to Hill, for he persuaded [James] MacMahon to act as guide for the expedition at three dollars per day and to construct suitable boats and paddles for the trip at thirty dollars each. The lumber was shipped from San Antonio to Del Rio, where three strong but light flat-bottom boats, each thirteen feet long and three feet wide, were constructed. These were shipped by rail to Marfa and then hauled by wagon across the desert to Presidio, which was the point of embarkation on the river. Each boat would support two men and two hundred pounds of equipment.”13

“Ware also tried to enlist for the expedition one of the two men who had previously accompanied MacMahon on the trip; but, as he [Ware] wrote Hill, ‘his answer was: “I have not a cent on earth but Uncle Sam has not got enough money to hire me to make that trip again.”’ Ware himself was anxious enough to make the trip simply ‘for the novelty and excitement of it; otherwise as a matter of dollars and cents it would take big pay to get me to make it.”14

“Both Ware and MacMahon were men ‘of great strength, inured to hardships, skilled with oar and gun and capable of unlimited endurance.’ The other three men chosen for the expedition were Prentice, Hill’s young and adventuresome nephew and the son of Joe Hill, an extra boatman, and a Mexican cook named Serafino. The time neared for the exploration of the river. Hill and his party trekked across the scorched plains of the Big Bend toward Presidio, where they would enter the river. Only the essential supplies, photographic and surveying equipment, and the guns were carried.”15

Robert Hill may not have been the first person to descend the upper-middle stretch of the Rio Grande. Author Paul Horgan records that three soldiers claimed to have escaped the Confederate Army by traveling the length of the river from El Paso to Brownsville in 1861, but the story is unconfirmed. Parts of the Big Bend portion of the Rio were explored at different times, but “It was not until 1899 that the last secrets of the river’s conformation were penetrated and recorded.”16

“Within the canyons the river itself would present a constant threat to the men’s welfare. There were places where the river was barricaded by giant blocks of solid rock which had cascaded into the valley and over which the boats would have to be carried.”17

“On October fifth Hill gave the order to start the voyage. Two men entered each of the three boats. Soon after leaving Presidio they heard a roaring noise and presently encountered rapids foaming over huge rounded boulders of volcanic rock. They had to get into the water to guide the boats…. They were in the rapids all day.”18 “In the Big Bend the river encountered mountains in a new and extraordinary way; for they lay, chain after chain of them, directly across its course as though to deny its passage to the sea. But the pull of the sea was stronger than rock.”19

Passing San Carlos Creek, “they had come one hundred miles by water, though in air line they were only fifty miles from Presidio.” At this point “They were face to face with the first of the three mightiest obstacles of the Big Bend. It was the Santa Elena Range, running fifty miles north and south…. The range was half a mile high and twelve miles wide. Its top was a plateau, tilted slightly to the west. From the top the river’s cut was so clean that –as other observers noticed—it could not be seen until they came to stand at its very edge. Even from the crest of the canyon wall the running water a quarter of a mile below was not always visible, and when it could be seen from overhanging ledges, the stream looked like ‘a mere thread.’”20

“‘Almost in the twinkling of an eye [the expedition] passed out of the desert glare into the dark and silent depths between its gigantic walls, which rise vertically from the water’s edge to a narrow ribbon of sky above.’ Swiftly, solemnly, the quiet current carried them toward the heart of the range between walls that they could almost touch on either side with their oars. Hardly a ripple disturbed the water or a hushed spectacle. For five miles ‘the flow was so silent as to be appalling.’”21

Horgan describes the dangers the men were soon to face—rapids and boulders and columns of stone—that made the canyon one of the most picturesque places in Texas—when one’s life is not at stake. A “slip of the foot on the smooth rocks meant certain death.”22 Hill and his companions continued southwestward, eagerly expecting to turn northward around the next bend, and the next, and the next. Almost no human life was visible; though, the expedition carried guns because bandits and outlaws were known to operate in the area.

The expedition continued northwestward towards and through the Boquillas Canyon, finding “even more extraordinary formations, colors and vagaries of the river than before…. Immense caves hung empty on the cliffs. In many places the sheer yellow walls were cut from top to bottom by wonderful fissures gleaming with chalk white or vermilion minerals.”23

“Suddenly the early warnings of Henry Ware materialized. Before them, across the valley, lay ‘what I would term the Gates of Hell,’ Hill wrote—the great stone barricade.

"Two great columns of rock stood leaning against one side of the wall. These were 200 feet high each and at their feet the river was choked by great boulders 50 feet cube between and under which the waters lurched with fury indescribable. On the opposite side there was a great land slide of rock 182 feet high and 300 yards long. Now two troubles arose. One was to get the boats over the huge stones on the river, the other to carry the cargo over the top of uneasy pass by the only accessible path to a camp place below."
The men named the place ‘Camp Misery.’… The men ate and slept wedged precariously between and on the water-slick rock fragments.”24

Finally the river turned back toward the southeast, but neither the danger or the expedition were at their end. Miles and miles of other canyons and desert lay before them. “Time itself must have seemed hostile…. Never out of mind were the dangers of river nature, and , if they had to abandon the river, the hopelessness of reaching safety overland through desert wilderness without water, on foot.”25

“Downstream from Boquillas, Hill noticed that the volume of water in the river was increasing. This phenomenon was caused by springs issuing from fissures in the channel. A hot spring from which welled quantities of crystal-clear water at a temperature of 100 degrees was a temptation that could not be resisted [for a chance to bathe and launder their clothes].”26

