Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

George Bird Grinnell.1923. Natural History 23: 329-336.

An Old-Time Bone Hunt.

An Account of the Expedition Undertaken by Prof. O. C. Marsh in 1870 to the Then Wild West.

In the spring of the year 1870 it became known to members of the senior class at Yale that Prof. O. C. Marsh contemplated making a geological expedition to the Far West, for the purpose of collecting vertebrate fossils. Marsh, although then professor of paleontology at Yale, did not conduct courses and was personally known to few undergraduates. The students knew little about paleontology and were not greatly interested in geology.

From boyhood I had read the books of Capt. Mayne Reid, which told of the western country in the forties, and that country and its wildness had taken strong hold on my imagination. When I heard of the proposed expedition by Professor Marsh, I determined that, if possible, I would accompany it, but l felt that I had no qualification for a position on such an expedition.

However, after much pondering I mustered up courage, called on Professor Marsh, and asked if I could in any way attach myself to his party. I found him far less formidable than I had feared. He said that he would consider my application, and later told me that he would be glad to have me go. He discussed with me the composition of the party, and after a little it developed that I was the only member as yet chosen. His consultations with me enabled me to suggest to him names of men I knew well and whom I wished to be of the party.

Marsh was possessed of considerable means and had a wide acquaintance. He had interested General P. H. Sheridan in his project and from him had obtained orders directed to military posts in the West to provide the party with transportation and escorts needed in passing through dangerous Indian country. Besides that, some well-to-do business men had contributed funds to defray the expenses of the trip, and I have always suspected that some of these, being railroad men, had given Marsh either free transportation for his party or at least rates much lower than those usually in force.

In the light of later events the personnel of the expedition is more or less interesting. Among its members were James W. Wadsworth (the father of the present senator from New York) who left Yale in 1864 to join the Union forces and who subsequently for twenty years represented one of the districts of northern New York in Congress; C. McC. Reeve, who later did good service in many directions for his fellow men, was a general in the Spanish War, and served effectively in the Philippines; Eli Whitney and Henry B. Sargent, who in later years were members of the corporation of Yale University; J. R. Nicholson, who subsequently served as chancellor of the State of Delaware; and a number of others, who became successful business men. All these finally left New Haven, June 30, on their start for a west that was then actually wild. Probably none of them except the leader had any motive for going other than the hope of adventure with wild game or wild Indians.

Except through what they had read Professor Marsh and his party knew nothing about the West. It was an entirely innocent party of "pilgrims," starting out to face dangers of which they were wholly ignorant. At this time the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians occupied the country of western Nebraska and that to the north and northwest, and they objected strongly to the passage of people through their territory, and when they could do so -- that is, when they believed they had the advantage, -- attacked such parties.

We crossed the Missouri River in one of the old-fashioned stern-wheel ferry boats and spent a day or two in Omaha, where some of us tried our rifles, which up to then we had not fired, at targets in what is now the fashionable residential section of the town, but which was then bare -- and, of course, uncultivated -- prairie. Professor Marsh and Jim Wadsworth went on ahead to Fort McPherson on the Platte River, then the headquarters of the Fifth Cavalry, where General Emory was in command. The rest of us followed a day or two later.

The day we reached the post a party of two or three antelope hunters out from the fort had been attacked by a dozen Indians who had swooped down upon them. One of the Indians, bearing in mind the injunction often given him by his elders that it is no disgrace to be killed in battle, rode up close to one of the antelope hunters and sent an arrow through his arm. The hunter responded with a well-directed rifle ball and the Indian rode away, falling from his horse before he got out of sight, whereupon the antelope hunters returned to the post.

A troop of cavalry sent out to overtake the Indians, of course failed in their purpose but found the dead Indian boy, wrapped in his buffalo robe, on top of a hill near where he had fallen. William F. Cody -- Buffalo Bill, -- who was then post guide at Fort McPherson, brought in the boy's moccasins and some trinkets taken from the body, at which the newcomers from New Haven stared in wonder.

