bone wars

Boneheaded Bone Wars

The first time that I ever watched the original Jurassic Park movie, I was hooked. At the time, one of my most prized possessions was an old VHS tape that had been handed down, and I played it on an endless loop. I was fixated by this concept of man-made dinosaurs. 

I spent my summers growing up by rewatching the trilogy and rereading an old novelization. I had parts of the dialogue memorized, but the movies were each completely magical. In school, I would draw out my favorite drawings, and at one point, horrified a teacher with my artistic recreation of the scene where the lawyer was devoured. 

You kind of have to love dinosaurs. They were impossibly complex creatures that had been wiped out by a single hot space rock. 

What made the movies so incredible was that the Jurassic Parks series offered up brand new film effects for future filmmakers. By incorporating (originally) complex robotics and puppetry, they were able to engineer their own dinosaurs, rather than relying on the lackluster CGI effects. The original trilogy was able to separate itself from other movies being produced at the time, and really define the genre of science fiction. 

American Progress (John Gast)

American Progress (John Gast)

Despite this lengthy obsession with Jurassic Park, it was only two years ago that I discovered the original duo-logy of books that inspired the movie franchise. Written by Michael Crichton, that film was able to craft a respectable movie from the pages, allowing readers to experience an incredible plot, set to a backdrop of ingenious robotics. 

I was completely in love with the books. Despite growing up with constant nightmares that starred raptors ripping apart my body in my childhood bedroom, I was totally obsessed.

Thankfully, I was in excellent company. 

The Gilded Age of America drove citizens to expand their reach by means of industrialization and railroads. Like most countries touched by Britain, America was simply the product of invasion and colonialism, which led to an increase in immigrants to take their roles in menial labor. European immigrants, of course, were the only desirable immigrant, which led to a dramatic shift in classes, pushing for skilled workers to take higher positions, which led to higher wages. 

European society had been planted in an American landscape and managed to flourish with the aid of industry and settlements. 

American imagination often romanticized the concept of the Wild West, removing brutal histories like the Trail of Tears, racial clashes, and re-establishing manifest destiny as a much-needed element to the American West. 

What often is left unspoken about is the Bone Wars. 

In 1819, the first dinosaur fossil was discovered by William Buckland, which led to a flurry of excitement in the scholarly community, and men were desperate to find evidence of these massive creatures. 

The desire to hunt for more dinosaur bones could have been conducted peacefully. However, because white men were engaged in these searches, the hunt swiftly transitioned into the Bone Wars, also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush. Key figures were Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh who were notable in their positions as professors in natural sciences and paleontology. Both would publish paper after paper of their findings and were key players in discovering a variety of species. 

Already natural enemies, their rivalry grew over the years of the Bone War, before it eventually transitioned into an all-out war, using bribery, theft, vandalism, and even attempted murder.  Both Cope and Marsh were desperate to achieve fame for their findings, were determined to scour the Wild West for hidden bones. 

It was already dangerous searching for fossils in the long plains, due to the little protection from the irate Indigenous peoples, who were upset and hostile due to continuous injustice served by the hand of the white man. Professors would each bring a team of students and assistants, but would also have to consider having a gunman close by. 

Using their own personal wealth to fund these ventures, both Cope and Marsh were deeply protective of their digs. Sending spies over to one another’s camps, destroying bone fragments, and poisoning water supplies were each common elements to their nefarious activities. Their dislike for one another had grown legendary, coming to a head in one of the most unique incidents which involved both men throwing rocks at each other. 

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Eventually, the Bone Wars were finished, with Marsh taking victory, having discovered eighty dinosaur species. This was attributed to Marsh having more resources for his expedition. 

One of the craziest elements of Bone Wars, though, was that it inspired a novel by the name of Dragon Teeth, written by Crichton. It focused on the dangerous relationship between the two professors, as well as evaluating the risk of being an employed student for their digs. Published posthumously, Dragon Teeth holds the same enchantment as his earlier works, Jurassic Park and its sequel. Crichton confessed in his notes to having played down the rivalry, as it seemed so absurd in went beyond the limits of the fiction genre.

It’s easy to obsess over dinosaurs. They were massive creatures and yet were wiped out so easily, leaving behind a scattering of fossilized bones. We continuously look towards the Gilded Age of America as a crucial element to history, but we don’t often discuss what we took from the Earth, and the cost of gaining it. 


What will white men obsess over next? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!


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Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.