Finding Hayden’s Dinosaurs

Thanks to some historical detectivework, a pair of researchers has relocated one of the earliest recognized dinosaur sites in the American west

Fossil teeth
Fossil teeth, found by Ferdinand Hayden in Montana, which Joseph Leidy attributed to the dinosaur “Trachodon.” From Leidy, 1860, image from Wikipedia

More than 150 years ago, a young naturalist picked up a collection of isolated teeth and bones weathering out of the ground in what is now northern Montana. These weren’t the remains of any living animals but vestiges of Cretaceous life that naturalists had only just begun to recognize and categorize. Even the young explorer who picked them up, Ferdinand Hayden, didn’t know what they were, and so he sent them back east for identification. As the Philadelphia-based polymath Joseph Leidy later determined, some of Hayden’s scrappy finds were dinosaurs–among the earliest recorded dinosaur discoveries in the American West.

Hayden wasn’t the first person to discover fossils in North America. First Nations peoples were familiar enough with strange fossil bones that the prehistoric remnants inspired their legends, and naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson puzzled over what was left of Ice Age mammals such as mastodons and giant ground sloths. Dinosaurs got a relatively early start, too, although naturalists didn’t always realize what they had found. Even though he misidentified the fossil as part of a giant fish, explorer Meriwether Lewis found part of a dinosaur rib in the vicinity of what is now Billings, Montana, when he passed through the area in 1806 on his famous expedition with William Clark. And starting in the 1830s, the Amherst geologist Edward Hitchcok described scores of Early Jurassic dinosaur tracks, which he attributed to prehistoric birds.

All the same, the bits and pieces Hayden found showed that the wilds of the western territories harbored dinosaurs and were a portent of the “Bone Wars” that would later unfold among the badlands of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Now, the Great Falls Tribune reports, paleontologist Kristi Curry Rogers and her geologist husband Ray Rogers believe that they have located the place where Hayden stumbled across the Cretaceous tidbits.

Even though Hayden did not keep detailed field notes, a brief mention in a technical paper of the area in which he found the fossils helped the Rogers team narrow down their search area. From there, they followed game trails and looked for sites that would have produced the kinds of fossils Hayden picked up. They can’t be entirely certain that their site is the very same Hayden sampled, and they are wary of divulging the exact location given how often fossil sites are vandalized, but the Rogers have placed Hayden’s stop somewhere in Montana’s Missouri River Breaks north of Winifred. With assistance from the Bureau of Land Management, they want the area to be placed in the National Register of Historic Places–a testament to Hayden’s lasting contribution to American paleontology.

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