Dr. Spillman, lost in history

The Commercial Dispatch
Rufus Ward
July 16, 2011

Dr. William Spillman lived in this 1836 home, which still stands at 803 Sixth Ave. N. in Columbus.

Few people recognize the name of Dr. William Spillman of Columbus. Even the marker is missing from his grave in Friendship Cemetery. His 1836 house still stands, but bears no historic marker or plaque. Spillman is a man lost in history.

He was, however, the classic Victorian example of “a man for all seasons.”

circa 1914 photo of Barton’s Bluff on the Tombigbee River. During the 1850s, Dr. Spillman found so many fossil shark’s teeth here that he named the site “Shark’s Defeat.”

He may be little known today, but his legacy survives in the mid-1800s publications of the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, the Geological Surveys of Mississippi and Alabama, the Columbus Democrat and the Mississippi Methodist.

Such a legacy would lead one to wonder exactly who he was. By avocation he was a scientist, but in Columbus he was respected as a druggist, a physician and a Methodist minister.

Spillman was born in East Tennessee in 1806 and had moved with his wife, Nancy, to Columbus by 1838. In 1839, he published an article titled “Antiquities of America” in a Columbus newspaper. In 1843, he was advertising that he had a “good supply of Fresh Medicines” at his office.

Though practicing as a druggist and calling himself a doctor, it was not until 1846 that he graduated from the Philadelphia Medical School.

Spillman also was involved in religion, first as a minister in the Mobile Methodist Conference and later as a traveling minister in the Mississippi Conference. In the 1870s and 1880s he served at revivals and camp meetings and was editor of The Mississippi Methodist.

He and his family resided in an 1836 house now known as “Beckrome.” The house is still standing at 803 Sixth Ave. N. in Columbus.

Spillman’s scientific interest spanned a wide variety of subjects, including the fields of

In 1869, Dr. Spillman found fossil bones from a moasaur at Plymouth Bluff, which is now the old river channel at the Columbus Lock and Dam. They were identified as an important new species of the supposedly 70-million-year-old giant sea-going reptile. This is an 1836 engraving of a moasaur skull.

archaeology, botany, paleontology and conchology. About 1860, he sent specimens of modern river snails to noted mollusk authority Issac Lea. These snails were described in an 1861 article in a publication of Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia.

Spillman was a member of the Academy. In 1855 he provided the Smithsonian with specimens of fish, reptiles and shells collected in Mississippi.

It was in collecting fossils, though, that he had the greatest interest.

The Cretaceous fossil beds of Alabama and Mississippi were Spillman’s hunting grounds. He was not trained as a geologist or paleontologist, but was able to provide previously unknown fossils to some of the fathers of American paleontology. Several original fossil type specimens in the Smithsonian were found by or named for him. He provided information for the first geological surveys in Alabama and Mississippi.

A two page list of fossils found by Spillman in Mississippi is included in the 1857 “Preliminary Report on the Geology and Agriculture of the State of Mississippi.” The report states that most of the fossils were found near Plymouth Bluff, which is just north of Columbus along the Tombigbee River where the Mississippi University for Women Plymouth Bluff Center is now.

Spillman also found a fossil bed full of sharks teeth at Barton’s Bluff just north of the present day Town Creek Camp Ground. There, sharks teeth were so plentiful that he called the site the “Shark’s Defeat.” His other favorite fossil-collecting sites included Vinton Bluff, also on the Tombigbee, Owl Creek near Ripley, and Prairie Bluff Landing in Wilcox County, Ala.

The list of people Spillman was associated with reads like a who’s who of Nineteenth Century American Geology. There was Michael Tuomey, the first state geologist in Alabama, and B.L.C. Wailles of Mississippi.

Nationally, he communicated with and provided fossils to Timothy Conrad, William Gabb, Edward Drinker Cope and the “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology,” Joseph Leidy.

A type of fossil moasaur — a huge sea-going reptile thought by some scientists to be 70 million years old –was found by Spillman, probably at Plymouth Bluff, and was an important new species that was illustrated in publications of both the Smithsonian Institution and The Boston Society of Natural History. He also discovered the first dinosaur bones to be found in Mississippi.

Spillman died in 1886 and was buried in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus. Today, his grave is unmarked and he is relatively unknown unless you read about the beginnings of paleontology in America and examine the early reports of the Smithsonian Institution.

The most interesting article on the life of Dr. Spillman was written by Earl Manning and is found in the December 1994 issue of “Mississippi Geology.” In that article is an old quote about Spillman’s life: “Of his approach to the natural world, it was said that ‘He could see God in all things, even in all his creation.'”

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

Published in: on July 23, 2011 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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