The Bone Wars

Mary Connealy Header

 In the last third of the 19th century, a war began. Echoes of that war continue to reverberate today — “The Bone Wars.” There was an explosion in interest in fossils in the mid-1800s. Scientists were finding them so fast they wouldn’t do their own research.

Bone Wars MarshOthniel Charles Marsh (1831-1894) (Right) a professor at Yale became fascinated with fossils. He had a reputation as an “armchair paleontologist,” too busy to work in the field, who owed his high standing not to genius, but to luck and to his family’s money. However, his research led to the identification of 80 new species of dinosaur over his lifetime.

Bone Wars copeEdward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) (Left) distinguished himself as a child prodigy interested in science; he published his first scientific paper at the age of nineteen. In total he discovered and described over 1,000 species of fossil vertebrates, including 56 new dinosaur species. In total he discovered and described over 1,000 species of fossil vertebrates and published 600 separate titles.

As it turned out, Marsh and Cope had egos larger than the dinosaurs they were identifying. In 1877, Railroad workers discovered large bones near Como Bluff, Wyoming and notified Professor Marsh.

The Bone Cabin Quarry at Como Bluff took its name from the fact that a cabin belonging to a local trapper was made of dinosaur bones. In one year alone, some 30 tons of dinosaur bones consisting of some 141 individual critters were removed from the quarry.

Bone Wars como Bluff

Como Bluff became known as the Dinosaur Graveyard.

In the race to control these finds, Marsh and Cope, once friends, became bitter rivels. Marsh began bribing Cope’s workers to send him, Marsh, new fossils from Cope’s fossil pits. Marsh using the military to provide protection from Indians and he interfered with Cope’s ability to obtain accommodations or assistants at Fort Bridger. Cope had to sleep in the Fort’s hay yard. 


Bone Wars Brontosaurus

If you can see it, Marsh’s name is on the bottom of this picture of the Brontosaurus. He was the first to identify that species. He also identified the Triceratops and the Stegasaurus. Marsh was wealthy and had a paleontology department created at Yale at his family’s expense, on the condition he was put in charge of the department. He spent four short seasons doing field research. 

Bone Wars Cope Find plesiosaur

The second picture is a plesiosaur, one of over 1000 species (most neither dinosaur, nor extinct, but to that time unstudied) identified by Cope.

Cope spent 22 years in the field and, though he lacked the social position and formal scientific education of Marsh his work was more groundbreaking.

In their rivalry, Cope once had a train load of Marsh’s fossils diverted to HeartSongs10.inddPhiladelphia. Marsh salted Cope’s digs with odd pieces of bone fragments unrelated to the fossils from the period in question. In 1879, Cope showed up at the Como Bluff accusing Marsh of “trespassing” and stealing his fossils. Marsh directed that the dinosaur pits be dynamited rather than allow fossils to fall into the “wrong hands.”

Because they were racing each other, they often based descriptions of new species on sparse material, and sometimes mixed up bones from different animals, or gave different names to the same animal. Despite such shenanigans, the feud between Marsh and Cope benefitted paleontology immensely. When Marsh and Cope began to work, only eighteen dinosaur species were known from North America — many only known from isolated teeth or vertebrae. Between them, the two men HusbandTree smdescribed over 130 species of dinosaurs.

The animosity became public in January 1890. Cope had gathered numerous fossils, spending some $80,000.00 in his own funds on the effort. The federal government required that the fossils be turned over to the government. Cope blamed Marsh who had been successful in obtaining the upper hand with the Geological Survey. In the New York Herald Cope accused Marsh of stealing work from other paleontologists. The following week, Marsh claimed that Cope had committed “a series of blunders, which are without parallel in the annals of science.” Marsh indicated that he doubted Cope’s sanity. The end result of the Bone Wars was that each exhausted their respective fortunes. Cope had to sell part of his collections. Marsh had to mortgage his house. Today, Cope is regarded as careless. Marsh has been accused of taking credit for the work of his students. But when you get beyond the personal conflict of the Bone Wars, you find two men who discovered and documented a whole lotta dinosaurs.

