Miniature of Luella Agnes Owen
(Photo from Missouri Conservationist)

Luella Agnes Owen of St. Joseph Missouri (1852-1932)

Luella Agnes Owen was the second child of seven of James Alfred Owen and Agnes Jeanette Cargill, born September 8, 1952 in St. Joseph, Missouri. James, a self-made lawyer, had arrived in St. Jo in 1847 from Kentucky; his wife was the daughter of a well-to-do miller, the owner of Eagle Mills, and herself well-educated for the day.

St. Joseph, Missouri of Luella's youth was both frontier town and one of the last civilized places before jumping off into the American West. To put her life into perspective, one must realize that Luella was already 6 years old when the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad reached her town, and 7 and half when the first rider of the Pony Express departed. Even so, with its French and Southern heritage, St. Joseph also aspired to a sophisticated civility not common on the frontier. This seemingly contradictory combination of frontier independence with impeccable propriety keep Luella and her spinster sisters as objects of fascination one hundred years later.

According to Jean Eberle in The Incredible Owen Girls, Luella first became fascinated with shells and fossils turned up as the road was graded in front of her first home on Sixth Street. She would have been four or five at the time. Where she got her fascination with caves is rather more problematic, as Buchanan County even in 2005 has no caves. St. Joseph did have springs, and limestone outcrops along the river; perhaps, in pre-development days, small caves existed in conjunction with the springs. Another source of information may have been her Kentucky and Virginia relatives--caves abound in both locales.

The Missouri River from one of its bluffs

Owen's Education

Like her elder sister Mary Alicia (famous in her own right for her ethnological studies on folklore, the Mesquawkie Natives, and African-American Voodoo), Luella's education began at home, and continued there until she could read and write. At this point, she joined Mary at Miss Bell's primary school. This interval of education was short-lived. As the Civil War became closely personal in St. Jo due to divided loyalties and Southern loyalists such as the Owens and Cargills, all schools were closed. Luella was again taught at home for three to four years, for the schools did not reopen immediately at the end of the War. She entered the mixed sex St. Joseph Public High School, and graduated as valedictorian in either 1870 or 1872. (As was customary at the time, a lady's age was never asked while living and therefore considered flexible-- even her obituary shaved 5 years off her true age.)

Owen considered herself 'privately educated' in geology. No record we can find documents her attendance at either a college or ladies' seminary. In the 1870's geology was not a branch of natural history where women were welcomed as students, unlike such pursuits as astronomy, ornithology or botany. (Ornithology was a pursuit followed studiously by a third Owen sister, Juliette.) Anecdotal evidence indicates that Owen was a voracious consumer of books, professional journals, and geological maps, and she apparently conducted a fair correspondence with the authors of those documents. In later years she credited N. H. Winchell, G. F. Wright and J. E. Todd as her geological mentors. Winchell and Wright were professors; Todd served in several professional geological positions, including as state geologist of South Dakota. At least 150 of Luella's letters to Wright survive in his files at Oberlin college. At the time of Owen's high school graduation, the Rev. H.C. Hovey, later author of Celebrated American Caverns (1882) ministered at a church in Kansas City a scant 30 miles away. Similarities in style between his book and Owen's Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills (1898) imply they may have been acquainted. Eberle says Owen inscribed a copy of Cave Regions and sent it to him.

