The Legacy of the Mastodon

The Golden Age of Fossils in America
By Keith Thomson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Keith Thomson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11704-2

Chapter One

Fossil Hunters on the Frontier

What man in the world, I would ask, ever ascended to the pinnacle of one of Missouri's green-carpeted bluffs, and giddily gazed over the interminable and boundless ocean of grass-covered hills and valleys which lie beneath him, where the gloom of silence is complete-where not even the voice of the sparrow or cricket is heard-without feeling a sweet melancholy come over him, which seemed to drown his sense of everything beneath and on a level with him? GEORGE CATLIN, 1844

From the time of the early Spanish explorers onward, travelers in America have responded in various ways to the "ocean of grass" that covers the great prairie lands west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains. The modern traveler looks down from an airplane and sees a checkerboard of farms and settlements. The early transcontinental migrants in their canvas-topped Conestoga wagons ("prairie schooners") saw a seemingly endless and possibly dangerous obstacle. When scientists first explored westward, they "saw" beneath the grassy seas and found a huge geological puzzle and, more figuratively, an opportunity.

With the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 the United States doubled its territory by adding lands that extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains; before midcentury the nation's borders reached literally "from sea to shining sea." This new western half of the country was a cornucopia of wildlife migrating across seemingly limitless grazing land, magnificent stands of timber, fabulous silver and gold fields, rich arable lands, abundant water in some places, severe deserts in others. At the end of the almost endless plains was a mountain barrier, the grandeur of which made the Alps seem puny. Beyond the mountains was promised an Eden against the ocean. It all seemed a place so vast that there, surely, the presence and handiwork of man would always be insignificant, but first the steamboat and then the railroads reduced immense distances to manageable short hops among the new towns and cities. The Indians discovered that the white settlers could not be trusted in the way that the early traders and trappers could, and all too soon this promised land could be seen as a paradise lost. Hundreds and thousands of settlers learned the hard way that the promise "rain follows the plough" was a land agent's cruel hoax.

Whatever it meant to fur trappers, gold miners, Indian traders, fortune hunters, or farmers and settlers, the West was also a scientific treasure house. Among its most exciting secrets were ancient fossils-the remains of hitherto unsuspected kinds of animals like birds with teeth, the diminutive ancestors of horses and camels, strange cattlelike creatures with claws on their feet, and over a hundred different kinds of dinosaurs. Between 1739 and 1890 a small group of scientists discovered and described thousands of previously unknown kinds of fossil animals from the American West, and a great number also from the eastern states. Along the way, they helped decipher and describe the geological structure and history of an entire continent. They took a little-known science, championed in the new nation by Thomas Jefferson and in Europe by Baron Georges Cuvier, and, especially when they discovered dinosaurs, transformed it into part of the American experience.

The doctrine of Manifest Destiny (technically referring to the inclusion of former Spanish possessions into the United States, but used here more figuratively) was Manifest Opportunity for science, and if it was accomplished only through extremely hard work, against heavy odds, there was more than a dash of glamour thrown in, fed by images of the West expressed in popular novels, many of which were written as quite blatant propaganda for the land companies seeking to attract settlers from the East. Many different kinds of people were involved in the scientific opening of the West. This book deals with a group of fewer than a dozen men who monopolized the study of fossil vertebrates, whether strange new mammals from the Dakota Bad Lands, flying reptiles and gigantic fishes from the Kansas chalk, dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous cliffs of Wyoming and Montana, or ten-thousand-year-old elephants from Kentucky.

These findings depended on exploration and discovery on a greater scale than anything attempted in Europe, carried on during times of adversity and adventure when, for these men, prospecting for fossils meant carrying a pick in one hand and a rifle in the other, tackling hostile country and equally hostile Indians. And also keeping a careful eye on one another, because the rivalries among these explorers were intense. Theirs is a story of high adventure, and sometimes a far-from-noble ambition, all in the cause of serious science.

The question most often asked of any fossil collector is: how do you know where to go? What the paleontologist emphatically does not do is wander off into some strange wilderness without any prior clue as to where and why he is going. In fact, the specialist student of fossils is almost always dependent on someone else to have made the first discovery. In the vast reaches of this new land the first signs of the rich fossil beds lying out beyond the Missouri River came in the form of isolated specimens picked up by frontiersmen, fur traders, government surveyors, army personnel, and mining men. The much-honored Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6 collected very few fossils (or other geological specimens). They were not often in the right places and scarcely had the capacity to drag hundreds of pounds of rocks around with them for two years. They did, however, bring back a few small mineral specimens and at least one piece of a fossil fish, found in a bank of the Missouri River.

