The Life of a Fossil Hunter

Charles Hazelius Sternberg

Preview: Issue 1 of 22


I do not remember when I first began collecting fossils, but I have always loved nature.

Fifteen years of my early life were spent in Otsego County, New York, at dear old Hartwick Seminary, where my father, the Rev. Dr. Levi Sternberg, was principal for fourteen years, and my grandfather, Dr. George B. Miller, a much-loved, devout man, professor of theology for thirty-five. The lovely valley of the Susquehanna, in which it stands, lies five miles below Cooperstown, the birthplace of the Walter Scott of America, James Fenimore Cooper, and my boyhood was spent among scenes which he has made famous. Often my companions and I have gone picnicking on Otsego Lake, shouting to call up the echo, and spreading our tablecloth on shore beneath the very tree from which the catamount was once about to spring upon terrified Elizabeth Temple.

My greatest pleasure in those early days and best, was to live with a darling cousin in the woods. There among the majestic trees,—maples, hickories, pines, and hemlocks, we used to build sylvan retreats, weaving willow twigs in and out among the poles which I cut for supports; and there, to those great trees, I delivered my boy orations. We delighted also to visit and explore Moss Pond, a body of water on top of the hills across the river, surrounded entirely by sponge moss. We could "teeter" across the moss to a log that gave us support, and catch blind bullheads, or eat our lunch in the cool, dense hemlock woods that surrounded the water, where the heavy branches, intertwined like mighty arms, shut away the light, so that even at midday the sun could barely pierce their shadows.

How I loved flowers! I carried to my mother the first crocus bloom that showed its head above the melting snow, the trailing arbutus, and the tender foliage of the wintergreen. Later in the season I gathered for her the yellow cowslip and fragrant water-lily; and when autumn frosts had tinged the leaves with crimson and gold I filled her arms with a glorious wealth of color.

Even in those early days I used to cut out shells from the limestone strata of the region with whatever tools were at hand, but they were admired chiefly as examples of the wonderful power of running water to carve rocks into the semblance of shells. Or if one of the more observant remarked that these shells looked very much as if they had been alive once, the only theory that would account for their presence and yet sustain the belief that the world was only six thousand years old, was that the Almighty, who created the rocks, could easily, at the same time, have created the ancient plants and animals as fossils, just as they were found.

I remember a rich find I made in the garret of an uncle in Ames, New York,—a cradle filled with fossil shells and crystals of quartz. They had been collected by my uncle's brother, who, fortunately, as my uncle said, had died early, before bringing disgrace upon the family by wasting his time wandering over the hills and gathering stones. All the large specimens he had collected had been thrown away, and the smaller ones in the old cradle had long been forgotten. I was welcome to all my uncle's buggy could carry when he took me home, and I can never forget the joy of going over that material again and again, selecting the specimens that appealed most to my sense of the beautiful and the wonderful. I labeled them all "From Uncle James," and it greatly astonished a dear aunt of mine, to whom I gave them some years later when we moved West, to find in the collection a lot of baculites, labeled "Worms from Uncle James."

When I was ten years old, I met with an accident from which I have never completely recovered. I remember the wild chase I was making after an older boy, over the hay-mows and piles of shocked grain in my father's barn. On the floor below, an old-fashioned thresher, one of the first of its kind, was making an ear-splitting noise, while outside the two horses, hitched to an inclined plane, climbed incessantly, but never reached the top.

The boy climbed a shock of oats on the scaffold in the peak of the barn, and "Charley-boy," as my mother called me, following him, slipped through a hole in the top of the ladder which had been covered by the settling oats, and fell twenty feet to the floor below. The older boy climbed swiftly down and carried me home insensible to my mother.

Our family physician thought that only a sprain was the result, and bandaged the injured limb; but, as a matter of fact, the fibula of the left leg had been dislocated, so that there was much suffering and a little crippled boy going about among the hills on crutches.

The leg never grew quite strong again, and some years later gave me a good deal of trouble. In 1872 I was in charge of a ranch in Kansas, and during November of that year a great sleet storm covered the whole central part of the state. In order to water my cattle, which were scattered over a range of several thousand acres on Elm Creek, I was obliged to follow around small bands of them to their accustomed watering-places and cut the ice for them. The water that splashed over my clothing froze solid, and the result was that inflammatory rheumatism settled in the lame leg. I sat in a leathern chair all winter close to a boxwood stove, tended by my dear mother, who never left me day or night.

When the inflammation subsided, the knee joint had become ankylosed, and in order to avoid going on crutches all my life, I lay in the hospital at Fort Riley for three months, all alone in a great ward, and had the limb straightened by a special machine. So skilfully did the army surgeon do this work that I threw away crutches and cane, and, although the leg has always been stiff, I have since walked thousands of miles among the fossiliferous beds in the desolate fields of the West.

In 1865, when I was fifteen years old, my father accepted the principalship of the Iowa Lutheran College at Albion, Marshall County, and the broken hill country of my boyhood days was replaced by the plains and water courses of the Middle West.

