Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Legacy of the Mastodon

The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America

Keith Thomson
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 424
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Legacy of the Mastodon
    Book Description:

    The uncovering in the mid-1700s of fossilized mastodon bones and teeth at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, signaled the beginning of a great American adventure. The West was opening up and unexplored lands beckoned. Unimagined paleontological treasures awaited discovery: strange horned mammals, birds with teeth, flying reptiles, gigantic fish, diminutive ancestors of horses and camels, and more than a hundred different kinds of dinosaurs. This exciting book tells the story of the grandest period of fossil discovery in American history, the years from 1750 to 1890.

    The volume begins with Thomas Jefferson, whose keen interest in the American mastodon led him to champion the study of fossil vertebrates. The book continues with vivid descriptions of the actual work of prospecting for fossils--a pick in one hand, a rifle in the other--and enthralling portraits of Joseph Leidy, Ferdinand Hayden, Edward Cope, and Othniel Marsh among other major figures in the development of the science of paleontology. Shedding new light on these scientists' feuds and rivalries, on the connections between fossil studies in Europe and America, and on paleontology's contributions to America's developing national identity,The Legacy of the Mastodonis itself a fabulous discovery for every reader to treasure.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15184-8
    Subjects: History, Paleontology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Maps and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. PART ONE: The Jeffersonians

    • ONE Fossil Hunters on the Frontier
      (pp. 3-9)

      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...

    • TWO Big Bone Lick
      (pp. 10-23)

      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...

    • THREE Franklin, Jefferson, and the Incognitum
      (pp. 24-33)

      In a letter to Croghan, thanking him for the mastodon specimens, Franklin observed:

      They are extremely curious on many accounts; no living elephants having been seen in any part of America by any of the Europeans settled there, nor remembered in any tradition of the Indians. It is also puzzling to conceive what should have brought so many of them to die on the same spot; and that no such remains should be found in any other part of the continent, except in that very distant country Peru, from whence some grinders of the same kind formerly brought, are now...

    • FOUR Jefferson’s “Great-Claw” and a World About to Change
      (pp. 34-40)

      Before the discovery of the giant, apparently extinct, mastodon from Big Bone Lick established America as a place of importance in the study of fossils, all serious intellectual work concerning fossil vertebrates had been conducted by European scholars. Then in 1797, a second set of ancient oversized bones, together with the energy of Thomas Jefferson, completed the launching of American paleontology. The American frontier had shifted well westward from its position in Mary Ingles’s day. The whole of Virginia, including much of what later became West Virginia, was settled. At a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia—the...

    • FIVE The First American Dinosaurs: An Eighteenth-Century Mystery Story
      (pp. 41-45)

      It turns out that the mastodon and great-claw were not the only giant vertebrate fossils to be discovered in eighteenth-century America. At a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia on October 5, 1787 (“15 members present, Franklin presiding”), Casper Wistar and a prominent Philadelphia patriot named Timothy Matlack (one of the “fighting Quakers” and later clerk of the State Senate) made a presentation about a “large thigh bone found near Woodbury Creek in Glocester County, N.J.” The minutes of the October meeting record that the authors and “Dr Rodgers” (presumably Dr. John R. B. Rodgers, later a physician...

    • SIX Fossils and Show Business: Mr. Peale’s Mastodon
      (pp. 46-54)

      For all the excitement that the mastodon and great-claw engendered on both sides of the Atlantic, it seemed that the only way to resolve some of the uncertainties over their identity, their size, their behavior, and possibly even their philosophical meaning would be, as Reverend Collin, rector of the Lutheran Churches in Pennsylvania, observed, to find better material. In 1799 Jefferson organized a committee charged with the task of investigating the remains of “ancient Fortifications, Tumuli, and other Indian works of art” and finding “one or more entire skeletons of the Mammoth, so called, and of such other unknown animals...

  7. PART TWO: Fossils and Geology

    • SEVEN Fossils and Extinction: Dangerous Ideas
      (pp. 57-71)

      The English physician and collector Dr. John Hunter had written of the mastodon: “We cannot but thank Heaven that its whole generation is extinct.” But how could anyone be sure that creatures like the European mammoth or the American mastodon and great-claw really were extinct? And if they were, what would be the consequences for our ideas about the history of the earth and life upon it?

      Today the concept of an animal or plant species being extinct is commonplace. We are comfortable with the fact that the fossil record documents the ancient existence of millions of extinct species that...

