Oregon Pioneer: Thomas Condon

OPB-TV’s Oregon Experience honored Thomas Condon last week with his story. A preacher and pioneer geologist, Thomas Condon arrived in the Oregon Territory in 1853 and settled in The Dalles, and eventually became Oregon’s first state geologist and professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, and later to the brand new University of Oregon in 1876.

Thomas Condon always loved geology. He subscribed to scientific journals and collected rocks and fossils wherever he lived. Townspeople, teamsters, and soldiers stationed at Fort Dalles knew of his great knowledge of geology and began bringing him fossils to examine and identify.

By 1865 Condon was accompanying the soldiers on trips into Oregon’s interior and was the first to recognize the scientific significance of the area now known as the John Day Fossil Beds – where nearly 50 million years of time are preserved.

The mid 1800s was considered the Golden Age of Paleontology. Scientists were in competition to discover fossil specimens that would support Charles Darwin’s new theory of evolution. Early on Condon had began corresponding with prominent East coast paleontologists and sent them fossil specimens he’d collected for identification. The paleontologists in turn had the status and money to write articles and get the new discoveries published in leading scientific journals.

Some of Condon’s most famous ancient discoveries included parts of small three-toed ancestors of the modern horse. Yale University professor O.C. Marsh called the fossils the “missing link” in horse evolution and would write significant papers on the subject using Condon’s fossil discoveries as part of the evidence.

Today, you can find Condon’s fossil collection at the University of Oregon, and explore the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Central Oregon.