The first consistent discoveries of fossils in the West were a byproduct of the fur trade and were collected by people linked to the series of trading forts that sprang up along the frontier, sustained by the activities of the fabled trappers known as mountain men. When the first steamboat ascended the Missouri River as far as the Yellowstone River in 1831, a new era began, and by the 1840s enough people had penetrated into the West for hints of amazing fossil beds to find their way back east. By 1853 Dr. Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia had enough material at hand to write the first treatise on western fossil reptiles and mammals. And that, in turn, stimulated further efforts.

Although significant discoveries were being made, there still remained the material problem of getting out to the sites and bringing the specimens back. Collecting was greatly stimulated in 1853, when Congress authorized the surveying of routes for east-west transcontinental railroads. The surveyors consequently set out along the thirty-second, thirty-fifth, and forty-seventh parallels, as well as another charting a course between the thirty-eighth and forty-first. Congress authorized further surveys in 1856 for exploration of the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers and the route for a wagon road from Fort Riley to Bridger's Pass. Eventually five transcontinental railroads were built: the Northern Pacific, roughly following the forty-fifth parallel, the Union Pacific along the forty-second, the Missouri Pacific, Denver, and Rio Grande (Western Pacific) following the thirty-seventh parallel, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe on the thirty-fifth, and the Southern Pacific along the thirty-second parallel.

With a significant number of trained surveyors and geologists being employed on the surveys, the flow of specimens back east increased. Then, when the West was effectively opened to easy travel from the settled states via the Kansas Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines, specialist fossil collectors seized the opportunity. Now, after only a week's travel, they could meet up with their army escorts and outfit their expeditions with wagons and horses at places with famous names like Fort Laramie, Fort Pierre, Fort Wallace, and Fort Bridger. But a new difficulty had to be faced. The Indian tribes, both indigenous and those forced out from the eastern states, began to contest with one another and to resist the invasions of farmers and gold miners who, with the connivance or encouragement of the U.S. government, were dispossessing them of their lands.

By the end of the Civil War, given access by the railroads and protected by the army, America's first professional paleontologists-intensely ambitious men whose behavior was at best idiosyncratic and at worst simply reprehensible-were intensively active in the western fossil fields. One example of the keenness and even bravery (or was it foolhardiness?) of these men who ventured into the wilder lands of the West was that in 1876, just a few weeks after the defeat of Custer's troops by Sitting Bull at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Edward Drinker Cope from Philadelphia was out collecting on the Judith River in Montana, sure that "since every able-bodied Sioux would be with Sitting Bull ... there would be no danger to us."

But this is not simply a story about fossils and the men who collected them. The story of the discovery and exploitation of the western fossil fields is in every sense tied directly to, and contingent upon, the greater history of the opening and population of the American West. Its context is therefore nothing less than the emergence of the new nation and a new cultural tradition in the era after the world of Jefferson and Franklin gave way to a newly populous and restless America. It involves the early history of exploration of the West, the role of the state and national geological surveys and economic aspects of geology, the opening of the West to waves of emigration and development, and the role of the new railroads. It ends with the announcement of the closing of the American frontier in 1890, with bone hunting fully launched into its modern mode of vertebrate paleontology.

The study of fossil vertebrates became the narrative of a uniquely American science through the intertwining of three threads: a straightforward practical empiricism appropriate to a new and rapidly expanding country; the adventure of exploration and discovery and attitudes toward the land and nature growing out of the Romantic Movement; and changing ideas about science itself, both nationally and internationally, as a new professional natural science based in geology emerged out of an older natural history tradition associated with medicine. In parallel with all this-as both a cause and a result-grew a changing relationship between knowledge of fossils and popular religious beliefs, accelerated by Darwinism.

On one hand, as their field journals, diaries, and letters show, the story played out as a dialogue between the people and the land they explored. On the other it is a story of the relationships between individual personalities and the science they developed. A third theme is more literary, concerning the very language that scientists used to describe their finds and the geological environments of the West, together with the ways in which books, newspapers, and museums promoted and encouraged the new science of paleontology, all leading eventually to the cult of the dinosaur.

