Collections Close-Up: Front Yard Fossils

fossil of a whale ribcage

Have you ever found a fossil?

It’s hard to walk along many of our local beaches without encountering the fossilized forms of whales or sea lions and the ornate whorls of ancient shells. These old organisms are made visible, in part, by the effects of weathering and erosion. While these forces are active all the time, a good storm can come along and shake open whole new windows into the past.

Some fossils you can even find in our front yard, literally.

The large specimens situated on the whale statue (southern) side of the museum’s garden are, thematically, the remains of ancient whales from Purisima formation outcrops in Capitola. Between 4.4 and 5.5 million years old, these specimens include an ancient ribcage (see above image), whose head would be oriented towards the beach if it were still attached. And although skulls are always interesting, we are lucky to have such a complete ribcage. The inherent movement of the ocean, the activities of scavengers, as well as the potential for marine mammals to “bloat and float ” upon their demise, often result in the slow and scattered disarticulation of the organism. Speaking of skulls, the other two specimens on display in this part of the yard do contain whale skulls (below images left and center). If you look closely, you can see the visible ear bone in one, while the other is partially obscured by the phalanges of an ancient flipper. 

Other fossils tell the story of a different type of discovery – that of human intervention in the landscape. The specimens peeking through the Fuschia and hummingbird sage beneath our gift shop windows (above right image) take that story further, to the surprisingly intertwined history of paleontology and physics. 

Fourteen million years ago, the coast of California was quite differently shaped. In parts of what is now terrestrial San Mateo County, a shallow, high-energy marine environment brimmed with life. Crustaceans burrowed in sand below swimming sharks and wandering whales. The organisms present, based on fossil evidence, indicate a nearshore to open shelf marine environment.

Fifty-seven years ago, a bulldozer cut a little too widely into the petrified remains of this ecosystem, a green-gray to light gray rock formation now called the Ladera Sandstone. In doing so, construction workers on what is now SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory discovered the remarkably well-preserved and almost complete skeleton of an ancient hippo-like creature now called Neoparadoxia repenningi. Prior to this discovery, this roughly cow-sized herbivore had only been known through specimens of preserved teeth. The value of the find became clearer and clearer as, with the efforts of experts from Stanford and USGS and beyond, all but the head of the organism emerged from the surrounding stone. The UC Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley (UCMP) agreed to curate this significant specimen in exchange for providing casts.

Casts which became the life’s work of the wife of SLAC’S then-director, Adele Panfosky. Alerted to the discovery when taking a phone message for her husband Wolfgang, Adele immediately drove to the site. What started as an opportunity for an interested volunteer without formal training to assist with excavation turned into a decades long quest by a budding paleontologist to create a complete and accurate Neoparadoxia model. Over the years Adele collaborated with scientists from around the world, ranging as far as Japan’s National Museum of Science and as close as local museum member Frank Perry, who cast some of the teeth for the display. 

Fortunately for us, the Neoparadoxia wasn’t the only specimen uncovered at SLAC. In the late 1970s, the campus was expanded to include the Positron Electron Project or PEP ring, digging further into the Ladera Sandstone. All told, the remains of ancient whales, porpoises, sea lions and at least six different kinds of sharks were unearthed. Scientifically significant specimens were again sent to UCMP. When it came time to find a home for specimens that were more useful for educational display than science, Adele arranged for several to be gifted to our Museum here in Santa Cruz. You can still find these on display in our garden today, now with the additional context of the specimen descriptions provided here.

Meanwhile at today’s SLAC, now with a new name and an expanded research profile, scientists are circling back to fossils once more, using advanced x-ray imaging techniques to determine the original colors of ancient creatures

If you find these discoveries exciting, nurture your own passion for paleontology: check out our fossil guide to explore our local landscapes with fresh eyes, and join us for our October Collections Close-Up event, to be held on October 13th, National Fossil Day, all about Fossil Walruses and Other Ancient Life in the Monterey Bay with Dr. Robert Boessenecker.

