Port Orford Meteorite Hoax -
    * To: Andy Grubb 
    * Subject: Port Orford Meteorite Hoax -
    * From: Bernd Pauli HD 
    * Date: Wed, 16 Jun 1999 22:27:49 +0200
    * CC: meteorite-list@meteoritecentral.com
Andy Grubb schrieb:

> Hello List, I'll suspend lurking to ask if anyone has any
> classification and/or historical info on the Port Orford,
> OR meteorite. Thanks in advance.

Hello Andy, David, Martin, and List!

PLOTKIN H. (1993) The Port Orford Meteorite Hoax
(Sky & Tel., September 1993, pp. 35-38):

The story of the discovery and subsequent loss of the Port Orford
meteorite has become one of the most enigmatic and captivating tales in
the history of meteoritics. It describes a giant 10-ton object - a rare
pallasite (stony-iron) meteorite - allegedly found in 1856 by John
Evans, a contract explorer for the U.S. government. Evans reported that
the meteorite lay on Bald Mountain, one of the rugged Rogue River
mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean some 40 miles from the remote
coastal town of Port Orford, Oregon. He did not recognize it as a
meteorite but broke off a small sample to include with his other
geologic specimens to be shipped back East for analysis.
When C.T. Jackson, a noted Boston chemist, eventually analyzed the
fragment he immediately recognized its meteoritic character. After
receiving confirmation from W.K. Haidinger, an international authority
on meteorites, Jackson hurriedly began corresponding with Evans, who had
returned to his residence in Washington, D.C. Jackson's enthusiastic
inquiries led Evans to self-assuredly describe the appearance and size
of the parent meteorite and its general location. He claimed there would
not be "the least difficulty" relocating it, and he eagerly offered to
return to Oregon to recover the specimen for the Smithsonian
Aided by petitions from the Boston Society of Natural History and the
Acaderny of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Jackson and Evans launched
an aggressive campaign to lobby Congress to fund the expedition.
Momentum built quickly, but it halted abruptly with the almost
simultaneous firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Evans's death
from pneumonia the following day. Since Congress soon became embroiled
in Civil War preparations, and Evans had never prepared a map
pinpointing where he had found the meteorite, all official efforts to
retrieve it were dropped. But eventually word began to spread that there
was a huge, lost meteorite lying somewhere on a mountainside near Port
Orford, and nearby residents began combing the hills for it.

Activity intensified in 1917 when a journal of Evans's "Route from Port
Orford Across the Rogue River Mountains" was found in New Orleans and
deposited in the Smithsonian. The institution renewed its interest in
the lost meteorite, and in 1929 it dispatched W.E Foshag, curator of
mineralogy and petrology, to look for it.
Searches reached a fever pitch in 1937, when J.H. Pruett, an astronomer
at the University of Oregon, published an article in the Sunday
Oregonian that falsely claimed the Smithsonian was offering a $2 million
reward to the finder of the lost meteorite. This irresponsible
journalism gave rise to a local Society for the Recovery of the Lost
Port Orford Meteorite. It was also responsible for enticing thousands of
persons who wished to combine a summer holiday with an adventurous
treasure hunt into the Siskiyou National Forest!
In 1939, in the midst of this flurry of activity, the Smithsonian
mounted its second search, undertaken by E.P. Henderson, associate
curator of the Division of Meteorites. No trace of the lost meteorite
turned up.
These failures did little to dampen the spirits of the meteorite's
would-be rediscoverers. Relying on the assumptions that Evans was well
trained and highly regarded by the leading scientists of his day, and
that he had no reason to lie about his discovery, they read and reread
his journal (which makes no mention of a meteorite). Thus they pitted
their wits against the evidence, hoping they would be sufficiently
clever to put all the clues together and succeed where all before
failed. Indeed, the story of the Port Orford meteorite achieved almost
mythic status.

I was no exception; the Port Orford meteorite story captivated me and
drew me to Oregon's coastal mountains for field searches with D. Borgard
during the summers of 1986 and 1987. But by the time of my second visit,
I had become convinced that Evans's story simply could not be true. How
could a scientist of his presumed caliber discover an exotic 10-ton
pallasite and not record it
in his journal? And how was it possible that it could have escaped
detection by the prospectors who worked in the area in Evans's day, and
by the thousands of people who looked for it in recent times?
Still, lacking compelling evidence, I was reluctant to conclude that
Evans's story was an outright lie. I therefore decided to research his
life further and to reevaluate his letters, journals, and catalogs to
see if they could provide supporting evidence for such an
This new investigation produced startling results. In the first place it
provided evidence that Evans had no professional training in geology and
that he was superficial in his scientific fieldwork.
His credibility as a geologist came from his fortuitous discovery of the
rich fossil remains of the South Dakota Badlands, which he chanced upon
in 1849 while working for D.D. Owen on one of his surveys. On Owen's
recommendation, he was appointed by the Department of the Interior in
1851 to explore the geology of the Oregon Territory.
Evans's geologic notes from his expeditions to Oregon further reveal
that while he was an accurate describer, his analyses were cursory and
certainly not insightful. Although his early exploring trips and
specimen collecting provided at least a beginning for a natural history
of the Pacific Northwest, Evans clearly was not a highly regarded

Second, my research revealed that Evans had amassed a staggering debt
through mismanagement of his government contracts and land speculation
in Oregon. Overspending his budget three times in a row, Evans brought
his debt to $11,074. He was so crushed by this sum and the sense of
impending doom it gave him that he vowed he would "leave no stone
unturned" in his efforts to recoup this amount. He therefore did have a
compelling reason to lie - an urgent, desperate need for money.
Most startling of all, continued investigation led me to the shocking
but inescapable conclusion that Evans had acquired a small piece of a
very rare kind of meteorite and had fabricated a clever and elaborate
hoax. His scheme was to use it as a prop to get Congress to appropriate
the funds he needed to solve his financial problems.
Evans's financial plight was exacerbated by Congress's unwillingness to
make appropriations for past expenses. His plan to get around that
impasse centered on the meteorite. He hoped his story of its discovery
would prove so intriguing that Congress would make a modest
appropriation ($1,000 was suggested) to retrieve it. He then suggested
linking together this small sum with the much larger one necessary for
the publication of his long-overdue final report, the Geological Survey
of Oregon and Washington Territory. In this way, the publication
expenses - and with them all of his personal debts - could be sloughed
off as current rather than past expenses.