Owen's Early Adulthood

The period of time from 1870-72 to 1890 in Owen's life is obscure. Some of the time was likely spent in study, some in travel, and some in attending to the social obligations of a lady of her station. Her mother was a semi-invalid (some family stories say she was an invalid when it suited her, others insist that the disability was real) and no doubt Owen and her spinster sisters had duties related to her as well. All three sisters had packrat tendencies when it came the books, papers, specimens and paraphenalia of their enthusiasms, and the Owen library no doubt rivalled if not exceeded those of the St. Joseph Public one in their fields. Lack of hard documentation on this period of Owen's life is a result of three factors: one, the dictum that a Victorian lady's name should appear in the paper only three times at birth, marriage and death; two, the lack of any published papers under her name through this period, and three, the oft-told story that except for a few mementos set aside for nieces and nephews, Owen herself burned much of her correspondence, field notes and other unpublished papers near the end of her life. Most sources report that her aging parents were generally and financially supportive of her studies, although circumstantial evidence indicates that her interest in caves was frowned upon by her father. In any event, in the twenty years of her early adulthood, it is obvious Owen acquired extensive knowledge of geology, a network of influential associates in the field, and the respect and tools to move on to her career as a field scientist.

Luella Agnes Owen
(Photo from Missouri Conservationist, courtesy Jerry Vineyard)

The Lady Caves in a Divided Skirt 1892-1900

After a decent interval following James Alfred Owen's death in 1890, Owen was soon off on her whirlwind of Missouri and South Dakota cave field investigations. For the most part, Hovey's Celebrated American Caverns concentrated on Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, Wyandot(te) Cave, Indiana, Luray Caverns, Virginia, and other show caves east of the Mississippi River. Owen took up the challenge to report on caves which Hovey had neglected in 1882. Although no itinerary exists, it is generally believed she conducted her field studies between 1892 and 1896 or 97, based on scant textual evidence from her published papers. Often accompanied by one of her nephews, "Aunt Ella" tromped the south central, central and southwest Missouri Ozarks to any locale which train, spring wagon, hiking and owner's permission could take her. Her trip to the Black Hills was no less strenuous, though she mentions no constant companion along for the entire trek.

Despite her seemingly remote location in the American Midwest, the best evidence for Owen being in the thick of early speleological research is the publication of Cavernes Americaines in 1896, the second year of Spelunca, the Bulletin of Le Société du Spéléogie in France. Her childhood study of French must have been brushed up for this first of several articles on Missouri caves written in French--science is difficult enough to write in one's native tongue! Owen reputedly was the only woman member of Le Société at the time. Her listing in American Men of Science also included memberships in the American Geographical Society, The American Forestry Association, and the AAAS, whose meetings featured her presenting papers on loess her later years.

Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills

Reading copies of her over 100 year old book Cave Regions are not impossible to come by. The book, always intended as part geology study, part tourist guidebook, and part travel narrative has been reprinted twice: once (the Ozarks section only) in April, 1968, as an issue of Missouri Speleology; and then, the book in its entirety in 1970. Much of what we surmise about Owen come from the personal asides in this book--she can be intent on an almost photographic rendering of the scene before her, adding learned quotes on such topography, and a few lines later be engaged in such philosophical thought such as "The gift of beauty should always be honored and protected for the public good." Rather than summarize the 228 pages, those interested in Owen should somehow borrow or acquire a copy and read it for him or herself.

Loess Hills near St. Joseph, Missouri

The Lady of Loess 1900-1926

At the turn of the twentieth century, age 47 was old--in fact, this was the average American lifespan. In recent colloquial speech, this is the age at which someone was 'older than dirt'. Although Owen was indeed 47--going on 48 that year-- her professional interest in dirt was just coming to fruition. But before settling down, Owen spent the year of 1900 traveling around the world. She likely had a companion for this trip, which took her from St. Joseph west to the Pacific and thence home via the Loess Plateau of central China, the loess hills of the German Rhine, and numerous points in-between.

Owen's fascination with the loess (pronounced luss) hills of her home Missouri River valley began in childhood, was encouraged by several of her geology mentors, and concluded her scientific life. Loess is a fine-ground, light brown colored rock powder left after Ice Age glaciers ground south, smoothing, then burying the hills before them. Much of the northern Great Plains is covered with a thin layer of this dirt. Originally transported in glacial outwash, the dust is so fine it easily becomes airborne. From Sioux City south to St. Jo lie some of the deepest loess hills in America--up to 200 feet deep of this highly compacted windblown dust. This loess is unusual in that it can maintain a nearly vertical cut if left as originally compacted, but if exposed to rain on a slope, it gullies badly. If you've ever seen a Thomas Hart Benton painting, you've seen steep loess hills. Bank swallows (a threatened species) love loess cut banks--they make their nests in the holes behind exposed roots. Lime concretions, called kindchen, form as water slowly moves through the deep dirt.

