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Rivals Fought Tooth and Nail Over Dinosaurs
Will Bagley
Published: 03/25/2001 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

In July 1870, a military escort left Fort McPherson in Nebraska, shepherding a dozen Yale students, each outfitted with a bowie knife, six-shooter, rifle, waterproof matches and geological hammer. Othniel Marsh, America's first professor of paleontology, was in charge of the civilians. Unlike most Easterners who visited the Great Plains to hunt buffalo, Yale College's first scientific expedition was after bigger and more ancient quarry: dinosaurs. News of this odd enterprise attracted the attention of Buffalo Bill Cody, who then served briefly as the expedition's guide.

In December, the bone hunters returned from Wyoming and Utah with thirty-six boxes of fossils, including a hollow bone Marsh had found in Kansas. It turned out to be from a pterodactyl, the first flying reptile discovered in North America. Marsh calculated that the creature had a wingspan of twenty feet and was "truly a gigantic dragon even in this country of big things."

News reports made Marsh an instant celebrity--and attracted the attention and aroused the jealousy of his old friend, Edward Drinker Cope. One of America's leading paleontologists, Cope identified a fossil found by Captain John N. Macomb's 1859 exploration of Canyonlands as Dystrophaeus Viaemalae, the first dinosaur found in Utah. It was also the first sauropod--the long-necked plant eaters often called brontosaurs--discovered in North America.

Cope and Marsh added 136 new species of North American dinosaurs to the nine scientists had previously identified. There should have been plenty of glory to go around, but America's most famous dinosaur hunters were notoriously pugnacious and quarrelsome. In 1872 they got into a fight over who had rights to dig in Wyoming Territory and began luring away each other's collectors in what became a ruthless competition for fossils. When Marsh pointed out that Cope had mixed up the tail and neck of an elasmosaurus, a large aquatic reptile, his rival's "wounded vanity received a shock from which it has never recovered," Marsh said. "He has since been my bitter enemy." So began the Great Dinosaur War that would rage across the American West for two decades.

In July 1877, railroad workers William Reed and W.E. Carlin discovered a bone yard of "very thick, well preserved, and easy to get out" Jurassic fossils near Como Bluff, Wyoming, that stretched for seven miles. Marsh's agents shipped thirty tons of bones to Yale during the first year. Reed became one of Marsh's most successful collectors, but Carlin joined forces with Cope. Their two camps fought over fossils like warring armies.

In their battles, Marsh had the advantage of inherited wealth, but a disposition that won him the nickname "The Great Dismal Swamp." Cope countered with a relentless drive and a certain charm. He visited Marsh's men in 1879 and entertained them with a comic song, howling like a coyote at the end of each chorus. Marsh's men found Cope charming, but explorer John Wesley Powell charged that "professor Cope's mental and moral characteristics unfit him for any position of trust and responsibility."

The two men carried their war to Washington, D.C., and the pages of the New York Herald. Cope called Marsh and Powell "hardened sinners" and charged Marsh with plagiarism and misappropriation of government funds during his ten years as vertebrate paleontologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. When the smoke cleared, the two rivals had destroyed each other's reputations and eliminated government support for paleontology.

Still, Cope and Marsh made enormous contributions to our understanding of the Earth's ancient past. They made the American West a premier destination for fossil hunters and named some of the most renowned dinosaurs, including allosaurus, diplodocus, stegosaurus, triceratops and of course, marshosaurus.

Utah historian Will Bagley is a renowned "bonehead."

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