    • EIGHT Mary Anning’s World
      (pp. 72-85)

      At the same time that the American mastodon was being puzzled over, two dramatic and scientifically important fossil reptiles were discovered in Europe. One was very big, one was small. Sometime between 1770 and 1780 “the aquatic Reptile, theMosasaurus,or Lizard of the Meuse,” was discovered in one of the underground galleries of limestone quarries in St. Peter’s Mountain, Maastricht, the Netherlands. Quarry workmen exposed what seemed to be a large skull and then, luckily, stopped working and called for advice. Dr. J. L. Hoffmann, a surgeon in the town who had long collected fossils in the quarries, realized...

    • NINE An American Natural Science
      (pp. 86-97)

      With a name like Featherstonhaugh (pronouncedFanshaw), the editor of the fledglingMonthly American Journalcould only have been English. George Featherstonhaugh was a well-off Englishman who moved to America, married into society, and set about establishing himself as a geologist. He hoped that the journal would make his scientific reputation. In his disdain he seems to have missed the point that the intellectual and empirical traditions of his adopted country were different from those in Europe.¹

      Across the Atlantic, before the establishment of a few professional positions for geologists and paleontologists in universities and museums, there had already been...

    • TEN An American Geology
      (pp. 98-104)

      “Mr Maclure has, with great ability, sketched the outline; but much labour is still needed in filling up the detail,” wrote Silliman in the first issue of his new journal. But Maclure would not be the one to do it. Parker Cleaveland was professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Bowdoin College (like Silliman, he trained first in law and theology). He produced the first textbook of American mineralogy in 1816, and for the first time there was a domestic rival to European textbooks, such as the enormously influentialManual of Mineralogyby Robert Jameson at Edinburgh.¹

      Meanwhile, Maclure had...

    • ELEVEN Bad Lands: No Time for Ideas
      (pp. 105-121)

      In 1841, toward the end of his first visit to America, Charles Lyell traveled to Philadelphia, where he met a young physician named Joseph Leidy who had already made a reputation both for his skill as an anatomist and microscopist and for his elegant and meticulous scientific drawings. Lyell pointed out to Leidy that although people like Eaton, Hall, Newberry, Say, Morton, and Vanuxem had used their knowledge of fossilinvertebratesto make major discoveries in the stratigraphy of the New York Transition Series and the New Jersey Cretaceous, and despite the earlier discoveries of the mastodon and great-claw, Americans...

    • TWELVE Dr. Leidy’s Dinosaur
      (pp. 122-125)

      From the late 1830s onward, a farmer named John Hopkins, while digging for marl (phosphate-rich rock) to spread on his land in Haddon-field, New Jersey (some eight miles from Philadelphia across the Delaware River), had occasionally turned up huge fossil bones. The bones seem all to have been vertebrae, plus possibly a shoulder bone, but visitors to the site had carried off what had been found. Then, in 1858, William Parker Foulke, a friend of Leidy who had a summer house near the Hopkins farm, heard about these fossils and tried to retrieve some of them. When that failed he...

    • THIRTEEN Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden
      (pp. 126-144)

      The frontier had rapidly moved westward, and the discovery of gold in California at John Sutter’s sawmill on the American River in 1848 produced a flood of westward migrants. The scientists followed, although not all of American science was conducted in the restrained and gentlemanly style practiced by the good Dr. Leidy. Two men in particular, James Hall and his teacher John Newberry, operated in a far more elbows-out manner. When Hall read Owen’s Wisconsin report and saw Leidy’s account of the vertebrate fossils of the Bad Lands, he determined that he would get a share of the action. Hall...

  8. PART THREE: Giant Saurians and Horned Mammals

    • FOURTEEN Kansas and a New Regime
      (pp. 147-154)

      In the first five years after the American Civil War the rate of discovery of fossil vertebrates in the West increased dramatically. In addition to the efforts of Hayden and others, pushing their surveys deep into the Upper Missouri regions of modern Colorado, Montana, and the Dakotas, many finds of fossil bones were now coming from people on the ground. The population of the entire West was increasing rapidly both from itinerants in the form of traders and army personnel and from the permanent settlers in the new towns (especially those springing up around the forts and along the continental...

