Our story is about Marshall and Amanda (Colburn) Felch. The title I’ve used to describe them in PowerPoint presentations is typically something like
“Vermont Natives, Civil War Veterans, Covered Wagon Pioneers, boarding house manager (her) and mountain mining camp wagon freighter(him), homesteaders, parents, and oh, by the way, he (with her support) was a very important dinosaur excavator.”
In order to set the stage for telling their story we need to first introduce the dinosaurs.
The painting above is entitled “Saurian hill oil creek (Cañon) Dakotah towers Jurassic saurian beds below and below that the red bottle rocks” by Arthur Lakes, courtesy of Yale Peabody Museum. It was Arthur Lakes interpretation of the area where they homesteaded and the nearby bluffs.
The Bone Wars
The term “Bone Wars” is well known to most paleontologists and surprisingly familiar to a fair amount of students and adults. It’s usually thought of as a war between two famous paleontologists, Professors Cope and Marsh involving both words and some nasty deeds. The term Bone Wars originates from the intense competition between the two paleontologists who raced to discover, identify, and most importantly publish their findings about new species of fossils. Their playground was the American West after the Civil War. Their own war doesn’t end until the end of their lives in the late 1890’s. Cope and Marsh came from very different backgrounds, and their personalities were night and day from each other, but they shared a passion for discovery, identification, and publication of fossils; primarily those fossils with a backbone or vertebrates. They were thrilled with the discovery of each new species. The finish line seemed to be who could publish first about a new animal; it was that moment that constituted a victory over their rival. Although the American West became their playground it was hardly big enough to satisfy their immense egos. The intensity of their relationship was at times horribly destructive; their hatred of each other would be carried to the grave. On the other hand the competitiveness was tremendously energizing. It stimulated a fossil excavation frenzy that began in the American West and it has never looked back.
The Bone Wars story is well told in some excellent publications including the Gilded Dinosaur by Mark Jaffe, The Bone Hunters Revenge by David Rains Wallace, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards by Jim Ottaviani, and Dinosaur Bone War: Cope and Marsh’s Fossil Feud by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel.
American Experience PBS has completed an excellent video about this rivalry entitled Dinosaur Wars.
Most recently a fictional publication entitled Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton produced posthumously provides much of the flavor of the Old West that dinosaur hunters would have encountered starting in 1876.
The Garden Park Fossil Area
After their five years of service in the Civil War, Marshall and Amanda marry each other in Boston and in the spring of 1866 emigrate to the Colorado territory. About ten years later in early 1877 Marshall and Amanda become inadvertently intertwined in the Bone Wars. It’s interesting historically that at the beginning of 1877, the term dinosaur was relatively obscure but fairly soon it was pretty much a household term, something that they played a role in.
The main excavation areas for work in the early days of dinosaur discovery included the Dinosaur Ridge Area just west Denver, Como Bluffs in south central Wyoming, and Garden Park fossil area north of Cañon City. The term “Garden Park” comes from a relatively flat farming-type valley surrounded by mountains immediately to the north.
The first dinosaur discoveries in both the Garden Park area just north of Cañon City and the Dinosaur Ridge area west of Denver attracted the interest of both Professor Marsh and Professor Cope. Marsh’s initial field crew that came to the Cañon City in the early fall of 1877 included Professor Mudge of Kansas and Samuel Williston. They were in turn assisted by Marshall Felch who by 1883 becomes the lead field excavator working almost continuously for seven years. Marshall completes this excavation work under both extraordinarily difficult field conditions and substantial personal health problems. He obviously overcame these obstacles because the end result included relatively complete and beautiful skeletons of Ceratosaurus, Allosaurus, and Stegosaurus. These initially went to the Yale Peabody Museum and later in the early 1900s went on display in the Dinosaur Hall of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
About the same time work was initially going on at the Marsh Felch Dinosaur Quarry, a nearby group of rival quarries were being excavated by Oramel and Ira Lucas, working for Professor Cope.
Those first excavations in the 1870’s and 80’s were followed over the next 150 or so years with these major excavations:
- the discovery of a Diplodocus in 1916 by Dall DeWeese leading to the formation of a paleontology department at the Denver Museum of Natural History [Denver Museum of Nature and Science];
- the Colorado State Fossil Stegosaurus discovered by local high school “Prof Kessler” and his students in 1936 and excavated in 1937 by Robert Lamberg and WPA workers working through the Denver Museum of Natural History;
- 1950’s excavations sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History;
- a major discovery and excavation of a “Chinook airlifted” Stegosaurus in the early 1990’s, discovered by Brian Small of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Marsh Felch Dinosaur Quarry
The Marsh Felch Dinosaur Quarry is the specific place in the Garden Park Fossil Area where Marshall, Professor Mudge, and Samuel Williston first excavated dinosaurs in 1877. It is actually quite small, about 150 by 50 feet in size. It occurs along the side of a cliff that is within a relatively dry rugged badlands area within the Garden Park Fossil area.
