Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Timeless Trees at Florissant, Colorado

The huge petrified Sequoia stumps near Florissant stretch the limits of my understanding. I’m left with only wonder, like a poem I can’t explain. Under the dominion of a clear blue sky, the afternoon light ricochets off the stone, displaying the myriad beige and brown hues of the fossil stumps. Their stony surfaces contrast with tufts of grass that surround them. The nearby orange-red bark of ponderosa pine and the scent of the forest adds another layer of magic, while silent mats of pine green moss cluster in the shadows.  Pale lichens cover some of the stone tree rings.  The warm summer air buzzes with insects.

Figure 1. View of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument's 
iconic "Big Stump." Photo by S.W. Veatch.
For me, the stone trees are a portal where the past joins with the present, and time seems to have stopped.   I imagine how it all began 34 million years ago when a cluster of nearby volcanoes, once dormant, erupted.  It started with a blast of ash and fiery molten rock shooting out from awakened vents. The air became heavy and dark, as plumes of grey ash hazed eastward towards what would become Florissant. Rainfall mixed with loose sediments on volcanic slopes, forming mud—the color of morning coffee—that rushed down the slopes of the volcanoes at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour. Ash rained out of the sky and mixed with the spreading mud. The mud popped and hissed, while it spilled over ledges, covered rocks, and stretched heedlessly into the Florissant valley.

A wreckage of plants and animals tumbled in the mud’s advance as it invaded the forest of tall Sequoias. It turned the area into a surreal, harsh, hellish place, wiping out local populations of oreodonts, rhino-like brontotheres, and small horses. Birds, struggling to dodge the devastation, flew skyward from the branches of trees that stood above the mud. Tendrils of steam rose out of the jumbled mess of mud that surrounded the bases of the trees. The weight of the mud pressurized and squeezed the wood.  Over time, silica in the mud penetrated the wood, leaving behind the remnants of the ancient forest we encounter today.

I first saw the petrified trees when I was in grade school. I came back often with my family to look at them again.  This relic stone forest changed me. I studied fossils and rocks because of them. And I learned from them. I now realize how mankind is a force of nature and how we can alter landscapes, just as the ancient mud and ash did so long ago at Florissant. Our addiction to fossil fuel has altered our planet’s atmosphere and contributes to changing global climate. Florissant’s Sequoias are extinct because of climate change, and these trees encourage us to contemplate our annihilation as the planet experiences rates of extinction not experienced since a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs.
At the stone stumps, I take a few minutes to listen, where the sounds of the chirping birds, chattering squirrels, and the soft whispers of breezes exist with the noises of development—homes being built, cars moving and dogs yapping. I can also hear the petrified forest—it speaks of an Earth that is always in a state of change, but this protected ancient forest (a national monument now) also provides a place where change slows down, at least for me. As I look at the fossilized trees, I sense a calm as they release me from my ego and create an awareness of the wonderful things I can discover outside of myself.         

Figure 2. Dynamite was used the early twentieth century to expose this stump.
The use of explosives resulted in the shattered texture of the stump and
required the use metal bands to hold it together. Photo by S.W. Veatch.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


By Steven Wade Veatch

American bison, also known as buffalo, once roamed El Paso County’s spacious prairies.  By the time the Colorado territorial legislature established El Paso County in 1861, the bison were largely gone; their sun-bleached bones marked their passing.

Across the nation, these animals once numbered over 60 million; and by the close of the 19th century, only a few hundred remained. What caused the near extermination of the bison is a subject of debate. Three essential factors have been under consideration in this debate.

First, buffalo hunters slaughtered the slow-grazing bison for their hides and left behind the rest of the animal to decay in the blazing sun. The rotting flesh gave off a smell of primal origins. A. M. Bede, a county judge in North Dakotas, remembering his pioneering days on the northern plains said, “The county out here used to look like a charnel house with so many skulls staring at a man and so many bones that newcomers felt nervous, and in some cases, could hardly plow the land” (Henninger-Voss, 2003). Buffalo hunters sold hides for about $2.00 to $3.50 each ($51 to $89 in today’s money). In towns, workers were busy stacking bison hides for shipment by rail. (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. This 1878 photo shows 40,000 bison hides at the Rath & Wright's hide yard in 
Dodge City, Kansas.These 6-foot-tall, hulking animals could weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, 
run up to 35 mph, and quickly turn to fight with their horns. 
Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration public domain.
Second, the building of the railroads contributed to the extermination of the bison because hunters killed them for meat to feed the workers. “Buffalo Bill” Cody shot over 4,200 bison for this purpose in the late 1860s (Andrews, 2016). The railroad also made it possible to ship millions of hides back to markets in the East. Some railroads provided special excursions where travelers shot bison from train windows. By 1870, the Union Pacific railway line divided the Great Plains bison population into two sections, one on either side of the railroad: the southern herd was killed by 1875, and the northern herd was largely killed off by 1885 (The Library of Congress, n.d.). Very few bison remained after this period.