“On through the canyons and deserts of the Rio Grande, Hill plotted the course of the river and mapped and photographed the geological core on either side. But almost a month on the river had reduced his appreciation of it.”27

“They watched for a landmark that would tell them they had finished their hard journey. It was a sign known for decades to the few first travelers of the region—‘a huge pile of sticks skillfully entwined into what is perhaps the largest bird’s nest in America,’ which clung to the edge of a small cave in the yellow river bluff on the Mexican side. It was the [former, but then unoccupied] home of a pair of eagles which every year produced their young in it.”28

“The travelers finally saw it and knew they were done. They landed on a little beach opposite the nest. The village of Langtry was a mile and a half away, a station on the Southern Pacific Railroad. They sent for a packhorse and took their equipment to town, and were received by Judge Roy Bean under his sign which proclaimed him to be the Law West of the Pecos.”29

“Robert Hill and his men had navigated and mapped ‘three hundred and fifty miles of a portion of one of America’s greatest rivers which hitherto had been considered impassable.’ To discover the last earth secrets of the Rio Grande they had lived for weeks in a lost world created through incalculable time.”30

And here, where the Hill Expedition returned to civilization after discovering The Last Earth Secrets, the Val Verde County Historical Commission proposes to place and dedicate a historical marker in honor of Robert Hill and his extraordinary achievement.

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In 1903, Hill left the United States Geological Survey for the private sector. For the next couple of decades, he produced surveys and reports, mostly for mining companies. He taught in California and produced earthquake studies used by insurance companies. He also served on the team investigating the collapse of Los Angeles’ St. Francis Dam which killed 631. Back in Texas in the 1920s, Hill worked on the Red River Boundary Dispute between Texas and Oklahoma.31

In his later years, Hill also offered his knowledge to the public through less specialized publications. Baylor and Southern Methodist University both conferred degrees. For years he authored wrote a geology column for the Dallas Morning News.32

Hill also took up an interest in Texas history. He may have been the first person to attempt to ascertain the routes of Cabeza de Vaca and, later, Coronado. Hill matched de Vaca’s descriptions of landscapes with the then-much-better-understood Texas geological landscape and proposed that de Vaca traveled through western Texas instead of traveling a more direct route to Mexico.33

Robert Thomas Hill’s lengthy life and career ended July 28, 1941.34 While well-known in scientific circles, Hill is relatively unknown to the general public. The breadth and depth of his contributions to science and to Texas suggest he is eligible for several historical markers; although, some may disagree on the need for them. “In his memorial article, ‘The Passing of a Great Geologist—Robert T. Hill,’ Charles N. Gould wrote:

"There will be no monument of bronze or granite erected to Dr. Hill. He needs none. Little men may need monuments. Great men do not. He has monument galore in his published works and in his contribution to knowledge…. Geologists whose grandfathers will not be born for a half a millennium will still follow the broad outlines laid down by this great man.”35
Maybe Hill does not need a monument in bronze or granite, but the Val Verde County Historical Commission would like to give him one in aluminum.

 

Bibliography—

Nancy Alexander, Father of Texas Geology: Robert T. Hill, Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1976.
“Hill, Robert Thomas,” The Handbook of Texas Online,
Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, Austin, Texas Monthly Press, 1984 (reprint).

 

Illustrations—

Four pages the photo section (between pages 116 and 117) of Nancy Alexander’s biography of Hill.
Five pages from early National Geographic Magazine issues:
Title page of “The Panama Canal Route” by RTH, February 1896, page 59;
Title page of “Cuba” by RTH, May 1898, page 193;
Title page of “Porto Rico” by RTH, March 1899, page 93;
Two pages from “Report by Robert T. Hill on the Volcanic Disturbances in the West Indies” by RTH, July 1902, pages 223-224.

 

Endnotes

1 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages ix, 17-20.
2 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page x.
3 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 21-25.
4 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 31.
5 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 32-57.
6 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 46, 58, 63.
7 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 63-81, 220-223.
8 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 79, 83.
9 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 83, 91, 101-102, 115-116, 149-150, 161-165, 182-183.
10 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 137, 138-139.
11 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 120.
12 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 122.
13 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 123.
14 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 123.
15 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 123-124.
16 Horgan, Great River, page 895.
17 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 125.
18 Horgan, Great River, page 896.
19 Horgan, Great River, page 897.
20 Horgan, Great River, page 898.
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 128-129.
21 Horgan, Great River, page 899.
21 Horgan, Great River, page 901.
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 129.
21 Horgan, Great River, page 903.
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 131.
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 132-133.
21 Horgan, Great River, page 903; the historical marker for “Eagle’s Nest” was dedicated April 17, 2004.
21 Horgan, Great River, pages 903-904.
21 Horgan, Great River, page 904.
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 193-199, 229-235, 241-254.
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 227, 255, 259-261.
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, pages 256-257, 265-268.
21 Hill died on July 28, 1941, in Dallas. He was survived by two daughters, one by his first marriage in 1887 to Jennie Justina Robinson, and one by his second marriage in 1913 to Margaret McDermott. He also married a third time in 1939, when he was eighty-one, but his third wife left him after a week. Justina, the daughter of his first wife, became a distinguished bacteriologist and head of the bacteriology laboratory at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Hill was awarded honorary doctorates by Baylor University and Southern Methodist University. He was an original fellow of the Geological Society of America and an honorary member of the Texas State Historical Association. “Hill, Robert Thomas,” The Handbook of Texas Online, .
21 Alexander, Father of Texas Geology, page 277.