The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh and the Rise of American Scienceby Mark Jaffe
It was an age of counterfeit giants, corrupt politicians, and intrepid pioneers. It was a time of scientific ferment. The second half of the 19th century — the so-called Gilded Age — was a time when Americans were exploring the West and building a nation which stretched from coast to coast. It was also when scientists began finding dinosaur fossils across the western half of the nation.
Could the answer to the history of life and the proof of evolution be found in these bones? That was the question two young American paleontologists — Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh — set out to answer. But what began as a friendly contest quickly turned into a bitter rivalry that would spill over into American science and politics and rage relentlessly for nearly three decades.
Despite their Gilded Age celebrity, the names of Cope and Marsh have disappeared into the recesses of the library and archive. In The Gilded Dinosaur, Mark Jaffe exhumes from those archives the notes, journals, and letters of these two great opponents to reanimate and retell one of the most fierce rivalries in the history of science.
- Crown Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 PBK ED
- Product dimensions:
- 6.12(w) x 9.17(h) x 1.12(d)
Read an Excerpt
So, it had come to this. Cope had a little more than twenty-four hours to get the fossils to Cow Island. There would be no time to retrace their steps through the badlands. Instead, Cope purchased an old sand scow and set off up the river to Isaac and the bones. (He had tried to borrow it, but the owner, having heard the conversation with the captain, knew there was a buck to be made.)
Cope and Sternberg rowed back to camp. Isaac wasn't there. With no time to lose, they started packing and loading the scow. Just before they were ready to shove off, Isaac, who had gone searching for them in the badlands, turned up. The three men swam the horses across the river and then started for Cow Island.
A towline was attached to the most dependable of the horses -- Old Major -- and the animal began the slow journey downstream, pulling the scow. Sternberg rode the horse; a couple of mountain men, whom Cope had met at Cow Island, stood on either bank with long poles to keep the boat from turning in to shore.
Isaac and Cope had the toughest duty -- sitting in the scow and unraveling the towline when it got snagged on a rock or a branch. Such a hitch would immediately build tension in the line and releasing it was like setting off a spring or more accurately, a catapult. Each time Cope or Isaac freed the line, they were pitched into the cold, shallow river.
The sun was setting when the scow came in under the hull of the big steamer. The deck was filled with curious passengers watching the progress of the little boat. Cope was covered with mud from head to foot. His clothes were in tatters. His fossils, however, were intact. In his next letter to Annie, he proudlyannounced that he had collected twelve hundred pounds of fossils and added, "We had a lively time getting them to the boat."23
The October nights were already getting chilly, so the lady passengers were wearing furs and the men were sporting ulsters. Cope, however, had forgotten to bring any winter clothes, so after removing his muddy rags and washing up, he emerged from the sergeant's tent with hair combed, mustache trimmed, dressed in a summer suit with a linen duster.
The next morning, true to the captain's word, the Josephine weighed anchor and headed downriver. The steamboat did not get very far before its voyage was checked. At Fort Buford, on the North Dakota border, General Hazen commandeered the steamer, prepared to unload all the passengers and cargo, and fill it with soldiers to head back up the Missouri.
The Sioux had finally made their dash toward Canada and crossed the river not at Fort Benton, but at Cow Island. A brief battle occurred, and five soldiers were killed. After a day's consideration, however, Hazen decided to use another boat, and let the Josephine go. But further down the river, at Fort Lincoln, the boat was stopped again and used this time to ferry soldiers -- fresh recruits for Custer's Seventh Cavalry, with their new saddles and horses -- to join the chase. "The officers' wives watched from our steamer, none knew that they would see their husbands again," Cope wrote in a letter, "but were cheerful, some too much so, but some showed their feelings." So as Cope moved east, a small army was rushing into the valley. The paleontologist's timing had been impeccable.
Meet the Author
Mark Jaffe lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, and writes about science and the environment for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the author of And No Birds Sing
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