Third, the government ordered the Army to kill bison in order to starve Native American tribes into submission. To hasten this procedure, the Army hired buffalo hunters to kill bison in large numbers. This attempt at obliteration was effective in destroying the food source and placed the Native Americans in dire strait. The Native American population, by the end of the 19th century, numbered 237,000; down from about one million from the previous century (Slaughter of the Bison, 2011).

What is not debated, however, is that in 20 short years, near the conclusion of the 19th century, America’s bison herd was near extinction. Historians estimate 31,000,000 bison were killed between 1868 and 1881.

Fig. 2. Swiss painter Karl Bodmer depicts Native Americans hunting bison.
The painting is part of Bodmer’s collection to illustrate Prince Maximilian of Wied's travels
in the interior of North America, circa 1836. Public domain.
Countless wild bison once thundered across El Paso County’s prairie (El Paso County Government, 2010). Sometimes, as the evening yawned, the deep quiet of the prairie would be broken by the sound of bison hoofbeats as they disappeared into the dusk. Now, only the spirit of the hoofbeats resonating remains, a timeless essence as old as Pikes Peak These herds in El Paso County did not survive the intervention of the buffalo hunters. Its prairie became a graveyard of bison bones from the slaughter of these animals. Early El Paso County settlers, facing difficult times, would go out onto their land and collect the scattered bison bones left by buffalo hunters and sell them. Bison bones were used for industrial purposes that included making fine bone china, fertilizer, and for sugar refining ("Time Line of the American Bison," n.d.).  These bison bones could earn the El Paso County homesteader from $2.50 to $15 a ton. 

Not long after the pioneering photographer William H. Jackson took the photo in Figure 3, the bison had vanished from Colorado’s eastern plains, killed for their hides. The near extinction of this magnificent animal is one of the ugliest episodes in the history of American wildlife (Andrews, 2016).

Fig. 3. A pile of bison bones near Colorado City. El Paso County, Colorado. 
Bison bones were collected by homesteaders and ranchers and then sold for industrial purposes.
This brought in much needed cash. This photograph was taken in 1870 by W.H. Jackson
while he was part of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories.
 Credit: US Geological Survey. Photo ID JWH000895.
It is hard to imagine that bison once numbered over 60 million. These animals barely survived annihilation. Today, there are about 25,000 bison in public herds (Time Line of the American Bison, n.d.).

On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, designating the bison as the national mammal. The bison joined with the bald eagle to represent the United States (Andrews, 2016).

References Cited
Andrews, E. (2016, May 13). Bison Selected as the Official Mammal of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/bison-selected-as-the-official-mammal-of-the-united-states

Bringing the West’s wild bison back from the brink – The Denver Post. (2015, January 23). Retrieved from http://www.denverpost.com/2015/01/23/bringing-the-wests-wild-bison-back-from-the-brink/

El Paso County Government. (2010). 2010 Citizen's Guide to El Paso County Government.

Henninger-Voss, Mary. (2003). Animals in Human Histories: The Mirror of Nature and Culture.  Boydell & Brewer, Limited: Suffolk.

The Library of Congress. (n.d.). The Buffalo Hunter. Retrieved from http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/cody/aa_cody_hunt_3.html

Time Line of the American Bison. (n.d.). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved from https://www.fws.gov/bisonrange/timeline.htm

Phippen, J. W. (2016, May 13). Kill Every Bison You Can! Every Bison Dead Is an Indian Gone. Retrieved from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2016/05/the-bison-killers/482349/

Slaughter of the Bison. (2011). Retrieved from Inter Tribal Bison Council: http://itbcbison.com/node/22

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


By Steven Wade Veatch

The dawn was cool and crisp on an October morning in 1877 when George and Gilbert Searight, supposedly looking for better opportunities, herded 14,000 unruly longhorns from Texas onto an area ten miles west of Casper, Wyoming. This site, where the North Platte flows through a valley between Coal Mountain and Bessemer Mountain, is where the Searights opened up their vast, open-range Goose Egg Ranch (North Platte River, 2019).