Fossil Walruses and Other Ancient Life in the Monterey Bay with Dr. Robert Boessenecker

Though our coast today is inhabited by sea lions, harbor seals, and elephant seals, none of these species existed in California 3-5 million years ago. Instead, fossils from the Purisima Formation tell a very different story of strange walruses and early fur seals that inhabited our coast. These include the ancestor of the modern northern fur seal (today a rare visitor to Monterey Bay), the bizarre “double tusked” walrus Gomphotaria, and the toothless walrus Valenictus. Several discoveries made by local collectors and paleontologists represent new species — and you’re going to hear new data and findings never reported before during this presentation.

Join us on National Fossil Day for this member-exclusive presentation with longtime friend of the Museum, Dr. Robert Boessenecker.

Dr. Robert Boessenecker

“I grew up in Foster City on the peninsula, disappointed as a dinosaur nerd kid that there weren’t much in the way of dino fossils from California – which I mistook for “no interesting fossils at all”. Once in high school I visited some shark tooth sites in Scott’s Valley and became obsessed with marine mammal fossils none of the fossil collectors could identify. As an undergraduate student at Montana State University, I started collecting and researching a marine mammal fauna I discovered in Half Moon Bay; I continued with my master’s thesis at MSU on the preservation and stratigraphic context of Purisima Formation fossils, and then went to University of Otago in New Zealand to do my Ph.D. on early baleen whales from much older rocks down under. I have been at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, studying early baleen whales and dolphins, and once again researching Purisima Formation sharks, fish, birds, turtles, and marine mammals.”

-Dr. Robert Boessenecker

About the series

Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Your support helps us steward our collections and offer educational programs that connect people with nature and science. Memberships start at just $15/year.

Collections Close-Up: Humphrey Pilkington, First California State Park Warden

Historic photo of Humphrey Pilkington in a camp site

August is an anniversary month for us here at the Museum, a time when we commemorate the establishment of the Hecox collection as the first public museum in Santa Cruz. In Laura’s story of coastal collecting and public exhibition, we find inspiration for our ongoing mission of connecting people to the natural world. However, this August, coming up on the one year anniversary of the devastating CZU Lighting Complex fires, we reflect on a different collector. In the story of Humphrey Pilkington, we trace a history of not only connecting to the natural world, but to a community fighting to protect it.

As many folks know, today’s Seabright was shaped, in part, by various members of the Pilkington family. From Thomas Pilkington, who developed beachfront Seabright into summer spot Camp Alhambra in the 1880s, to Thomas’ son James who built the first bathhouse at Castle Beach, to James’ brother T.B. who subdivided the family property, naming Pilkington Avenue in the process. But it is Thomas’ nephew Humphrey whose legacy secured the Museum’s home here in Seabright.

John Humphrey Blakey Pilkington was born in Illinois around 1858, emigrating to Santa Cruz with his parents in 1871. As a young man Humphrey studied agriculture at the University of California — knowledge he would put to work on his family’s orchards above what is now Delaveaga Park. His love for the landscape was not restricted to agriculture. Humphrey was well known for organizing walks from Watsonville through the mountains to San Jose, leading vacationers on tours of Yosemite, and co-hosting an annual picnic under the canopies of the beloved Big Trees.

The turn of the 18th century was an invigorating time for lovers of the local redwood forests — an 1899 fire galvanized community commitment to conservation, with folks like writer Josephine McCracken and photographer Andrew P. Hill pooling their talents to advocate for preservation of old growth redwood trees. The founding of the Sempervirens Club and the support their members drummed up were critical to the birth of California Redwoods State Park in 1902.

In July of 1903, Humphrey Pilkington started as warden of the park, whose name was not officially changed to Big Basin until 1927. Local papers praised this choice, including the Santa Cruz Evening Sentinel, which noted in April 1903 that “The people of Santa Cruz county take a pardonable pride in everything that pertains to [Big Basin] and they are naturally interested in seeing its management placed in the hands of careful, conscientious and competent men.” 

