Also known as “the Great Dinosaur Rush,” the Bone Wars took place during a time of intense speculation about and significant discoveries of fossils in North America. The “wars” themselves were waged by rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. The competition between Cope and Marsh was far from a friendly one: both used underhanded methods, including bribery, theft, and the destruction of bones, in attempts to outdo each other. It did not end particularly well for either man.
Not Quite A Gentleman; Not Quite A Professional
Early on in their careers, Cope and Marsh were rather close. They worked together on several occasions, and even named newly-discovered species for each other. However, both men had strong personalities, and they came from very different backgrounds and schools of scientific thought.
The argumentative, hot tempered Cope, from a wealthy and influential Quaker family, was a staunch supporter of Neo-Lamarckism. Meanwhile, the more methodical and introverted Marsh, born into a poor family in Lockport, New York, backed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. A cohort of the two remarked, “The patrician [Cope] may have considered Marsh not quite a gentleman. The academic [Marsh] probably regarded Cope as not quite a professional.”
Following a fossil-finding excursion to Cope’s family’s marl pits in New Jersey, Marsh covertly bribed the pit operators to send news of future fossil finds to him, rather than Cope. From there, personal relations between the duo fell apart quickly. The men attacked each other in newspapers and scientific publications, each hoping to ruin his rivals’ reputation and scare off future financial backers.
Dueling Dino Diggers
In 1872, Cope set off on an expedition into the American West to find new fossils. After being left high and dry in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, by his supposed supporter, the geologist Ferdinand Hayden, Cope put together a team at his own expense. Two of the men in Cope’s new crew were also employed by Marsh, and one of them accidentally forwarded some of Marsh’s material to Cope instead. Cope sent the materials back to Marsh, but Marsh was furious at having his men poached by his rival. (One claimed he had joined Cope only so he could steer him in the wrong direction.)
The growing hostilities between the two paleontologists came into the open in the spring of 1873. Marsh and Cope had each made a number of significant discoveries of ancient reptile and mammal fossils in Western bone beds. In several instances, their discoveries overlapped each other, and they openly battled and bickered over classifications and nomenclature. Ultimately, it was determined that most of Marsh’s proposed names were valid; none of Cope’s were.
Later that year, both men set in motion new expeditions to what is now South Dakota. Marsh, with scads of bones awaiting study and cataloging, stayed home, but enlisted the services of numerous local collectors who would do the actual digging and discovery for him before sending the bones back to his offices at Yale University. Cope, meanwhile, worked with the Army Corp of Engineers, and later struck up a deal with Chief Red Cloud to collect fossils on the Oglala Sioux’s tribal lands.
Apotosaurus skeleton at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, once curated by Othniel Marsh.
Rough Stuff at Como Bluff
An 1877 letter from Arthur Lakes, of Golden, Colorado, to Marsh told of Lakes’ discovery of massive bones in the nearby mountains. Lakes also sent a collection of the colossal bones to Marsh’s office. Marsh was slow to respond, so Lakes send another letter and accompanying shipment of bones, this one to Cope. However, Marsh was able to secure the prospector’s services, and published a description of the find in the American Journal of Science. Cope was preparing his own interpretation, but found that his bone supply had dried up—Lakes would be sending all further shipments to Marsh alone.
Shortly thereafter, Cope received another letter, this one from naturalist O.W. Lucas. Lucas had discovered an array of fossilized bones near Cañon City, Colorado. Hoping to cut Cope off at the pass, Marsh instructed two of his associates to set up a quarry nearby on his behalf. However, Lucas was already working with Cope and refused to jump ship to Marsh’s team.
A short while later, Marsh was contacted by two Union Pacific workers who were helping build the Transcontinental Railroad. The men, known as Carlin and Reed, claimed to have found numerous fossils near Como Bluff, and noted that others in the area were “looking for such things.” Marsh rightly assumed this meant Cope.
Fearing a Lakes repeat, Marsh quickly sent money to Carlin and Reed to secure their services and their silence. Marsh and Carlin soon met face to face, and came to terms wherein Carlin and Reed would be paid a monthly fee for their services, in addition to possible bonuses if their findings proved to be especially important. Carlin and Reed were ultimately dissatisfied with the agreement, feeling that Marsh, who flatly refused to negotiate the conditions of the deal, had bullied them into it.
Como Bluff proved to be a veritable treasure trove of fossils, with train cars full of bones being shipped to Marsh’s Yale offices on a steady basis. Dinosaur all-stars such as Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus were discovered and named based on the Como Bluff findings.
Carlin and Reed, seeing the potential for bigger paychecks, started spreading the word on the Como Bluff area. Soon, Cope had sent “dinosaur rustlers” to the region in an attempt to steal fossils from Marsh’s team. By the winter of 1878, Carlin had left Marsh’s employ and joined up with Cope.
Over the next fifteen years, from 1877 to 1892, Cope and Marsh personally funded numerous expeditions to Como Bluff which yielded literally tons of fossils. Both teams were hit hard, and repeatedly, by the weather, and even harder by sabotage from the opposition.
Both men sent spies into the other’s camps. Tensions grew within excavation teams. Marsh and Cope both ordered their workers to destroy any remaining bones at cleared-out quarries to prevent them from falling into their rival’s hands, and many sites were filled in with dirt and rocks to keep the competition at bay.
The War Draws to A Close
By 1884, Marsh was pulling ahead to victory in the Bone Wars. Thanks to rich and powerful contacts in Washington, D.C., he was made the head of the government’s consolidated geological survey team. Cope, meanwhile, faced numerous setbacks and soon found himself with his fossil collection as his only significant asset.
Cope soon got the chance to turn the tables on his former colleague. He spoke to disgruntled workers who had been dismissed from Marsh’s survey team, and with the help of his friends Henry Osborn, a Princeton professor, and William Hosea Ballou, a “newspaper man from New York,” published a series of articles journaling the mistakes and misdeeds Marsh had committed as leader of the survey.
In the articles, Cope lobbied charges of plagiarism and financial mismanagement against Marsh. Marsh published a rebuttal, and other, unaffiliated newspapers joined the fray with pieces speaking out against each man. Though the pieces gained nationwide attention, neither side gained much traction, and no clear “winner” ever emerged from the widely-published spat.
The rivalry between Cope and Marsh kept going strong, at least on a personal level, until Cope’s death in 1897. By that time, both men were destitute and each had had to sell significant portions of their respective fossil collections to support themselves.
Cope did strike a final blow, however. Upon his death, he had his skull donated to the University of Pennsylvania so that his brain size could be measured, in the hopes that it would prove to be larger than Marsh’s. (At the time, brain size was thought to be an accurate measure for intelligence.) Marsh never answered the challenge, and was buried in one piece two years later.
Photo credit: rynoceras / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND