Letter Penned By Charles Darwin Returned To The Smithsonian, 30 Years After It Was Stolen

Charles Darwin at the Natural History Museum, London
Charles Darwin, sitting in his spot overlooking the Natural History Museum, London. pio3/Shutterstock

Over three decades ago, a letter written by the renowned English naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin was stolen from the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has amazingly returned the letter to the institution after their art crime team had a tip-off as to where the correspondence was located.

The letter was written by Darwin in 1875, and sent to the American geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, thanking him for sending two geological studies on the American West, including his work on what would eventually become Yellowstone National Park. Darwin wrote that he was “much obliged to you for your kindness” for sending the geological reports through, as he was “anxious to see the conclusions at which you had arrived.”


The letter was found to still be within the Washington DC area, not far from the Smithsonian. FBI

The letter originally ended up in the Smithsonian’s collection in the 1970s as part of the papers of another American geologist, George Perkins Merrill. In the early 1990s, Merrill was the head curator of the Department of Geology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, but before the letter was cataloged, after its arrival at the Smithsonian, it disappeared. It is suspected that an employee had pilfered the paper, and it vanished without a trace.

That is, until the FBI received a tip about the note. They found it being kept within the Washington DC area, under the nose of the Smithsonian, who helped verify the artifact by comparing it with other letters Darwin wrote to Vandeveer Hayden at the time. The FBI have said that they will not be pressing charges, as due to the long passage of time the statute of limitations has expired.  

“Thanks to a tip from a member of the public, we were able to return this artifact to the care of the Smithsonian Archives,” said Paul Abbate, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, in a statement. “It’s a privilege to return a piece of the history of science and exploration in the United States to the American people.”


The letter in full reads:

May 2nd

Dear Sir,

I am much obliged to you for your kindness & for the honour which you have done me in sending your Geological Report of the Yellowstone River & your Preliminary Field Report on the Colorado & New Mexico. I had heard of your Geological researches on the Colorado & was anxious to see the conclusions at which you had arrived, & I am therefore especially obliged to you for having sent me your works.


With much respect & my best thanks, I remain,

Dear Sir,

yours faithfully

Charles Darwin


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