Dexter Marsh

When researching the history of the discovery of the dinosaur tracks, I first came across the name of Edward Hitchcock. Pastor, professor, college president, he was a prolific writer who seems never to have thrown anything away. James Deane’s name came up, too, because he and Hitchcock had an argument over who should have credit for priority of discovery of the tracks. We know of Deane because this dispute was well covered in the press. He also wrote several papers and his book on the “fossil footmarks” was published posthumously. 

dexter marsh from orig photo - Copy

Dexter Marsh. Image from the original taken by Ed Gregory.

The figure of Dexter Marsh hovered elusively  in the background. It wasn’t until I moved to western Massachusetts that I found a little more information at the town library and the Amherst College archives. Marsh wrote little, but we can see his steady habits through his carefully kept records of income and expenses (which, if anyone is so inclined, would make a fantastic project along the lines of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book on the midwife Martha Ballard). He was literate but came from a family too poor to send him to school. Seemingly a humble man, he achieved fame and a modest fortune because he noticed what appeared to be the footprints of a bird in a slab of stone he quarried to lay for sidewalk. Born in 1806 in Montague, Massachusetts, Marsh moved 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 Rebecca Slate from nearby Bernardston and started a family. He gained a reputation for industriousness, honesty, and conscientiousness as the handyman for the town gentry: Russells, Alvords, Clapps all hired him for repair work to their homes and help with their gardens and animals. He also 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.” Although deeply religious, Marsh 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.


Image taken at Nash’s Dinosaur Tracks, Granby, Massachusetts, by Sarah Doyle

Imagine you are living in 1835 in a small American town, looking at flat stone slabs, the kind that split into sheets at the well-aimed whack of a pick. You place your pick, hit it just right, and the layers pry open easily. You pull apart the freshly cut slab, revealing surfaces that haven’t seen the light of day in eons. Imagine the shock of seeing the shadow of a shape pressed into the rock. You might blink, unbelieving, but it is unmistakable: the imprint of a bird’s foot, three toes and a heel, right there in the stone, concave on one face and raised on the other. Then you realize you are looking at the remnant of something that was once alive, a fossil, but rather than a bone, this is a trace that a creature left behind. You might feel surprised and pleased with your good luck, and maybe with your clever self, and immediately set about looking for more. The feeling is half delicious, half spooky, that the past has just reached out and tapped you on the shoulder.

If we imagine this, we probably have an inkling of how Dexter Marsh felt, but Dexter may have been more spooked, more baffled, or actually even more interested than we are today, because he didn’t have a ready-made answer to the questions the footmarks raised in his mind. In Marsh’s time, some still believed that fossils’ uncanny resemblance to living creatures was an illusion. Maybe they were God’s little joke, or He was testing one’s faith: if you thought that fossils signified anything more—animals that have gone extinct, for example, like those mastodons that Thomas Jefferson so admired—your faith was weak. Dexter Marsh could have read about the amazing ideas coming out of the new science of geology in his local newspaper, where articles by Edward Hitchcock and Benjamin Silliman sometimes appeared. They had not yet imagined the dinosaurs we see in museums, on cereal boxes, toy stores, and just about everywhere in pop culture today. The figures in the stone must have rocked Dexter Marsh’s world, no pun intended.

Rebecca died in 1838, leaving him two young children after only four years of marriage. In 1839 he married Eunice Everett, of Halifax,Vermont, with whom he had three more children. He continued manual labor, but his fortunes improved. He could sometimes hire others to work for him, often church brethren. He collected more footprints, sometimes on slabs so big and heavy it’s a wonder he could move them. He donated specimens to museums, perhaps sold a few. After caring for family, he spent any 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: neighbors, the wealthy families he’d worked for, well-known college professors, even foreigners. He was elected an honorary member to the Boston Society of Natural History (later the city’s 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 was acknowledged as the largest and finest. While 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’s grave at the Federal Street Cemetery, Greenfield, MA. Image by Ed Gregory.

Marsh was only 47 years old when he died on April 2, 1853, leaving Eunice with five children, the youngest barely two months old. His illness came on suddenly and took him in a matter of weeks. He 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 it to stay together, but this did not happen. The largest buyers were Amherst College, the Boston Society of Natural History, and Yale. The proceeds allowed his family not great wealth, but at least some security. One of his sons went to Harvard and became a mining engineer in Colorado; the other moved to Nebraska, possibly after also attending college. The daughters seem not to have married; one died young. A year after his death, 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.

For a fuller biography of Dexter Marsh, see Robert Herbert’s paper about Marsh’s museum on Bank Row in Greenfield, the first to look at the story in detail:

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