Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Bone War

The Wild West went deeper than outlaws, buffalo hunters, Indian raids, wagon trains, and cattle drives. For over twenty-years a race to uproot fossils raged across the western plains—THE BONE WAR.

Sometime around 1864 two men, Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope, became acquainted in Germany at a time when paleontology was at its forefront. Cope was from a wealthy Quaker family in Pennsylvania and thought Marsh was too uncouth to be a scientist. Whereas Marsh (though his family was not well-to-do, he had considerably rich uncle) thought Cope was simply dabbling in the field and not really serious about the fossil evidence uprooting itself around the world. The BONE WAR became a feud between Cope and Marsh as they each fought to gain notoriety as the world’s greatest paleontologist. Their war resulted in hundreds of fossil finds, but also in trickery, theft, and overall corruption.

It all started in 1868 when Cope attempted to reconstruct a fossil sent to him by one of his ‘diggers’ in Kansas. (At the time, no one had any idea how out of proportion historical reptiles were.) Mistakenly, Cope placed the skull at the end of the animal’s short tail instead of its long neck. When Marsh unearthed this mistake, he pointed it out in public, thoroughly humiliating Cope.

The Bone War was kicked into high gear when increasing numbers of reports came from the American west. The railroad, surging its way across the country, unearthed bones as the tracks were laid. A school teacher in eastern Colorado wrote to both Cope and Marsh, sending them samples of a fossil he’d found. Marsh immediately offered the man $100 to keep his find secret. When Marsh discovered Cope had heard about it, he dispatched an agent to ‘protect’ his assets. Soon both men were sending troops of prospectors westward.

Soon it was common knowledge the men were in a race to find the most and best dinosaur fossils. Boxcars of fossils were shipped eastward, and both men had barns full of bones. Both Marsh and Cope relocated to the west and over the next few years they deliberately destroyed each other’s finds, hijacked shipments, spied on each other, bribed employees, and outright stole one another’s bones.

By the 1880’s it looked as if Marsh was winning the war. Thanks to his rich uncle he could hire more men, make larger bribes, and open more dig sites. Cope continued with the discoveries, but soon started to focus on publishing information about the findings. Marsh would scour through every one of Cope’s papers and exploit every mistake he could find.

Cope had kept a journal during all his excavations. In these diaries he’d listed all of Marsh’s discretions, transgressions and unlawful behavior, and in the late 1880’s provided them to a journalist at the New York Herald. Marsh of course published a rebuttal, accusing Cope of the same deeds.

The airing of dirty laundry didn’t help either of them. Marsh was asked to resign from the U.S. Congressional Geographical Survey Division and Cope soon took ill. By the time of Cope’s death in 1897 both men had squandered their fortunes. A large number of their finds were not unpacked and re-constructed until after their deaths.

In Shotgun Bride—The Quinter Brides Book One, I introduce the readers to the Bone War when the second brother arrives home after visiting the Kansas Badlands with a pocket full of sharks teeth. The second book of the series, Badland Bride, has the Bone War as a subplot.

There are several fossil museums in Kansas. My favorite is the Keystone Gallery It is in the middle of no where (I can say that because I grew up there) and is housed in a 1916 limestone church building.

Badland Bride—The Quinter Brides Book Two will be released in November 2009.


Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Lauri, what a fascinating post. I had no idea. I do know there is a din0saur canyon in Eastern late uncle had hoped to take me there to see fossils but during my visit (our last one, sadly) he was too ill. But maybe I'll get there someday.

What wonderful informatin!

Linda LaRoque said...

I loved this post, Lauri. I'd never heard of the Bone War but will do more reading now. Thank you for sharing this information.

We have a large mamouth burial site near Waco. They were caught in gulley and became bogged down in the mud after a flash flood. They have examples where a male is using his tusks to try to lift a baby from the mud, a rarety as males don't usually help tend babies.

Lauri said...

Hey Tanya, most people haven't heard of it. My beta read thought I'd flipped my lid when I had the brother arrive home with sharks teeth in Shotgun Bride.

Thanks, Linda. That's fascinating about the male mammoth!

Have a great Labor Day weekend!

Cheryl said...


THIS IS SO COOL! I never heard of this, and I live in Oklahoma--I am going to have to read more about this. Thanks for the informational post. I know that took a lot of research!