Utah History Encyclopedia


By Martha Hayden

Bringing dinosaur bones to the museum, 1924

Prehistoric Indians living in what is now western Utah were the first people to collect Utah fossils. Trilobites, 600-million-year-old ocean-dwelling animals related to crabs, have been found in archaeological sites. Some had holes drilled through them and may have been worn as jewelry.

The first written account of fossils found in Utah is from the journal of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante were Spanish padres trying to find a route between the Spanish missions of New Mexico and California. Setting out from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on 29 July 1776, they traced a route through what is now New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Many of the Spanish names given to geographic features by Escalante and Dominguez are still in use today. The report of fossil mollusks from the journal entry of 2 October 1776 probably concerns fossil snails or gastropods derived from Lake Bonneville sediments. The explorers were in an area south of what is now Delta, Utah, and because of the abundant white shells that they found, they recognized that they were in the bed of a former lake or sea, naming it Llano Salado ("salty plain").

The earliest expeditions into Utah by the Spanish explorers in the late 1700s and French and English fur traders in the early 1800s were conducted mainly to explore new territory and to establish new routes through the West. In the mid-1800s the U.S. government commissioned a number of surveys that were usually conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. These were the first scientific studies in which detailed geographical, geological, and paleontological data were recorded. The Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains by John C. Frémont in 1845 contains the first published description of fossils from Utah. In an appendix by geologist James Hall, fossil ferns and invertebrates from north-central Utah are described and illustrated. Howard Stansbury's Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah (1852) also contains descriptions and illustrations of invertebrate fossils by James Hall. James H. Simpson's Report of Explorations Across the Great Basin of the Territory of Utah (1876) includes a paleontological report by Fielding B. Meek.

The first report of vertebrate fossils from Utah comes from the 1859 Macomb expedition; however, it was not published until after the Civil War, in 1876. Captain John N. Macomb led the expedition, which explored the rugged canyonlands region of southeastern Utah up to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. The expedition's scientist, Dr. John S. Newberry, collected a number of bones from the front leg of a sauropod dinosaur, but much material remained imbedded in hard sandstone on a steep cliff in Cañon Pintado (now called East Canyon) where the site is located. The specimen was named Dystrophaeus viaemalae by paleontologist E.D. Cope in the 1877 publication On A Dinosaurian from the Trias of Utah. This discovery represents Utah's first dinosaur, the first sauropod to be found in North America, and the first reported dinosaur from the Morrison Formation. Although the strata were originally described as Triassic in age, it was later determined that these rocks belong to the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation. The exact location of this site had been lost since its original discovery and was only relocated in 1987 by Moab naturalist Fran Barnes. Scientific studies of the site were resumed in 1989 under the direction of Utah's state paleontologist, Dr. David D. Gillette. Further investigation may establish Dystrophaeus as the oldest Morrison dinosaur, and it may answer some important questions about the sauropod dinosaurs. The scientific importance of this site may therefore prove to be as great as its historical significance. Invertebrate fossils collected on the 1859 expedition were described by F.B. Meek.

In 1867 the U.S. Congress commissioned three major geological/geographical surveys of the western territories: a geological survey of the 40th parallel, led by Clarence King; a geological and geographical survey of the western territories, led by Ferdinand V. Hayden; and a geological and geographical survey of the Rocky Mountain region, led by John Wesley Powell. These surveys would form the basis for the United States Geological Survey, established in 1879 with Clarence King as its first director. In addition, Lt. George M. Wheeler was commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1971 to lead a geographical and geological survey west of the 100th meridian.

These surveys yielded an abundance of paleontological data. In Utah, mainly invertebrate fossils were collected, but fossil plants and limited collections of fossil vertebrates were described as well. The routes of these surveys often crossed paths and overlapped each other and other surveys such as the Yale University expedition of 1870, led by vertebrate paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, who is credited with discovering and naming the Uinta Basin.

Paleontology was a relatively new field of study, and the scientists who studied these fossil collections usually were trained either as geologists or as medical doctors. The invertebrate paleontologists included F.B. Meek, who described material from the earlier Simpson and Macomb expeditions, and also published numerous reports on the invertebrate fossils collected by the Hayden and King surveys. James Hall, who had worked on the Frémont and Simpson surveys, also described (with R.P. Whitfield) invertebrate fossils collected by the King survey. Dr. C.A. White published reports on the invertebrate paleontology of the Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler surveys, including collections made at the Antelope Springs trilobite beds in the House Range at Wheeler Amphitheater (named for Lt. Wheeler). Trilobites of this locality may be found today in rock shops all around the world. Charles D. Walcott, director of the United States Geological Survey in the early 1900s, also described many Cambrian invertebrate fossils from this site and other localities in western Utah.

