Sample text for The gilded dinosaur : the fossil war between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the rise of American science / by Mark Jaffe.


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Counter By the end of September, Cope had decided that it was time to break camp and move up the river toward Cow Island, where the last steamer of the season would soon depart. Cope and Jim Deer went down to the island to make arrangements, while Isaac, Sternberg, and Merrill were left to move the camp.

Now getting out of river valley was a good deal more difficult than getting into it. Here the bluffs were steeper, and in addition, they had collected twelve hundred pounds of fossils. The three men left their supplies at Dog Creek as they first attempted to get the wagon out of the valley.

Facing a steep ridge covered with loose shale, Merrill balked at even trying to get the wagon up the slope. An impatient Isaac took the reins and urged the horses on. He had gotten about thirty feet up the incline when gravity got the better of the rig and pulled it over. Isaac, horses, and wagon rolled over and over and over. When they reached the sandstone ledge from which they had started, the wagon landed upright, and the horses ended up on their feet, unharmed. Incredibly, Isaac was still in one piece.

The three men then tried a different approach. They constructed a windlass to drag the wagon up the slope to the prairie. Then all the bones, goods, and supplies followed. They were reassembling the gear when they saw one horseman approaching from the south and another from the east.

The southern rider turned out to be Jim Deer. The eastern horseman was Cope. Deer announced that Sitting Bull was rumored to be within a hundred miles and heading in their direction. The guide said he had already seen signs of Sioux scouting parties. Deer said he as clearing out. When Merrill heard the news, he also grabbed his bedroll and headed after the departing guide. "The scout and our valiant cook had concluded that their precious scalps were too valuable to risk," Sternberg said disparagingly.

Everything now dictated that the Cope party move quickly. Not only was there a possibility of the Sioux appearing, but there was only one more boat heading downriver this season -- the Josephine. They had only a few days to reach Cow Island. If Cope failed to reach the boat, at best his fossils would be stranded in Montana for the entire winter; at worst they would meet Sitting Bull.

Under the twin threats of the Sioux and the Josephine's pending departure, Cope, Sternberg, and Isaac put in a fourteen-hour day to haul the bones across prairie and badlands. It was late at night before they stopped for a supper of bacon and hardtack and a few hours of sleep. At daybreak, they set out again.

Late on the second night, they reached a ravine leading back to the Missouri River, twelve hundred feet below. They were just three miles above Cow Island. The steamer could come upriver this far, load the bones, and they would be off. The wagon was unloaded and lowered down to the valley floor using an improvised block and tackle. Then the baggage was lowered. Again, it was after midnight when they sat down to supper.

Cope and Sternberg now rode back to Cow Island to be sure the steamboat would come upriver to fetch the precious crates. On the way, however, Cope could not resist stopping in the badlands for one last fossil hunt. The two men separated, agreeing to rendezvous at four that afternoon. The hours passed, and the sun was sinking. Sternberg could do no more than watch the sun and wait. Finally, Cope finally came galloping out of a badlands coulee.

It would now be impossible to reach Cow Island before sunset. Sternberg pleaded with Cope to spend the night on the prairie and not try to cross the badlands in the dark, where a single misstep could lead to death. Cope paid no attention. He was determined to get to Cow Island. But perhaps having learned a lesson from his blind leap over a chasm earlier in the trip, he dismounted, cut a stout stick, which he used like a blindman's cane, and tried to tap his way to the riverbank. The black rock valleys had the power to soak up whatever starlight and moonlight was in the air and close out all but a sliver of sky. In that blackness, Cope tapped and tapped and tapped. Time and time again, he and Sternberg would follow a trail through the mountains and along ledges only to reach a point where his cane tapped on nothing but thin air.

Once, they actually reached the river, only to find a cliff walling them off from reaching Cow Island downstream. All through the night, Cope and Sternberg felt their way through the badlands. Just before daybreak, they stood on the bank opposite Cow Island.

"I have never known another man who would have attempted this journey. It was both foolhardy and useless," Sternberg wrote, "but we could say that we accomplished what no one else ever had in reaching Cow Island through the Bad Lands after dark."

