The 20-Year Bone Wars That Changed History

Close up of dinosaur skeleton on display at a museum.

PxHere / Public Domain

When most people think of the Wild West, they picture Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, and caravans of settlers in covered wagons. But for paleontologists, the American West in the late 19th century conjures up one image above all: the enduring rivalry between two of this country's greatest fossil hunters, Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. The "Bone Wars," as their feud became known, stretched from the 1870s well into the 1890s. The Bone Wars resulted in hundreds of new dinosaur finds — not to mention acts of bribery, trickery, and outright theft, as we'll get to later. Knowing a good subject when it sees one, HBO announced plans for a movie version of the Bone Wars starring James Gandolfini and Steve Carell. Sadly, Gandolfini's sudden death put the project in limbo.

In the beginning, Marsh and Cope were cordial, if somewhat wary, colleagues, having met in Germany in 1864. At the time, western Europe, not the U.S., was at the forefront of paleontology research. Part of the trouble stemmed from their different backgrounds. Cope was born into a wealthy Quaker family in Pennsylvania, while Marsh's family in upstate New York was comparatively poor (albeit with a very rich uncle, who enters the story later). It's probable that, even then, Marsh considered Cope a bit of a dilettante, not really serious about paleontology, while Cope saw Marsh as too rough and uncouth to be a true scientist.

The Fateful Elasmosaurus

Most historians trace the start of the Bone Wars to 1868. This is when Cope reconstructed a strange fossil sent to him from Kansas by a military doctor. Naming the specimen Elasmosaurus, he placed its skull on the end of its short tail, rather than its long neck. To be fair to Cope, to that date, no one had ever seen an aquatic reptile with such out-of-whack proportions. When he discovered this error, Marsh (as the legend goes) humiliated Cope by pointing it out in public, at which point Cope tried to buy (and destroy) every copy of the scientific journal in which he had published his incorrect reconstruction.

This makes for a good story — and the fracas over Elasmosaurus certainly contributed to the enmity between the two men. However, the Bone Wars likely started on a more serious note. Cope had discovered the fossil site in New Jersey that yielded the fossil of Hadrosaurus, named by the mentor of both men, the famous paleontologist Joseph Leidy. When he saw how many bones had yet to be recovered from the site, Marsh paid the excavators to send any interesting finds to him, rather than to Cope. Soon, Cope found out about this gross violation of scientific decorum and the Bone Wars began in earnest.

Into the West

What kicked the Bone Wars into high gear was the discovery, in the 1870s, of numerous dinosaur fossils in the American West. Some of these finds were made accidentally, during excavation work for the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1877, Marsh received a letter from Colorado schoolteacher Arthur Lakes describing the "saurian" bones he had found during a hiking expedition. Lakes sent sample fossils to both Marsh and (because he didn’t know if Marsh was interested) Cope.

Characteristically, Marsh paid Lakes $100 to keep his discovery a secret. When he discovered that Cope had been notified, he dispatched an agent west to secure his claim. Around the same time, Cope was tipped off to another fossil site in Colorado, which Marsh tried (unsuccessfully) to horn in on.

By this time, it was common knowledge that Marsh and Cope were competing for the best dinosaur fossils. This explains the subsequent intrigues centered on Como Bluff, Wyoming. Using pseudonyms, two workers for the Union Pacific Railroad alerted Marsh to their fossil finds, hinting (but not stating explicitly) that they might strike a deal with Cope if Marsh didn't offer generous terms. True to form, Marsh dispatched another agent, who made the necessary financial arrangements. Soon, the Yale-based paleontologist was receiving boxcars of fossils, including the first specimens of Diplodocus, Allosaurus, and Stegosaurus.

Word about this exclusive arrangement soon spread — aided by Union Pacific employees who leaked the scoop to a local newspaper, exaggerating the prices Marsh had paid for the fossils in order to bait the trap for the wealthier Cope. Soon, Cope sent his own agent westward. When these negotiations proved unsuccessful (possibly because he wasn't willing to pony up enough money), he instructed his prospector to engage in a bit of fossil-rustling and steal bones from the Como Bluff site, right under Marsh's nose.