Professor Marsh had arranged that we should go first from Fort McPherson to the Loup Fork River to the north, where, it was understood, there were late Tertiary fossil beds of considerable interest. A troop of cavalry was to accompany us as escort, with six army wagons to carry the provisions and supplies, including tents, blankets, and ammunition.

The young men from the East, some of whom had never mounted a horse, were taken out to the corral near the post stables and there were introduced to a lot of Indian ponies captured from the Cheyennes the previous autumn at the Battle of Summit Springs. Major Frank North with two of his Pawnee Indian scouts had taken part in that fight and they chose for us the gentlest mounts.

We crossed the Platte River and, led by Major North and his Pawnees, started north through the desolate sand hills toward the hoped-for river. No one in the outfit, excepting the Pawnee Indians, had ever before been through the country, but by keeping north we could not fail to strike the Loup River. The sand hills were not high but they were very steep, and the sand was deep, making the pulling hard for the teams. Major North, riding ahead, selected the easiest way for the wagons, while still ahead of him the Indian scouts went forward and from the tops of the highest hills peered through the grass to see whether enemies could be discerned.

The country to be passed over was dangerous, for at any time one might meet parties of Sioux Indians, who; would certainly attack us if they felt that they could safely do so. We were blissfully ignorant of all this and supposed that because we saw no Indians, there were none about and that there was no danger.

Perhaps none of the eastern members of the party had ever before been very far out of sight of a house, and none could understand the possible danger of the situation, because all the surroundings were something entirely outside of their experience. The first day's march was long, monotonous, and hot, and there was no water to drink. Some of the young men imagined that they were perishing from thirst and that they must have a drink of cold water.

At the end of the long day's march one of the soldiers, hot, thirsty, and utterly weary, was heard to exclaim, "What did God Almighty make such a country for?" To which one of his companions made the reply that "God Almighty made the country good enough, but it's this infernal geology that the professor talks about that has spoiled it all!"

Just before dark, water was found and we camped for our first night out of doors. That night at the camp fire Professor Marsh talked to us and to an audience of soldiers about the geological changes that had taken place here in past ages and about the discoveries of unknown animals that he hoped to make. Buffalo Bill, who had ridden out with us for the first day's march, was an interested auditor and was disposed to think that the professor was trying to see how much he could make his hearers believe of the stories he told them.

The hot, waterless marches continued, and two or three days satisfied the young men that they had seen quite enough of Nebraska. However, as the journey went on, they became more accustomed to the situation -- to the heat, to the lack of shade, and to the absence of water -- and began to take an interest in the country. Every day Major North took ahead with him one of the young men, whom he permitted to shoot at the antelope. No member of the party killed anything, which is not surprising in view of the fact that none of us knew anything of hunting or rifle shooting, or of the arms we were using.

At last we reached the Loup Fork, not without some alarms of Indians, for from time to time columns of smoke were seen, -- signals indicating that the Sioux were communicating with one another. It was even said that an Indian had been seen watching the outfit from a distant hill.

The Loup River flows through a valley far below the general level of the prairie, and into this valley open many canons, narrow and wide, in the sides of which were seen the strata of an ancient lake bottom through which the water had cut. There were many exposures of the so-called mauvaises terres, and in these bare clay surfaces fossil bones were found. The escort made short marches up the river, and the easterners, with a small guard of soldiers to act as lookouts, devoted themselves to bone hunting. After a little while the soldiers became as interested in collecting fossils as the members of the party, and brought in many specimens. As they gained experience, some of them became quite skillful collectors.

The region then examined was of late Tertiary age and gave us many Pliocene mammals -- horses, camels, and other vertebrates -- which tended to throw light on various problems more fully elucidated by recent investigations.

The country was full of game, antelope being by all odds the most abundant. This was long prior to any settlement on the plains and the antelope were still nearly in their primitive numbers. On the Loup Fork River elk were found and killed, and fresh meat for the party was never lacking. More than once we came upon Indian burial places, the wrapped up bodies resting on platforms, each supported by four poles standing in the ground. With the bodies had been placed the usual accompaniments of arms and implements, and beneath each platform were the bones of two or three horses, killed to provide the owner with mounts in his future life. The dried skulls of the Indians on these platforms were added to the party's collections.

