I am Assistant Director of the Paleontology & Geology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC. In this capacity I manage the lab and do technical work in vertebrate paleontology, including fieldwork and fossil preparation. I also pursue my own research program in history of science, especially nineteenth and early twentieth century geology and vertebrate paleontology.
Shalimar Ranch, near Harrison, Nebraska, has been sold. Shalimar is the place where, in the spring of 1991, I collected my first fossil vertebrate specimen – the grinning skull and lower jaws of an oreodon. Shalimar has been the setting for a fossil mammal field course led for thirty consecutive years by William R. Hammer, a paleontologist at Augustana College. A significant number of student participants, myself included, have gone on to get advanced degrees in paleontology, geology and other related fields. For the last eight years, I have accompanied the field course as an assistant, and the specimens I’ve collected on those trips have gone into the collections at the N. C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
When the ranch was sold, the field course tentatively scheduled to run this spring was cancelled. Instead, several past participants traveled to Nebraska to visit with our friends, Bordy and Mary Munson, former owners of the ranch. Our visit coincided with Bordy’s birthday, and his sons Spencer and Alex were there to celebrate with him. Despite the apparent end of our thirty-year run, it was a festive and hopeful visit.
We plan to open up a dialog with the new owners about continuing to run our field course on their property. Fingers crossed!
Once in Argentina with the CMFPE, Elmer S. Riggs was required to write and submit a fossil collecting permit application to the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction. He then waited more-or-less patiently as the application made its way slowly through bureaucratic channels over the next two weeks. Meanwhile, with his application pending and nothing more pressing to attend to, he enjoyed the sights of Buenos Aires and La Plata, including several “hotly-contested” horse races in Palermo, a “splendid boulevard,” parks “rivaling anything we had seen in the U.S.,” and “splendid monuments.” During this long interval he had “plenty of time to see the city and to become acquainted with the Museums.” Years later Riggs wrote that “there are many attractive places in the parks and plazas of the Argentine capital. The abundance of palms,” and other tropical vegetation added “beauty and luxuriance” to the landscape.
At some point Riggs met with zoologist and Patagonian explorer Clemente Onelli. Their meeting probably took place during a visit to the local zoo, where Onelli was director. Onelli shared a fantastic story with his Chicago visitor. In January 1922, he had received a letter from Martin Sheffield, a native Texan and adventurer then living in Patagonia. Sheffield claimed to have sighted a strange animal swimming in a lake near the remote town of Esquel: “I saw in the middle of the lake an animal with a huge neck like that of a swan, and the movement in the water made me suppose the beast to have a body like that of a crocodile,” he wrote. This, coupled with other, similar reports, brought plesiosaurs to the zoo director’s mind. Intrigued by the possibility of finding a living animal alleged to be extinct in the wilds of Patagonia, Onelli organized a well-publicized expedition aimed at capturing the beast. Armed with elephant guns and dynamite, the expedition set out from Buenos Aires on 23 March 1922. They reached the lake near Esquel, but finding no sign of the plesiosaur, they turned back empty-handed with the onset of winter.
An Associated Press story then circulated widely in North American newspapers linking Riggs to the hunt for Patagonian plesiosaurs. According to an article in the Chicago Post, for example, Riggs listened “with interest” to Onelli’s account of the unsuccessful search for the mysterious monster. Riggs could not be tempted away from his fossil expedition, though he toyed with the reporter gamely: “‘If I meet that Plesiosaurus,’ said Prof. Riggs to Prof. Onelli, ‘I’ll put a lariat around his neck and lead him direct to the Buenos Aires zoo.’” Riggs’ American Museum colleague William Diller Matthew read a similar article in New York. “I noted in the newspaper despatches an interview with Dr. Riggs,” Matthew wrote in a letter to George F. Sternberg, “in which he promised to lead the live plesiosaurus home by the tail, evidently refusing to take that story as seriously as the reporter wanted him to.”
Patagonia has given rise to more than its fair share of fantastic stories of monsters, giant men and lost cities. (For more information on this, see Patagonian Monsters.) And though Riggs never was distracted by the search for a live plesiosaur, he went on at least one wild goose chase with another Patagonian adventurer named Gerhard Wolf. More on the mysterious Dr. Wolf will appear in a future post.
Elmer Samuel Riggs was born the youngest of five children on a farm near Trafalgar, Indiana on 23 January 1869. His family moved that same year to a farm in rural Kansas, where Riggs spent most of his youth. His formal schooling was very erratic. Nevertheless, at the urging of his mother, he enrolled at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, in 1890. His older brother Henry was a student there, too, and together they worked as janitors in “Old Snow Hall” to pay their way through school. Daily contact with museum specimens there inspired Riggs to take courses in botany and zoology. Further inspiration came from an enthusiastic teacher and vertebrate paleontologist named Samuel Wendell Williston. He collected his first fossil mammals with Williston in the White River badlands of South Dakota in the summer of 1894. Fellow classmates and future paleontologists Ermine Cowles Case and Barnum Brown joined the expedition, too. Riggs then accompanied a dinosaur-hunting expedition to Wyoming the following year. Fossil mammals collected in South Dakota were the basis of Riggs’ earliest publication. Riggs described other White River specimens from the Kansas University collections for his thesis work, leading to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the spring of 1896 (Kohl, et. al. 2004, especially pp. 27-35). He credited Williston with inspiring him to “follow the lure of palaeontology (Riggs 1926, p. 537).”