A Texas Longhorn is known by its distinctive horns. 

The longhorns wandered far and wide over the open range as far as the eye could see. The Searights brought another 13,000 head the following year and, on a final cattle drive in 1879, brought 16,000 more head from Oregon (North Platte River, 2019). The Searights thought these large herds of cattle would give them a chance at success.

The name of the ranch came from an interesting story told around the flickering campfires of Wyoming. Some say during the first spring out on the range, some cowboys discovered a nest of Canada Goose eggs. The men brought the eggs back to a grizzled camp cook, “Old Over Slope,” to fry up for their breakfast. The wily old cook got his name from his lack of ears—frostbite took them (North Platte River, 2019). After breakfast and much debate, the cowboys decided they should call the land the “Goose Egg Ranch,” a fitting name for the new cattle operation. This tale may be true. If not, it should be.

Six years after the Searights started the Goose Egg Ranch, they built a substantial ranch house on a rise near a bend on the north bank of the Platte River.  The Searights had the lumber, hardware, and other materials used to build the ranch house hauled in by freight teams from Cheyenne, a trip over 225 miles on rugged, dusty roads.
The Searights completed the ranch house in 1883 and built it like a small stone fort, designed to withstand an Indian raid. It was, however, left alone by the Indians. It seems the Searight brothers kept the peace with the local tribes.

Searight and his brother lived in the ranch house until 1886, when they saw what was coming like a freight train—the overproduction of cattle by the large Wyoming ranchers. This caused beef prices to fall during 1886. Searights sold out to the Carey brothers and the Swan Land and Cattle Company before the bottom fell out (Hunt, 2019).

A postcard view of the Goose Egg Ranch house. 
Wooden ranch buildings are in the background. 
From the collection of S.W. Veatch.
Searight timed the sale just right. Besides the tumbling cattle prices, the summer of 1886 brought an intense drought that dried up the pasture. These adverse conditions resulted in the overgrazing of rangelands.

Also, Searight sold out in time to sidestep the winter of 1886-1887 that devastated Wyoming's cattle business.  Snow started falling on November 13 and continued for a month (Cattle Trails, 2019). In mid-December, temperatures warmed enough to change the snow into slush. Then, in late December, temperatures fell to almost 30 below zero, changing the slush into a slab of ice. January 1887 brought the coldest spell in memory and a relentless blizzard tore through the area for three days. One cowboy wrote:
It was all so slow, plunging after them through the deep snow . . . . The horses' feet were cut and bleeding from the heavy crust, the cattle had the hair and hide wore off their legs to the knees and the hocks. It was surely hell to see big four-year-old steers just able to stagger along (Episode 7 "Hell Without Heat", 2001).
As ranchers gathered in saloons to discuss their heavy losses, Searight was counting his cash. Some ranchers lost up to 20 percent of their stock.

Things would never be the same on those Wyoming grasslands, and Searight made the right decision to sell. Cattle prices fell like a rock, and the weather turned bad. But there was a larger, lasting change coming to the range—homesteading, which brought the systematic taking of land, the placement of barb wire, and the end of the open prairie. Change also came to Searight’s Goose Egg ranch house. As a sentinel on the grasslands, it operated as a hotel, then a restaurant, and as the setting for part of Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian.

Time took its toll on the stone ranch house and it deteriorated over the decades. Despite efforts to save the ranch house, the owners demolished it in 1960. Today, nothing remains of the Goose Egg ranch house.

Cattle Trails. (2019, February 13). Retrieved from Wyoming Tales and Trails: http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/cattledieoff.html

Episode 7 "Hell Without Heat". (2001). Retrieved from The West: The Georaphy of Hope (Rocky Mountain PBS): https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/program/episodes/seven/hellwoheat.htm

Hunt, R. A. (2019, February 13). Wyo History. Retrieved from Wyoming State Historical Society: https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/natrona-county-wyoming

North Platte River. (2019, February 13). Retrieved from Wyoming Tales and Trails: http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/bessemer.html

Thursday, March 7, 2019

To Stop a Thief: A Letter Warning Cripple Creek’s Winfield Scott Stratton

By Steven Wade Veatch

It began with a letter that Augustus Dominick Bourquin, a Colorado prospector, wrote to warn Winfield Scott Stratton, the Cripple Creek mining mogul and owner of the Independence Mine, about one of his employees at the mine.