Two years later my twin brother and I emigrated to an older brother's ranch in Ellsworth County, Kansas, two and a half miles south of Fort Harker, now known as Kanopolis. This post was at that time the terminus of the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific, and almost daily train-load after train-load of prairie schooners, drawn by oxen, burros, or mules, pulled out from it over the old Butterfield and Santa Fe trails, the one leading up the Smoky Hill, the other through the valley of the Arkansas to Denver and the Southwest.

In spring great herds of buffalo followed the tender grass northward, returning to the South in the fall; and one bright day my brother and I started out on our first buffalo hunt. Driving a team of Indian ponies hitched to a light spring wagon, we soon left the few settlements behind, and reached the level prairie to the southwest, near old Fort Zaro, a deserted one-company post on the Santa Fe Trail. At this time it had been appropriated by a cattleman who had a small herd grazing in the vicinity.

When within a few miles of this post, we saw a large herd of buffalo lying down a mile away. It was no easy matter to crawl toward them over the plain, pushing myself along without raising my body above the short grass, but after strenuous efforts I got within shooting distance without disturbing them, and was resting for a shot, when the rancher rode through the herd and sent them all off at a lope. Much angered and almost tempted to turn my gun on the man, I returned to the wagon, and we drove on across country that had been cropped as if by a great herd of sheep by the thousands of buffalo that had passed that way on their journey south.

Anxious to find picketing-ground and water, we reached the Arkansas River, where in a swale covered with grass and willows were paths cut by the buffalo. I lay down in one of these, and bringing my gun to my shoulder, was just drawing bead, when a large animal rushed across my line of vision at right angles to the trail. I pulled the trigger, and down went the brown mass in a heap on the ground.

Swinging my gun above my head, I rushed forward shouting, "I've killed a buffalo! "—to find that I had shot a Texas cow. Terrified at the thought of its owner's anger, we rushed back to the wagon, and, whipping up the ponies, sped away as if the furies were after us. But cooler second thoughts led us to the conclusion that the cow had come north with the buffalo, and was as much our prey as the buffalo themselves.

Just before sunset we reached a part of the country through which the buffalo had not passed, where a rich carpet of grass, covering all the plain, offered plenty of food for our tired ponies. Here we were delighted to find, standing in a ravine, an old bull buffalo, which had been driven out of the herd to die. Concealing ourselves behind the carcass of a cow, we opened fire upon him from our Spencer carbines, and continued to riddle his poor old body with leaden slugs until his struggles ceased. Even then, when he had lain down to rise no more, we crawled up behind him and threw stones at him, to make sure that he was dead. We found his flesh too tough for food; but it was an exciting event to us two boys to kill this massive beast, in earlier days perhaps the leader of the herd.

In this connection I might tell of a chase I had several years later, while living on a ranch in eastern Ellsworth County. I saw a huge buffalo bull come loping along from the hills, headed for a section of land that was inclosed by a wire fence. On the other side of this section there was a piece of timber-land, and fearing that if he got into the dense timber I should lose him, I rode after him at the top of my speed.

When his lowered head struck the wire fence it flew up like a spring gate and immediately closed down behind him. In order to follow, I had either to cut the wire or go out of my way to a gate half a mile to the south. I decided on the latter course, and applied quirt and spur to my horse, but upon reaching the gate, discovered my escaping quarry already halfway across the section. I got just near enough to put a bullet into his rump as he passed through the fence on the other side, and disappeared in the dense woods beyond.

In my excitement I shouted to my pony, and, dismounting and standing on the wire to hold it down, yelled at him to come across. But a sudden fit of obstinacy had seized him, and he would not come. I had to let the fence up while I thrashed him, and then as soon as I got it under my feet again, he pulled back as before. We repeated this performance until I was exhausted and gave up the struggle.

But upon casting a look of despair in the direction of the vanished buffalo, I was both astonished and ashamed to see him standing under an elm tree not ten feet away, covered up all except his eyes by a great wild grapevine, and gazing in mute astonishment at the struggle between Nimrod and his pony. I have always regretted that I took advantage of the confidence he placed in me, for as soon as I could control my jumping nerves, I shot the noble beast behind the shoulder, and he fell.

I saw my last herd of buffalo in Scott County, Kansas, in 1877. Antelope, however, continued to-be abundant as late as 1884, and only two years ago I saw a couple of them among some cattle near Monument Rocks, in Gove County.

In camp, during those early days, we were rarely out of antelope meat, and even now my mouth waters at the thought of the delicious tenderloin, soaked first in salt water to season it and remove the blood, then covered with cracker dust, and fried in a skillet of boiling lard. In those days a hind quarter could be hung up under the wagon in the hottest part of summer, and not spoil. The wind hermetically sealed it, and there were no blow-flies then. The early settlers of a new country bring with them, and protect, their enemies, and destroy their friends, the skunks, badgers, wildcats, and coyotes, as well as hawks, eagles, and snakes, because they kill a chicken or two as a change from their usual diet of prairie dogs and rabbits.