One night a prairie fire, which, it was thought, had been kindled by the Sioux, crept down toward our camp from both sides of the river, but as we were in a bend, it was not difficult by back-firing to protect ourselves from the flames. The advance of the fire along the hills on either side of the river was interesting and -- when our anxiety with regard to the camp had subsided -- very beautiful. For the next day or two, however, the question of grass for the animals was one of difficulty.

We worked up the river quite a long way, but I have never known which of the branches we followed. At last, turning southward, we set out again for the railroad, and once more entered an area where water was hard to get. What little we did find, was bitterly alkaline. This was a region of dry lakes, and water could be had only by digging. Some years later, when as a humble cow-puncher I worked cattle through this country, I often had excellent deer-hunting among these dry lakes.

Journeying south through this country we followed down the Birdwood River and one evening crossed the Platte, and at North Platte City had a real meal, sitting in chairs at a table and eating from china plates. There we learned of the Franco-German War, declared in our absence, and that night on our return to camp, Lieutenant Reilly ordered his men to fall in and with something of a flourish of oratory announced to them that war had been declared between France and Germany. The men, who were more or less surprised at the unusual order to get in the ranks while they were in camp, manifested slight interest, and when they were dismissed, I heard one of the soldiers declare with forcible profanity how little he cared about the news.

From Fort McPherson we proceeded west by rail to Cheyenne, and a few days later left Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming Territory, to explore a region lying between the north and south forks of the Platte River. Before long we came upon some bad lands not previously known, the southwestern boundary of a Tertiary lake basin, in the margin of which were entombed and waiting to be excavated turtles, rhinoceroses, Oreodon, and the huge Titanotherium. These beds we followed for a long distance westward. At Antelope Station on the railroad, a locality from which Professor Marsh had secured some fossils the year before, we found several species of horse, one of them a little fellow only two feet high and having three toes.

Crossing the North Platte River we came upon and followed the old California and Oregon trail, along whose ruts so many searchers for wealth had traveled less than twenty years before. The grass was growing all along the road and where the wagons had passed was a continuous bed of sunflowers. Shortly before we reached Scotts Bluff we came upon another outcrop of fossil bones.

From the Platte we went to Horse Creek searching for other fossil grounds, and here two of the young men left our party, after being informed by the commanding officer that camp would be made about twenty miles farther along the creek, and followed up the stream to shoot the ducks that then were migrating in great numbers. The commanding officer did not know, nor did anyone else, that near here the creek made a great bend and that to follow it around to the place where the camp was to be pitched meant a journey of fifty or sixty miles.

The duck shooters killed some ducks, but as the sun drew toward the west, they began to be doubtful about reaching camp. They started back, intending to cut across country and strike the trail of the command, but before they had gone far, they were threatened by a prairie fire. One man dismounted and began to back-fire, but with the fire came a tremendous wind which swept on the flames at an inconceivably rapid rate. Finally he who was watching on his horse shouted to his companion to mount. He did so just as the flames swept toward them singeing the hair of men and horses; but two or three jumps took them to a burned space and the fire passed by on either side. The young men believed that the fire had obliterated the trail and rode back the stream, feeling that this was a guide that would not fail them. They only now realized that to be far away from camp unarmed, except with shot guns, on the border of the Cheyenne Reservation was not a pleasant situation. They rode down the stream, stopped just as the sun set, built a fire, and made preparations for spending the night there. As soon as it grew dark, however, they remounted, rode into the stream, followed that down for a mile, so that no trail should be left, and then riding out on the bank spent the night there without fire.

Meantime Professor Marsh and all at the camp were much concerned about the absentees. Searching parties were sent out next day but found no trail they could follow. They came upon a couple of crippled horses abandoned by Indians, and this lowered the spirits of the searchers, who supposed that their companions had been killed, their horses taken, and these cripples left in their place. Meanwhile the lost ones, following the stream down to the camp of the day before, took the wagon trail there and that night appeared in camp.

