Paleontologists waged the 19th-century ‘Bone Wars’ with hired hands.
Charles Hazelius Sternberg and Benjamin Franklin Mudge roamed the West making their livings with picks and shovels —but not prospecting for gold or silver. They were prospecting for fossils. While celebrated paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope waged the so-called Bone Wars in the late 19th century to see who could find and tag the largest number of new dinosaur fossils, Sternberg and Mudge found the actual dinosaurs—at a fixed rate of pay. In the end Sternberg and Mudge physically discovered most of the land-based dinosaur types displayed in museums today.
Sternberg, in particular, had a technique for finding fossils that appealed to his employer, the Quaker Cope: He saw them in his dreams. Sternberg once dreamed of finding 5-million-year-old leaf fossils on the Kansas prairie, went to the spot and found them. Cope also had dreams of dinosaurs—sometimes of live black eyes flickering in their long-dead skulls as they prepared to spring on him—from which he would awake in a sweat. Sternberg said he and the rougher Westerners of Cope’s search party found the boss somewhat unsettling:“When we first met him at Omaha, he was so weak that he reeled from side to side as he walked.” Cope locked Sternberg into his employ with a $300 retainer (big money in 1876), and both men were made for life, after some incredible hardships and even more incredible discoveries.
The economics for Sternberg and opposite number Benjamin Mudge were “trickle-down.” Othniel Marsh was bankrolled by Yale University, which had in turn been bankrolled by George Peabody —Marsh’s uncle, business associate of Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Junius Spencer Morgan, and a philanthropist who ultimately donated more than half of his estimated $16 million fortune. Cope came from older money, though not as much of it. His father Alfred, a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker, paid for his son’s foibles and, on his death in 1875, left Edward $250,000. Marsh and Cope used their endowments to hire retainers whose duties included digging up fossils and spying on the other’s retainers.
Born in 1850 in Middleburg, N.Y., Charles Sternberg was the son of Levi Sternberg, an American-born Lutheran pastor, and wife Margaret, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. But a fascination with fossils was Charles’ calling. In 1867 Charles and twin brother Edward moved West to the ranch of their older brother, Dr. George Miller Sternberg, a military surgeon attached to Fort Harker near Ellsworth, Kan. Charles soon discovered leaf imprints amid the Dakota sandstone outcrops near the family ranch, and he was hooked. He briefly attended Kansas State Agricultural College, but hands-on paleontology held more appeal.
The mentor who prompted Sternberg’s passion was Benjamin Franklin Mudge, professor of geology at the college and director of the first Kansas Geological Survey (1864–66), which focused more on natural resources than natural history, or, as it was called in Victorian times, “natural philosophy.” Mudge, who had worked six years as a shoemaker to put his three brothers through seminary, was a temperance advocate, an abolitionist and a man of stern scruples. In 1874 the college let him go in a dispute over back pay. Mudge had already sent Marsh a rock impression of what both men believed was the skull of a toothed bird and that Marsh named ichthyornis (“fish bird”). Marsh then used the putative toothed bird to score points with Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” who claimed the specimen was a “missing link” between reptiles and birds. “When you were here, you stated that you should like to employ one or more young men to collect fossils in western Kansas,” Mudge (then past 50) wrote to Marsh.“As perhaps you may have learned, I have been summarily discharged (with two other professors) from this college. This has been done by an incompetent, conceited clergyman who is acting as president.”
Marsh hired Mudge. Cope tried to hire Mudge away from Marsh, but Mudge wasn’t interested. Mudge also rejected Sternberg, and Sternberg then applied to Cope, receiving the $300 retainer in 1876. The lines were now drawn: Marsh and Mudge for the agnostic evolutionists like Huxley, who once proclaimed a “crusade against Christianity,” and Cope and Sternberg, who read the Bible at their campfire, for what is now called creation science.
Sternberg took up the Bone Wars with a vengeance. Afraid that Mudge and Marsh’s riffraff hirelings would jump his west Kansas claim if he left it unguarded, Sternberg once spent three days subsisting on parched corn until he could dig out 800 pounds of bone from mosasaurs, seagoing dinosaurs, with a butcher knife. He was relieved that August when Cope added another digger, J.C. Isaac, and told him they were moving on. But Sternberg’s relief was brief. The new target was the Judith Basin badlands of north central Montana Territory—not a great place for white men a few months after Custer’s Last Stand. The trio of dinosaur prospectors made it to Fort Benton and then to the badlands. “We have just been reading the Bible and prayer,” Cope wrote his daughter Julia on August 27. “Sternberg is a very religious character and Isaac is a good fellow….They behave very differently from my Colorado party, who scrubbed their teeth and chopped wood while I read.”
The only Indians they encountered were thousands of friendly Crows, whom they saw as protectors from the Lakotas and Cheyennes, and a peaceful Yankton Sioux couple. “They behaved with perfect good manners, using their knife, fork and spoon for everything,” Cope wrote his wife, Annie. “I showed them your photo, at which Beaver Head said, ‘Pretty good,’ and the squaw suggested that thee cried when I went away.” One Crow warrior rode several miles to marvel over Cope’s ability to remove his teeth (dentures).
The diggers also found huge dinosaur fossils, many so brittle the men had to pack them in cloth soaked in boiled rice paste to keep them from crumbling—a technique Cope and Sternberg invented, though Marsh later claimed it.Their scout and cook defected when the friendly Crows left, but Cope and Sternberg persevered and culled 1,700 pounds of fossils from the fringes of Sitting Bull country. Sternberg grudgingly stayed on even after Cope left—a runaway horse almost took him over a cliff— and he found a new site at Como Bluff near Medicine Bow, Wyoming Territory.
But they gave up too soon at Como Bluff. After Sternberg left at the end of 1877, Mudge and other Marsh hirelings sleuthed into the abandoned dig and discovered the world’s signature dinosaurs: the giant carnivore allosaurus, the spiked and plated stegosaurus, and the massive herbivore diplodocus (Gertie the Dinosaur, as imagined in the 1914 animated film). Mudge, though a bit of a claim-jumper, returned to Kansas in glory and became a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He died of a stroke of apoplexy in November 1879, less than two years after his triumph.
Sternberg, meanwhile, continued to work for Cope. Pay for others might be slapdash—Indians swapped fresh meat and fossils for flour and coffee, and“sourdoughs” were paid like Army scouts, in increments, to keep them from absconding with three months’ wages. But Sternberg received good wages and learned a trade that, with the popularity of dinosaurs after the discoveries at Como Bluff, made his skills much sought after. When Cope died in April 1897 (Marsh died two years later), Sternberg kept working for himself. In the final weeks of his life Cope had advised artist Charles Knight on how to paint dinosaurs in the flesh, and those renderings put dinosaurs on the map for generations to come.
Sternberg, now the lead player in dinosaur hunting for museums and private collectors, handed on the lucrative trade to his three sons—George F. at Fort Hays Kansas State College, Charles M. with the Geological Survey of Canada, and Levi of the Royal Ontario Museum. Charles Hazelius Sternberg lived to be 93. In his old age he contently visited the famous Trachodon Mummy, a fossil of the duckbilled dinosaur on which mineralization had filled in a semblance of flesh—discovered with his sons and sold to the American Museum of Natural History. “My own body will crumble in dust, my soul return to the God who gave it, but the works of His hands, those animals of other days, will give joy and pleasure to generations yet unborn,” wrote Sternberg.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.