A Brothers' Reunion: Evolution's Champion Alfred Russel Wallace and Forty-Niner John Wallace

By Manna, Salvatore John | California History, September 2008 | Go to article overview

A Brothers' Reunion: Evolution's Champion Alfred Russel Wallace and Forty-Niner John Wallace


Manna, Salvatore John, California History


On May 23, 1887, two brothers who had not seen each other for nearly forty years reunited at a ferry dock in Oakland. (1) Since their last meeting in their native England, their lives had taken extraordinarily different paths. In 1848, Alfred Russel Wallace had sailed from London to the Amazon to collect rare species of plants and animals. The following year, his older brother John had joined the hordes seeking gold in California.

When the brothers next greeted one another, Alfred had become the most famous living naturalist of his era, the man whose published contribution to the concept of natural selection sparked Charles Darwin to finally issue his epochal treatise on evolution, On the Origin of Species. For the thirty-plus years following Darwin's death in 1882, Alfred was Darwinism's most prominent champion. One of his recent biographers, referring to the anthropologist Loren Eiseley's proclamation of the nineteenth century as "Darwin's Century," has noted that in Darwin's absence, "the nineteenth century probably would be known as 'Wallace's Century." (2)

Though decidedly less famous, John had become an engineer whose skills were renowned throughout the Mother Lode, leading to posts as president of the Tuolumne County Water Co., San Joaquin County surveyor, chief engineer of the narrow gauge San Joaquin & Sierra Nevada Railroad, and the surveyor who conquered the daunting Sonora Pass. "Among all the Argonauts who came to California in early days in search of the 'Golden Fleece,'" the Stockton Daily Independent observed following his death, "none was better known throughout the mining regions than John Wallace.... He was a man of great prominence as an engineer and held the most responsible positions in his line of business that were obtainable in the mountains. In those days of great projects, which required engineering ability of the first order, the work to be done was of a magnitude that made almost any position as an engineer important." (3)

Yet the brothers' relationship, their reunion, and Alfred's subsequent sojourn in California--including a trip to the redwoods with conservation pioneer John Muir; discussions with Leland Stanford, one of the railroad "Big Four," former governor of California and, at the time of Alfred's visit, a U.S. senator; and lectures on natural history, most often on the theory of evolution, which he would compile for his 1889 bestseller Darwinism--have never been the subjects of a focused examination.

Alfred's voluminous writings--including an autobiography and unpublished journal of his North American travels--John's published Gold Rush letters, and the brothers' private correspondence, much of it at the Natural History Museum in London, reveal for the first time the story of two men who grew up together but followed different paths a continent apart, and who, once reunited, helped to popularize in California the modern age's most important scientific theory.

"A SCATTER'D FAMILY"

John Wallace was born in 1819, the seventh of nine children, in St. George's, Southwark, England. Alfred, the eighth child, was born four years later in Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales. The family, of modest means (father Thomas Vere Wallace was an occasional teacher and librarian), later moved to Hertford. It was there, when Alfred was seven years old, that the brothers' story nearly ended. They and several schoolmates were about to bathe in the river Beane when Alfred was unexpectedly pushed into the water. Unable to swim, he sank under the surface and swallowed water. Eleven-year-old John jumped in and pulled him out. "If my brother had not been there," Alfred wrote, "it is quite possible that I might have been drowned." (4)

John was important to Alfred not only as guardian but also as mentor and role model, "my chief playmate and instructor," as Alfred put it. John transformed a stable loft into a playroom where he built fireworks, toys, and gadgets illustrated in The Boy's Own Book. …

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