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Bizarre scientific dinosaur “bone wars” barely touched Oregon

It's probably just as well that no actual dinosaur bones were found here; the spiteful, unprofessional “cowboy paleontology” practiced by O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope would have left Oregon's pioneer scientists profoundly unimpressed.

Rev. Thomas Condon as he appeared in the mid-to-late 1850s, a decade or two before meeting the Yale paleontologists.  (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

Throughout the 20-year personal vendetta known jocosely today as “The Bone Wars,” Oregon was never more than a minor theater of operations. For the most part, the two cowboy-paleontologists whose mutual grudge drove all the drama left the fieldwork and exploration in the Beaver State to teams they’d hired, so that the Great Men could concentrate on states with actual dinosaur bones to find.

One of the Bone Warriors did come to Oregon with an exploratory team, though, just a few months before hostilities broke out. And by the time he’d departed, he’d left enough of an impression on local scientists that the subsequent fireworks probably came as little surprise.

The Bone Warrior who came to Oregon did so on at the end of an expedition in the summer of 1871 at the head of a team of scientists from Yale University. He was Othniel Charles Marsh, a proud, taciturn man with a full beard and intense, glaring eyes, referred to reverently by the students in his party as “Prof.” Marsh’s increasingly bitter feud with colleague Edmund Drinker Cope would not develop until some time after his Oregon visit, but locals did get a glimpse or two of the personality traits that would drive Marsh’s contribution to that feud.

 

The early beginnings of the Bone Wars were already in place in 1871, and although they hadn’t flowered into full hostility yet, they were well enough along. Marsh and Cope had met in Berlin in 1863. They’d gotten along reasonably well together, but each subtly looked down on the other from the start. The 1860s were the time when science was passing out of being something a gentleman of leisure did to occupy his time (as in the cases of patrician-scientists like Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin) to a calling one trained for professionally at a university (as did Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and pretty much every other scientist since).

The well-born Cope came from the older (and dying) tradition of “gentleman-scientists,” who saw university-trained scientists like Marsh as a lesser breed — not true gentlemen, but merely technicians who didn’t know their places. Marsh, in turn, represented the new university-trained cohort, which saw the older generation as ignorant, arrogant dabblers lacking the professional training to do good work.

Sheep Rock towers over the John Day River in the John Day Fossil Beds. (Image: Wikimedia/Finetooth)

This mutual contempt started flowering into trouble almost immediately after they came back to the U.S. Cope had introduced Marsh to the owner of a marl pit where a particularly interesting dinosaur skeleton had been found; Marsh then went behind Cope’s back and made a deal with the pit’s owner to send any future fossil finds directly to him. Then Cope made a major error in assembling a dinosaur skeleton — he put the head on the end of the dinosaur’s tail — and it was Marsh who spotted and maliciously publicized the mistake.

The really nasty part of the Bone Wars would come later. Cope and Marsh would spend the rest of their lives — some twenty years — trying to ruin each other, professionally and socially. Both strove to get each other fired from jobs; sent spies and “bone rustlers” to one another’s quarries; paid lavish bribes; and — worst of all from a modern scientist’s perspective — actually destroyed fossils and backfilled dig sites to keep fossils from each other. By the end of their careers, in the late 1890s, their feud would ruin both of them, professionally and socially, and for decades American paleontology was an international laughingstock as a result of their unprofessional conduct.

But that was all in the future in 1871, when a crew of Yale students crossed the border from Idaho, heading for the John Day Fossil Beds. Marsh had heard of the fossil beds, and had written to Thomas Condon — the “father of Oregon geology,” who would later become one of the first professors at the University of Oregon when it was founded five years later.

Condon responded immediately and generously, sending a box of sample fossils to Marsh with an invitation to come to Oregon for more. It was that invitation that Marsh’s crew was responding to now.

The Yale team spent a couple weeks in Oregon — first looking over Condon’s impressive collection of fossils in The Dalles, and then doing fieldwork in the John Day Fossil Beds. A week later, they’d amassed a collection of some 11 boxes of bones of such creatures as saber-toothed cats, mastodons and primitive horses and camels.

A portrait of Professor Othniel Marsh of Yale University around the time of his 1871 visit to the John Day Fossil Beds. (Image: Library of Congress)

While they were in the field, Marsh did some things that raised eyebrows among the locals. First, when word came to him that Professor George H. Collier of Pacific University in Forest Grove was on his way to a site where some fossil horse bones had been found, he became very agitated and dispatched some of his students “to head him off,” like a nervous gold prospector trying to keep other miners away from his "diggin’s."

Then a little later, two of his students, sent to secure some skulls from a local collector, played an ill-advised prank on him by sending word that they planned to abscond with the skulls and form their own fossil-collecting party. Their prank succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings, to the point of likely having a negative impact on their prospects at Yale; Marsh raged about the ostensible betrayal all evening. “If this had been at the first of the trip,” he fumed, according to one student’s recollections, “so help me God I would send them both home.”

When the team left for Portland, Condon generously allowed Marsh to take a large assortment of specimens from his own collection back to Yale on loan. He would spend the rest of his life trying to get Marsh to return them, making multiple appeals. Even Marsh’s death in 1899 didn’t improve things much, and it was only in 1906 — a year before Condon’s own death — that they would finally be returned.

By then, though, Condon knew better than to expect Marsh to send the bones back gracefully. Everyone did. Marsh and Cope, by that time, had plunged themselves, their institutions and their entire scientific community into lasting disgrace with twenty years of unremitting competitive spitefulness.

In doing so, however, they expanded the field of paleontology tremendously. At the end of their colorful careers, Cope had discovered 56 new dinosaur species, and Marsh had discovered 80. Cope in particular wrote of his findings with a dramatic flair that encouraged his specimens to be brought to life in a thousand magazine articles and picture-books, and between the two of them they launched what’s almost a tradition of fascination with dinosaurs among small American children.

 

Dinosaurs were, of course, where the real prestige was when it came to fossils; and the John Day Fossil Beds are not quite old enough to contain those. That’s probably why, after that one early expedition, neither Bone Warrior ever returned to Oregon to hunt fossils personally.

Perhaps it’s just as well. As Condon demonstrated clearly while Marsh was his guest, their particular brand of hypercompetitive cowboy paleontology was never Oregon scientists’ style.

(Sources: Pankin, Mary Faith. “The Yale Scientific Expedition of 1871: A Student’s-Eye View,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 1998; Davis, Mark. “Dinosaur Wars,” American Experience (PBS), season 23 episode 2)