And yes, there may be some fossils in an upcoming book. That’ll be fun. There is a really cool museum in Lincoln, NE with Mammoth skeletons and huge rhinos, all found in America. I got to see it once of twice as a kid and was really entranced by it. Anyone done any studies of skeletons or dinosaurs? Did you read Danny and the Dinosaur when you were a kid? Any Flintstones fans? Jurassic Park? Why do you think dinosaurs are so fun? 🙂

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18 thoughts on “The Bone Wars”

  1. Good morning. I’m going to be in and out today. I’m doing a book signing in Ohio. So I’m on the road.
    If you’re from ohio you can find my signing schedule on my blog.
    Come and see me if I’m in your area.

    I’ll check back later.

  2. Hi Mary! What a terrific blog! My sons both loved dinosaurs. We must have read a hundred books on them over the years I grew up in Los Angeles, so the La Brea Tar Pits were close by. The museums in Los Angeles were excellent for dino stuff!

    Enjoy the signing!

  3. Hi, Mary. Great post. I’ve read up on the bone wars a bit, too. It makes for some lively imaginary scenarios, doesn’t it? I look forward to seeing how you bring the bone hunters into your books.

    There was a big movement years earlier in England and Europe for finding dinosaur bones as well. And a young girl by the name of Mary Anning became the greatest fossil hunter of the early nineteenth century. Not bad for a woman, huh? And since you share the same first name, I thought you might be interested.

    I read a regency by Amanda Quick several years ago that had a heroine who was an avid amateur palentologist. Makes for a great quirk and fun plot turns. I’m sure your story will have plenty of quirk and fun, too. The ones you write always do.

  4. Hi, Mary. I think everyone is interested in dinosaurs, especially kids! It’s neat to have a boy or girl come up to you and show you a fossil that they’ve found and watch their imagination take over as why, what, when, where, and how questions start whirling through their brains!
    I’ve been to that museum in Lincoln and the mammoth skeleton is cool!

  5. very interesting mary
    i guess i thought digging up bones was a new thing…it seems strange to imagine an interest back then though i don’t know why

    i would never have enough patience to dig up bones, i’d rather sit back and see the final result

  6. Hi Mary, interesting post! My son was always into dinosaurs when he was young, he had the everywhere! On time we took him to a dinosaur exhibit. You just wouldn’t believe how real these things looked. These things where mechanical dinosaurs and looked so real. The first thing my son did was start screaming and climbing up my husband leg! We had to take him to the display that showed how they where made and he was ok after that! I will never forget this.

  7. Mary, this really caught my interest, since I’m a rock hound and amateur fossil finder. I’ve found a few small fossils but nothing substantial, much to my disappointment. I’d really LOVE to stumble across a whole field of them. That’s my dream.

    Hope you have a great booksigning today. Wishing you lots of success!

  8. Hi Mary!

    Hope you have a terrific book signing today. My tour starts on Saturday. Lots to do.

    Okay, first Mary, I want you to know how much I’m loving your book, The Husband Tree. I finally cleared some time to start reading it and I’m finding it incredibly entertaining, well-written and just one of the best stories I’ve read.

    You have a new fan. 🙂

    This was a great post, Mary, and I hope your book signings go great.

  9. Hi Mary, happy signings! Hope you make it to California some time.

    Great blog. My son and I read Danny and the Dinosaur about ten thousand times. And now his little boy, my sweetheart grandson, appears to have inherited the gene. I just got him a dinosaur fossil that comes apart like a puzzle.

    Last time I was in Colorado, my uncle Albert wanted to take me to a dinosaur canyon but he was too ill by the time I got there. Sounds like a gramma thing to do later on.

