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Searching for Fossils

In 1870, O.C. Marsh led his first fossil hunt in the American West. With Buffalo Bill as a guide and a team comprised of cowboy-attired Yale undergraduate students, the expedition unearthed dozens of samples of the prehistoric fauna that had inhabited the land millions of years before including camels, horses, and mastodons. This article, written by one of the students on the trip, was published in Harper's Monthly the following year.

Othniel Marsh (center, back row) and assistants ready for digging, 1871, PD.

Betts, C.W. "Searching for Dinosaur and Other Prehistoric Animal Fossils." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. 43 (257): 663-671, October 1871.

Searching for Dinosaur and Other Prehistoric Animal Fossils
The Yale College Expedition of 1870
A first hand account of the 1870 College Expedition led by Othneil Charles Marsh to the Rocky Mountains.
C.W. Betts

The peaks of the Rocky Mountains once projected as islands from a vast inland sea whose waves swept from the Gulf of Mexico to the polar ocean. In this era of the world a tropical climate extended far beyond the arctic circle, and the tepid waters swarmed with sea serpents and other reptilian monsters. At the close of this period, known to geologists as the cretaceous, a slow upheaval drained this ocean from the continent, and left behind great lakes, whose shores and waters teemed again, in tertiary time, with new forms of tropical life. Rhinoceros, crocodiles, and huge tortoises basked upon the banks or lay beneath the shade of gigantic palms; and as the ages rolled away prolific nature brought upon the scene the mammoth, mastodon, and horse. During the tertiary period mud and sand accumulated in the lakes to the depth of many hundred feet, and entombed the bones of all these animals. Then came a time when all was dry, and torrents from the mountains wore through the deep accumulations. Ages have passed since then, while rains and streams have toiled to wash away the work of all the prior years; and in the crumbling bluffs that now remain as memorials of the past the patient geologist may find the petrified remains of all the forms of life belonging to that early time.

To the region of these eroded basins Professor O. C. Marsh, of Yale College, had long contemplated a geological expedition; and in June, 1870, he organized, from graduates and students of that university, the party to which it was the writer's privilege to belong. 

Our first exploration was to be made along the Loup Fork River, in Nebraska. We started from Fort M'Pherson escorted by a company of cavalry; for this was the country of the Sioux, and they were now in a state of unusual excitement. Across an unexplored desert of sand hills between the river Platte and the Loup Fork the celebrated Major North, with two Pawnee Indians, undertook to lead us. These guides rode about a mile in advance of the column. The major pointed out the least difficult paths; while the Indians crept up each high bluff, and from behind a bunch of grass peered over the top for signs of hostility. Next in the line of march came the company of cavalry, commanded by Lieutenants Reilly and Thomas; and with them rode the Yale party, mounted on Indian ponies, and armed with rifle, revolver, geological hammer, and bowie knife. Six army wagons, loaded with provisions, forage, tents, and ammunition, and accompanied by a small guard of soldiers, formed the rear. 

The object of the expedition greatly puzzled our military companions of the rank and file; but Professor Marsh, as we rode along, endeavored to explain to them the mighty changes of geology, and the grand discoveries that we would make. "Buffalo Bill," the famous frontier hunter, accompanied us the first day's journey, and at the camp fire that night remarked to the soldiers, "The professor told the boys some mighty tough yarns today; but he tipped me a wink, as much as to say. 'You know how it is yourself, Bill!'"

As night closed over our geologists, cut off from civilization, in a country occupied by hostile Indians, and they saw around them the tents, the bivouac fires, the soldiers standing in picturesque groups, the horses cropping in the twilight, the corral of wagons and pacing sentinels beyond, they felt "in for'' something more than science. This fact was more forcibly impressed by day, as hour after hour they marched over burning sand hills, without rocks, or trees, or sign of water, while the thermometer stood at 110° in the shade of the wagons.  After fourteen hours in the saddle, one of the soldiers, exhausted with heat and thirst, finally exclaimed, "What did God Almighty make such a country as this for?" "Why," replied another more devout trooper, "God Almighty made the country good enough, but it's this deuced geology the professor talks about that spoiled it all!"