In addition to his work as an orchardist and forester, as well as various civic posts, Pilkington brought to the table years of voluntary service for the Santa Cruz Fire Department. These were fortunate skills to have in an unfortunate time — in September 1904, another fire swept through the mountains. Burning for 20 days, this fire proved famously stubborn, even reigniting into the following year. Impacting more than 3,000 acres of the park, the fire fueled fear and heartbreak even amongst those whose homes and lives were not in direct danger.

In the midst of the fight, Warden Pilkington did not change his clothes or sit down to a meal for nine days. Composed of up to 100 volunteers, firefighting crews focused their efforts on Governor’s Camp. This set of buildings was originally built to share the wonder of the Big Basin area with visiting California governors, in order to inspire government support for the park. They were ultimately successful, and these park buildings would later be developed into structures like the Campfire bowl, featured on this popular postcard. Last year’s CZU Lightning Complex fires echoed this historic fire, but with more intensity, given the current climate. The CZU fires burned through 97% of the park, sparing none of the contemporary structures that enhanced park access, which now must be reimagined.

Despite his widely praised management of the park, Pilkington was replaced as Warden in 1907 for political reasons. Ironically, while Pilkington had heroically fought the 1904 fire as the first warden of a California state park, his successor Sam Rambo would be found complicit in schemes to remove living trees under the guise of cleaning up damage from the 1904, and was the first state park warden to be fired in disgrace.

Pilkington’s departure from guardianship of the park did not extinguish his interest in nature, and he continued to be a student and collector of natural history. However, the collection he bequeathed to the City of Santa Cruz upon his death consists mostly of Indigenous stone tools and baskets. He developed his collection at a time when many EuroAmerican collectors were engaged in obtaining objects made by Native Americans under the racist impression that they were primitive peoples on the verge of extinction. For a bigger discussion of these collecting traditions and how they shape today’s museum collections, check out our November 2020 blog on Made for Sale Baskets.

Big Basin Campfire Bowl postcard, mailed in 1942. (From the Museum’s collection)

This collection was integral to the formation of our Museum here in Seabright. Pilkington’s gift was conditional upon the establishment of a formal museum, and the community rallied around the formation of a Museum that combined the Hecox collection and others under one roof where they could be better cared for.

As we reflect this August, we are saddened by the ongoing losses from the CZU fire, both personal and communal. We are interested in educating ourselves about the changing landscape. And most of all, we are encouraged to see the community rally around each other and their environment, from ongoing fundraising efforts for those impacted by CZU, to the reimagining of Big Basin, to our community science project on the impact of the fires on the natural world.  For more resource on fire preparedness, recovery, and ecological understanding, check out our upcoming CZU and You program series. 

Written by Kathleen Aston, Collections Manager

The Collections Close-Up is a series of blogs, events, and pop-up exhibits that highlight our collections.

Collections Close-Up: Preserving Cultural History After Fire with California State Parks

Many had to evacuate the Santa Cruz Mountains during the CZU Lightning Complex fires of August, 2020, including museums, visitor centers, and cultural heritage sites managed by California State Parks. Jenny Daly, museum curator for the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks, was part of a team that worked quickly to save artifacts from threatened State Parks, including Big Basin, Año Nuevo, and Wilder Ranch.

During this online event, learn about the immediate steps taken by State Parks to save our cultural history and the ongoing process of caring for objects impacted by the fires. Kathleen Aston, Collections Manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, will also share how the Museum approaches natural disasters and collections, from Loma Prieta to ongoing efforts with the CZU Lightning Complex.

Photo of Mark Hylkema by Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group.