    Have safe travels. oxoxoxoxoxoxox

  10. Hi Mary, great post. I remember reading Danny and the Dinosaur about ten million times with my son. I’ve seen bones up close and personal and they are something!

    Have a great signing and come to California sometime.oxoxox

  11. Fascinating blog, Mary. I didn’t know the story of Marsh and Cope. Utah is dinosaur country. Millions of years ago much of the state was a huge lake (the Great Salt Lake is its last remnant). Dinosaurs all over the place. People are still finding their bones, and just discovered a new species. There’s a wonderful dinosaur museum about 20 minutes from me. Some amazing displays.
    Hope your book signing goes great.

  12. Mary,

    Hope you have a wonderful day with your book signing. Your books are always so good. The post today got my attention

    Well have a wonderful day

    Walk in harmony,

  13. I think they’re fun because they are soooooo big and they’re not around anymore. Lots of things to learn about them too. I actually know some people who don’t believe in dinosaurs!!!!!

  14. Several years ago, a crew working on a road uncovered dirt darker than the surrounding area. Work was stopped and the experts brought in. It turned out to be a pit with a wealth of fossil bones. They do not go back to the dinosaur period, but there are mammoth, giant ground sloths, tapir, turtles, etc. It is one of the richest finds in the East. They have built a nice museum and have opened a paleontology department at the local college. It is not far off I-81 in Northeast Tennessee near Johnson City.

    I was working at the local Children’s Museum when Jurassic Park came out. There was a traveling exhibit we booked. We used an empty department store space at the local mall to set it up. There were separate pens for the animatronic dinos. In the mall lobby we placed the life sized T-Rex. It was quite a mid-night production rolling it in a lowered position to clear the ceilings. When we got it into place and hooked up the hydraulics, It reared up and hit the cornice of the ceiling. The dent is still there. Of all the dinosaurs in the exhibit, the allosaurus was the most threatening. As for the Jurassic Park movies, the raptors still scare me to death.

    Both my husband and I spent our time in the science departments in college. He and I have done study skins and studied skeletons. For our son’s science fair project one year, we did a skull comparison. Living in the country it is actually pretty easy to find skeletons and skulls. He had dog, cat, groundhog, deer, rabbit, and mouse/rat. Another year we did an owl study by collecting owl “pellets”. When they finish eating and have digested their meal, they regurgitate a pellet about the size of an egg. It contains the fur and bones of the creature they ate. We were then able to tell what their diet consisted of by identifying the skulls – mouse, mole, vole, shrew, rat.
    (You never know what you’ll find in our freezer or the closets.)

    Whenever we travel, we always go to the local college or natural history museums. We were in Fort Bridger a few years ago for the Rendezvous. Wish we had know about the Dinosaur Graveyard. Have been to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. The Denver Museum of Natural History has a wonderful dinosaur exhibit. In South Dakota, south of Custer National Park, there is a Mammoth museum. It is an active excavation of a mud hole that has excellent skeletons. You can see the line in the dirt that marked the edge of the mud and solid ground.

    What a shame Marsh and Cope couldn’t put their egos aside and worked together. The science would have advanced farther and faster and the men wouldn’t have ruined their finances.

  15. All my sons and grandsons have exhibited an
    interest in all things dinosaur over the years, except our almost-two-year-old Jude. If it doesn’t
    have wheels, he isn’t interested. I’m not giving
    up there, he still has time! As for the rest of
    the grandsons, all gift-giving occasions must always
    feature DINOSAURS!

    Thanks for the information on the Bone War battles!

    Pat Cochran

  16. One thing that was pretty interesting was that Marsh (or was it Cope?) built a brontosaurus, one of the first ones found, and he put the head on the wrong end. When you think about it the head and the tail are sort of similar. But the other one Cope (or Marsh) found out or heard about it after it was fixed, something like t hat, and made a huge fuss about how stupid that mistake was. It only added to the bitterness.

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