John Casper Branner (1850–1922)
John Casper Branner began serving as state geologist for the Arkansas Geological Survey on June 24, 1887, and served in that capacity until the state legislature abolished the position on March 16, 1893. Branner’s tenure was noted for a high standard of professionalism, and he made significant contributions to the economic and geologic resources of Arkansas that lasted for decades.
John Branner was born in New Market, Tennessee, on July 4, 1850, to Michael T. Branner, who was a farmer, and Elsie Baker Branner. Educated in the local schools, Branner was an avid reader and developed a deep interest in the natural features of the Tennessee countryside.
He enrolled at Maryville College, near Knoxville, Tennessee, but in 1870, after only two years of study, he transferred to the newly established Cornell College in Ithaca, New York. Under the direction and influence of the renowned Charles F. Hartt, professor of geology at Cornell, Branner developed a life-long interest in Brazil. As an undergraduate, Branner accompanied Hartt to Brazil in 1874 despite having not completed his undergraduate work, and he remained there until the spring of 1883, studying the country’s geology as well as searching for vegetable fibers that could be used to make incandescent lights, at the request of Thomas Edison. He also studied insects that adversely affected cotton plants, under a commission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Branner wrote a bachelor’s thesis, titled “On the Fibro-vascular Bundles in Palms,” and received his BS degree from Cornell University in 1882.
Branner married Susan D. Kennedy of Oneida, New York, in 1883, and the couple had a daughter and two sons.
That same year, he was appointed assistant geologist with the famous Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania under the direction of J. Peter Lesley, state geologist. Branner’s work involved topographic and geologic mapping in the Lackawanna Valley region, noted for its anthracite resources. He also analyzed the effects of glaciation on the region. In the spring of 1885, Branner accepted a position as professor and chairman of the Department of Geology at Indiana University in Bloomington. There he developed an association with David Starr Jordan, president of the university and a highly acclaimed icthyologist. Through their efforts, Indiana was established as a center for natural science instruction and research. In June 1885, the trustees of the university, upon the recommendation of President Jordan, conferred an honorary PhD on Branner. He remained on the faculty of Indiana University until 1891, but the academic catalogues for the years from 1887 to 1891 list him as “absent on leave as Director of the Geological Survey of Arkansas.”
Branner’s association with Arkansas began with his appointment as state geologist in 1887 and his organization of the state’s first post-Reconstruction geological survey. At that time, central Arkansas was rife with reports of gold and silver discoveries in the Ouachita Mountains, which contributed to the state legislature’s interest in establishing a geological survey.
Branner assigned Theodore B. Comstock, assistant geologist, to examine the various claims and mines, mostly in Montgomery and Garland counties. Comstock’s 1888 report exposed mines, such as the “Golden Wonder,” “Silver World,” “Mozambique Tunnel,” and “Lost Louisiana,” as entirely worthless. Branner immediately went public with the conclusions, thus proving ventures that had been capitalized at more than $113 million under state law to be worthless. He said of his decision, “That the results of the Survey’s investigations of the gold mines of the State must prove a disappointment to many, and that they will excite the animosity of others, are foregone conclusions. Public welfare and official integrity, however, alike demand that these results be made known.”
Branner was burned in effigy and attacked ruthlessly in the press. There were many calls to dismiss him as state geologist. Richard P. Rothwell, editor of The Engineering and Mining Journal published in New York City; Edward H. Mathes, a prominent attorney from Ozark (Franklin County); and Governor Simon P. Hughes successfully challenged efforts to destroy his professional reputation. In the end, the truth of Comstock’s report was irrefutable, and all the investments were lost. This episode clouded the remainder of Branner’s tenure as state geologist, however. Branner remained state geologist, being reappointed twice by Governor James P. Eagle, until 1893, when the survey was disbanded. There would not be another geological survey organized in Arkansas until 1923, when his son, George Casper Branner, became state geologist by virtue of Act 573 of March 22, 1923, which reestablished both the office of state geologist and the Geological Survey of Arkansas.
The Branner Survey represents the golden age of Arkansas geological investigation. Though his initial geological survey dashed the hopes of gold and silver miners, Branner did record large deposits of bauxite in Pulaski and Saline counties, thus paving the way for bauxite mining in that area. Fourteen published volumes on the geology of Arkansas, which included sixty maps, covered virtually all geological aspects of the state. Of particular significance to this day were reports on coal (1888), manganese (1891), igneous rocks (1890), and the Washington County and Benton County reports (1891 and 1894); indeed, Igneous Rocks of Arkansas by J. Francis Williams is still considered a classic in mineralogy and geology. Such notable geologists as R. A. F. Penrose, J. P. Smith, F. W. Simonds, R. T. Hill, and Theodore B. Comstock began their distinguished careers as assistants to Branner. Future president Herbert Hoover even held a summer job in 1892 mapping zinc-bearing and coal-bearing formations in northern Arkansas.
Branner’s term as state geologist officially ended on March 16, 1893, although in the winter of 1892, he left Arkansas to become professor of geology at the newly created Leland Stanford Jr. University (now Stanford University) in California, where he was reunited with David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president. The two men quickly established the institution as a leader in education in the natural sciences. Branner established the Department of Geology at Stanford, recruiting many of the geologists from his Arkansas Survey. Herbert Hoover completed his undergraduate degree in geology in 1895 under Branner’s mentorship. Branner became vice president of Stanford in 1898 and president in 1913, retiring two years later as president emeritus. The Stanford years rekindled his interest in the geology of Brazil and the Portuguese language.
Branner published at least 371 articles, including such far-ranging subjects as higher education, ants as geological agents, Portuguese grammar, cotton insects, fish taxonomy, glaciation, Arkansas geology, and the geology of Brazil. He was a member of at least fifteen scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences. Branner was a charter member and president (1911–1914) of the Seismological Society of America that was founded after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He was an original fellow of the Geological Society of America, serving as its president in 1904. Branner received honorary LLD degrees from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (1897), Maryville College (1909), and the University of California (1915); a doctor of science from the University of Chicago (1916); and the Hayden Medal from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences.
Branner died in Palo Alto, California, on March 1, 1922.
For additional information:
John Casper Branner Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Penrose, R. A. F. “Memorial of John Casper Branner.” Geological Society of America Bulletin 36 (1925): 15–44.
Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Walter L. Manger
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.
Last Updated: 10/22/2015