W. W. Stratton (1848-1902) came to the Cripple Creek Mining District in 1891 when he was 42 years old and staked the Independence Mining claim on July 4, 1891. The Independence was among the major producing mines in the district and made Stratton a multi-millionaire. This image is in the public domain in the United States.

Bourquin’s letter is an exceptional illustration of a primary source that offers a first-hand eyewitness account of events. It helps us take a front-row seat to the unfolding of history. Bourquin’s letter is among Stratton’s historic papers that are stored at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In his letter, Bourquin warns Stratton that one of his employees, John Stark, is a thief. According to Bourquin’s letter, John Stark was an unscrupulous man that committed acts of larceny wherever he went. Stark even raided the caches of clothes and supplies miners left covered with rocks along the trail on their way to the Klondike goldfields, depriving those miners of necessary supplies. Bourquin’s letter also mentions the problem of high-grading or theft of gold in the Cripple Creek mining district. Here is his letter:

Aspen, Colo. Oct. 17th, ’98.
W. S. Stratton
Victor, Colo.

Dear Sir—
I feel that it is my duty to give you a little of the history of a man who is now in your imploy [sic]. A man who has proven himself a thief on every occasion where he has had an opportunity to pilfer from others. That man is no other than John Stark. Mr. Stratton, I returned in Aug. from the Klondike and was a partner during the winter with Stark. There was [sic] four of us in partnership on a lay, or lease, on Bonanza Creek.[1] Stark began pilfering aboard the steamship Cleveland on his way north from Seattle.[2] Stole his winter supplies from one of the Mercantile Co’s at Fort Yukon.[3] He robed [sic] one of our partners of every dollar of gold dust he had, on the pretense, that he, Stark, would take it down and deposite [sic] it with his own in Dawson.[4] Stark skipped the country between two days and carried off all the dust, leaving our partner stranded in Dawson where he is today.
Stark robed [sic] caches of clothing and provisions whenever he had an opportunity, against my protest. He stole clothing and provisions from the cache of some poor fellows who had to walk out of the country during the winter on account of a shortage of food. Stark robed [sic] me of nearly $200 of which I cannot recover as the theft was commited [sic] in Canadian Teritory [sic]. [5] The Mercantile Co. who he robbed in Fort Yukon were [sic] on his track in Dawson, when he, under an assumed name, left Dawson between two days in a small boat, about June 1st.
Stark often spoke of his work on the Independence mine. Said he has some rich ore from the mine; one piece worth eighty dollars. Spoke of your keeping detectives around all the time but they were not sharp enough to catch anyone. Said he had cut a rich streak of mineral fifteen inches thick and timbered it in, with the help of the Super, hoping someday to get a lease on the ground. According to his statement the superintendent stood in with him, but his name I have forgotten. This unscrupulous scoundrel spoke very disrespectful [sic] of you at different times. Said you had nicely furnished rooms in Cripple for no other purpose, that he knew of, but to take lewd women and have a good time. Mr. Stratton, I have given you simply an outline of the methods practiced by that scoundrel, that you may not be deceived by him. I regret to hear that he has secured a trusty position on your property when there are more worthy people to be had. I can make an affidavit to thease [sic] statements should you desire.
Very respectfully,
A.D. Bourquin

Although it is clear from the letter that Bourquin had a negative attitude toward Stark based on his alleged dealings with him, perhaps we can judge the veracity of his claims by studying Bourquin’s life story. Augustus Dominic Bourquin was born in 1852 in Tidioute, Pennsylvania. Known as “Gust” to his friends, this free-spirited young man craved adventure and excitement. 

Figure 2. Photo of A.D. Bourquin (1852 to 1899). His father was Swiss and his mother was French. Bourquin was noted in the Aspen newspapers as being a principal in the Austin Mining Excavating Company.  Photo source: Robert Clark (great-grandson). Used with permission. 