Thirst continued to haunt us all through this desolate region. Once we hailed a distant lake; but, like mirage in other deserts no more horrible, it proved a mockery. The water was so impregnated with alkali that even horses and mules refused to drink it. For fresh-water we had to thank a thunder-shower, during which we drank from the rims of each other's hats. After five days of such trials we hailed with joy the fresh running water of the Loup Fork. Far up the river a column of smoke indicated the neighborhood of Indians, and showed that we had left the dangers of the desert only to enter upon those of the Sioux hunting grounds. They were evidently keeping watch upon our movements, for in the night their ponies were heard whinnying behind the bluffs across the river, and daylight showed a warrior sentinel upon a distant height.

Our geological labors now commenced. The sides of the river were indented with canons, in which were exposed the strata of the ancient lake, weathered into the formation known as mauvaises terres, and full of fossil remains. A strong guard was each day detailed to accompany our party, while the main body marched up the river. The soldiers not only relieved us from all fear of surprise, but soon became interested and successful assistants; but the superstition of the Pawnees deterred them for a time from scientific pursuits; for Indians believe that the petrified bones of their country are the remains of an extinct race of giants. They refused to collect until the professor, picking up the fossil jaw of a horse, showed how it corresponded with their own horses' mouths. From that time they rarely returned to camp without bringing fossils for the "Bone Medicine man. "

Our researches resulted in the discovery of the remains of various species of the camel, horse, mastodon, and many other mammals, some of which were new to science; but in addition to extinct animals, these hunting grounds of the Sioux were well stocked with live deer and antelope and elk. One herd of the latter numbered at least a hundred and fifty head. Another smaller herd crossed the river within two hundred yards of our geologists and their guard. The entire party at once opened fire, like a pack of large firecrackers, and with such effect that we not only had meat enough for a week, but brought the whole command sweeping down upon us, thinking that we were attacked by Indians; for this was a matter of hourly apprehension.

We became so used to the constant expectation of a fight, and practiced so assiduously the native science of dodging behind the horse's neck when at full run, that we were not in the least alarmed when the Sioux really came in sight. Our composure was doubtless due to the fact that the warriors had been for some years dead, and were reposing on platforms of boughs, supported at the four corners by poles about eight feet in height. On one of these tombs lay two bodies -- a woman, decked in beads and bracelets, and a scaleless brave, with war-paint still on the parchment cheeks, and holding in his crumbling hands a rusty shotgun and a pack of cards. Beneath the platform lay the skeleton of the favorite pony, whose spirit had accompanied his master's to the new resting place. A feeling of awe was creeping over us as we built in thought historic castles for the dead, when the professor brought us down to the stern realities of science by the unromantic remark: "Well, boys, perhaps they died of smallpox; but we can't study the origin of the Indian race unless we have those skulls!"

So far we had not been molested by live Indians; but the threatening column of smoke far up the river each night was nearer and wider; and at length we found close upon us a prairie fire which the Sioux had lighted on both sides of the river. The fire upon the southern bank had fortunately gained several miles upon the other, and we watched it sweep by from the latter bank, beating out with blankets the sparks that fell around us. The sun had set amid the angry clouds of an approaching thunder-storm that increased the gloom of twilight. Across the river wavy lines of fire crept up the rolling sand hills, and, catching the clumps of cottonwood and pine trees, wrapped them in crackling pyramids, while each gust of wind from the rising storm would sweep a whole hillside into a sheet of flame. The shower at length burst upon us, and so subdued the fire that we no longer feared that it would leap across the narrow river; and the wind, suddenly shifting to the east, checked the progress of the flames upon the side on which we were encamped.

From this point we marched over the burned prairie that stretched on every side as far as the eye could reach, studded with roasted cactus and dead grasshoppers; and it was with great difficulty that isolated patches of grass were found for the stock. The river soon dwindled to a little stream, and then to a slender rivulet and half stagnant pools. We had reached its head waters -- the goal of our first expedition. We now turned southwest, and once more encountered the privations of an unexplored desert, where water was only once obtained, and then by digging in the dry bed of an alkaline lake. On reaching the Platte, the Pawnees led us across the treacherous quicksands of the river in a mock raid on the city of North Platte, whose terrified inhabitants mistook us for a party of Sioux, and rose in arms to repel the invaders. The tents were pitched at last in the quadrangle of Fort M'Pherson, the Loup Fork expedition was finished, and General Emory and his officers congratulated us on our safe return.

