When Dinosaur Hunters
Duked it Out
The Rise of Modern Paleontology in America
I’ve always been intrigued by the Bone Wars, that period from 1877 to 1892 when professors Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope battled each other in the trenches and in the press for supremacy in the rapidly developing field of American paleontology. The men had started their careers in the 1860s as friends and colleagues, but their relationship quickly soured under the pressure of their massive ambitions and egos. In the end, they made major contributions to science, discovering and describing 142 new species of dinosaurs, but managed to bankrupt their personal fortunes in the process.
Just after the end of the Civil War, Marsh and Cope began their explorations of the newly-discovered fossil beds in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. By the early 1870s, word trickled out of Wyoming of massive dinosaur graveyards, and both men set out to see for themselves. Cope accompanied another established paleontologist, and Marsh led several expeditions of Yale undergraduates, the last in 1873, accompanied by a large troop of soldiers to keep the Native American tribes at bay.
|Marsh and his armed “assistants”|
I set my novella, The Treasure of Como Bluff, in 1879, at the peak of the professors’ rivalry. By that time, they had largely stopped working in the field and conducted their battles by proxy through hired bone hunters. However, these diggers were opportunists of the highest order, often working for both Cope and Marsh at the same time or selling their services alternately to the highest bidder.
The fossil fields of Como Bluff, Wyoming were unimaginably rich, and since the bone hunters were only interested in their patrons’ money, they shoved scientific methods to the wayside (records indicate Marsh and Cope encouraged their destructive ways). Working out of multiple quarries, they did everything possible to thwart their rivals, from locking each other out of the train station to prevent a shipment to dynamiting a carload of fossils. It will never be known how many specimens were destroyed in the name of scientific discovery.
The late 1870’s were a lively time in Como Bluff, to say the least. I used two of the most colorful and active bone hunters as secondary characters in The Treasure of Como Bluff. These two first wrote to Professor Marsh in July of 1877, using the aliases of Harlow and Edwards, to describe their initial finds and attempt to enlist his support. They were actually a pair of railroad employees named Carlin and Reed who ultimately played major roles in the excavation (and destruction) of the fossil fields of Como Bluff.
Excavations in the area continued long after Cope and Marsh exhausted their funds, and the museum at the site catalogues their numerous finds that dramatically increased modern knowledge of New World Jurassic dinosaurs. I enjoyed writing about Como Bluff, and would love to visit someday. How about you? Be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of my new western novella, The Treasure of Como Bluff.
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