In 1875, Bourquin first moved west and worked a placer mine in Arizona. Later, he worked in the mines at Red Bluff, California and Reno, Nevada. Bourquin returned home in the fall of 1877 and worked on the family farm in Pennsylvania (Bourquin, 1951). Next, he traveled to Kansas in 1879, where he homesteaded (Bourquin, 1951). Bourquin moved to Kansas at a bad time—a drought held Kansas in its dry and dusty grip. The Manhattan Nationalist, on April 25, 1879, had this to say: “The wind made the bleeding soil of Kansas sift through a pine board on Monday [April 21]. The poor housekeeper that had just shaken carpets and cleaned windows, sighed mournfully as they [sic] saw the sand heaps on windowpane and floor (Malin, 2018). This relentless drought ended his days of homesteading, and in the spring of 1880, Bourquin, along with his two brothers George and Jess, traveled west as they drove a team of mules and a wagon to Denver (Clark, 2018). The brothers then sold the mules and Bourquin trekked to Aspen, Colorado. He operated several mining claims in the area and served as councilman for the City of Aspen (Clark, 2018).

Bourquin caught a bad case of gold fever and joined the Klondike Gold Rush. After spending a season in the Klondike washing gold-laden gravels in Bonanza Creek, he returned to Aspen, Colorado.

Bourquin died a few months after he mailed his letter to Stratton. He had caught the flu while working on a mining claim and died five days later, on Jan 14, 1899, at the age of 46 (Clark, 2018). The Woodmen of the World, a fraternal benefit society designed to provide insurance and financial security for its members, buried him in the Aspen Grove Cemetery in Aspen, Colorado. Bourquin’s family then moved his body to the Red Butte cemetery after it opened in 1900. His mother Celestine is buried in the same plot, along with his brother Amos, Amos' wife, and their daughter.

And so, a letter reveals a first-hand account of an episode in the writer’s life. The letter led to research that painted a portrait of the writer, A.D. Bourquin, who spent a life well-lived as a miner and adventurer. He followed the trails that pointed to gold and silver deposits, no matter how difficult the passage.  All regarded him as fine man and a pioneer who guided his family to the West.

Although we will never know if Stratton answered Bourquin’s letter, it is known that John Stark, after his adventures in the Klondike, returned to the Cripple Creek Mining District and worked as Stratton’s foreman at the Independence Mine. Eighteen months later, Stark was promoted to superintendent of the Independence Mine (The Fortunes of a Decade, 1900). It seems that Stratton did not read Bourquin’s letter or believe what it said about his foreman, and as a result, we may never know the facts that surrounded Stratton’s decision to ignore the warning in Bourquin’s letter.


Andrews, C. L. (1916, January). Marine Disasters of the Alaska Route. The Washington HIstorical Quarterly, 7(1), 21-37. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from www.jstor.org/stable/40428352
Bourquin, G. M. (1951, October 22). Letter to Edna Florence Bourquin Reynolds.
Clark, R. (2018, December 2-5). Great-grandson of A.D. Bourquin. (S. Veatch, Interviewer)
Malin, J. C. (2018, December 1). Dust Storms: Part Two, 1861-1880. Retrieved from Kansas Historical Soceity: https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-historical-quarterly-dust-storms-part-two-1861-1880/13031
McLaughlin, L. (2018, Devember 7). Yukon History. Retrieved from Hougen Group: http://hougengroup.com/yukon-history/yukon-nuggets/year/1897/#STARVATION
The Fortunes of a Decade. (1900). Colorado Springs: Sargent and Rohrabacher for the Evening Telegraph.
What Was the Klondike Gold Rush? (2018, June 28). Retrieved from Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site: https://www.nps.gov/klgo/learn/goldrush.htm
Woodin, W., & Spude, C. H. (2016). All for the Greed of Gold: Will Woodin's Klondike Adventure. Seattle: Washington State University Press.

Notes on the letter

[1] On August 16, 1896 prospectors discovered gold on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The watercourse became the center of the Klondike Gold Rush (1897-1898). This discovery triggered a stampede of thousands of prospectors and fortune seekers to the area (What Was the Klondike Gold Rush?, 2018).