About the Speaker

Jenny Daly, Museum Curator I for the California State Parks in the Santa Cruz District, grew up in Santa Cruz and is fortunate to live and work in her hometown. After transferring to UC Berkeley from Cabrillo College, Jenny received a double BA in Near Eastern Studies and Theater, Performance, and Dance Studies. The most valuable part of her time at Berkeley was the internship she had working with the Registrar at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology where she became hooked on the idea of a career working in museums. Jenny then received a Master’s in Museum Studies from John F. Kennedy University and has worked in collections management at various institutions since then, including at the California Academy of Sciences, the Cantor Arts Center, and the Getty Center. Jenny was very excited to start working for the State Parks as a curator because it meant she could combine her love of Parks with her expertise in museum collections management.

This program is part of the Museum’s Member exclusive Collections Close-Up series and our August series in partnership with Santa Cruz Public Libraries, CZU AND YOU: Resources for Recovery, Preparedness, and Ecological Understanding.

Collections Close-Up: Beautiful Benitoite

Not all that glitters is gold — sometimes it’s benitoite! So discovered prospector James Couch, when in 1907 he encountered some sparkling specimens of what would one day become the California state gem. While gold looms large in the story of our state, the unique geology of California has gifted us many other magnificent rocks and minerals. From cinnabar to serpentinite, we are delighted to share these with the public once more in our classic California minerals exhibit. We are fortunate enough to have one specimen of rare benitoite on display, and for this month’s close-up, we’ll zoom in on our only other specimen, safely secured in storage.

Benitoite specimen from the Museum’s collections.

Our second benoite specimen is hosted by a chunk of blueschist that amounts to the size of a large hamburger. Brilliant blue sparkles alert us to the presence of benitoite, or barium titanium silicate (BaTiSi₃O₉). These are nestled alongside black sprinkles of neptunite in a white, almost fuzzy looking layer of natrolite. Blue, black, and white, each of these substances is its own mineral, a naturally occurring inorganic element or compound with a characteristic structure. 

These minerals and their blueschist host rock come from the guts of the southern end of the Diablo Range. Millions of years ago, unusual combinations of hydrothermal fluids seeped into the cracks of the blueschist found within metamorphosed serpentinite, forming a variety of rare minerals including benitoite, neptunite, natrolite, joaquinite and others. And while benitoite is found in a few places around the world, this section of the California Coast Range geologic province in southeastern San Benito County is the only place in the world where gem quality benitoite crystals are found.

It’s also the first place where benitoite was found. There are some complex claims to the initial discovery, but the most widely accepted story begins with failed melon farmer James Couch prospecting outside Coalinga on behalf of investor R. W. Dallas. In December of 1907, Couch noticed some blue sparkling stones he thought to be sapphire. In the subsequent months, Dallas looped in a few dealers and gem cutters, who offered different identifications, including an expert in Los Angeles who thought it was volcanic glass (perhaps because of it’s conchoidal fractures). By the time a sample made its way to San Francisco, a lapidary who thought the stone was spinel showed it to a friend, who sent it to UC Berkeley mineralogist Dr. George Louderback

Dr. Louderback investigated the sample, finding it too soft to be either spinel or sapphire. Upon examination, Louderback identified the specimen for what it was – a new substance to science, and named it Benitoite, after the San Benito river which ran through the area of the mining claim. He soon journeyed to the Dallas Mine, where operations had already started, to study benitoite’s geological context. The paper he published describing benitoite’s mode of occurrence also includes the first published photos of benitoite and early photos of the mine.

Benitoite Mineral Specimen and Gems (Louderback, 1909)

The paper describes a lot of the properties that make benitoite exciting – including the high refractive indices and strong dispersion that make it especially sparkly (although you have to go elsewhere to learn about benitoite’s stunning fluorescence). It is still described by many sources as one of the “finest” descriptions of a new mineral species to be written. It’s worth noting that benitoite, while new to science, was nonetheless the embodiment of a scientific prediction that had been made decades prior. It exhibits a ditrigonal-dipyramidal crystal habit, a shape that looks sort of like someone glued the bottoms of two triangular pyramids together, within the hexagonal crystal class. This was the first time such a form was found naturally occurring, one of only thirty-two possible classes of crystal shapes mathematically predicted by Leipzig crystallographer J.F.C. Hessel in 1830.

