Holmes, Francis Simmons

December 9, 1815–October 19, 1882

For Holmes, interest in farming eventually gave way to his fascination with fossils, especially marine invertebrates, and by 1845 he had amassed a huge collection that gained attention from many naturalists.

Paleontologist, museum curator. Holmes was born in Charleston on December 9, 1815, fourth of seven children of the planter John Holmes and Anna Glover. Educated in Charleston schools until he withdrew at age fourteen, Holmes served for a time as a clerk and later ran a dry goods business. On March 21, 1837, he married Elizabeth S. Toomer, with whom he had seven children. Holmes moved to St. Andrew’s Parish in 1838 to operate a large plantation. A skilled farmer, he won a prize for his experiments in agriculture, and in 1842 he published The Southern Farmer and Market Gardener, which became a highly successful book. For Holmes, however, interest in farming eventually gave way to his fascination with fossils, especially marine invertebrates, and by 1845 he had amassed a huge collection that gained attention from many naturalists. Holmes also began to publish articles and thereby enhanced his reputation as a naturalist.

In 1844 Holmes met Michael Tuomey, who was then conducting a geological survey of South Carolina, and they soon began to collaborate on a book on fossils. Three years later, the College of Charleston set aside a room for display of many of Holmes’s fossils, and these were viewed by the prominent naturalist Louis Agassiz when he visited Charleston. Impressed with the collection, Agassiz touted the work of Holmes, and in 1850, after resolving to establish a natural history museum, the College of Charleston trustees appointed Holmes as the curator.

Assuming the collections of the original museum, and its name as well, the Charleston Museum opened in 1852. Under the leadership of Holmes, the institution soon became the best natural history museum in the South and among the best in the nation at the time. Meanwhile, Holmes played the central role in forming the Elliott Society of Natural History, and he worked with Tuomey to produce Pleiocene Fossils of South Carolina. Published in 1857, the volume received considerable praise, and is now a classic work. Tuomey died during the same year, but Holmes continued to work on a second volume, which was published in 1860 as Post-Pleiocene Fossils of South Carolina. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Holmes had done much to promote scientific work in South Carolina, earning a national reputation for his activities.

Devoted to the South, Holmes supported secession. During the Civil War, he served first as a director of wayside hospitals in his area and later as superintendent of a nitre works. He resumed direction of the museum after the war but quit in 1868 when college trustees were forced to reduce his salary. Afterwards he played a major role in developing the phosphate industry in South Carolina, publishing Phosphate Rocks of South Carolina and the “Great Carolina Marl Bed” in 1870. Following the death of his wife during the war, Holmes married Sarah Hazzard, and fathered six more children. In 1871 he purchased a plantation near Goose Creek but maintained a home in Charleston, where he died on October 19, 1882.

Stephens, Lester D. Ancient Animals and Other Wondrous Things: The Story of Francis Simmons Holmes, Paleontologist and Curator of the Charleston Museum. Charleston, S.C.: Charleston Museum, 1988.

–––. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Holmes, Francis Simmons
  • Coverage December 9, 1815–October 19, 1882
  • Author
  • Keywords Paleontologist, museum curator, skilled farmer, The Southern Farmer and Market Gardener, naturalist, Elliott Society of Natural History,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 25, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 17, 2016
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