[2] The Cleveland, operated by the North American Trading & Transportation Company, was one of many steamships that carried passengers to and from the Klondike goldfields (Woodin & Spude, 2016). The company sold fares only to the “hardiest of men.” The demand for a ticket was high. After leaving Seattle’s docks, the Cleveland went as far as Fort St. Michael, where a connection was made with river steamers that took passengers and goods up the Yukon River to the mines. Fort St. Michael was established by the US Army in 1897 to establish order during the Klondike Gold Rush and served as a major gateway through the Yukon River to the area. In 1903, the Cleveland was lost in the Bering Sea and was never recovered (Andrews, 1916).

[3] Fort Yukon, during the Klondike Gold Rush (“Starvation Winter” of 1897–1898) took in 200 prospectors from Dawson City who were short of supplies (McLaughlin, 2018).

[4] Dawson City, the center of the Klondike Gold Rush, began in 1896, where it displaced a native encampment. The city grew into a busy place of 40,000 by 1898. A year later, after the gold rush ended, its population plummeting to 8,000 people.

[5] The stolen $200 is equivalent to $2,855 in 2018 dollars.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Uptop: A Winter Poem

By Steven Wade Veatch

A winter wind blows swirling flakes of snow
that blankets the quiet town of Uptop. 
Light from a coal-oil lamp casts
a golden glow down a silent, powdery street.

People of Uptop long for spring days;
the shifting realm of white to robust green
when flowers spread a chorus of colors
in an alpine crescendo.

For decades they came over highland passes;
searching for gold in streams or silver in veins.
Others started ranches where the grass was good. 
And each one tamed the mountain wilderness.

The depot built by section hands still stands 
that once met fortune seekers coming over the Pass.
Today the rails are gone and travelers are rare.
Only a few stay in the small town of Uptop.

On Sunday at the Chapel by the Wayside
a church bell rings—renewing spirits
of humbled hearts who stay another year,
in the forgotten town of Uptop, Colorado.

Directions to the ghost town of Uptop, Colorado:
Two turnoffs to Uptop ghost town are located off Hwy 160:
• 20 minutes east of Ft. Garland, CO: turn at mile marker 276.
• 15 minutes west of La Veta or 20 minutes west of Walsenburg: turn at mile marker 281.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Duria Antiquior: A Nineteenth-Century Forerunner of Paleoart

By Steven Wade Veatch

In a breath of inspiration in 1830, English geologist Henry De la Beche (1796–1855), while exploring new intellectual territories in the emerging fields of paleontology, painted Duria Antiquior (meaning “a more ancient Dorset”), a representation of a prehistoric Dorset coast. De la Beche’s work was groundbreaking—his artwork combined science and art in the first artistic rendering of a paleontological scene, while laying bare the secrets of the past. Before 1830, art depicting the prehistoric world did not exist and these realms were unknown to the public (Porter, n.d.). While it is true that scientists made drawings of fossil animals and exchanged them with each other in private letters, the public had no concept of how prehistoric animals looked. This painting opened people’s imagination to new visions, thoughts, and beliefs.

Fig. 1. Duria Antiquior. A watercolor painted in 1830 by Henry De la Beche who conjured up a vivid picture of an ancient world. Duria Antiquior is now in the National Museum of Wales. (Image is public domain)
De la Beche’s painting also laid the foundation for a new genre that would later be known as paleoart, an artistic genre that reconstructs prehistoric life according to the fossil record, scientific understanding, and artistic imagination. De la Bache’s brushstrokes of prehistoric time included (literally) all the information known at that time about ancient life and soon became the first teaching graphic used in the classrooms of the Golden Age of Geology, a period from 1788 to 1840 (Clary R. M., 2003). Today, this graphic would be equivalent to a PowerPoint slide in a classroom.

De la Beche’s Duria Antiquior brings the viewer face-to-face with creatures that once lived in a coastal sea where these animals fought a deadly battle for survival, a typical theme of nature in the Regency era (McGowan, 2001). The scene is remarkable: a toothy ichthyosaur bites into the long neck of a plesiosaur, while another plesiosaur tries to grab a crocodile on the shore (De la Beche’s ichthyosaur is minus the triangular dorsal fin and vertical tail fin that, from later fossils found in Germany, we now know it had).   A turtle quietly dives into the water. What would become coprolites (fossil excrement) drop from a terrified plesiosaur (Davis, 2012). Other creatures patrol the deep waters for food, while two pterosaurs dive toward each other in the sky. Belemnites appear like squids. Hollow ammonite shells rest on the bottom of the sea and crinoids (sea lilies) are portrayed in the lower right corner. Groves of palm trees grow on the shore. All of this is rendered through the painter’s use of a restrained palette of browns, greens, and blues.