Two of the more famous names in vertebrate paleontology, Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, known as much as for their bitter rivalry as for their scientific accomplishments, described some of the earliest vertebrate fossils found in Utah. It was Cope who first published a description of the sauropod collected by the Macomb expedition. Cope also worked as the vertebrate paleontologist for the Hayden Survey and in 1884 published The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formation of the West. Most of the vertebrate fossils described in this immense volume were from outside Utah, but the work included descriptions of fish and crocodilian fossils from the "Manti Beds" of central Utah, now known to be part of the Green River Formation. Many of the fossil mammals described in this report were from the Bridger Basin of southwestern Wyoming, just over the Utah border on the north side of the Uinta Mountains.

In addition to the Hayden Survey, parties from Yale University, Princeton University, and the American Museum of Natural History also collected Eocene (40-million-year-old) fossil mammals, mostly from the Bridger Formation. Marsh's initial excursion into the Uinta Basin in 1870 yielded fossil mammals that were described by vertebrate paleontologist Joseph Leidy. As other expeditions followed, abundant fossil mammals were collected from the Uinta and Duchesne River formations of the Uinta Basin. Expeditions included those led by William Berryman Scott and Henry Fairfield Osborn from Princeton in 1877-78 and 1886; that led by John Bell Hatcher from Princeton in 1895; that of Osborn and Oscar A. Peterson from the American Museum of Natural History in 1893-94; and that led by William Diller Matthew from AMNH in 1899. The Bridgerian, Uintan, and Duchesnean land mammal ages were named on the basis of the fossils collected from their respective formations in the Uinta and Bridger basins.

In the early 1900s parties from the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh were also in the Uinta Basin collecting Tertiary period mammals. Earl Douglass was collecting fossils from the Uinta Formation when museum director W.J. Holland sent him to search the uplifted strata along the flanks of the Uinta Mountains for exposures of Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation, which had yielded abundant dinosaur remains in Colorado and Wyoming. In August 1909 he discovered a series of sauropod vertebrae eroding out of a hogback. This would prove to be the initial discovery of the now famous Carnegie Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument. The Carnegie Museum's work at this site and at other localities in the Uinta Basin continued for the next several decades.

Douglass ran the operations at the dinosaur quarry for the next fifteen years, but also continued his studies of Tertiary period mammals. O.A. Peterson also studied the mammals from the Uinta and Duchesne River formations; Holland studied dinosaurs; Charles W. Gilmore studied the turtles of the Uinta Formation as well as dinosaurs and other reptiles from the Morrison. In 1935 E.M. Spieker and J.B. Reeside, Jr., geologists with the United States Geological Survey, discovered vertebrate fossils on the Wasatch Plateau. A series of expeditions led by Gilmore and C. Lewis Gazin for the Smithsonian Institution followed from 1937 to 1940. Gilmore described the dinosaurs and other reptiles from the Upper Cretaceous part of the formation, and Gazin described the Lower Padeocene mammalian fauna from the upper North Horn Formation.

Pleistocene or Ice Age mammals, such as mammoths and musk oxen, had been found in Lake Bonneville deposits along the Wasatch Front as early as the 1870s. The Salt Lake Tribune noted a musk ox skull found near downtown Salt Lake City in 1871. Pleistocene fossils, including invertebrates, fish, and birds, as well as the large extinct mammals, continue to be found in Pleistocene deposits throughout Utah.

Another Morrison Formation dinosaur site was discovered in the 1920s by local ranchers near the town of Cleveland in Emery County. As a University of Utah geology student, Emery County native William Lee Stokes helped to initiate the first excavations of this site by the University of Utah Geology Department in 1931-32. As a graduate student at Princeton University, Stokes led excavations of the site in 1939-41. The site was named the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry at that time, in honor of the nearby town of Cleveland and also of Malcolm Lloyd, a wealthy Princeton alumnus who sponsored the excavations.

Back at the University of Utah as a geology professor, Stokes and James H. Madsen, Jr., resumed work at the site from 1960 to 1963 under the aegis of the University of Utah Cooperative Dinosaur Project. In exchange for financial support, institutions could receive mountable skeletal material, mostly of the genus Allosaurus. The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry was probably a "predator trap," in that more than two-thirds of the dinosaurs were Allosauri or other carnivores. Over seventy Allosaurus skeletons and other dinosaurs have come from the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry. Today most mounted skeletons consist of light-weight casts or copies, and original fossils are left intact for scientific study. In 1988 Allosaurus became Utah's official state fossil. Madsen published a descriptive osteology of Allosaurus and is one of the world's leading authorities on this dinosaur; in 1977 he became Utah's first state paleontologist. As the first state to create such a position, Utah has shown its commitment to preserving its unique and valuable fossil treasures.