A cut bank in loess with bank swallow nests.

It may seem unusual for even scientists to get excited about whether a certain type of soil was laid down by water, wind or ice. However, the initial work of Louis Agassiz on European glaciation in the 1840s excited the young science of geology, just newly emerged from its reliance on theology for the origins of the earth, and the landforms thereof. American geologists spent thousands of hours debating glaciation and its effects in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was a pesky problem, because the ice removed or buried so much of the evidence of its passing. The most easily accessible remnants of ice in northern Missouri are the western border Loess Hills, and glacial erratics--large stones unlike the local rock which have been transported great distances in the ice. Reconstructing former landscapes based on secondary evidence such as loess requires not only keen observation, but also the ability to construct arguments based on inference.

A glacial erratic on the Red Rock Trail in Mound City, Mo.

The first two and a half decades of the new century brought professional vindication to Owen. She shared home duties with her sisters until their mother's death in 1911, however, her fame--and interest in loess--grew to the point that scholars traveled to her, instead of vice versa. When controversial skeletons were found buried under loess in Lansing, Kansas, Luella became both guide and hostess to visiting geologists. She traveled to Europe doing genealogical research for her mother, and took side-trips to give papers at International Congresses. Beginning in 1904, she traveled to American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings, first, demurely letting one of her mentors, G. F. Wright, read her lantern slide paper on loess in St. Louis. She is cited in the journal Science for 1904, 1909, 1913, and in 1924, when she presented the final paper of Wright's after his death. Another citation commends her for donating an oil portrait of Dr. H. L. Fairchild to the Society in 1924. Her last paper, Later studies on the loess cites that it was read before the AAAS in Kansas City in 1925--although published in the Pan.-Am. Geologist, no citation in the AAAS proceedings was found.

Old Age 1927-1932

By the age of 72, old age began to catch up with her. She ceased most travel, and worked on the Owen genealogy she wrote for her family. The house the sisters had known all their lives had gradually 'filled up', and the task of clearing superfluous accumulations of three busy lifetimes was begun, but not entirely finished. The sisters still received occasional visitors, but they became fewer and fewer. Owen, who had always been slight and slender, finally weakened. She was the first to pass away, May 31, 1932, 79 years old, of pneumonia. Her casket was placed in the Owen family mausoleum at Mt. Mora Cemetery in St. Joseph.

Luella Agnes Owen's final resting place

Ever the scientist to the last, on her death, a bequest of $500 in her name was left to the AAAS, for an endowment to cover emeritus member annual dues as needed.


Eberle, Jean Fahey. The Incredible Owen Girls. Boarshead Press: St. Louis, MO 1977. 181 p.

Owen, Luella Agnes. Cave Regions of the Ozarks. Reprint: Missouri Speleological Survey: Missouri Speleology Vol. 10 No. 2. April, 1968. 86 p.

Owen, Luella Agnes. Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills. Reprint: Johnson Reprint Company 1970. 228 p.

Strop, Janice. personal comm. Owen Genealogy and history, unpublished, 2004. 6 p. summary.

Vineyard, Jerry. Introduction to Owen, Luella Agnes. Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills. Reprint: Johnson Reprint Company 1970. pp v-xlii. Includes Owen professional bibliography and Vineyard's research references.

Wilson, Suzanne. "The Lady was a Caver". Missouri Conservationist Vol. 54, No. 3, March 1993. p. 4-8. (Source of photo and painting.)

Copyright 2005 Jo Schaper

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