Another striking feature of the painting is how it is divided. The waterline reveals the action above and below the water’s surface (Rudwick, 1992). The Duria Antiquior is the first example of what is known as the aquarium view that would become a Victorian trend several years later (Clary & Wandersee, 2005). The area above the waterline is further divided into two areas of activity—action on the land and in the sky. De la Beche wanted the viewer to be convinced of his portrayal of a prehistoric scene.

De la Beche based the Duria Antiquior on fossils found by Victorian fossil collector, Mary Anning (1799-1847), along the Dorset coast near the resort town of Lyme Regis (Brewster, 2016). Anning was from a poor family, who frequently found themselves on the far side of desperate. To ease these brutal financial circumstances, the family earned money by collecting and selling fossils. As a child, her father would take Mary Anning and her brother, Joseph, fossil hunting by the fossil-rich cliffs near Lyme Regis. They returned home with fossils and, with superior skill, cleaned and prepared them, and then sold them to tourists as curios. Anning, aged 11, continued the family business after her father died of tuberculosis and heavily in debt.

Fig. 2. Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog, Tray. This painting was owned by her brother, Joseph, and given to the Natural History Museum, London in 1935 by Mary's great-great niece, Miss Annette Anning. (Image is public domain)
By 1830, Anning was a celebrity among the leading constellation of British geologists for her knowledge and skill in collecting and preparing fossils (Cadbury, 2000). Anning is credited with finding the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be recognized and the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found. Her discovery of these marine reptiles had created a sensation in the scientific community (McGowan, 2001).

Anning frequently found herself in financial straits due to harsh economic times in Britain, and from the unpredictability of finding and selling fossils. Being strapped for money restricted her ability to find fossils. De la Beche wanted to keep her in the field hunting fossils. To that end, he arranged to have prints of Duria Antiquior made and then sold the copies for £2 10s (approximately £213 or $279 today) each (Rudwick, 1992). De la Beche gave the profits—with great enthusiasm—to Anning, so she had more time to hunt for fossils and seashells along the seashore. The painting was a smashing success and, to meet the enormous demand for the prints, the Duria Antiquior was reprinted and redrawn several times.

The Duria Antiquior pushed the boundaries of science and art at the end of the Regency period in Britain. This avant-garde watercolor became the first scene of prehistoric animals interacting with each other in their ancient environment, all based on known science at the time. This was the earliest such art to be widely distributed and helped shape the understanding of prehistoric life on Earth. 

Brewster, S. (2016, July 4). Duria Antiquior, A More Ancient Dorset. Retrieved from Eastern Biological: https://easternbiological.co.uk/blogs/news/duria-antiquior-a-more-ancient-dorset

Cadbury, D. (2000). The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. Foulsham.

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Mystery of Genevieve: The Golden Dinosaur from the Depths of the London Mine

Steven Wade Veatch
Teresa L. Stoiber

The legend of “Genevieve,” a fossilized dinosaur not only made of stone—but also of gold—began on July 3, 1932. That was the day W. K Jewett, owner of the London Mine near Alma, Colorado, stopped at the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs and made the official announcement of its unearthing. The story was picked up by the news services, and word of the fantastic  find spread through the scientific world like a prairie fire.

The golden dinosaur was discovered by William White, 700 feet underground—deep in the London Mine (W. K. Jewett, 1932). Curiously, the miners had been using the creature’s nose as a lamp holder, not realizing there was a "dinosaur" (if that is what it was) there. White, a hard rock miner, believed at first he was looking at two stumps. In reality, it was a dinosaur lying on its back with its limbs at an angle of 75 degrees. Eager to retrieve it from its rocky tomb, miners blasted it out of rock at the 700-foot level of the London Mine with dynamite. The explosion shattered the specimen. Bits and pieces of the dinosaur were hoisted to the surface, where curious crowds gathered to see the prehistoric monster.

As the story goes, a geology professor at Colorado College, Robert Landon, traveled to Alma so he could examine Genevieve—an extraordinary record of a former world. The measurements he made revealed that the animal was 18 feet (5.4 m) long and 6.5 feet (2 m) high (W. K. Jewett, 1932). The creature had a long neck that supported a small head. It also had a long tail.

