on-line book icon

table of contents

Field Division of Education
Outline of the Geology and Paleontology of Scotts Bluff National Monument and the Adjacent Region
NPS logo

INTRODUCTION (continued)


Long before the coming of the white man to this region, fossil remains had been observed by the Indians and had found their way into many of their legends. Captain James H. Cook, United States Army Scout, in his manuscript, "Sketches of the Life of Red Cloud", tells of a visit to the Red Cloud Agency located on the White River in Northwestern Nebraska where he was shown a perfectly petrified tooth three inches or more in diameter. "American Horse explained that the tooth had belonged to a 'Thunder Horse' that had lived 'away back' and that then this creature would sometimes come down to earth in thunderstorms and chase and kill buffalo. His old people told stories of how on one occasion many, many years back, this big Thunder Horse had driven a herd of buffalo right into a camp of Lacota people during a bad thunderstorm, when these people were about to starve, and that they had killed many of these buffalo with their lances and arrows. The 'Great Spirit' had sent the Thunder Horse to help them get "food" when it was needed most badly."

The first formally recorded notice of fossil remains from this region is that of Dr. Hiram A. Prout of St. Louis. It consists of a figure and description of a lower law of a "gigantic Palootherium", (American Journal of Science, 1847.) The specimen was sent to Dr. Prout by a representative of the American Fur Company and is now known to represent the lower maxillary of one of the large Titanotheres, Menodus giganteus.

Later in the same year Dr. Joseph Leidy described in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia a fairly well preserved skull of an ancestral camel, calling it Poebretherium.

A great deal of interest was aroused by these discoveries and in 1849 Dr. John Evans visited the region under the direction of the Owen Survey for the United States Government, for the purpose of determining the character and age of these deposits. The geography and geology with a popular account of the fossil animals found were published in a report by David Dale Owen in 1852.

The next year (1850) Mr. Thaddeus A. Culbertson visited the same region under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and made a good collection of fossil material. The United States Geological Survey of the Territories made by Meek and Hayden, especially the explorations of 1853, 1855, 1857, and 1866 were exceedingly productive in unraveling the main geologic features of the country and in obtaining many new specimens of vertebrate fossils. The detailed study of most of the fossil material so far obtained was entrusted to Dr. Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia, who was recognized as the best authority at this time on fossil mammals in America. Many papers were published by him during these years; in 1869 his monumental work, "The Extinct Mammalian Fauna of Dakota and Nebraska," brought together all that was known of these forms at this time, and established the White River Badlands as one of the groat fossil vertebrate repositories of the world.

A new epoch of vigorous investigation followed with new men entering the field and numerous institutions sending out exploring and collecting expeditions. In 1870 Yale University was represented by a party, under the direction of Professor O. C. Marsh, which used refined methods of collecting and assembling dissociated fossil material so that a number of fairly complete skeletons were obtained. Later expeditions were sent to this region in 1871, 1873, 1874, 1886, 1887, 1888, 1889, 1890, 1894, 1895, 1897, 1898, and 1908. The United States Geological Survey aided in much of this work. Part of the material collected is in the Peabody Museum and part in the National Museum.

Princeton University sent at least four expeditions into the Nebraska Territory beginning in 1882. These were under the direction of Professor W. B. Scott and Mr. J. B. Hatcher. The results were of great importance and have been described principally by Professor Scott.

Beginning in 1892 the American Museum of Natural History sent numerous expeditions into the field, and they have had great success in obtaining many complete skeletons. Some of these have been mounted and restored in the flesh with the greatest of detail and care for scientific accuracy, and they present as nearly as possible a life-like image of those animals as they appeared million of years ago. Professor H. S. Osborn has been in charge of most of this work and to his efforts is due much of the success.

Among the many other institutions which have sent geologic and paleontologic expeditions into this region and which have achieved noteworthy success are: University of Nebraska with Professor E. H. Barbour in charge of the expedition and aided by J. E. Todd of the University of South Dakota; Carnegie Museum expedition under the direction of Mr. J. B. Hatcher and O. A. Peterson, being the first to develop the Agate Springs Quarry; Amherst College expeditions in charge of F. B. Loomis; the Field Columbian Museum with O. A. Farrington in charge; United States Geological Survey renewed investigation, the work of N. H. Darton being particularly important; and the South Dakota State School of Mines which has been sending a party into the field every year since 1899. Not to be overlooked are the private collectors who through their own enterprise have added greatly to the material now known.

As a result of these expeditions, the Badland regions of Western Nebraska and South Dakota have become world famous for their representation of mammalian life. It is interesting that the remains of such animals as the large Titanotheres, three-toed horses, camels, aquatic and cursorial rhinoceroses and predacious carnivores are found here. One factor that makes this record of the greatest importance is its completeness. Numerous other localities are known in which fossil mammals very often occur, but generally these represent only a very short interval of geologic time, and are so isolated as to be difficult to tie into the correct sequence of events. Although there are still breaks in this record, it is believed that these will be filled by research, which is now being done or will be done in the future.


top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb 21 2006 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home