    • FIFTEEN Entry of the Gladiators
      (pp. 155-167)

      Born in 1840, Edward Drinker Cope attended a prestigious and rigorous school—Westtown Friends School—but he did not attend university. The Copes, a Quaker family, had long been prominent in Philadelphia business circles; his grandfather Thomas Pim Cope owned a successful packet ship line. The young Cope should have been destined to continue in the family businesses, although he showed no interest in the world of commerce. He grew up on his father’s rural estate just outside Philadelphia, and when he was sixteen his father, Alfred Cope, worried about his son’s health, sent him to work during the summers...

    • SIXTEEN Riding the Rails
      (pp. 168-176)

      The decade of the 1870s was pivotal for the discovery of fossil vertebrates in America. From the many geographic and geological surveys, information about everything to do with the West—from soil conditions and timber stands to mining prospects (precious metals and, of course, coal)—was changing with ever-increasing speed. This fed dramatic changes in the economy. Between 1860 and 1870, wheat production in the north-central states more than doubled, and corn production increased threefold. Even more significantly, the amount of silver produced increased from 156,000 tons in 1860 to 36 million tons in 1873. In 1850 the country was...

    • SEVENTEEN The First Yale College Expedition
      (pp. 177-190)

      Before 1868, neither Cope nor Marsh had actually visited any part of the West. Cope was the more experienced in matters to do with Kansas, if only for the infamousElasmosaurus.In his 1871 summary of collections from the Cretaceous rocks of Kansas (written in 1870), Cope noted that he would “be glad if his friends in the West” would forward to him in Philadelphia, “at his expense, specimens of bones or teeth which they may find.”¹ Mudge had written to Marsh about his discoveries in eastern Kansas, and Professor John Parker sent Marsh some “saurian remains” from Kansas. Dr....

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • EIGHTEEN The Competition Begins
      (pp. 191-199)

      When everyone had returned to New Haven, the number of fossils that had been collected by the first Yale expedition was enormous, but Marsh was particularly intrigued by something that he had found on the very last, bitterly cold, day of collecting near Fort Wallace. With night falling and his soldier escort getting increasingly nervous, Marsh persisted in stopping to look at yet another bone. “After sunset . . . I saw on my right, about a dozen feet from the trail, a fossil bone. . . . [I]t was hollow, about six inches long and one inch in diameter,...

    • NINETEEN Buffalo Land: Who Was Professor Paleozoic?
      (pp. 200-210)

      The new railroad era of fossil collecting in the West started in Kansas. As the Kansas Pacific Railroad pushed west from Topeka, across the Permian formations of the Flint Hills and into the open country of Cretaceous hills and valleys, it gave access to dozens of fossil sites from which a wonderful array of mosasaurs, the plesiosaurElasmosaurus,and a later host of other forms such as birds with teeth and huge flying reptiles were discovered. It was in Kansas that both Cope and Marsh had their early successes, aided by a small but active (and growing) number of Kansas...

    • TWENTY 1872: The Year of Conflict
      (pp. 211-228)

      Joseph Leidy finally traveled west to collect for himself in 1872. It was the first time he had seen any of the prairie landscapes, the mountains, and the great fossil basins and badlands from which others had been sending him specimens for twenty-five years. He had never had a monopoly on the Dakota Bad Lands region, but it was imperative for him to get into the field in person if he was to have any chance of enforcing a claim to the Eocene vertebrates of the Bridger region. Hayden had long ago warned him that he was vulnerable to being...

    • TWENTY-ONE The Case of the Great Horned Mammals
      (pp. 229-241)

      By the spring of 1873 Cope and Marsh, who had once been colleagues and even friends, had become bitter enemies. While the divorce had been a long time brewing and doubtless was inevitable, the immediately precipitating events concerned their discoveries of the strange horned mammals in Wyoming. The dispute tells us a great deal about the state of paleontology at the time and about the personalities of the two men. It also marked the beginning of the end for Joseph Leidy as a major player in this great game.

      Leidy, Cope, and Marsh had each discovered specimens of gigantic fossil...

    • TWENTY-TWO Going Separate Ways
      (pp. 242-253)

      Hayden urged Leidy to return to the West in 1873, stating: “The coming year I will most gladly aid you to visit two localities neither of which will be visited by any one but you, if you go . . . then make a trip to Judith River which you will have all to yourself. Should Marsh or Cope desire to go to these localities I cannot hinder it, though I will not aid them in any way.” He ended his short letter on a rather chilling and perhaps tactless note: “I am writing this letter within ten miles of...