The second expedition started from Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming Territory, to explore the great triangle of country lying east of the Black Hills, and between the north and south forks of the Platte. General King kindly supplied us with horses, forage, army wagons, and an escort of thirty men from the Fifth Cavalry, commanded by Captain Montgomery and Lieutenant Stembel.

The first geological discovery of importance was made at the mouth of a canon which opens on one of the broad plains of Northern Colorado. Here was a miocene formation of mauvaises terres such as had never before been identified south of the White River region of Dakota; and this determined the southwestern boundary of the great tertiary lake basin east of the Rocky Mountains. The deposit contained great quantities of fossil turtles and rhinoceros, a few unknown species of rodents and birds, and remains of the oreodon -- a remarkable animal combining characteristics of the modern sheep, pig, and deer. In a lower deposit were many bones of the Titanotherium -- a monster of such vast proportions that a lower jaw measured over four feet in length. We traced the oreodon beds many miles to the west and north along the Pine Bluff ranges to the railroad. Another outcrop occurred at Antelope Station, containing remains of several species of horse; one a three toed animal, and another which, although full grown, had attained the height of but two feet. Although we were successful in geological research, fortune did not smile upon us in the affairs of everyday life. At Antelope one of our cavalry horses was accidentally shot dead,  and three draught animals were bitten by rattlesnakes. We were thankful that no more of our stock were lost, for the country swarmed with the reptiles. Numbers of them were killed every day among the horses' feet; and while we were bathing they would bask upon the bank of the stream beside our clothes. Their humming soon became an old tune; and the charm of shooting the wretches wore away for all but one, who was collecting their rattles as a necklace for his lady-love.

On reaching the North Platte we followed the old California emigrant trail, in whose deep worn ruts the grass is now growing. The column left us at an extensive fossil locality; and so absorbing is the practical study of paleontology that sunset surprised us still at work. Here we were found by some soldiers, who had been sent back to guide us through a labyrinth of shale and sandstone known as Scott's Bluff. It was pitch dark when we began to pick our way through these narrow and rugged defiles, where, at every turn, deep canons yawned at our feet. Fitted by nature for ambush and surprise, this had been the Indians' favorite spot to fall upon the emigrants; and those dim bluffs, that towered so gray and ghostly silent, could tell many a tale of lurking warriors, of desperate fights and massacres. The place looked scarcely less awful when by daylight we returned to gather its fossil treasures. Guards were posted to watch the borders of the river, and many an anxious glance was cast across into the Sioux reservation. "The bishop," a corresponding member of the American Tract Society, here gladdened our hearts by emerging from a gully with an immense petrified turtle lashed upon his horse's back, while he pulled and shouted and swore to urge along the staggering beast. It soon became a vital question which he should abandon, the turtle or the horse. The professor protested that it be not the former, and painted in vivid colors the future position of this grand specimen in the Yale collection, with the discoverer's name immortalized thereon. But, on the other hand, the thought of Indians was too much for the bishop. So the turtle still lies in nature's museum.

After leaving the Platte we followed the valley of Horse Creek. This is a famous hunting ground, and we came upon many fresh signs of the natives. Notwithstanding these evidences of unfriendly neighbors, two of the party, all intent on duck shooting, persisted in following the creek, which bent far away to the west, and promised to meet us at two high bluffs about twenty miles away.

Night closed over our camp between the bluffs, but brought no signs of our comrades. We called to mind the fresh tracks of Indians, and saw with anxiety a high column of smoke far in the north. Darkness deepened, and showed the sky lurid with the glare of a prairie fire ; and, as night advanced and a blazing beacon did not bring the lost ones home, our fears became intense. We waited impatiently for daylight, and then started to discover their trail; but hope died within us on finding, near the camp, an Indian pony, evidently just abandoned on account of lameness. The day dragged away in unsuccessful search, and when night again closed in all returned to camp in despair.