Open Cut Benioite Mine 1908 (Louderback, 1909)

Even as the true nature of benitoite was unfolding, commercial operations quickly emerged at what was first called the Dallas Mine. Over the decades the mine has seen varying techniques and levels of productivity. In the earliest years, folks were after the largest possible gems and they wanted them fast. This meant hacking off a lot of big knobs of crystal that were initially covered, due to the way the mineral veins had formed within the blueschist, in a fine layer of natrolite. Waiting to dissolve the natrolite in acid, which could happen with no harm to the benitoite, took too long. This meant that a lot of well crystalized mineral specimens within their original rock matrix were broken up and made into gems. Fortunately, some whole specimens remain, and the museum purchased the specimen featured in our Collections Close-Up from San Francisco based J. Gissler in the late 1930s.

Our display specimen was also purchased in the 1930s. This specimen has been exhibited since 1985, the very year that Californian’s made benitoite their state gem to celebrate its beauty and uniquely California story. And though the history of this mineral is part of it’s charm, mineral discovery is not a thing of the past. Scientists continue to discover new minerals as the result of current field work, or even through fresh understandings of preserved museum specimens.

For more on benitoite and it’s geological and cultural history, join our Collections Close-Up conversation with Professor Hilde Schwartz on June 10.

Collections Close-Up: Benitoite with Hilde Schwartz

There are few things more Californian than benitoite, a mineral formed within the low temperature, high pressure environment of subduction zones and sparsely sprinkled throughout serpentinite landscapes. While the mineral exists in isolated locations globally, gemstone quality material has only been found in California — one of the reason’s it was named our State Gemstone in 1985.

Learn about the geologic and cultural history of this mineral with Museum Collections Manager Kathleen Aston and Dr. Hilde Schwartz, lecturer in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at UC Santa Cruz, during this installment of our member-exclusive Collections Close-Up series.


About the series

Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Your support helps us steward our collections and offer educational programs that connect people with nature and science. Memberships start at just $15/year.

Collections Close-Up: The Life and Legacy of Randall Morgan

There are few names in our local naturalist community that are as universally revered as that of Randall Morgan. Also known as Randy or R, Morgan was a pillar of the local natural history community.

Though he passed away a few years ago, his influence on the natural world and those who celebrate it in Santa Cruz is evident from the the Sandhills that his activism helped to save, to the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society that he helped found, to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History where he worked as a taxidermist to pay for studying linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. His legacy also lives on in the collections of the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History.

Join Kathleen Aston, Collections Manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, and Chris Lay, Director of the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, for an exploration of Randall Morgans life and legacy, including his collections, taxidermy, and conservation efforts.

This month’s Collections Close-Up is in sponsorship of the exhibit Look. Act. Inspire., celebrating the naturalists of Santa Cruz County. It is presented in partnership between the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, the San Lorenzo Valley Museum, and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Resources for further exploration

This program is part of a series in support of the exhibit Look. Act. Inspire. and is presented in partnership between:

Image result for san lorenzo valley museum

Collections Close-Up: Herbarium Highlights

Late rain and sporadic sunshine are lighting up the local landscape with green growth and bright blooms, raising spirits for the oncoming spring. This month’s Close-Up highlights a slightly less vivid but no less delightful collection of plants – a collection of preserved grasses, complete with identifications by their collector, beloved naturalist and conservationist Randy Morgan.

At first glance, the graceful blades and intricate flowers are captivating for their beauty alone, as in specimens like this California Canary grass (Phalaris californica). After all, another specimen in this collection represents a plant that so charmed Californias that it was designated the state grass. Not only are they beautiful, they’re informative – each specimen is carefully arranged to make visible important features such as the roots, blades, and flowers. The subtle distinctions between grass species in a field might blend together, but laid out on the herbarium sheet (or for that matter, conveyed via botanical illustration) the various parts of the plants can be easier to see.

