The Yale College Scientific Expedition of 1870
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Yale Students on the 1870 Expedition

Charles T. Ballard, ’70 S
Charles Wyllys Betts, ’67, M.A. ’71
Alexander Hamilton Ewing, ’69
George Bird Grinnell, ’70, Ph.D. ’80
John Reed Nicholson, ’70
Charles McCormick Reeve, ’70
James Matson Russell, ’70.
Henry Bradford Sargent, ’71 S., M.A. ’07
James W. Wadsworth, M.A. ’08
Eli Whitney, ’69, M.A. ’72
Harry D. Ziegler, ’71 S

Other Yale College Scientific Expeditions: 1871 | 1872 | 1873


The Expedition

The first Yale College Scientific Expedition set out by rail from New Haven, Connecticut, on June 30, 1870, for North Platte, Nebraska, a short distance from Fort McPherson, where arrangements had been made for a military escort. O.C. Marsh had a letter of introduction from William Sherman, then Commanding General of the U.S. Army, that would allow his party access to all Army posts. Their military escort, a troop of the Fifth Cavalry under Lieuts. Bernard Reilly, Jr. and Earl D. Thomas, also included 2 Pawnee guides and 2 Army scouts, one of which was none other than William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill). The other scout was Maj. Frank North, made famous by Robert Bruce’s The Fighting Norths and Pawnee Scouts.

During July the party explored the Sand Hill country north and west of Fort McPherson, going north to the Loup Fork River and then following the river west to its headwaters. From there, they followed Bird Wood Creek south to where it joins the North Fork of the Platte River, then turned east back to North Platte.


The results of this first excursion were very promising. Along the bluffs of the Loup Fork they had unearthed the remains of no fewer than 6 different species of early horses, 2 kinds of rhinoceroses, and a remarkable assortment of other extinct animals.


In August, the party traveled west toward Fort D.A. Russell, north of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to explore the region between the North and South Platte Rivers. Their escort this time consisted of 30 men from Company I of the Fifth Cavalry, under the command of Capt. Robert H. Montgomery and Lieut. James McB. Stembel.


From Cheyenne they trekked south into Colorado, discovering great quantities of fossil turtles, rhinoceroses, and oreodonts, a few birds and rodents and, most importantly, the remains of several brontotheres. Backtracking north they crossed and followed Lodge Pole Creek and were guided through a maze of gullies around the base of Scotts Bluff, reaching the North Platte River on August 17. From there they made their way northwest along the river, turning south at Horse Creek and continuing southwest back to Fort D. A Russell.


By far the most important excursion in 1870 was the group’s third, in September. Leaving from Fort Bridger with an escort from the Thirteenth Infantry under the command of Lieut. W.N. Wann and accompanied by a guide named Joe Talemans, they followed a circuitous route southeast along Henry’s Fork, past Brown’s Hole, turning south and following the Green River to reach an unexplored area at the juncture of the Green and White Rivers. Here they found an abundance of fossils. After collecting along the White River, they backtracked a short distance and followed the Uintah River to Fort Uintah. At the fort, they picked up a guide who took them through the Uintah Mountains and back up to Henry’s Fork.


After a few weeks of sightseeing in Salt Lake City and San Francisco, the crew returned to a locality near Green River, Wyoming, and collected fossil fishes and insects. On the advice of some Army officers, Marsh led his group to Fort Wallace to explore Cretaceous beds along the Smoky Hill River in western Kansas. There they had Thanksgiving dinner in the field after coyotes had driven off their mules. In addition to the many mosasaur remains discovered, on this last leg of the expedition Marsh made a remarkable find—a wing-finger of a pterosaur.


The party returned to New Haven on December 18. According to Marsh’s biographers, Schuchert and LeVene, the publicity received from the expedition focused attention on the burgeoning “market for fossil vertebrates and on Professor Marsh himself as the most active figure in that market.”