The duck-shooters, meanwhile, excited with successful sport, forgot that the stream bent far to the west, until, at sunset, they looked in vain for the row of tents, for the sentinel upon the hill, and for the horses grazing by the stream, and realized that they were lost. After making this discovery they philosophically lighted their pipes, and then left the stream, hoping to see the camp from a neighboring bluff. On reaching the height, they were startled by a great column of smoke rising from the very spot which they had left. The burning match, carelessly thrown upon the grass, had started a prairie fire, which was now under full headway, and a high wind was driving it swiftly toward them. The first impulse was flight; but the flames spread on every side with fearful rapidity, leaping many feet each moment; and they had barely time to resort to a well known border expedient, when they felt upon their faces the breath of the coming blast. They lighted a new fire, and, taking refuge in the burned space, held their terrified horses while the wall of flame swept by them. This danger past, they remembered that they were lost, with no arms but their shotguns; and knowing that the fire would surely attract any bands of Indians who might be near, they waded down the bed of the stream for a great distance to conceal their trail, and then took refuge in a side ravine. Still they feared that in the night some prowling warrior might stampede their horses; and each tied the picket rope to his ankle before seeking repose beneath his saddle blanket. The result was a bad scare. For before morning one of the horses, frightened by a wolf, jumped beyond the length of the lariat, and, as his owner afterward expressed it, "Yanked him out of a sound sleep into a bed of cactus." It was after an absence of two days that the wanderers relieved the anxiety of their friends by appearing in camp.

The snow-patched summits of the Black Hills at length rose upon the horizon and showed that our examination of the great eastern tertiary lake basin was finished. Far beyond these mountains lay other eroded basins, whose exploration was to be the work of our third expedition. We therefore made our next headquarters at Fort Bridger, in Western Wyoming, and for a fortnight explored the wonderful region which lies at the northern base of the Uintah Mountains. Successful research in this vast basin did not divert us from our main object, which was to reach the junction of the Green and White rivers in Utah, and to examine the surrounding country. No exploration of this region had ever been made; but hunters and Indians had brought back fabulous stories of valleys strewn with gigantic petrified bones. To this geological paradise the shortest route lay across the Uintah Mountains, the altitude of whose lowest pass is eleven thousand feet; but we could find no guide through these rugged defiles, and were obliged to follow the circuitous course of the rivers. From Fort Bridger we were supplied with a train of army wagons and with an escort of soldiers, from the Thirteenth Infantry, who, like ourselves, were mounted on mules. The rough bottomlands of Henry's Fork made terrible work with the latter, and we were at last compelled to lighten them by "caching" a large quantity of grain. Notwithstanding this relief, they again broke down so hopelessly that we determined to abandon them, and to make the rest of our journey with pack mules. Our Mexican guide, Joe, was therefore sent back to the fort with instructions to obtain packsaddles and ropes, and to meet us at the mouth of the river. During this delay we were overtaken by a party in pursuit of a desperate band of horse thieves, who have their headquarters at Brown's Hole, on the Green River. Our route lay of necessity through their haunt; and we were startled by the report that two suspicious characters, supposed to be in league with them, and who knew of our expedition, had left the fort just before us. 

When we reached the Green River, one of the Nimrods who distinguished themselves on the last trip again went shooting. He was riding his mule through the thickets, and looking for ducks, when he came suddenly upon a huge grizzly. For a moment it was difficult to tell which was the most scared; but the bear was the first to spring forward. He received the contents of a shotgun on the end of his nose, when the terrified mule fled so precipitately that he fell among the bushes. Our hero now thought it was all up; but the mule recovered himself just in time, and made such good time to camp that the bear was distanced.

That night a herd of elk charged across the river and through the camp. The sentinels heard them plunging in the water, and, thinking that a party of Indians or the horse thieves were upon us, challenged; but, immediately discovering their mistake, they remained true to military discipline, and allowed the whole herd to pass through without firing. We had now been without meat for some days, and, in our half starved condition, this was a cruel disappointment; but steaks were soon supplied in a most unexpected manner: A soldier was riding a mule at full speed, when the unfortunate beast stepped in a badger's hole, precipitated his rider, and fell with such violence as to break his own neck. We found him somewhat tough, but sweet and nutritious; and we passed him off on one of our comrades, who came in late that night, as bear steak. He had once been "bucked off" by this particular mule, and his subsequent disgust was attributed to personal prejudice.