    • TWENTY-THREE Two into Four Won’t Go
      (pp. 254-262)

      For all the lighthearted accounts of bumbling scientists and jolly fieldwork depicted inBuffalo Land,the romanticized accounts of the Yale expeditions, and the frenetic pace at which Cope and Marsh found and described new species, the period between 1869 and 1874 might really be termed the paleontological fall from grace. In 1869, four strong characters had been sharing the field of fossil vertebrates; if they were not exactly working side by side, at least they were cooperating in a general sense of tolerance. By 1874, there were only two. In 1869, Leidy had been at the top of his...

    • TWENTY-FOUR To the Black Hills
      (pp. 263-270)

      To explorers in the Dakota Bad Lands, the densely forested Black Hills stood as a dark foreboding presence to the north, a place of ancient contorted rocks thrust up from deep in the earth. It was a place where no paleontologist needed to go, and where the Indians, to whom it was sacred ground, would have made him most unwelcome.

      Under President Andrew Johnson yet another well-meaning attempt had been made in 1866 to secure peace in the plains; it meant persuading the Indians to retreat to designated reservations and to accept (in effect to become dependent on) government aid....

    • TWENTY-FIVE To the Judith River
      (pp. 271-276)

      Both Cope and Marsh paused in their fieldwork in 1875. Indian troubles may have been part of the reason, although not in the Bridger region where Sam Smith and John Chew continued to collect for Marsh, nor in New Mexico. Principally, both Cope and (even) Marsh were feeling the financial pressures of constantly working out West and they had inordinate backlogs of material to describe. They were also exhausted by the constant bickering, each feeling he had no option but to keep up the pressure on the other. It was a time also for Cope to start to exert himself...

  9. PART FOUR: Toward the Twentieth Century

    • TWENTY-SIX The Rise of Dinosaurs
      (pp. 279-294)

      Even with Hayden’s original specimens from the Judith River in 1856 and Cope’s new material from 1876, in twenty years not many new dinosaurs had been found in North America. From New Jersey there were Leidy’sHadrosaurusand Cope’sLaelaps;in 1859 J. S. Newberry collected some material in Utah, but it was not described until 1877, when Cope gave it the nameDystropheus.Marsh had foundClaosaurusin the Cretaceous of Kansas in 1872. In his expedition to Wyoming in the same year, and again in 1874, Cope had discovered fragmentary materials of dinosaurs that he assigned to no...

    • TWENTY-SEVEN The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
      (pp. 295-309)

      In the mid-1800s there were many more interesting and pressing issues in the West—the Indian situation, emigration, gold, the politics of territory-and statehood—than fossil bones. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh pursued their work and conducted their feuds within a rather small range of intellectual arenas, principally the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences. But because public funding of the surveys was involved, paleontology eventually became embroiled in politics and then, inevitably with exposure in the national press, a semiprivate fight became a public scandal.

      The story of the constantly changing, interweaving careers of...

    • TWENTY-EIGHT Going Public
      (pp. 310-316)

      Although they are now familiar to us, it was only slowly that the great discoveries of vertebrates in the American West made by Hayden, Leidy, Cope, Marsh, and their many associates reached a broad public audience. This may seem surprising given the fast early start for Charles Willson Peale’s mastodon exhibitions in Philadelphia and on tour in Europe, and then the success (and continuing fame) of Owen’s stunt in hosting a dinner inside the incompleteIguanodonreconstruction for the Crystal Palace Exhibition in England (a direct copy of the dinner that Rembrandt Peale held under the skeleton of the great...

    • TWENTY-NINE 1890: The End of the Beginning
      (pp. 317-334)

      The fossil collectors of the old West, with dirt under their fingernails and often sick from poor water and bad food, created a golden age of paleontology. Just like the homesteaders and miners trekking westward, and the residents of the new towns springing up across the West, they were pioneers. The ancient animals whose bones they dragged out on the backs of their mules now stand in the great museums of the world as monuments both to science and to individual perseverance. The even larger numbers of less complete remains that are assembled in museum research collections form the raw...

  10. Appendixes

    • Appendix A The Geological Column
      (pp. 335-337)
    • Appendix B Leidy on Evolution
      (pp. 338-340)
    • Appendix C Cope on Evolution
      (pp. 341-344)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 345-370)
  12. Index
    (pp. 371-386)