“Thof’s Dragon” or How a Western Kansas fossil swam into American History!
The Fort Wallace Memorial Association is working on a new exhibit that will feature a cast replica of a 40-foot plesiosaur that is one of the most famous fossils in history. It is essential to knowledge of the Cretaceous Inland Sea that once covered our area of the High Plains; it is important in the history of the science of paleontology; and it is a fascinating story from Fort Wallace that encompasses the military, the history of early paleontology, legendary Western personalities and present day characters!
The 1860s were a period of not only the social upheaval of the American Civil War- they were a time when science was in upheaval with the 1859 publication of “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, and its accompanying implications. The exploration of the American West and its relatively exposed rock formations meant that – for the first time – huge fossil skeletons were being discovered and turned over to the scientists of the brand-new discipline of paleontology.
In 1867, a young surgeon named Theophilus H. Turner arrived at the wild frontier outpost of Fort Wallace, KS. This well-educated young Renaissance man had surely heard of Darwin’s theories and of the exciting discoveries of huge fossil creatures in the West. Upon hearing a report from a passing pioneer, Dr. Turner and a soldier detail (led by Fort Wallace Scout Billy Comstock) journeyed by horseback some 20 miles to the Twin Buttes adjacent to the frontier town of Sheridan (one mile east of present day McAllaster). There in a shallow wash they found huge fossil bones sticking out of the ground, with what appeared to be a complete skeleton underneath. By way of a survey party, a few of these bones made their way to the prominent paleontologist Dr. Edward Drinker Cope of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. Dr. Cope quickly wrote to Dr. Turner asking him to secure the entire skeleton, which resulted in Dr. Turner and Comstock spending the cold winter of 1867-1868 digging up the huge creature, in spite of Indian attacks, disease and harsh conditions. The ½ ton cache of bones and matrix were crated and taken by wagon to Hays and put on the train to Philadelphia.
When leading paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope received the huge creature from Kansas, he was overjoyed and spent several consecutive days assembling the creature. The specimen was nearly complete, lacking only a few vertebrae, rib bones and gastropods (like gizzard stones). He determined it to be a 40-foot long swimming plesiosaur and named it elasmosaurus platyurus. He believed it to be a short-necked, long-tailed creature and rushed it into publication. Some months later, rival paleontologists Joseph Leidy and O.C. Marsh pointed out that Dr. Cope had made a fatal error. He had put the head on the wrong end of the fossil creature! Rather than being short-necked and long-tailed, it was long-necked and short-tailed! This incident deepened the enmity and hostility between the camps of the paleontologists ; years later, Drs. Cope and Marsh would literally destroy each others lives and careers with their bickering and competition.
Dr. Turner attempted to visit Dr. Cope in Philadelphia in March, 1868, but failed to make a contact. Dr. Turner would die of “acute gastritis”at Fort Wallace in July, 1869 at the age of 28. The only known studio portrait of his fossil-digging companion, Bill Comstock, was discovered in Turner’s personal effects. The article “Thof’s Dragon and the letters of Capt. Theophilus Turner, M.D., US Army” is a compilation of the correspondence between Turner, Cope and various family members and is recommended reading.
The “elasmosaurus platyurus” plesiousaur from Western Kansas is still the prized possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History; a full cast of the creature still swims menacingly across the ceiling of the museum lobby.
In 1991, local paleontologist and geologist Pete Bussen was hunting fossils not from the McAllaster or “Twin” Buttes when he began discovering fragments from a plesiosaur, including vertebrae, rib bones and gastrolith “gizzard stones.” With assistance from Sternberg Museum’s Mike Everhart and Larry Martin of KU, research revealed that the fossil remains most likely were the missing pieces of Dr. Turner’s “dragon” that had been described in correspondence in 1868!