Cowboys and dinosaurs: The ‘Bone Wars’ in fiction

Cover illustration for “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi.” Image source.

Dinosaurs are not on the list of things that come to mind when most people picture the Wild West, but their fossils played a small but important role in shaping that mythic period in American history due to the efforts of two cantankerous scientists.

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were 19th century paleontologists who both came from privileged backgrounds. They put their financial resources to work combing the Old West for fossils while engaging in a personal feud that would later be dubbed the “Bone Wars.” The quarrel ultimately exhausted the fortunes of both men, but it enriched our knowledge of the prehistoric past. It also provided plenty of inspiration for storytellers over the years.

To summarize: The Bone Wars were a scientific Cold War carried out between Marsh and Cope from roughly 1870 to the end of the century. Both men sought the fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, braving the elements, outlaws, and Native Americans suspicious of their motives. The two scientists hated each with a burning fury, often using the scientific and popular press to disparage one another and make wild accusations. They even destroyed fossils to keep the finds out of the other scientist’s hands. If you want to know more about the Bone Wars, including how Marsh and Cope came to hate each other, this Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

The Bone Wars has something of a fabled history in paleontology circles, but the rivalry only rose to public prominence in recent decades. As a result, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when the feud first became the basis for a work of fiction. As far as I know, the earliest story concerning the Bone Wars is Sharon N. Farber’s “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi,” first published in the November 1988 issue Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The novelette is about a race between Marsh and Cope to claim a living sauropod dinosaur that has miraculously turned up in an isolated corner of the West. The rivalry is mostly played for laughs, but Farber also has something to say about what happens to scientific discovery when scientists can’t put aside their differences.

Also published in 1988 was The Bone Wars, a young adult novel written by Kathryn Lasky. The book is set in 1870s Montana and concerns two teenage boys whose “destiny linked with that of three rival teams of paleontologists searching for dinosaur bones,” according to the cover blurb. I have not had the chance to read the book yet, but according to one review, the only relation the plot has to the historical events of the same name is the setting and presence of dinosaur fossils.

Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope. Top illustration depicts Marsh and his students outfitted for an expedition to the Wild West. Both images from Wikipedia.

The Bone Wars provide the background for Harry Turtledove’s 1992 short story “The Green Buffalo,” published in the anthology The Ultimate Dinosaur. The plot concerns a group of cowpokes who discover a living Triceratops while working on a fossil dig in the Old West. The men, who are not very bright, mistake the dinosaur for a buffalo, hence the title.

The 1998 novel Bone Wars by Brett Davis was the next work of fiction to dramatize the feud. In it, Marsh and Cope must work together to prevent aliens from stealing Earth’s fossils. A sequel, Two Tiny Claws, was released the following year but instead features famous paleontologist Barnum Brown.

A more literary take on the subject was published in 2004. Diane Smith’s Pictures from an Expedition tells the story of Eleanor Peterson, a fictional scientific illustrator who accompanies a paleontology expedition to Montana in 1876. Marsh and Cope are both in the novel although not mentioned by name. Rather, Smith weaves enough clues in the narrative that students of history can puzzle out their identities.

Marsh and Cope returned in comic book form in the 2005 graphic novel Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards by Jim Ottaviani and Big Time Attic. The book is a biographical work of fiction that nevertheless weaves in historical facts about the scientists and the period of history they lived in. It also gets my vote for best book title ever.

The Bone Wars go steampunk in the 2013 novel The Doctor and the Dinosaur by Mike Resnick. Set in an alternate timeline where magic works, the famous gunslinger Doc Holiday is recruited by Geronimo to convince Marsh and Cope to stop digging for dinosaur fossils in tribal territory. However, both paleontologists refuse to budge, and angry Native Americans use magic to resurrect dinosaurs to kill the intruders.

Magic is once again at play in Holly Messinger’s The Romance of Certain Old Bones, a 2016 novella featuring Jacob Tracy, the hero of several other stories by the author. In this work, Tracy agrees to lead a thinly-disguised stand-in for Cope into Montana in search of fossils. The problem is Tracy can see the spirits of the dead, no matter how much time has passed since they died.

The next take on the subject came from Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, whose Dragon Teeth was published in 2017—or about nine years after the writer’s death. The novel follows the adventures of William Johnson, a spoiled rich kid who accompanies Marsh out West to win a bet. Johnson eventually is stranded in the middle of Indian territory with a wagon full of fossils and only the slimmest idea about how to get home.

Outside of written fiction, the Bone Wars have been the basis for at least two tabletop games. Bone Wars: The Game of Ruthless Paleontology by Zygote Games is a 2005 card game in which players are fossil hunters who must survive natural disasters while sabotaging other players’ efforts. More recently, The Great Dinosaur Rush by APE Games is a 2016 board game in which players compete to build dinosaur skeletons while gaining notoriety.

One form of media the Bone Wars have yet to penetrate is television and film. Sopranos-star James Gandolfini and comedian Steve Carell were set to star in an HBO film about the feud, but the project came to a halt after Gandolfini’s death in 2013. Still, we may soon see the two paleontologists on the small screen. The National Geographic Channel announced in 2016 that it would adapt Crichton’s Dragon Teeth as a miniseries. So far National Geographic has not said when the show would air.

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