'Othniel Charles Marsh and the Yale College Fossil Hunting Expeditions of 1870-1873'

This is one of four exhibits created by Yale students on exhibition in the Sterling Memorial Library. Click here to read about the others.

Upon hearing reports about ancient bones being found in the western frontier, Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles (O.C.) Marsh headed west in 1868 and saw great opportunities in the rolling plains and scorched landscapes. Over the next four summers, he organized expeditions to the West in search of fossil specimens. He took along Yale students, who were eager for adventure and often ignorant of the dangers and hardships that awaited them on the frontier: rattlesnakes, mosquitoes, hostile Indians, blistering heat, etc.

This exhibit, curated by David McCullough ’17, provides an account of each of Marsh’s fossil hunting trips. It includes a facsimile of a Rand McNally and Company map of the Union Pacific Railway, which Marsh used to chart his course through the western landscape; photographs of the expedition parties; and contemporary press coverage of Marsh’s adventures, which was often riddled with fabrications.

McCullough was inspired to do the exhibit after writing a short biography about Marsh for a course he took last spring on the art of writing biography, taught by John Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History.

He says that he was drawn to the famed professor’s wild adventures in the West.

“I also adored the fact that his was a uniquely Yale story: Marsh went here, taught here, built the Peabody Museum, brought Yale students with him on his trips, and donated all he had, including, of course, his vast collections of fossils, to the university,” McCullough says. “He was also an eccentric character, and that made for fun reading.

He says he enjoyed hunkering down in the library’s Manuscripts and Archives and diving into boxes of Marsh’s papers.

“For me, there is no greater thrill than feeling between your fingertips primary documents, letters, diaries, stereograph images, all of it,” says McCullough, who is majoring in American studies. “They act a bit like a time machine of sorts, and it's as if I'm right there with the digging parties out in the Uintah Mountains or the Nebraska plains — it's a blast.”