Within the 150-year excavation history, the seven years of work by Marshall at the Marsh Felch Dinosaur Quarry is considered by most paleontologists as the most important in the Garden Park Fossil Area from both a historic and paleontology standpoint.
Although surpriningly small, the quarry contains a remarkable diversity of dinosaurs and other animals that all perished in a relatively short period in time. The quarry had two other special qualities. The first one is nine skulls which are rare to find in any dinosaur quarry because they easily break apart and are scattered following death. Secondly, several really nice articulated skeletons are preserved indicating relatively rapid burial and therefore it provides nice scientific evidence of how all the bones were connected when the animal was alive.
The Marsh Felch Quarry goes on to provide substantial paleontology contributions which we will touch on in due time but the story here is about the people who made the excavations possible. This work required everything Marshall could muster and he certainly couldn’t have done it without his families support. Marshall wrote this on January 6, 1885. It reflects the difficulty of the work in relation to a Civil War battle.
The work of removing fossils from this quarry calls for a vast amount of ability, skill, and patience, sometimes more than I possess – and is like dislodging an enemy from some strongly fortified position – only there the more damage done the better the work – while here we must take the fortress and all belonging with it without a scratch.
After the Civil War Marshall and Amanda arrive in Colorado by wagon and homestead in Garden Park. At the time they know little about paleontology, geology, dinosaurs, and have never heard of Professor Marsh or Cope. What they do have is an innate sense that they can adapt to most any situation and overcome any obstacle. Although poor as church mice, they were resilient and highly proficient at getting things done. They are living off the land but in a whole new setting. This is quite remarkable especially when you consider that Marshall is partially paralyzed and suffers extreme PTSD. Marshall and Amanda are both smart, can read and write, and they can recognize an opportunity when one is presented. For Marshall who had been for years hauling freight into the high mountains, he was now about to land a paying job just around the corner from where they lived. For Amanda she could count on additional boarders to bring in money to support the family.
Marshall Parker Felch
Marshall Felch’s journey begins in the hill country of southern Vermont and New Hampshire where the Connecticut River forms their boundary. His early grown-up years find him in the role of a shoemaker, a common profession for young men in New England at the time. His father and older brother George, find themselves also in the same general line of work. Marshall’s role is not just as a tradesman, but he also manages business records where he learns to read and write proficiently. He will improve these talents when he takes charge of a field hospital in the Civil War. It will be these talents that help secure him a future job working for Professor Marsh of Yale.
Marshall’s paleontology role begins with the family discovery of bones in 1877. The Marsh Felch quarry site will emerge as a giant, particularly in 1883 to 1888 period, with Marshall in the lead role. Marshall Felch recognizes the genius of Professor Marsh and desires to please him. He understands the importance of this work and he is scientifically curious and interested about what was being exposed. Upon his death, he left behind his paleontology library with his family doctor. Marshall will complete the work in spite of spinal and rib damage along with other physical and mental injuries from the war.
Marshall grows to understand the quarry, even dreaming about it at night. Marshall writes to Professor Marsh in January of 1885 describing his excavation work in terms of a Civil War Battle.
“The work of removing fossils from this quarry calls for a vast amount of ability skill and patience, sometimes more than I possess – and is like to dislodging an enemy from some strongly fortified position – only there the more damage done the better the work – while here we must take the fortress and all belonging with it without a scratch.”
Because of Professor Marsh’s strict requirement that all field work must be done in complete secrecy, Marshall was actually relatively unknown for the major work he did. He had a good reputation for being honest and to work around but rather than known as a dinosaur digger, he surprisingly was more commonly known as Captain Felch, a Union Civil War veteran who in a very popular ghost story solves a most unusual murder in the Colorado frontier!
Amanda Matilda (Colburn) Felch
Amanda’s journey begins on a quiet remote Vermont hill farm in 1833 She grew up quickly taking on a role of surrogate mother to three younger sisters and her brother Henry after the death of her mother. She marries Hiram Farnham in Massachusetts, has two children but only one survives. She divorces, and returns home about the time talk of war is rampant.
The Civil War and Amanda
When the call came out to save the Union there was a need for nurses. Amanda took the calling and left her son Albert with her parents and many sisters. In the summer of 1861 she mustered into the Vermont Third Infantry. As the infantry’s hospital matron, she became widely known as a “can do” battlefield nurse. She walked with and supported all 1,200 regiment troops before, during, and after General McClellan’s massive but unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign.