Fig. 1. The only known photo of Genevieve taken in the basement of Cutler Hall, Colorado College.Photo credit: Colorado College Tiger, August 12, 1932. Page 3. Courtesy of Colorado College Tutt Library, Special Collections.

Jewett, who gave to the city of Colorado Springs the Patty Jewett golf course, presented the dinosaur to the Colorado College museum (Skeleton of Dinosaur, 1932). The 16-ton dinosaur reached Colorado College by truck, where a crew of men carefully carried it to the basement of Cutler Hall. College technicians spent countless hours in the basement, where they enthusiastically cemented together what the newspapers hailed as the rarest find ever made in paleontology (Genevieve, Colleges Latest Acquisition Now Ready to Receive Callers, 1932). After the repair of the fossil dinosaur, it was moved to Colorado College’s museum and put on display (Will Bring Dinosaur Here Late this Week, 1932).

There is a real mystery that surrounds this dinosaur. In the 1960s, the museum closed and Genevieve’s display was removed. No one seems to know what happened to this specimen. Was Genevieve smelted down, put in the basement archives and forgotten, or taken to a professor’s house for a private collection?  The mystery of her disappearance still stands to this day.

Three critical questions must now be answered: Was Genevieve a dinosaur, where did she go, and was she really made of gold? The past would not easily give up these secrets, including unfortunately, the origin of its lovely name.

An article, from Greely, Colorado’s Tribune-Republican, dated July 2, 1932, stated the dinosaur remains were made known to Mr. Jesse Figgins, Director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History (noted for for his work on the famous Folsom archaeological site in New Mexico), who said this unusual dinosaur fossil must be the remains of a marine reptile. Nowhere in the article does it report  that Genevieve was made of gold—but it does state that she was shattered when dynamited out of the mine, and that restoration wasn’t expected to take long.

When asked about Genevieve, Colorado College archivist Jessy Randall said she had been questioned about her before. The last time was in 2004, when Geology Professor Emeritus Bill Fischer, former chair of the geology department, was still alive. Fischer gave this response:

“The one man who would have had the answers, Professor Bob Landon, died in 1995, and all of the people associated with the college museum are also deceased. . . I never heard of the specimen during my 50-year association with the school, and I suspect that it really was never installed in the museum and that the college newspaper account that ‘it was resting on a pedestal in the museum’ is totally false. From the photograph, one can see that with 16 tons of matrix and bone it would have taken months if not years to prepare the specimen for display. Now for a few thoughts as to the fossil itself. First of all, it is not a dinosaur and probably not a rhynchocephalian reptile. The photograph is of very poor quality, but my best guess is that it may have been a Phytosaur—but regardless of the correct identification it was a very valuable find, and I am sorry if it ended up in a smelter. . . Good luck in your search and sorry I couldn't be of more assistance.” Signed: Bill Fischer.

Sadly, it looks like Genevieve’s case has gone cold. The museum has long been closed, and those associated with the museum are deceased. It is doubtful that she was made of gold—but she was found in a gold mine, the source of a good rumor and the basis for a great story surrounding her mysterious existence and disappearance.

Although Genevieve remains a mystery, this article has dug up and weaves together most of what is known and speculated about her. Although her real story has been buried with the museum workers and gold miners who have passed away, there are still a few miners who, while relaxing at a local saloon, fondly ponder the puzzle of Genevieve. They raise their shot glasses and make this toast to the miners who found Genevieve, the golden dinosaur: “May you always stand on ore and your labors be in vein.”


The authors thank Danny Alfrey for bringing Genevieve to our attention back in 2011. We also appreciate Ben Elick’s help in obtaining the photograph of this mysterious fossil.

References Cited

Find Skeleton of Dinosaur in Ore of London Mine. (1932, July 2). Colorado Springs Gazette, p. 2.

Genevieve, Colleges Latest Acquisition Now Ready to Receive Callers. Made Presentable by Profs. (1932, August 12). Colorado College Tigers

W. K. Jewett Gives Skeleton of Prehistoric Animal to Colo. College Museum. (1932, July 3). Colorado Springs Gazette, p. 2.

Will Bring Dinosaur Here Late this Week. (1932, July 6,). Colorado Springs Gazette, p. 5