The packsaddles came at last. We forded the Green River, and formed a long line up the narrow Indian trail which led toward Brown's Hole. The pack mules were interspersed among soldiers and geologists; but despite the most careful watching they would often be seen bucking and tearing from the line, with ropes and straps flying, and sacks of corn, cooking utensils, and tent poles, to say nothing of geological hammers and other scientific implements, strewing the ground in every direction.

By dint of continual packing we made fair progress, and entered the much-dreaded Hole -- a narrow valley, with high mountains on either hand. Here we descried a camp, which proved to be that of the pursuing party returning unsuccessful; for on their approach the horse thieves had scattered to their fastnesses. Our scouts examined the various trails leading to the south, and found that it was impossible to continue our course down the left bank of the river. We therefore forded just above the mouth of Vermilion Creek, and ascended the eastern end of the Uintah Mountains to the altitude of snow. After crossing an extensive tableland a grand scene burst upon us. Fifteen hundred feet below us lay the beds of another great tertiary lake. We stood upon the brink of a vast basin, so desolate, wild, and broken, so lifeless and silent, that it seemed like the ruins of a world. A few solitary peaks rose to our level, and showed that ages ago the plain behind us had extended unbroken to where a line of silver showed the Green River, twenty miles away. The intermediate space was ragged, with ridges and bluffs of every conceivable form; and rivulets that flowed from yawning canons in the mountainsides stretched threads of green across the waste, between their falling battlements. Yet through the confusion could be seen an order that was eternal. For as, age after age, the ancient lake was filled and choked with layers of mud and sand, so on each crumbling bluff recurred strata of chocolate and greenish clays in unvaried succession; amid a bright red ridge that stretched across the foreground could be traced far off, with beds of gray and yellow heaped above it.

Late on the second day after entering this basin we saw the distant smoke of an Indian camp. Our Joe had never been further south than Brown's Hole, and it was necessary to procure a guide. Soldiers were therefore sent to reconnoiter; but the Indians, fearing the approach of strangers, set fire, as their custom is, to the grass around the camp, and fled. Next morning we followed the trail of the fugitives toward the Green River, and soon detected the retreating Indians by several clouds of dust. Our advanced guard at once gave chase, and after a race of several miles caught up with the last band. It was a hunting party of Utes, or Utahs, and among the braves Joe recognized an old acquaintance with whom he had traded, and who still owed him three deerskins. This placed us at once in friendly relations, and gave us such an advantage that a bargain was soon struck for guidance to the White River. It was evident why the race had been so unequal; for the Indians, though better mounted than ourselves, had with them their families and camp equipage. The squaws carried the long and slender lodge poles, strapped to their horses' sides and trailing on the ground, and in addition were burdened with papooses slung upon the saddle pommels and thus rocked to sleep. One woman also carried a dog in the folds of her buffalo robe.

At the White River we had ample reward for all the hardships we had experienced in reaching this goal of our journey. Though we found none of the gigantic bones of which we had heard so much from hunters and Indians, yet, as we ascended the river, the fossils increased in number, until from one point of view we counted eleven shells of pliocene tortoises which had weathered from the bluffs. After making collections in this region to the satisfaction of even our enthusiastic professor, we reforded the Green River, and followed a trail to Fort Uintah, the government agency of an important tribe of Utes. Here we engaged a guide through the wild ravines and dense pine forests of the Uintah Mountains. It was a route never before traversed by whites, and probably never by Indians. The ground in the forest was often heaped with fallen trunks; and for mile after mile,  a path for the pack mules had to be cut with hatchets through the tangled thickets. After great difficulties we reached Henry's Fork, picked up the abandoned wagons, and came to the spot where the grain was cached. Here we found in possession a party of men occupying a log hut, and professing to be ranchmen; but the lieutenant commanding our escort assured us that they were the identical horse thieves of whom we had been already warned. They had appropriated the grain, and Professor Marsh went to the hut to claim our property. He was ushered into the presence of the party, each of whom was armed to the teeth, and looked ready to take his life for half a dollar. Endeavoring to control his embarrassment by speaking as to ordinary ranchmen, our illustrious chief remarked, blandly, "Well, where are your squaws?" "Sir," replied a dignified ruffian, "this crowd is virtuous."

