Weird History

Remembering The Bone Wars: The Feud That Created And Almost Destroyed Paleontology  

Stephan Roget
1.6k views 16 items

The Bone Wars may sound like a trashy made-for-TV movie, but in reality, it’s an essential stepping stone in the development of paleontology. Rather than actual warfare, the Bone Wars were an intense rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. In a race to discover more dinosaurs than the other, Cope and Marsh turned what the world knew about dinosaurs upside down, somehow pushing paleontology forward and destroying their own reputations at the same time.

Their rivalry lasted from 1864 until Cope’s death in 1897. While their paleontological rivalry did produce a number of new dinosaur species, the way they conducted themselves during the conflict left a dark stain on fossil hunting for decades thereafter. Generations later, all we’re left with is the bones, the history, and one of science's biggest feuds.

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Eventually, Agents Weren’t Enough And The Paleontologists Hired Dinosaur Rustlers
Eventually, Agents Weren’t Eno... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list Remembering The Bone Wars: The Feud That Created And Almost Destroyed Paleontology
Photo: Dr. F.C. Robinson/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As the intensity of the Bone Wars picked up, the pair started to hire dinosaur rustlers to gain an advantage over the other. At the hotly-contested area of Como Bluff, WY, Cope hired a prospector to steal bones from Marsh’s dig site. This became standard practice, with dinosaur rustlers thieving fossils, spying on excavations, and even pelting rival workers with stones. On at least one occasion, guns were brandished and the Bone Wars threatened to turn into a real war, but cooler heads prevailed, and the bloodshed remained purely theoretical.

The Bone Wars Began With A Simple Case Of Bribery
The Bone Wars Began With A Sim... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list Remembering The Bone Wars: The Feud That Created And Almost Destroyed Paleontology
Photo:  UNED Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Joseph Leidy, a respected paleontologist and mentor to Edward Cope, discovered the first American dinosaur, a Hadrosaurus, in Haddonfield, NJ, in 1856. The Bone Wars began more than a decade later when Cope joined the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and began fossil-hunting at the same site by proxy—paying workers to dig up bones and send them to him. Othniel Marsh visited Haddonfield in 1868, and was so impressed with the fossils there that he bribed some of the workers to send any interesting finds his way instead of to Cope. When Cope found out, he was furious, and the Bone Wars had begun.

At One Point, Marsh And Cope Were Good Enough Friends That They Named Dinosaurs After One Another
At One Point, Marsh And Cope W... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list Remembering The Bone Wars: The Feud That Created And Almost Destroyed Paleontology
Photo:  Mathew Brady/Frederick Gutekunst/Public Domain

Although Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope became lifelong rivals in the field of paleontology, they started their professional relationship on friendlier terms. The two met while studying abroad in Berlin in 1864 and were apparently rather impressed with one another. Early in their fossil-hunting careers, both Cope and Marsh named species after one another.

The two were likely too different to forge a lasting friendship, though. Marsh grew up poor and received a generous inheritance from his uncle to fund his career. He believed in Darwinism and had an attention to detail inspired by his modest upbringing. Cope, on the other hand, came from a wealthy family and had a looser, flashier approach to his research. He supported Neo-Lamarckism and became a professor despite little formal education.

Marsh Attempted To Use A Government Position To Seize Cope’s Fossils
Marsh Attempted To Use A Gover... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list Remembering The Bone Wars: The Feud That Created And Almost Destroyed Paleontology
Photo: Arthur Lakes/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Bone Wars proved taxing to both participants, but it was Edward Drinker Cope who first felt the attrition. After losing his government gig and being forced to fund his fossil-hunting endeavors with his dwindling inheritance, Cope found his life in shambles—by 1889, he had lost his fortune, his wife, and his reputation. All Cope had left were his fossils, and Othniel Charles Marsh still didn't stop coming after him.

In the early 1880s, Marsh became the head of the United States Geological Survey, and he used his position to push for a law saying that all fossils procured using any sort of government funding would become the property of the Smithsonian Museum. It was clear that this rule was intended to rob Cope of his remaining bones, but fortunately Cope had kept studious receipts, and could prove that the majority of his specimens were acquired with his own personal funds.