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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Bone Wars

Robert T. Hill - Father of Texas Geology
Jacob Boll - Naturalist

by Clay Coppedge

It’s been pointed out that there were two great revolutions in American life in the 19th Century. One was the Civil War. The other was a scientific revolution. Just as the firing on Fort Sumter was the shot that got the Civil War going, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in “Origin of Species” in 1859 created a similar upheaval in the scientific world.

At the same time, scientists, naturalists and other observant types were finding the bones of creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago that were unlike anything the world had seen or imagined. Some of these creatures were truly gargantuan with neck bones alone measuring three feet across. Even the land where people lived had changed dramatically over the eons; in some cases it hadn’t even been land at all – it was a sea. This was a hard thing for people of the time to grasp.

Europeans never had much luck finding dinosaur bones. Too lush. Too wet. The American West was neither of those things. Striding into that vast and arid land, two scientists led the search for dinosaur bones and new species to name. Their respective and separate searches developed into an intense rivalry between the two bone hunters – Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Othenial Charles Marsh with the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale.

What started out as a shared interest between the two men turned into a paleontological version of the Hatfields and McCoys. It’s been called the Bone Wars and the Dinosaur Wars. The animosity and competition nearly destroyed both men financially and emotionally but Cope and Marsh also got people and scientists thinking about dinosaurs in ways they had never been able to think of them before. Their accomplishments and rivalries have been well-chronicled.

What has not been so well chronicled is the role that two Texans played in the Bone Wars. Louis L. Jacobs, a professor of earth sciences at Southern Methodist University (SMU) recently found 13 letters written by Cope to geologist Robert T. Hill that brought the roles of Hill and naturalist Jacob Boll in the Bone Wars to light for the first time. Jacobs’ research was published last month in the journal “Historical Biology.”

Hill, known today as the Father of Texas Geology, was born in Tennessee but came to Texas as a teenager and worked for his brother’s newspaper, The Chief, in Comanche. In his spare time he studied the rocks and strata of nearby Round Mountain and sought to understand what he was seeing by reading books on geology. Local people called him “Rock Boy.” His reading convinced Hill he was on to something new. He packed a suitcase full of rocks and enrolled at Cornell University to study formally.

In time, Hill would be responsible for most of what we know about the rock formations of North Texas and how they correspond to the Crustaceous Period. He also named many of the geographic terms and descriptions that we use today such as the Balcones Escarpment, Edwards Plateau, Trans-Pecos, Eagle Ford Shale and others.

Jacob Boll was a naturalist who worked as a paid collector for Cope and provided him with many fossils from Texas. Born in Switzerland, Boll found 32 new, rare species of Permian vertebrates and first identified the Permian rocks of Texas. He was so taken with his work that he wrote an ode to fossils, a copy of which Jacobs discovered in his research and included in his article. Boll died in 1880 from a snakebite he suffered on an expedition in Wilbarger County.

The two men left an indelible impression on the world that is still felt today, Jacobs said. “The Permian of Texas that Jacob Boll found opened a whole interval of evolution that wasn’t known before and it’s still the most important place to find things of that nature,” he said. “And Hill found rock formations that are nowhere else known in North America. The Eagle Ford Shale that Robert T. Hill named and mapped is one of the biggest producers in South Texas today of oil and natural gas.”

In Hill and Boll’s day, people had barely heard of dinosaurs, much less oil and gas. Still, even the two scientists and bone hunters would have been puzzled to know that by looking for clues to a lost world they also found the fuel for a new one.

© Clay Coppedge
November 30, 2012 Column
More "Letters from Central Texas"

Robert Thomas Hill, Dean of Texas Geology
See Also

Robert Thomas Hill,
"Dean of Texas Geology"

by Margaret Waring

Photo courtesy Cornell University Library

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