In those pioneer days the Kiowas, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and other Indian tribes made constant inroads upon the venturesome settler who, following the advice of Horace Greeley, had come West to grow up with the country.

I remember when old Santante, a chief of the Kiowas, came to the post in a government ambulance, which he had captured on one of his raids. In time of peace, the Indians belong to the Interior Department of the government, so that all the officer in command at the fort could do was to extend the old chief the courtesy of the army and care of himself and team. Once, at the old stone sutler's store, I heard him remark, after he had filled himself well with whisky, "All the property on the Smoky Hill is mine. I want it, and then I want hair."

He got both the following year.

In July, 1867, owing to the fear of an Indian outrage, General A. J. Smith gave us at the ranch a guard of ten colored soldiers under a colored sergeant, and all the settlers gathered in the stockade, a structure about twenty feet long and fourteen wide, built by setting a row of cottonwood logs in a trench and roofing them over with split logs, brush, and earth. During the height of the excitement, the women and children slept on one side of the building in a long bed on the floor, and the men on the other side.

The night of the third of July was so sultry that I concluded to sleep outside on a hay-covered shed. At the first streak of dawn I was awakened by the report of a Winchester, and, springing up, heard the sergeant call to his men, who were scattered in rifle pits around the building, to fall in line.

As soon as he had them lined up, he ordered them to fire across the river in the direction of some cot-tonwoods, to which a band of Indians had retreated. The whites came forward with guns in their hands and offered to join in the fight, but the sergeant commanded: "Let the citizens keep in the rear." This, indeed, they were very willing to do when the order was given, "Fire at will!" and the soldiers began sending leaden balls whizzing through the air in every conceivable arc, but never in a straight line, toward the enemy, who were supposed to be lying on the ground.

As soon as it was light my brother and I explored the river and found a place where seven braves, in their moccasined feet, had run across a wet sandbar in the direction of the cottonwoods, as the sergeant had said. Their pony trails could be easily seen in the high, wet grass.

The party in the stockade were not reassured to hear the tramp of a large body of horsemen, especially as the soldiers had fired away all their ammunition; but the welcome clank of sabers and jingle of spurs laid their fears to rest, and soon a couple of troops of cavalry, with an officer in command, rode up through the gloom.

After the sergeant had been severely reprimanded for wasting his ammunition, the scout Wild Bill was ordered to explore the country for Indian signs. But, although the tracks could not have been plainer, his report was so reassuring that the whole command returned to the Fort.

Some hours later I spied this famous scout at the sutler's store, his chair tilted back against the stone wall, his two ivory-mounted revolvers dangling at his belt, the target of all eyes among the garrison loafers. As I came up this gallant called out, "Well, Sternberg, your boys were pretty well frightened this morning by some buffalo that came down to water."

"Buffalo!" I said; "that trail was made by our old cows two weeks ago."

Later the general in command told me that they had prepared for a big hop at the Fort on the night of the fourth, and that Bill did not report the Indian tracks because he did not want to be sent off on a long scout just then.

In the unsettled state of the country at this time there were other dangers to be guarded against beside that of Indians, as I learned to my cost.

As a boy of seventeen, it was my duty on the ranch to haul milk, butter, eggs, and vegetables to Fort Harker for sale. I cared for my pony myself, and in order to get the milk and other food to the Fort in time for the soldiers' five-o'clock breakfast, I had to go without my own. One day I had a number of bills to collect from the officers, but as I was unusually tired, and the officers were not out of bed when I called, I put the bills in my inside pocket and started home.

As was my custom, after leaving the garrison I lay down on the wagon-seat and went to sleep, letting my faithful horse carry me home of his own accord. I have no recollection of what happened afterwards, but when I reached the ranch my brothers found me sitting up in the wagon moaning and swinging my arms, with the blood flowing from a slung-shot wound in my forehead. I had been struck down in my sleep and robbed of all the money I had on my person, as it happened only about five dollars.

Providentially our nearest neighbor, D. B. Long, was a retired hospital steward, and the post surgeon, Dr. B. F. Fryer, who was sent for immediately, was just ready to drive to town with his team of fleet little black ponies. He reached the ranch in an incredibly short time, and, although respiration had ceased, those two faithful men kept up artificial respiration for hours. My oldest brother, Dr. Stern-berg, for years Surgeon-General of the Army, was also sent for, and I found him lying on a mattress by my side when I regained consciousness two weeks later.

I might tell also of the ruffians who at one time held Ellsworth City in a grip of iron, and how, until they killed each other off or moved further west with the railroad, the dead-cart used to pass down the street every morning to pick up the bodies of those who had been killed in the saloons the night before, and thrown out on the pavement to be hauled away.

But, although I should like to recall more of the incidents connected with the opening up of a new country, time presses, and I must pass on to an account of my work as a fossil hunter.

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