Buffalo Bill Cody and the Bone Wars
Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody had skills. A lot of them. He was a trapper, bullwhacker, Pony Express Rider, Colorado “Fifty-Niner” wagon master, stagecoach driver, Civil War soldier, hotel manager and scout for the U.S. Army. He was a skilled hunter, a long-before-his-time showman, a diplomat, a newspaperman, a logistics magician and a civic-minded community leader with a special focus on the rights of children, women and minorities.
And in his spare time, he searched for – and found – dinosaurs. Well, fossils, anyway.
In 1870, 24-year-old Buffalo Bill Cody led an ultra-competitive fossil-hunter named Othniel Charles Marsh into the wilds of western Kansas to search for dinosaur fossils. Marsh, a Yale professor, had already discovered dinosaur bone pits in Wyoming and Colorado, as had Marsh’s arch enemy, a British fossil-hunter named Edward Drinker Cope.
Both brilliant and prolific fossil hunters, Cope and Marsh had each been credited with numerous discoveries, and each frantically wrote and published scientific papers to ensure that credit was well documented. Though the two started out as friendly competitors, their relationship quickly became one characterized by petty vandalism, lies and theft and occasionally, violence.
Most scholars believe the Bone War began in 1868 when Cope made an unfortunate mistake while reassembling the fossils of a massive, long-necked dinosaur called an Elasmosaurus. Cope thought the dinosaur had a short neck and long tail and thus placed the skull at the wrong end. Then he rushed to publish his findings. When Cope – and every other paleontologist who was paying attention – realized his mistake, he tried to buy and destroy every copy of every scientific journal with his incorrect findings and destroy it. That was a bad plan, and it didn’t work.
The crass Marsh made sure to point out his competitor’s mistake whenever he could, and certainly at every high profile gathering of scientists, and Cope never forgave him for perpetuating that humiliation. The two spent the rest of their professional lives and most of their wealth to continue their petty personal war.
What the two lacked in character they made up in spades as brilliant scientists and both had immensely successful careers discovering dinosaur fossils throughout Wyoming, Western Kansas and Central Colorado.
While in Kansas, Marsh met millennial extraordinaire Buffalo Bill Cody and hired him to guide an expedition in Kansas and Wyoming. Cody helped protect Marsh and the workers, and he did a little digging himself. Although records are spotty, he is even credited with finding a dinosaur called Pteranodon longiceps, an 84 million-year-old, fish-hunting flying reptile with a massive tail and a showy crest.
While Cody may have played an uncharacteristically bit part in the Bone Wars, his discovery was yet another major personal success in a long line of other accomplishments.
I first learned this tale while visiting a friend in central Colorado on a rainy day. We found ourselves in a museum called The Dinosaur Experience. I was thinking about lunch and only half-listening to the guide explain in detail the circumstances by which the fossils on display were discovered, when she mentioned the flying bird fossil above my head was a Buffalo Bill Cody discovery. More a Marsh and Cope expert than a Buffalo Bill fan, the guide really couldn’t provide much more detail. Still, I lingered below the fossil, marveling about yet another accomplishment that Buffalo Bill Cody brought to the world. Then we had lunch.
Until next time, I’m loving life and digging Buffalo Bill Cody history here in Cody Yellowstone.