Cope called out for the army squad billeted on the island to send a boat to ferry them across. But in the early morning fog, the two men could not be seen, and the sergeant feared this might be some Indian trick. Exhausted and chilled, Cope and Sternberg paced back and forth on the shore until the fog lifted. Realizing his error, the sergeant hurriedly dispatched a boat, which promptly capsized. A second boat was sent to rescue the first and then retrieve Cope and Sternberg.

At last, they reached the island and were given a warm pot of beans and some hardtack with strawberry jam. Then a warm nest of blankets was made under a tarpaulin covering a shipment of gold. Cope and Sternberg slept with the gold all that day and through the night.

The following morning, they sought out the steamer captain. "I am Professor Cope, of Philadelphia," the paleontologist told the captain. "I have a four-horse wagon at a steamboat snubbing-post three miles below. I would like you to stop there on your way down and carry my outfit to this side. My baggage and freight are also there, and I want to take passage for Omaha."

"Well, sir, I am the captain of this boat," the skipper replied. "If you want to go downriver, you must have your baggage, freight, and self at this landing before ten o'clock tomorrow morning, when I leave for downriver points."


So, it had come to this. Cope had a little more than twenty-four hours to get the fossils to Cow Island. There would be no time to retrace their steps through the badlands. Instead, Cope purchased an old sand scow and set off up the river to Isaac and the bones. (He had tried to borrow it, but the owner, having heard the conversation with the captain, knew there was a buck to be made.)

Cope and Sternberg rowed back to camp. Isaac wasn't there. With no time to lose, they started packing and loading the scow. Just before they were ready to shove off, Isaac, who had gone searching for them in the badlands, turned up. The three men swam the horses across the river and then started for Cow Island.

A towline was attached to the most dependable of the horses -- Old Major -- and the animal began the slow journey downstream, pulling the scow. Sternberg rode the horse; a couple of mountain men, whom Cope had met at Cow Island, stood on either bank with long poles to keep the boat from turning in to shore.

Isaac and Cope had the toughest duty -- sitting in the scow and unraveling the towline when it got snagged on a rock or a branch. Such a hitch would immediately build tension in the line and releasing it was like setting off a spring or more accurately, a catapult. Each time Cope or Isaac freed the line, they were pitched into the cold, shallow river.

The sun was setting when the scow came in under the hull of the big steamer. The deck was filled with curious passengers watching the progress of the little boat. Cope was covered with mud from head to foot. His clothes were in tatters. His fossils, however, were intact. In his next letter to Annie, he proudly announced that he had collected twelve hundred pounds of fossils and added, "We had a lively time getting them to the boat."23

The October nights were already getting chilly, so the lady passengers were wearing furs and the men were sporting ulsters. Cope, however, had forgotten to bring any winter clothes, so after removing his muddy rags and washing up, he emerged from the sergeant's tent with hair combed, mustache trimmed, dressed in a summer suit with a linen duster.

The next morning, true to the captain's word, the Josephine weighed anchor and headed downriver. The steamboat did not get very far before its voyage was checked. At Fort Buford, on the North Dakota border, General Hazen commandeered the steamer, prepared to unload all the passengers and cargo, and fill it with soldiers to head back up the Missouri.

The Sioux had finally made their dash toward Canada and crossed the river not at Fort Benton, but at Cow Island. A brief battle occurred, and five soldiers were killed. After a day's consideration, however, Hazen decided to use another boat, and let the Josephine go. But further down the river, at Fort Lincoln, the boat was stopped again and used this time to ferry soldiers -- fresh recruits for Custer's Seventh Cavalry, with their new saddles and horses -- to join the chase. "The officers' wives watched from our steamer, none knew that they would see their husbands again," Cope wrote in a letter, "but were cheerful, some too much so, but some showed their feelings." So as Cope moved east, a small army was rushing into the valley. The paleontologist's timing had been impeccable.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Cope, E, D, (Edward Drinker), 1840-1897, Marsh, Othniel Charles, 1831-1899, Paleontologists United States Biography, Fossils Collection and preservation West (U, S, ) History 19th century