The Bone Wars

Shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War, another famous battle was brewing in the Wild West of America, one that left a firm imprint on American historical discovery. This is the tale of the long lasting feud often referred to as the Bone Wars, or the Dinosaur Wars.

Othniel Charles Marsh (right) and Edward Drinker Cope (left)

Othniel Charles Marsh (right) and Edward Drinker Cope (left)

At the outset of the gilded age in America, Paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh entered a battle for Paleontological supremacy, which evolved into a long running feud which included bribery, trickery, thieving, destruction of relics, and public disaccreditation of each other’s work and standing in their field.

By the 1870’s both men had ventured out west to discover dinosaur bones, at this time most dinosaur discoveries had been outside of America, and England was considered the forefront of Paleontological discovery in the world. Up until this point only a few dinosaur discoveries had been made in America. While their relationship may have amicable in the early years, it quickly descended into an outright rivalry.

Marsh never really gave much consideration to Cope as a Paleontologist, which was evident when Marsh publicly criticized and humiliated Cope at the revealing of Cope’s Elasmosaurus when he discovered that Cope has put the head on the wrong end. To save his embarrassment Cope tried to buy every copy of the journal in which he documented his original structure, however Marsh went to significant lengths to ensure the journal stayed out in the public domain.

One of the key moments that truly kicked off the feud was when Cope took Marsh on a tour of a bone rich quarry that he was digging. Marsh took advantage of this opportunity and paid off the quarry owner, as well as the excavation workers, and had all the bones sent to himself instead of Cope.  This act had Cope livid with rage.

Over the next couple of decades the two men’s respective excavation teams routinely fight over digs in a race to who could name the species first in scientific journals (which led to the discovery of 150 different dinosaur species between them). The excavation teams of both men routinely spied on each other’s camps and often brawled at the digs, employing tactics which included bribing each other’s employees for information or bones, and went as far as destroying uncollected fossils with dynamite so the other man couldn’t have them. Marsh even hired Buffalo Bill Cody as a guide at one point.

Later on Marsh used his influence to get a job with the US Geological Survey, and quickly used this position in an attempt to cut off Cope’s federal funding grants. He also tried to have Cope’s entire fossil collection confiscated by the government which proved unsuccessful. With all of his money exhausted by Marsh’s antics, Cope eventually had to sell off his collection to the American Museum of Natural History. Cope revenged against Marsh by convincing a Journalist to publish front page articles about the ‘Bone Wars’ which detailed the accusations of bribery, corruption and incompetence of both sides. Marsh was eventually forced to resign from the Survey and turn over his collection to the Smithsonian.

In the end both men had lost all of their fortunes, their collections, and their reputations as a result of trying to outdo and destroy the other, which left both men destitute, exhausted and broken. The world however will always benefit from their discoveries.