Her role and stature grew and by September of 1862 she had her own fully equipped medical wagon with a team of horses. For the next two years she primarily served the Vermont 3rd Infantry boys but when a battle was underway she had the autonomy to go anywhere on the battlefield where she was needed most. She played particularly key roles in the Union campaign primarily in Virginia from the fall of 1862 to the spring of 1864. If you think of a major battle in Virginia during those days she was there.
Amanda continued in a frontline battlefield role until May of 1864 when Lincoln’s new commanding general U.S. Grant ordered all women off the front. She sold the team and wagon and reported to the office of Dorthea Dix in Washington D.C. where she was placed in a new role as a field hospital nurse and supervising recently escaped women slaves through the remainder of the war.
Strength and Compassion
A few months after the war was over, Amanda married for the second time; this time to Marshall Felch whom she had gotten to know along the banks of the James River in the aftermath of the 1862 Peninsula campaign.
Marshall and Amanda came west by wagon in early 1866. Five years later they owned a 160 acre homestead north of Cañon City and were also running a boarding house in the rough silver mining camp of Montezuma in the Colorado territory; a town accessible only by wagon across dangerous narrow trails that crossed 12,000 foot passes.
Amanda and Marshall would have four children in the Colorado territory, Ned and Sadie would survive to adulthood and Sadie would carry the family legacy forward. Amanda was the mother, cook, doctor, and housekeeper while simultaneously running both a boarding house business wherever they were and helping manage their 160-acre ranch. She would also take on the duty of primary caregiver for Marshall.
Both Marshall and Amanda were Civil War veterans but she is by far the most famous one!
Following her death, her work would be eulogized in book by Mary A. Gardner Holland entitled “Our Army Nurses: Interesting sketches, addresses, and photographs of nearly one hundred noble women who served in hospitals and on battlefields during the Civil War” published in 1895. Amanda is also featured in the book entitled “Women at Gettysburg 1863” by Eileen F. Conklin and published almost a hundred years later in 1993. As you might guess Amanda is prominently featured as a resourceful and remarkable field nurse in those books.
Their lives are intertwined with great American events including the Civil War, the largest land migration of all time to the west, Colorado’s silver and gold mining boom, homesteading, and the Bone Wars. Although they personally never experience running water or electric lights, their lives occur when America emerges as a world leader in science and industrial growth. They are tough as nails with an ability to rapidly adapt to most any situation but like most, they have flaws. Considering the time frames and severity of injuries he suffered in the Civil War it is doubtful Marshall would have ever even arrived in Colorado if we take Amanda out of the story. He survived and made some amazing contributions to science.
They lived off the land, loved their horses, and raised a family. In another life she could have been a surgeon while he could have been a museum director. All of us are better off because of they were here. Their story has a number of surprising twists and turns and it has been a remarkable journey traveling across the country uncovering it.
They are not alone in this story. Their eldest child Sarah takes on more than a passing interest in fossils and helps carry on the family legacy. They have three other children and a host of friends and family. Great scientists embrace Marshall’s work and bring it to life. It is this combination that enriches the story and brings it to life. This is a story of relatively common people doing some rather remarkable things.
 Jaffe, The Gilded Dinosaur.
 Wallace, The Bonehunters’ Revenge.
 Kimmel, Dinosaur Bone War.
 “American Experience” Dinosaur Wars (TV Episode 2011).
 Crichton, Dragon Teeth.
 Holland, Our Army Nurses. Interesting Sketches, Addresses, and Photographs of Nearly One Hundred of the Noble Women Who Served in Hospitals and on Battlefields during Our Civil War.
[7 Conklin, Women at Gettysburg.
“American Experience” Dinosaur Wars (TV Episode 2011). Accessed October 9, 2017. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1782250/.
Conklin, Eileen F. Women at Gettysburg. 1 edition. Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Pubns, 1993.
Crichton, Michael. Dragon Teeth: A Novel. First Edition edition. Harper, 2017.
Holland, Mary A. Gardner. Our Army Nurses. Interesting Sketches, Addresses, and Photographs of Nearly One Hundred of the Noble Women Who Served in Hospitals and on Battlefields during Our Civil War. Boston, Mass., B. Wilkins & co., 1895. http://archive.org/details/ourarmynursesint00holl.
Jaffe, Mark. The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. First Edition edition. New York: Crown, 2000.
Kimmel, Elizabeth Cody. Dinosaur Bone War: Cope and Marsh’s Fossil Feud. New York: Random House Books for Young Readers, 2006.
Wallace, David Rains. The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.