The history of paleontology is full of legends. Just as fossils themselves have inspired myths and tall-tales – something which geohistorians such as Adrienne Mayor have done much to elucidate – the romantic image of 19th century naturalists excavating the virtually untapped paleontological riches of the west has generated a fair number of favorite stories and apocryphal anecdotes. One such story involves the nickname of one of the most important geologists and paleontologists of the era – the celebrated American explorer Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden.
Like many other 19th century naturalists, the image and legacy of the older Hayden overshadows the activities of his younger self. Hayden is most celebrated for his explorations of the Rocky Mountains and what would become Yellowstone National Park in the years following his service as Union physician during the Civil War, but prior to the great American rift Hayden had already been a nearly-irrepressible field geologist. A lapsed medical student – as a number of paleontologists of the era were – Hayden yearned to become a naturalist and was especially intent on becoming an expert on the history of the earth. While trolling for ways to join up with an expedition to the geological wonderland of the west, the historian Keith Thomson noted in his book The Legacy of the Mastodon, in 1853 a 24-year-old Hayden wrote to naturalist Spencer Baird that “I could endure cheerfully any amount of toil, hardship, and self-denial … to labour in the field as a naturalist.” Hayden was a man with a fever for the field.
Hayden’s ticket to the western badlands came that same year through the New York State Geologist, James Hall. The established naturalist teamed Hayden up with his assistant, Fielding Bradford Meek, and the two explored a large swath of the country’s core between Fort Pierre, South Dakota and Council Bluffs, Iowa. The spoils of their expedition were divvied up according to their scientific importance – vertebrate fossils went to the influential polymath Joseph Leidy in Philadelphia while Meek and Hayden held onto the invertebrate remains that were crucial to determining the geologic sequence of the badlands.
The initial expedition only intensified Hayden’s love of the west, and he harried the various naturalists he had come into contact with for additional opportunities to go out collecting. Between 1853 and 1860 Hayden drew on his connections and his reputation as an enthusiastic field geologist to explore the rocks flanking the Missouri River, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Paleozoic deposits of Kansas, and the Yellowstone and Bighorn Mountains, among other stops during these journeys. It was near the start of this long string of adventures that Hayden may have earned his nickname.
(For dinosaur fans, it’s worth noting that Hayden found several dinosaur teeth during his trip along the borders of the Missouri in what is now recognized as the Judith River Formation, including the first remains of ceratopsians to be described. At the time, though, Hayden had no idea that so many dinosaurs were waiting to be found there. He sent the paltry collection of teeth to Leidy for description, but confided that he did not find the strata of the Judith to be as interesting as those of the geologically younger White River where an abundance of impressive fossil mammals had been found.)
Hayden was the “Man Who Picks Up Stones Running” – a name said to be given to him in 1853 by the Sioux who lived in the vicinity of the deposits Hayden prospected during his trip along the Missouri River. Svelte and energetic, it is easy to envision Hayden tearing across the west, constantly plucking up fossils, and the nickname has often been considered as an indication that the Sioux considered Hayden to be a harmless eccentric. This is an interpretation that has been passed down as a paleontological anecdote rather than something that is definitely known.
In her comprehensive Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Adrienne Mayor points out that the Sioux have a complex relationship with fossils. Some fossils might be kept for protection or seen as vessels of “good medicine”, but the power of the fossils can also be improperly used to do harm. As a result, the Sioux could have cast Hayden as an oddball who did not understand what he was doing by accumulating so many bones, but, as Mayor points out, the Native Americans may have worried about his designs on all the spiritually-significant relics he was rapidly collecting. No one knows for sure. The story of how Hayden became the Man Who Picks Up Stones Running is a bit of fossilized lore which, rightly or wrongly, now acts as a testament to Hayden’s efforts to uncover the prehistoric west.
Top Image: A portion of Plate II from Joseph Leidy’s 1865 monograph Cretaceous Reptiles of the United States, featuring two views of a dinosaur tooth Hayden collected from the Judith River Formation (Figures 12 and 13) among other fossils uncovered elsewhere.
Mayor, A. 2005. Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 249
Thomson, K. 2008. The Legacy of the Mastodon. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 126-144