On our return to Fort Bridger we bade farewell to Major La Motte and Judge Carter, who had greatly assisted our expedition, and then spent several weeks in seeing what all tourists see. At Salt Lake City we flirted with twenty-two daughters of Brigham Young in a box at the theatre and, overcome by the effort, immediately crossed the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco. From this point we made excursions to the Yosemite, the Mariposa Big Trees, and the Geysers. One of the party then sailed for Panama, and one for Alaska. The rest, after visiting the interesting hydraulic mining region of Little York, You Bet, Gouge Eye, Bed Dog, and Dutch Flat, in California, went east by rail to a locality near, the Green River, in Wyoming. Here, in an eocene deposit; petrified fishes abounded; and we found a small bed containing fossil insects -- a rare discovery, although in Western hotels beds are common where the insects are not petrified. Here were beetles and dragonflies and grasshoppers, the ancestors, perhaps, of locust like swarms that still infest this valley. A gigantic fossil mosquito, and an extinct flea, of dimensions not to be despised, contributed to our collection; so that if the primeval Adam really existed in the tertiary period, as some have supposed, the slumbers of himself and worthy spouse were doubtless disturbed like those of mortals since the fall.

Leaving this interesting and suggestive spot, we spent a day in Denver, and finally reached Fort Wallace, in Kansas. The last geological expedition was to be made from this post, along the Smoky River, and, with a small escort of cavalry, we started on the 20th of November. The nights had now become bitterly cold, and to avoid the piercing wind our camp was pitched under a high bank. About midnight a wolf, attracted by the scent of meat, jumped off this bank into the midst of our mules, and frightened them to such a degree that about a dozen broke loose and stampeded. The night was dark, and the greatest confusion followed; for until the sentinels told us the true cause of the disturbance we instinctively thought of Indians. The mules, with broken halters and lariats flying, reached the fort early in the morning, and caused great consternation among the officers, who naturally concluded that the Cheyennes had attacked us, and sent a company of soldiers to our rescue. The troops appeared more disappointed at losing the expected fight than gratified at our safety.

The search for fossils met with great success, and remains of cretaceous reptiles and fishes were collected in great quantities. One trophy was the skeleton of a sea serpent, nearly complete, and so large that we spent four days in digging out and carrying it to camp. This monster when alive could not have been less than sixty feet in length. It was allied to the genus Mosasaurus, which, as our discoveries proved, had a slender eel-like body and tail, and not only the anterior paddles previously known, but posterior limbs also. With a mouth resembling that of the boa constrictor, this monarch of the cretaceous seas could bolt with ease the largest of his coeval reptiles and fishes.

The Smoky River runs through the great Kansas hunting grounds. Every day herds of the buffalo were around us, and we enjoyed many an exciting "run" across the prairie.

The weather day by day grew colder, and at length we saw indications of an approaching storm. Knowing the danger of exposure to snow on these open plains, we reluctantly bade farewell to our geological diggings, and, satiated even with buffalo hunting, turned back to Fort Wallace. So ended our last excursion. For the last time we were received and entertained by officers of the army, so many of whom had aided our different expeditions. On commencing the journey homeward, and entering the palace cars, our ruffianly appearance created consternation among sober railroad tourists. Months of hardship, labor, and adventure had made many rent in our well worn clothes; and the buckskin breeches and army blouses of several members gave to the party a wild and warlike character, in keeping with the open display of revolver and bowie knife, and bronzed faces covered with the untrimmed stubble of a season. We reached New Haven on the 18th of December, after six eventful months, during which no serious illness or accident had happened to any of the party.

The geological results, so briefly touched upon in this incomplete narrative, are now in course of publication; and they will show that in addition to the individual advantages derived from experience in frontier life, no unimportant contribution was made to science by the Yale College Expedition of 1870.

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