Chapter Two

Big Bone Lick

Great numbers of very large pronged teeth of some vast animals are [found] which have no resemblance to the molares, or grinding teeth, of any great animal yet known. WILLIAM HUNTER, 1769

The American mastodon was a relative of modern elephants, with enormous curved tusks, and has been described as a fossil that helped shape America's sense of nationhood. That would be a unique role for any animal, living or fossil, in any culture, and the idea may be a little overstated. It would certainly have seemed so to Mary Draper Ingles.

In 1755, twenty-three-year-old Mary Ingles, with her husband William and sons Thomas, age five, and George, two, were homesteading on a stretch of western Virginia land called Draper's Meadows, high in the Appalachian Mountains near present-day Blacksburg. The Draper and Ingles families had settled there seven years earlier. It was a place where buffalo and deer were plentiful, the soil in the river bottom was productive, and the forests provided an unending supply of fuel. The settlement stood on a sharp horseshoe bend of the New River, just before it cut north through the folded mountain ridges to fall, via a series of gorges, into the Kanawha and thence into the great Ohio River at what is now Point Pleasant. Thus Mary Ingles's story was played out beyond the eastern continental divide-on the northwest side of the Appalachians, in the watershed of the Ohio and the Mississippi. It was, in 1755, in every sense the contemporary American frontier. Young Thomas is said to be the first white child born west of the mountains.

This was a time when Buffalo was the biggest western city, and Pittsburgh was still in French hands and called Fort Duquesne. The Appalachian frontier was not a place for the faint-hearted, nor one where political philosophy was nearly as important as sheer survival. But in fact it was near a major geopolitical epicenter-the earthquake being the French-Indian wars, a series of conflicts between England and France that lasted from 1689 to 1763. The last phase of the conflict began in 1754, at a time when the French controlled the St. Lawrence River valley, parts of the Great Lakes, and the whole eastern Mississippi Valley together with their southern lands around the mouth of the Mississippi. The British possessions in America were all on the Atlantic seaboard, east of the Appalachians. A huge disputed area lay between the two; French trappers and traders freely crisscrossed modern Ohio, and-as with the Draper and Ingles families-there was growing pressure from the east in the form of British-American settlers. The local Indians played both sides to their advantage, mostly tending to favor the French.

The Treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) had produced temporary stalemates, but along the Allegheny River in 1753 the French built a series of forts, which, in the following years, forces under Lieutenant General George Washington tried to capture. In 1754 Washington was defeated at Fort Necessity, and in 1755, the year of Mary Ingles's tribulations, he and General George Braddock were defeated at Fort Duquesne (a particularly painful loss, as Washington had tried to establish a fort there in 1753 but had been driven off then, too). Eventually, between 1758 and 1760, British-American troops took Louisburg and Forts Duquesne, Frontenac, Niagara, and Ticonderoga; General James Wolfe took Quebec; and Lord Jeffrey Amherst took Montreal. In 1763, through the Treaty of Paris, Britain gained all of the French territory east of the Mississippi, including Ohio and parts of what is now Canada. The result was a massive addition to the territory of the future United States. On the mainland, France retained New Orleans and the vast country west of the Mississippi.

For frontier settlers like the Ingles family and their neighbors, the immediate daily battle had little to do with events in London or Paris. Instead they were working out a very personal destiny-as settlers in contested lands and among still uncivilized peoples. But they were nonetheless a small cog in a mighty machine of westward expansion, part of the wave of settlers that had started to cross the Appalachians. In one sense it was people like the Ingles and Draper families, who wanted to settle on the land rather than simply trap and trade, who in a sense forced the war. And in a very real respect it was they, as much as Washington and Braddock's soldiers, who were on the front line. No one worked in the fields without a gun ready to hand, because bands of roaming French and Indians, and even some renegade English "adventurers," were a constant threat.

On Sunday morning, July 8, 1755, a raiding party of Shawnee Indians descended on the tiny settlement at Draper's Meadows, killing four, including Mary's mother and her brother's infant son. William Ingles, who was out in the fields harvesting wheat, rushed to their aid but was attacked by two Indians who chased him into the woods, where he escaped. When it was safe to return to the cabin, he discovered that in addition to the killings, the Indians had ransacked the place for food and useful tools and had taken five of the settlers alive. His wife Mary (in some accounts said to be eight or nine months pregnant), her sister Bettie Draper, with her arm broken by a musket shot, their small sons Thomas and George, and a man named Henry Lenard had all been dragged off into the deep forest. The raid happened the day before General Braddock's defeat.


Excerpted from The Legacy of the Mastodonby Keith Thomson Copyright © 2008 by Keith Thomson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.