The Fossil Road to Riches: Dexter Marsh

When I first was researching the history of the discovery of the dinosaur tracks, the ghost of Dexter Marsh hovered elusively  in the background. Edward Hitchcock, the pastor cum professor cum college president generally credited with the tracks’ scientific discovery, was a prolific and widely published writer whose papers are held in the archives of Amherst College. James Deane, whose argument with Hitchcock over priority in the discovery, produced a beautiful coffee-table-type book on the footprints and was published in numerous journals. Whatever papers he left, however, disappeared long ago. But Marsh was a legend, so obscure and such small fry that I expected never to find him.

Happily, I was wrong. Marsh also has papers at Amherst College. He wrote little in the way of narrative, and no letters survive. We hear his voice primarily through carefully kept records of income and expenses (which would make a fantastic project along the lines of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s elucidation of the midwife Martha Ballard). He was literate but largely untutored because his family was too poor to send him to school. He achieved a brief fame and made a very modest fortune because he noticed what appeared to be the footprints of a bird in a slab of stone he was laying for sidewalk on Bank Row in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and he followed up on that interest for many years.

Born in 1806 in Montague, Marsh moved the few miles to Greenfield in the early 1830s and built a little house on Clay Hill, now called Bank Row, near today’s Olive Street. He married and started a family. He was the handyman for the town gentry: Russells, Alvords, Clapps all hired him to do repairs in their homes and to help with their gardens and animals. He was part-time sexton at the Second Congregational Church and janitor at Town Hall.

It was while working for Town Hall in late winter of 1835 that he noticed the “turkey tracks” in slabs he was laying as sidewalk. Although deeply religious, Marsh appears to have agreed with his neighbor James Deane that scientists, not theologians, should be told about these odd marks. As we know now, they were later identified as the tracks of dinosaurs, but the word dinosaur had not even been coined yet, so scientific opinion agreed with Marsh and Deane that the prints had been left by amazingly large extinct birds.

Photo: Mark Roessler/Valley Advocate

Marsh was working with flat stone slabs, the kind that split into sheets at the well-aimed whack of a shim. If you have ever tried this, you know that if you hit it just right, the layers pry open easily and reveal two surfaces. In the case of Dexter Marsh, the slabs had impressions that looked like the imprints of a bird’s feet, three toes and a sort of heel, concave on one face and raised on the other. He understood that he was looking at a fossil, the remnant of something that was once alive, although rather than a bone, it was a trace that a living creature left behind.

We may have an inkling of how Dexter Marsh felt, but probably just a washed-out version. He may have been more spooked, or more baffled, or actually even more interested than you or I, because he didn’t have a ready-made answer to the questions the footmarks raised in his mind. He likely knew about fossilized bones, but preserved footprints, no. He may have read about the amazing ideas coming out of geology in his local newspaper, where articles by Edward Hitchcock and Benjamin Silliman sometimes appeared. In Marsh’s time, a few people even believed that fossils’ uncanny resemblance to living creatures was an illusion, when actually they were God’s little joke or, less light-heartedly, God’s way of testing one’s faith: if you thought that fossils signified anything more—animals that have gone extinct, for example—your faith was weak. 

Marsh’s first wife, Rebecca Slate, of Northfield, died in 1837, leaving him with two young children after only three years of marriage. In 1839 he married Eunice Everett, of Halifax, Vermont, and had three more children. He continued manual labor, but because he could now sell these fossils to museums and individual collectors, including members of the Boston Society of Natural History, his fortunes improved. He could hire others, often church brethren, to collect footprints with him. After caring for family, he spent his extra money on geology books, religious publications, and abolitionist literature. He built a “cabinet” (museum) onto his house and opened it to the public. The guest book still survives, preserving the signatures of over 3,000 visitors: friends, family, and curious citizens from neighboring towns, the wealthy families he’d worked for, well-known college professors, even foreigners. He was elected an honorary member of the Boston Society of Natural History (which later became the Boston Museum of Science), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. There were other collectors of fossil footprints—Deane and Hitchcock among them—but Marsh’s collection was acknowledged as the largest and finest. When Deane and Hitchcock argued publicly over credit for the discovery, Marsh never entered the fray, although one of his sons later said that his father felt he had not received the credit due him.

Marsh was only 47 years old when he died on April 2, 1853, leaving Eunice with five children, the youngest less than two months old. His illness came on suddenly and took him in a matter of weeks. This unschooled man left a library of about 90 volumes, none of it easy reading: several geology books by Hitchcock; Lyell’s Elements of Geology; Dana’s Manual of Mineralogy; Brooks’ Elements of Ornithology; 17 volumes on the Natural History of New York; issues of the Emancipator, and more. James Deane and Edward Hitchcock assessed the value of his collection of fossil tracks, which were sold at auction. Marsh had wanted the collection to stay  together, but this did not happen. The largest buyers were Amherst College, the Boston Society of Natural History, and Yale College.

Dexter’s grave between his two wives, Eunice and Rebecca. Daughter Ella’s grave is second from left, with a tiny child-sized headstone nestled in front of hers. Photo: Ed Gregory

The proceeds allowed his family not great wealth, but some security. One of his sons went to Harvard and became a mining engineer in Colorado; the other moved to Nebraska, possibly after attending college. The daughters seem not to have married. At least one died young. 

A year after her husband died, Eunice (who lived into her nineties) noted in her diary that she “set a weeping willow on Dexter’s grave and some other plants, hope they will live and flourish.” No willow shades the grave now in the Federal Street Cemetery, where Dexter lies between Eunice and Rebecca and daughter Ella is nearby, but there are a few flowers. A fitting tribute would be to fix his broken gravestone and maybe see about another willow.

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