After some weeks in this general region the party traveled west by rail to old Fort Bridger in Wyoming, a trading post established long before by the famous Jim Bridger. At and near Fort Bridger a long stay was made. South of the fort were great washed deposits of greenish sand and clay of Eocene age, and here we found great numbers of the extraordinary sixhorned beasts later described by Marsh as Dinocerata. It was from this locality too that came Eohippus, the earliest horselike animal of which we know.

South of this great bone field, which was explored during early September, was Henry's Fork of Green, River, on which was camped a little company of old-time trappers living with their Indian families in buffalo skin lodges. They still trapped the beaver and several times during our stay in this neighborhood I spent the night in their camp and in the morning went out with them to look at their catch. It was a glimpse of the old-time trapper's life in the Rocky Mountains of thirty years before, and a most interesting one. All the members of this little group wore buckskin clothing, and the men hunted and trapped, drawing their support from the country. One or two of them had come out to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1834. Another survivor of early days seen at Fort Bridger was "Uncle" Jack Robinson, who was of the famous band of trappers who had found the Arapaho Indian baby later known as Friday.

Professor Marsh wished to go still farther south to reach the junction of the Green and the White rivers in Utah. The way was unknown to anyone, but finally a Mexican, who knew a part of the route, went along as supposed guide. He did not know the mountains, however, and we were obliged to follow down the Green River, passing through Brown's Hole, finally to reach White River not very far above its junction with the Green. There were no roads and travel with wagons was impossible. With some difficulty the journey was made by pack train. On the way we saw many wonderful things which now can hardly be told of. Here is a paragraph written by one of the men which suggests a view seen from the eastern ends of the Uinta Mountains.

"After crossing an extensive table land a grand scene burst upon us. Fifteen hundred feet below us lay the bed of another great Tertiary lake. We stood at 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 mountain sides 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, and a bright red ridge that stretched across the foreground, could be traced far off with beds-of gray and yellow heaped above.

At White River, not far from where it joins the Green, many Pliocene fossils were found, and before long, with pack animals heavily loaded, we crossed the Green River near the ancient trading post known as Fort Roubidoux and made our way to Fort Uinta, the agency of a section of the Ute Indians. From here a Shoshoni Indian guide led us through the Uinta Mountains, over a beautiful forested country with frequent open parks through which flowed clear sparkling trout streams. The region, known only to the Indians, had much game, and the journey in early autumn was full of joy. Going down one of the rough narrow mountain trails toward the valley of Henry's Fork we lost the pack mule which carried our mess outfit, and at the foot of the cliff were able to recover from its load only a few battered tin plates and broken knives and forks; even the saddle that the animal wore was smashed to match-wood.

It was here that a curious free Cretaceous crinoid Uintacrinus was discovered. This was described much later.

At Salt Lake City some of us met Brigham Young. From there we went on to California, visiting the Yosemite, the Mariposa Grove of "big trees" and the geysers. Returning eastward we stopped at some of the famous oldtime placer mining districts in California, and thence went on to a point not far from Green River, Wyoming, where in an early Tertiary deposit many petrified fish and some fossil insects were found.

The plains of Kansas were the next collecting ground and here great numbers of Cretaceous reptiles were unearthed, among them giant mosasaurs and many fishes. From these beds came, a little later, the extraordinary birds with teeth -- Hesperornis and Ichthyornis -- and later still many pterodactyls. These bone fields are in a region that is now a great wheat-and corn-growing district. In Kansas some members of the party killed buffalo, which were abundant there.

The expedition now began to break up. Some of its members returned in late November, and before Christmas time the last of them had reached New York and New Haven.

In subsequent years Professor Marsh conducted other expeditions to the western country and all of them yielded rich results. Later his collections were made by hired collectors. The sum total of the material brought together is now preserved in the Washington and New Haven museums, and not all of it has yet been worked up.