This arrangement of significant features is a critical component of a quality herbarium specimen. The scientists who use herbaria (the plural of herbarium, or collections of plants preserved and labeled for reference, a practice which is more than 700 years old) such as these need to be able to see as many diagnostic features and as much of the plant as possible for use in understanding the identities of specimens, their classification, and their relationships to one another. This is harder with some plants than others – while grasses aren’t as difficult to capture on the herbarium sheet as, say, rattan palms, – at 103 cm, the above specimen didn’t quite fit on the herbarium sheet. Although this sheet is a petite 8.5 by 11 inches, at 103 cm this specimen still wouldn’t have been close to fitting on today’s standard herbarium sheets of 11 by 16 inches.

Thankfully, Morgan noted the height of the specimen on the label. The more than seventy specimens also have, at least, the general location name of where they were collected, their common name, scientific name, and collector listed. Quality herbarium specimens are fixed to archival paper and accompanied by labels that include this key information. It is preferable to have any other associated information like collection number or i.d., description of the plant and any collecting notes. Specimens in herbaria that meet these qualifications are called voucher specimens. 

Herbarium specimen of California canary grass

Not only is this information important for science, it’s important for collections management as well. As we strive to enhance the accessibility of our collections, the level of data a specimen or set of specimens has helps us make decisions about what to prioritize for the time-consuming process of digitization. The time spent is well worth it – the enormous increase in access to specimens brought on by digitization has not only accelerated the current possibilities of plant science but also created new opportunities for how we think about pressing issues like the future of botanical biodiversity.

Of course, digitization efforts connect us to more than just the scientific value of pressed plants. Who can be surprised, when herbarium specimens readily embody the intersection of science and art cherished by nature enthusiasts everywhere. One such fan was the poet Emily Dickson, whose enchanting collection of preserved flora, collected during a period when the formal study of science was inaccessible to many women, can now be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

This collection of grasses is also dear to us for a different kind of connection – that of our institution’s relationship with Randall Morgan. Often known as Randy or R, Morgan was a pillar of the local natural history community. And though he passed away a few years ago, his influence on the natural world and those who celebrate it in Santa Cruz is evident from the the Sandhills that his activism helped to save, to the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society that he helped found, to this very Museum where he worked as a taxidermist to pay for studying linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. 

UCSC’s Norris Center for Natural History, the primary steward of Morgan’s collections, details in their vivid biographical rundown, Morgan’s love of nature began with birds and buoyed him through his life as a largely self taught naturalist. Even without formal training, his passionate observation of the world around led him to many achievements, including the discovery of new species, and his collection of plant voucher specimens that serves as the foundation of our understanding of plant biodiversity in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His story is inspiring in part because, like so many of those featured in the Norris Center-led exhibit Santa Cruz County Naturalists, it expands the notion of who can be a naturalist.

It’s inspiring to have this collection then, as a snapshot of the plant communities of California in the 1970s, but also as a window into Morgan’s dedicated observations of the natural world. As the Norris Center director Chris Lay mentions in the CNPS’s Randall Morgan memorial “When I look at plants I’ll be very satisfied if I can just tell you the species name. But Randy, he recognizes the diversity within the construct we call a species.”

For a deeper dive into the legacy of collector Randall Morgan, keep an eye on our April calendar for our next Collections Close-Up event.

A selection of native and non-native grasses collected by Randall Morgan in Soquel, CA.

Collections Close-Up: Picturing Nature

From rediscovered family photos to contemporary takes on unprecedented times, pictures taken for all kinds of purposes illuminate our collective understanding of the changing world around us. This month we investigate and celebrate the capacity of photography to shape our relationship with nature, from our foundational collections to our current exhibits.


About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Foundational Photographs

Laura Hecox: lighthouse keeper, collector, naturalist. 


