Historic People And Places: FRANÇOIS MATTHES

To study the high country of Sequoia and Kings Canyon is inevitably to ponder the effects of glaciers, for the huge Pleistocene ice sheets that covered the Sierra had a profound impact on the landscape. Over time many have studied the resulting questions, but one man stands pre-eminent in this group, Dutch-born geologist François Matthes. 

Matthes (born 1874) began his education by studying engineering in Germany but then was recruited by an American professor and shifted his studies in 1891 to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Following his graduation there in 1895, Matthes took a position in the city engineering department at Rutland, Vermont, where he perfected his mapping skills. A year later, he joined the United States Geological Survey as a topographer.  

By 1898, he was in charge of a survey party mapping the Bighorn Mountains of Montana. There, in the evenings, he drafted an additional product, a report detailing how the terrain he was mapping had been shaped by glacial ice. He had found the specialized field of study to which he would return over and over again. 

In 1900 and 1901, he continued his glacial studies as he produced the first detailed topographic maps of what later became Glacier National Park. Then he turned his attention to mapping the Grand Canyon of Arizona. Matthes had now established himself as one of the Geological Survey’s premiere field men when it came to mapping wilderness terrain, and further assignments saw him map both Yosemite and Mt. Rainier. His charts of these places, and particularly his maps of Yosemite Valley and the heart of the Grand Canyon, are still considered classics. 

In 1913, the Geological Survey, recognizing Matthes’s analytical skills, shifted him from the Topographic Branch to the Geological Branch and sent him back to the Sierra Nevada to study glacial erosion. Although other projects would periodically interrupt this work, it remained his primary focus for the remainder of his life. 

Matthes became a well-known fixture at Yosemite and the reigning expert on the valley’s morphological evolution. This work culminated in the 1930 publication of what remains the single most influential work ever published on the glacial geology of Sierra: Matthes’s Geologic History of Yosemite Valley, USGS Professional Paper 160. 

Meanwhile, even as he continued to study the Yosemite region, Matthes broadened his work to look at the southern Sierra. Repeatedly during the 1920s and 1930s Matthes organized backcountry field trips into the Sequoia and Kings Canyon regions, including a series of geologically themed over-flights in 1936, apparently the first of their kind over the high country of the southern Sierra. 

Out of this work emerged a number of publications that still define our understanding of the southern Sierra.  Matthes had largely completed work on these publications before he retired from the USGS in 1947 (after 51 years of service!), but publication of these important works lagged after his death in 1948. 

Finally, in 1956, from the University of California Press, came Sequoia National Park: A Geological Album. Diverging spectacularly from his earlier technical work, this book relied primarily on photographs to tell the Southern Sierra’s geological story to laymen. Even today, it is a fascinating read.

And in 1965, almost twenty years after Matthes had retired, the USGS issued Professional Paper 540-A, Glacial Reconnaissance of Sequoia National Park, California. Here, at last, was the detailed fruit of all the fieldwork Matthes had done in the region – detailed maps of glacial activity. 

Today, the remnant glaciers on shady side of the ridge that forms the northernmost boundary of Kings Canyon National Park are known as the Matthes Glaciers and climbers have unofficially named a “Matthes Peak” (elevation 12,989+) along the park’s boundary.  This is one unofficial name, at least, that deserves to be made permanent. 

© Wm. Tweed