Soon afterward, fed up with Marsh's erratic payments, one of the railroad men began working for Cope instead. This turned Como Bluff into the epicenter of the Bone Wars. By this time, both Marsh and Cope had relocated westward. Over the next few years, they engaged in such hijinks as deliberately destroying uncollected fossils and fossil sites (so as to keep them out of each other's hands), spying on each other's excavations, bribing employees, and even stealing bones outright. According to one account, workers on the rival digs once took time out from their labors to pelt each other with stones!

Bitter Enemies to the Last

By the 1880s, it was clear that Othniel C. Marsh was "winning" the Bone Wars. Thanks to the support of his wealthy uncle, George Peabody (who lent his name to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History), Marsh could hire more employees and open more dig sites, while Edward Drinker Cope slowly but surely fell behind. It didn't help matters that other parties, including a team from Harvard University, now joined the dinosaur gold rush. Cope continued to publish numerous papers but, like a political candidate taking the low road, Marsh made hay out of every tiny mistake he could find.

Cope soon had his opportunity for revenge. In 1884, Congress began an investigation into the U.S. Geological Survey, which Marsh had been appointed the head of a few years before. Cope recruited a number of Marsh's employees to testify against their boss (who wasn't the easiest person in the world to work for) but Marsh connived to keep their grievances out of the newspapers. Cope then upped the ante. Drawing on a journal he had kept for two decades, in which he meticulously listed Marsh's numerous felonies, misdemeanors, and scientific errors, he supplied the information to a journalist for the New York Herald, which ran a sensational series about the Bone Wars. Marsh issued a rebuttal in the same newspaper, hurling similar accusations against Cope.

In the end, this public airing of dirty laundry (and dirty fossils) didn't benefit either party. Marsh was asked to resign his lucrative position at the Geological Survey. Cope, after a brief interval of success (he was appointed head of the National Association for the Advancement of Science), was beset by poor health and had to sell off portions of his hard-won fossil collection. By the time Cope died in 1897, both men had squandered their considerable fortunes.

Characteristically, Cope prolonged the Bone Wars even from his grave. One of his last requests was that scientists dissect his head after his death to determine the size of his brain, which he was certain would be bigger than Marsh's. Wisely, perhaps, Marsh declined the challenge. To this day, Cope's unexamined head sits in storage at the University of Pennsylvania.

Let History Judge

As tawdry, undignified, and out-and-out ridiculous as the Bone Wars occasionally were, they had a profound effect on American paleontology. In the same way competition is good for commerce, it can also be good for science. So eager were Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope to one-up each other that they discovered many more dinosaurs than if they'd merely engaged in a friendly rivalry. The final tally was truly impressive: Marsh discovered 80 new dinosaur genera and species, while Cope named a more-than-respectable 56.

The fossils discovered by Marsh and Cope also helped to feed the American public's increasing hunger for new dinosaurs. Each major discovery was accompanied by a wave of publicity, as magazines and newspapers illustrated the latest amazing finds. The reconstructed skeletons slowly but surely made their way to major museums, where they still reside to the present day. You might say that popular interest in dinosaurs really began with the Bone Wars, though it's arguable that it would have come about naturally (without all the bad feelings and antics).

The Bone Wars had a couple of negative consequences, as well. First, paleontologists in Europe were horrified by the crude behavior of their American counterparts. This left a lingering, bitter distrust that took decades to dissipate. And second, Cope and Marsh described and reassembled their dinosaur finds so quickly that they were occasionally careless. For example, a hundred years of confusion about Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus can be traced directly back to Marsh, who put a skull on the wrong body — the same way Cope did with Elasmosaurus, the incident that started the Bone Wars in the first place!

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Strauss, Bob. "The 20-Year Bone Wars That Changed History." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Strauss, Bob. (2021, February 16). The 20-Year Bone Wars That Changed History. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The 20-Year Bone Wars That Changed History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).