This January we piece together a richer picture of our founding collector by taking a new look at an old photograph. The image below depicts matriarch Margaret Hecox standing on the steps of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse in November 1887, accompanied by W.J. Morton and T.H. D’Estrella. We borrowed this picture from a descendent of Simon Hamer, Margaret Hecox’s nephew, who received it years after having spent time living with the Hecox family in Santa Cruz. It is similar to an image the Museum already has, except for one critical difference: it is captioned.

In addition to providing the exact date, and clearly identifying the individuals in the photo, including “Mother’, the final note of the caption, partially obscured by damage, reads “I took this photo”. 

We celebrate Laura’s legacy and steward her personal collection, yet there is little documentary evidence of her life. Previous Collections projects have explored some of the precious few materials we have that were actually created by Laura – these include her catalog books and one of her scrapbooks. Our primary source of visual information about her life is a small collection of photographs. 

Consisting of two sets of albums, these photographs depict various people and places around 1887 or 1888. These albums are where we derive most of our iconic images of Laura, tidepooling in petticoats beneath a natural bridge, or sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean. 

Historic image of 3 people on the steps of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse.
Image courtesy of Frank Folwell, relative of Margaret Hecox

One album is inscribed “with Christmas compliments” from Hecox family friend and photography enthusiast Theophilus Hope D’Estrella. D’Estrella was a teacher at the California School for the Deaf, where he got the nickname “Magic Lantern Man” for sharing magic lantern slides of his travels into the Sierras and along the California coast with his students. The D’Estrella album includes pictures of parks and buildings in the Monterey and San Francisco bay areas, as well as the sculpture studio of D’Estrella’s good friend and Laura’s nephew, Douglas Tilden. 

The other album, contained within the same type of mass produced “Album of Photographs” folio, is more Santa Cruz focused. Its many images include rocky coast and crashing waves, the lighthouse, and local park scenes. Few images depict Laura herself. Some of the images are explicitly attributed to specific photographers, many are not. For the most part, they are all captioned in the same elegantly looped handwriting that we find in Laura’s catalog books and lighthouse paperwork. It also appears to be the same handwriting on the caption to Simon Hamer’s photograph. In this caption then, we find Laura not just collecting specimens, corresponding with scientists, and keeping up with the current events, but also engaging with emerging technologies. 

The first modern photographic image was Joseph-Nicephore Niepce’s 1826 picture of a barn. Although the subsequent decades witnessed various innovations in the photographic process, it wasn’t until the 1888 release of the handheld Kodak camera that the process was simplified enough for photography to become a widespread hobby. So in this photograph we are seeing Laura use a camera during a time when most photography was still the province of professionals. Prior to the context provided by this caption, we had no way of knowing that any of the photographs might have been taken by Laura herself.

It is exciting to understand Laura’s active role in creating the materials we have in the collection, especially in light of the history of how her collection has been described. While today we often place her story front and center, historical accounts often attributed her collection to her father Adna, despite Laura herself deeding the collection to the city. Of course, we have many accounts of family collaboration – of Adna building cabinets and of Margaret organizing and sorting specimens – and we wouldn’t want to exclude them. Yet, as late as the 1930s we see reports of the relocation of the “Adna A. Hecox collection” to its new home in Seabright. Being able to attribute things like the taking of a photograph or the collecting of specimens to Laura herself allows us to participate in broader movements to recognize the role of women in the history of science and to celebrate diverse connections with nature.

The surfacing of this photograph enriches our understanding of Laura Hecox’s story, but anyone who has taken a closer look at the changing landscapes of the Monterey Bay knows that photographs have a lot to say about the story of the natural world around us. This is just as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th, and you can see the evidence in our upcoming virtual exhibit 2020 Vision. For more on photographs as a tool for understanding of the world around us, and the interrelated worlds of photography and natural history, check out this month’s Collections Close-Up event: Picturing Nature on the January 14th at 5:30 p.m..