This post is part of a series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. We will be uncovering the stories behind the first specimens to enter the Peabody collections, as well as some of the most recent.
First specimen acquired for Vertebrate Paleontology: YPM VP 2125 Plateosauria
It is no surprise that this assemblage of rocks does not look like much: they were blasted out of a 23-foot hole by Solomon Ellsworth, Jr. of East Windsor, Connecticut in 1818. Ellsworth was constructing a well on his property when he noticed the chalky white bones in the rubble of dark red sandstone.
The unusual find was passed around in local circles of learned men, including a number of professors at the Medical Institution of Yale College, who came to the lukewarm conclusion of “. . . .the possibility that they might be human bones, but did not consider the specimens as sufficiently distinct to form the basis of a certain conclusion (Smith 1820).” In 1821, a letter was published in The American Journal of Science and Arts that expressed the opinion of Dr. Porter, who was present on Ellsworth’s property when the bones were found. He deduced the remains came from “some animal. . . . about five feet in length. The tail bone was easily discovered by its numerous articulations distinctly visible. . . . and by its being projected, in a curvilinean direction beyond the general mass (Hall 1821).”
Another redescription appeared in the same journal decades later in 1855. Jeffries Wyman stated that the tail vertebrae most resembled a crocodile and noted the similarity of the hollow limb bones to those of birds, both strikingly prescient observations. The mysterious remains were finally declared to be a Triassic dinosaur in 1896 by O.C. Marsh (1831 – 1899), that grandiose, bearded professor of paleontology at Yale and ambiguous hero of the heady Wild West days of dinosaur collecting.
The exact identity of the fossil has bounced around, but it is currently recognized as an indeterminate sauropodomorph in the clade Plateosauria. This obscure dog-sized beast was part of a lineage leading to the sauropods, the behemoth long-necked herbivores we fondly remember as Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, Titanosaurus, and others. From small beginnings arose some of the largest animals to ever live upon this Earth.
Despite the rather humble appearance of these bones blown out of Ellsworth’s well, their scientific relevance has been long-lived, with the specimen being cited in publications as recently as 2012. The bones also have the historical distinction of being the earliest discovered dinosaur fossils in North America verified by recorded literature and an existing specimen.
So how did this subject of lively discussion amongst the physicians, professors, and learned citizens of early 19th century Connecticut find its way into the Yale Peabody Museum? The world of science was still relatively small and intimately connected by communities of correspondence, so it was a matter of time before the news reached one of America’s most influential men of science, Benjamin Silliman (1779 – 1864). (Incidentally, he was also the founder and editor of The American Journal of Science and Arts which published the first accounts of the bones.) As a professor of chemistry, geology, mining, and pharmacy at Yale College, Silliman for many years kept a “Mineral Cabinet” that was filled with samples and specimens for teaching. Undoubtedly recognizing some potential, he acquired the fossils for the cabinet.
Over the years, the natural history collection at Yale grew in size and matured in ambition. It was time for the university to have a proper museum for the benefit of both its students and the public. Sensing that the rich, newly-discovered fossil beds of the American West would soon overwhelm the current facilities, Silliman made some initial overtures to wealthy philanthropist George Peabody. The request seems to have fallen flat; however, it was Silliman’s student, O.C. Marsh, who was finally able to prevail. By the time Marsh secured a $150,000 gift for what would become the Yale Peabody Museum in 1866, Silliman had been dead for two years. But it was Silliman’s cabinet that formed the core of the museum collections, including those curious white bones embedded in red Connecticut sandstone which would be the first specimen to enter a newly formed Division of Vertebrate Paleontology. From an early American teaching collection arose a modern museum with over 13 million specimens — yet another great rise from a small beginning.
Special thanks to Dan Brinkman for his assistance in researching this post.
Come see an exhibit celebrating the history of the Yale Peabody Museum and its treasures from 2 April 2016 until 8 January 2017.
Delair, Justin B. & W.A.S. Sarjeant. 2002. “The earliest discoveries of dinosaurs: the records re-examined.” Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 113: 185 – 197.
Galton, Peter M. 2012. “Comment on Anchisaurus Marsh, 1885 (Dinosauria, Sauropodomorpha): proposed conservation of usage by designation of a neotype for its type species Megadactylus polyzelus Hitchcock, 1865.” Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 69 (3): 229-231.
Hall, John. 1821. “Fossil Bones found in East-Windsor, Connecticut.” The American Journal of Science and Arts 1 (III): 247.
Hanrahan, Brendan. 2004. Great Day Trips in the Connecticut Valley of the Dinosaurs. Perry Heights Press.
Remington, Jeanne E. 1977. “Curatorial Staff and Other Scientists Associated with the Peabody Museum of Natural History and Its Antecedent Collections, 1802 – 1977.” Discovery 12 (3): 31 – 42.
Smith, Nathan. 1820. “Fossil Bones found in red sand stone.” The American Journal of Science and Arts 1 (II): 146 – 147.
Wyman, Jeffries. 1855. “Notice of Fossil Bones from the Red Sandstone of the Connecticut River Valley.” The American Journal of Science and Arts 2 (XX): 394 – 397.
Yates, Adam M. 2010. “A Revision of the Problematic Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs from Manchester, Connecticut and the Status of Anchisaurus Marsh.” Palaeontology 53 (4): 739 – 752.