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Five original field sketches of the Iowa landscape, drawn in 1868 by Orestes H. St. John, were found in 1975 at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The pencil sketches were meticulously drawn, dated, and signed and included detailed landmark annotations. St. John, whose career paralleled significant developments within the field of geology, was Assistant Geologist of the Iowa Geological Survey from 1866 to 1869. Return of the sketches for the Survey archives revealed that these drawings correspond to five of the thirteen lithographs which illustrate the two-volume 1870 Report on the Geological Survey of the State of Iowa. The precise annotations enabled the authors to relocate and document the sites as they appear today. Revisiting these sites provided an opportunity to observe 110 years of historical change in land use from native prairie to intensive agriculture, urban growth, and woodland succession, as well as the effects of surface mining of mineral resources and the protection afforded to land in the public domain. Each site also had a significant geological context: the Missouri River valley and adjoining Loess Hills near Sioux City, the glacial moraines enclosing the Spirit Lake and West Okoboji Lake areas, the gypsum deposits near Fort Dodge, and the limestone resources exposed along the Des Moines River valley near Keosauqua. In relying on his own artistic skills to document these geological features and resources during this reconnaissance era of geological studies in Iowa, St. John joins the 19th Century tradition of documentary artists in America.

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