James Hall and Paleontology

Many people call James Hall "the father of modern geology." In the nineteenth century, he was New York’s best known geologist and paleontologist, and highly respected for his early work in stratigraphy, the study of geologic layers of rock called strata. When fossils are found in strata, geologists can identify the age of the fossil by the age of the strata.

Hall studied natural sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and graduated with honors in 1832. He was later hired by the school as assistant professor of chemistry and natural sciences and in 1836 was made full professor of geology. Hall did much of his early field work in the Helderberg Mountains in Albany County where the exposed cliffs were rich in fossils. He also surveyed New York’s strata in the Adirondack Mountains and set a model for naming strata after its location. In 1841, Hall became New York’s first State Paleontologist and built his own laboratory in Albany (in what is now Lincoln Park) where he trained many prominent scientists.

In 1886, during the construction of Harmony Mill Number 3 near Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River, the remains of a mastodon were found deeply buried in two potholes which had been worn into the bedrock by the swirling action of water and stones at the end of the last Ice Age. Hall was responsible for bringing the Cohoes Mastodon to the New York State Museum where he was the first director. The Cohoes Mastodon became its most popular and iconic specimen and has been on display for more than 150 years.

Hall’s standing desk has thirty-four drawers and two locking compartments where he stored and organized fossils and other specimens.


Magnifying Glass
James Hall’s Desk
Unknown maker
c. 1875
Courtesy of New York State Museum, H-1975.29.3
James Hall’s Briefcase
Unknown maker
Nineteenth century
Leather, paper, cloth
Courtesy of New York State Museum, H-1975.29.57
Magnifying Glass
Mastodon Giganteus
Photograph by Eugene S. M. Haines, Albany, New York
Albumen photographic print on card
Courtesy of New York State Museum