Orton, James

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(b. Seneca Falls, N.Y., 21 April 1830; d. Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, 24 September 1877), natural history, exploration.

James Orton was the fifth of eight sons of Azariah Giles Orton, preacher, poet, and classicist, and Minerva Squire Orton. He wrote The Miner’s Guide and Metallurgist’s Directory at nineteen, in the year of the gold rush; but he did not go to California. After graduating from Williams College (B.A. 1855), he attended Andover Theological Seminary and held three pastorates, but Mark Hopkins, president of Williams College, turned Orton permanently toward natural history.

Under the auspices of Williams College and with a loan of instruments from the Smithsonian Institution, Orton directed an Andean expedition in 1867 to determine whether deposits in the upper Amazon Valley were of marine or, as Louis Agassiz insisted, glacial origin. He crossed the Ecuadorian Andes and by canoe descended the Rio Napo, “a steaming vapor-bath.“ He found marine shells at Pebas, Peru. Only the botanist William Jameson and the zoologist Gaetano Osculati had preceded Orton’s party across the Guamani Pass on a scientific expedition. Orton’s Andes and Amazon (1870) was dedicated to Charles Darwin.

In 1869 Orton, a staunch supporter of coeducation, introduced natural history instruction at Vassar College and recounted his experiences in Liberal Education of Women (1873). His Comparative Zoology, Structural and Systematic (1876), expounding Agassiz’s functional approach, was an influential text. In 1873 Orton directed a second Andean expedition, from Pará to Yurimaguas, across the Andes and down to Lima, collecting for specialists in a wide number of fields and telling of these experiences in the third edition ofAndes and Amazon (1876).

In 1876 Orton set out on a third expedition, traveling to the trans-Andean rain forests. Although the expedition seemed well planned, the hired porters and much of the escort provided by the Bolivian government mutinied, leaving the small party to make its way through most difficult terrain to Lake Titicaca. Orton had never enjoyed good health, and he succumbed from exhaustion while crossing the lake. He was buried on Estaves Island. Unfortunately, Orton’s collections and notes from this last expedition were lost during shipment to New York.


I. Original Works. Orton’s principal writings includeThe Miner’s Guide and Metallurgist’s Directory (New York–Cincinnati, 1849); The Proverbialist and the Poet: Proverbs Illustrated by Parallel or Relative Passages From the Poets, to which are Added Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian Proverbs (Philadelphia, 1852); Andes and the Amazon; or, Across the Continent of South America (New York, 1870; repr., 1871; 2nd ed., 1876);Underground Treasures, How and Where to Find Them (Hartford, 1872); and Comparative Zoology, Structural and Systematic, for Use in Schools and Colleges (New York, 1876).

Orton published a number of short papers in the American Journal of Science, Geological Magazine, Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Annals and Magazine of Natural History, and American Naturalist, including one in the latter, “The Great Auk, Alca impennis”, concerning the former model for Audubon’s drawing in the Vassar College collection, 3 (1869), 539–542.

He edited The Liberal Education of Women, the Demand and the Method, Current Thoughts in America and England (New York, 1873), to which he contributed 8 chapters. Four of Orton’s letters, written between 1867 and 1868, are preserved in the S. F. Baird correspondence, Smithsonian Institution. Manuscript “Notes for New Edition” of Andes and Amazon, including 251 queries and references, is preserved in De Golyer Library, University of Oklahoma.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no published bibliography of his writings. The essential sketch is Susan R. Orton, “A Sketch of James Orton,” in Vassar Quarterly,1 (1916), 1–8, in which the date of death accepted here appears. See also E. D. Cope, “An Examination of the Reptilia and Batrachia Obtained by the Orton Expedition to Ecuador and the Upper Amazon, With Notes on Other Species” in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,20 (1868), 96–140, and “On Some Batrachia and Nematognathi Brought From the Upper Amazon by Professor Orton,” ibid.,26 (1874), 120–137; Philip Reese Uhler, “Notices of the Hemiptera Obtained by the Expedition of Prof. James Orton in Ecuador and Brazil,” in Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History,12 (1869), 321–327; George Dale Smith, “List of Coleoptera Collected by Professor James Orton in Ecuador and Brazil,”ibid., 327–330; and Samuel Hubbard Scudder, “Notes on Orlhoplera Collected by Professor James Orion on Either Side of the Andes of Equatorial South America,” ibid. 330345. Ruth D. Turner, “James H. Orton. His Contributions to the Field of Fossil and Recent Mollusks,” in Revista del Museo argentino de ciencias naturales “Bernardino Rivadavia Ciencias zoológicas, 8 (1962), 89–99—the title included an erroneous middle initial.

Henry Morris Myers and Philip Van Ness Myers, Life and Nature Under the Tropics (New York, 1871), 194–323, relates to a contingent of the first Andean expedition.

Joseph Ewan