Skip to main content

The Great Fossil War

The Great Fossil War

Sources

Cope versus Marsh. For most of the last three decades of the nineteenth century paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) and Othniel C. Marsh (1831-1899) engaged in a running battle over dinosaur discoveries in the American West. Cope, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was the paleontologist attached to Ferdinand V. Haydens geological survey, with which he spent eight months of every year unearthing

fossil vertebrates (animals with spinal columns). He discovered more than twelve hundred previously unknown genera or species, and The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West (1883), his report on the Hayden survey, was soon baptized Copes Bible. (In geological time the Tertiary period, from five million to sixty-five million years before the present, begins with the extinction of the dinosaurs and ends before the appearance of the earliest humans; it is the first period of the Cenozoic era.) Marsh, who named some five hundred new vertebrates, was vertebrate paleontologist at the Peabody Museum in New Haven. He is best known for tracing the evolution of the horse from the tiny Eohippus to its modern descendant and for having described a group of extinct birds with teeth, proving their reptilian ancestry.

Fighting over Fossils. Difficult and eccentric individuals, Cope and Marsh adopted aggressive entrepreneurial styles in amassing their considerable fossil collections, and each feared being undermined by the other. The dispute between the two paleontologists erupted in 1872, when Marsh attacked the validity of some of Copes specimens. Copes fears of being overshadowed by Marsh were realized in 1879, when Marsh became chief paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey. Cope had always suspected the head of the survey, John Wesley Powell, of conspiring with Marsh against him. Powell had indeed refused to publish Copes writings on the Hayden survey. The feud burst into the national news in 1889-1890, when the government attempted to force Cope to relinquish the fossils he had collected on the Hayden survey to the National Museum, on the assumption that these specimens were government property. Cope claimed that Marsh, who was president of the National Academy of Sciences, was packing that organization with his allies from the U.S. Geological Survey. Congressmen who wanted to reduce Powells budget welcomed Copes allegations, cutting government appropriations for Powells agency from the $720,000 he requested in 1890 to $162,500. A key chapter in the emergence of government science, the Cope-Marsh episode also contributed significantly to Powells resignation in 1892.

Sources

William Culp Darrah, Powell of the Colorado (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969);

Nathan Reingold, Science in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964);

Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"The Great Fossil War." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"The Great Fossil War." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/great-fossil-war

"The Great Fossil War." American Eras. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/great-fossil-war

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.