- Historic Sites
Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh
A bitter feud among the bones
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Under the protection of this awesome relation Marsh spent five years at Phillips Academy, Andover, a grown man among adolescents, and the rest of his twenties and early thirties at Yale College and Yale’s new Sheffield Scientific School. Marsh flourished under the influence of the elder Benjamin Silliman and his son-in-law, James Dwight Dana. There followed further study abroad at Berlin and Heidelberg, and occasional salmon fishing with Uncle George in Scotland. Peabody was a generous man. Much of his large fortune he gave away before his death, and the name of Peabody blossomed across the American landscape: the Peabody Institute in Baltimore; the Peabody Institute in Peabody (formerly South Danvers), Massachusetts; the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard; the Peabody Academy of Science (later renamed the Peabody Museum) in Salem; the Peabody Education Fund for the Promotion of Education in the South. When Othniel Marsh returned to New Haven in 1866, Yale College received a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to endow a museum of natural history. Marsh received a professor’s chair at the college.
Although his death in 1869 left Marsh financially independent, Uncle George had extracted his toll. Othniel Marsh, like Peabody himself, never married. During his long apprenticeship he had had ample opportunity to sample the steel in his uncle’s paternalism. One nephew was struck from The Will when he married prematurely, and Othniel’s maternal aunt made sure the lesson struck home: Uncle had said, ”… if any of his nephews should in any way so conduct [himself] as to disgrace themselves and him, or (now mind this ) should any of them form a marriage connection, or even get engaged before they had the means of supporting a family, they should never have a cent of his money . … He desired me to communicate this … to all his nephews. …” Marsh was a twenty-five-year-old freshman at Yale when he received this alarming letter; when he finally left the shade of his uncle’s protection, he was thirty-five. Probably bachelor habits were set firmly. His hair had already begun to recede from the melon shape it had decently covered. Although he was once overheard referring to a young lady as “the prettiest little vertebrate” he had seen in a long time, he never added her or any other woman to the trophies with which he filled the big ugly Victorian mansion on Prospect Street in New Haven. As a classmate later told him, he handled many bones but somehow never acquired a rib.
Marsh made his first trip to the West in 1868on the brand new Union Pacific Railroad. At Antelope Station, Nebraska, while the conductor fretted, Marsh sifted through the loose dirt from a newly dug well. In the space of a few minutes he found the bones of eleven extinct animals. One was a small horse, “then and there christened Equus parvulus, ” he recalled, “a name he still bears. … During life, he was scarcely a yard in height, and each of his slender legs was terminated by three toes. Later researches proved him to be a veritable missing link in the genealogy of the modern horse.”
In two years Marsh was back with a party of Yale seniors. He was to make four such trips between 1870 and 1873. For the students, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in business, finance, journalism, or politics, the expeditions were a memorable lark, perhaps the high point of their lives. They hunted buffalo, hobnobbed with hard-bitten cavalrymen and notorious characters (Buffalo Bill was their guide one year, Major Frank North and his Pawnee scouts another, and once both together), and ogled Indians. Through the influence of Yale alumni in Washington, Marsh was provided with military escort and supplies from post commissaries.
For Marsh the trips were the foundation of his career. They yielded not only the specimens that made possible his triumph with the horse, but also the first of the toothed birds. The students worked for their lark. “Instead of riding along looking for a gigantic telltale vertebra,” one recalled, “it was necessary literally to crawl over the country on hands and knees … Often a quarter of a mile of the most inviting country would be carefully gone over with no result, and then again someone would chance upon a butte which seemed almost made of teeth.”
The last Yale expedition in 1873 was followed by a short excursion into the Sioux reservation south of the Black Hills. After that he retired from field work except for short trips to check on his workmen. He maintained an army of diggers in the field, around a hundred altogether over the years. The volume of bones funnelling into New Haven mounted until it eventually reached a total of thirty freight-car loads for Marsh’s lifetime haul—seven of which eventually went to enrich the National Museum in Washington, the rest remaining in the Peabody. Tons of bones remained in boxes unopened at his death.