I became convinced that Evans's story was a hoax when I realized that
his claim of an 1856 discovery date was beyond doubt a lie. All of the
geologic specimens collected during his 1856 trip, as well as his
earlier ones, were analyzed by Abram Litton, a friend who was a chemist
at St. Louis University.When Litton's wife died in late 1858 and he
found himself unable to do further scientific work, Evans turned to
Jackson to analyze his subsequent finds. Jackson's analysis of the Port
Orford specimen is virtual proof that it had not been found in 1856, as
Evans claimed, but during an 1858 trip to Oregon he made to sell off
some of his property.
It seemed inconceivable that Evans could have made a mistake about
something as fundamental to his story as the discovery date. I therefore
took this to be a deliberate lie. More than anything else, this led me
to conclude that Evans's whole story was built on sand.
The Port Orford specimen, currently in the Smithsonian, is one of the
most puzzling pieces in this story. Unquestionably a genuine meteorite,
where did it come from? And how did Evans acquire it? I felt that
answers to these questions would provide the strongest possible proof of
Evans's hoax.
Evans's letters to his wife during his 1858 trip and shortly after his
return to Washington shed light on the meteorite's acquisition. The
letters from Oregon reveal a broken, despondent man utterly worn down
and exhausted by his long, frustrating battles with Congress. Yet by the
time he had returned to Washington, his outlook had surprisingly and
dramatically changed, and he had become extremely buoyant. He boasted
that he was now "better prepared to wage war with Congress" for the
desperately needed appropriation than ever before.

Although Evans offered no explanation for this remarkable change in
outlook, one letter revealed that he had "made some interesting
additions" to his geologic collection during this trip. Indeed he had!
The most interesting of these, I contend, was a small meteorite.
To ascertain the true origin of the meteorite, I compared printed
accounts of its physical appearance, degree of weathering, and chemical
composition against those of the other pallasites discovered in Evans's
day. I concluded that the Port Orford specimen was actually a piece of
the Imilac meteorite, which had been found in the Atacama Desert in
Chile around 1820-22.
This possibility had been tentatively raised earlier by meteoriticists
but had been dismissed for various reasons. In the first place, the Port
Orford meteorite has a well-preserved black fusion crust on it, but
Imilac specimens do not. Second, there are some differences between the
trace-element levels in the metal of the two meteorites.
But my research revealed that R.A. Philippi, who had visited the Imilac
strewnfield in 1854, had described the surfaces of the small meteorites
he found as "very black." Moreover, the Smithsonian received an Imilac
specimen collected as late as 1973 that has a "well-preserved fusion
crust as is observed on the Port Orford specimen."
My research further convinced me of the important role played by the
llimaes meteorite. llimaes is another pallasite found in the Atacama
Desert about 50 years after Imilac and 170 miles farther south. Now in
the mineral collection of the School of Mines, Copiapů, Chile, the main
portion of this specimen is also covered by a thick black fusion crust.
Although llimaes and Imilac also show differences in their trace-element
levels, meteoriticists now consider them to be part of the same fall.
When I initially compared the trace-element levels in Port Orford and
Imilac, I found it difficult to assess their differences. Yet published
data on Ilimaes showed that it is as similar to Imilac as it is to Port
If it was justifiable to consider Imilac and llimaes a pair, then it was
also justifiable to pair Port Orford with Ilimaes and thus with lmilac
as well.
Thousands of small fragments were produced in the shower that yielded
Imilac and its kin. In the second quarter of the 19th century, many of
these passed through Panama on their way to various museums and
collectors in North America and Europe.
Putting all the pieces of the Port Orford puzzle together, I concluded
that Evans acquired a small, well-preserved, curio-size specimen of the
Imilac meteorite when he crossed the Isthmus of Panama in the fall of
1858 on his final trip from Oregon to Washington. With it he perpetrated
a deliberate and elaborate hoax which he hoped would result in
congressional funds that would rescue him from his crushing debt of
professional and private debt.
Recently, extensive metallographic and mineralogical examinations of
Port Orford and specimens from the Imilac shower were carried out by
R.S. Clarke, Jr., of the Smithsonian and V.E. Buchwald of the Technical
University of Denmark. They also conclude that the Port Orford meteorite
is indeed an Imilac fragment, and that Evans used it as bait in a
deliberate hoax.

When not looking for lost meteorites, Howard Plotkin teaches the history
of science at the University of Western Ontario. The full account of his
investigation of the Port Orford meteorite and the Clarke-Buchwald
technical investigation appears in Smithsonian Contributions to the
Earth Sciences, No. 31, 1993. A limited number of copies are available
from R.S. Clarke, Division of Meteorite MRC 119, National Museum of
Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560.

PLOTKIN H. (1993) The Port Orford Meteorite Hoax
(Sky & Tel., September 1993, pp. 35-38):

Best wishes,