Riggs and Brown both joined an American Museum expedition in 1896. This was their first taste of professional fossil collecting and both were immediately hooked. For Brown, who quit his studies at Kansas to join the expedition, this experience eventually yielded a life-long career with the American Museum. Riggs, meanwhile, won a fellowship to continue his graduate studies in biology with Princeton paleontologist William Berryman Scott. Concerned that his funding might not be renewed for a second year and envious of Brown’s professional success, Riggs sent an unsolicited letter to the Field Columbian Museum, in January 1898, offering his services as an experienced fossil hunter (Brinkman 2000).
As luck would have it, the museum was just then seeking to inaugurate a vertebrate paleontology program. At the close of the world’s fair in 1893, the museum purchased the entire Ward’s Natural Science Establishment exhibit – this then formed the nucleus of its natural history collections. An assortment of miscellaneous fossils, models and casts formed a part of this purchase. Mineralogist Oliver Cummings Farrington, Curator of the Geology Department, was eager to enlarge the fossil collections through fieldwork, but he needed expert help to pull this off. The museum’s director, Frederick J. V. Skiff, agreed. Skiff offered Riggs a tryout – a modestly paid opportunity to accompany Farrington on a fossil hunting expedition. He sweetened the deal by hinting at the possibility of permanent employment later. Farrington then sent Riggs a follow-up letter explaining that if the expedition recovered a good quantity of fossil material and if Riggs’ work proved satisfactory, that there was little doubt that he would find a permanent position at the museum. Farrington’s encouragement did the trick. Riggs cancelled a previous (and less lucrative) arrangement at the American Museum and cast his lot with Chicago. Following a successful trial, he accepted the position of assistant curator of paleontology on 31 December 1898. He was the museum’s first dedicated paleontologist (see Brinkman 2000, pp. 94-95).
The early high-water mark of Riggs’ career followed closely on the heels of his appointment. He spent three very successful field seasons, 1899-1901, collecting Jurassic dinosaurs in the Morrison formation of Wyoming and Colorado, netting the type specimen of Brachiosaurus altithorax – the largest dinosaur then known – as well as an incomplete but exhibit-quality Apatosaurus skeleton. He published important papers on these and other dinosaurs during this period. His intention was to use these publications to satisfy the thesis requirement for a Ph.D. under his beloved mentor Williston, who had moved from Kansas to the University of Chicago in 1902. He also revolutionized the paleontology laboratory by adapting the pneumatic chisel to fossil preparation, thereby making the work faster, more accurate and easier on the lab technicians and the fossils they were preparing. He supervised the preparation and exhibition of Apatosaurus, which, although lacking the head, neck, forelimbs and the end of the tail, debuted with wild acclaim in 1908 (see Brinkman 2000; 2010). He spent one summer in the Late Cretaceous Lance formation of Wyoming and southeastern Montana in 1904, where he and his party managed to collect a poorly preserved skeleton and skull of Triceratops. He did fossil mammal fieldwork, also, in the White River badlands of South Dakota in 1905, in the Miocene of western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming in 1906 and 1908, and in the Uintah Basin in 1910.
Unfortunately, funding for paleontology fieldwork dried up completely after 1910, and Riggs’ career and personal life took a decided turn for the worse. Museum paleontology provided only a very meager living in the best of times. For Riggs, persistent financial shortfalls prevented him from completing his Ph.D., which he abandoned after 1905. He married Helen Mosher, a Chicago schoolteacher, in September 1901, and fathered two sons, Robert and Calvin. But his wife died tragically in 1906. Feeling unfit for raising two young children on his own, he sent his sons to live with his brother Robert’s family in eastern Washington. He saw them very infrequently until after he remarried in 1913. With no institutional support for paleontology, Riggs’ position at the museum became increasingly intolerable to him. “One grows thin fed on hope alone,” was how he put it in a letter to Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum. Riggs began looking for work at other institutions: at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1914, at the University of Wisconsin in 1915, and probably elsewhere. He also solicited opportunities to do fieldwork on behalf of the American Museum, which had, under the patronage and leadership of Osborn, become the dominant program in vertebrate paleontology in America (see Rainger 1991). Osborn tempted Riggs with possible opportunities to work again in the Uintah Basin in 1913, and in the Morrison formation in 1917. There were also definite plans afoot to send Riggs to collect fossil mammals in South America in 1914. Nothing ever came of any of these extracurricular field plans, however. Riggs had been feeding on hope alone for a long and miserable decade when the pace of activity at the Field Museum ramped up dramatically in 1919-1920 in preparation for moving into a new building in Chicago’s Grant Park.
In 1921, a generous bequest from Captain Marshall Field III, grandson of the museum’s founder, reinvigorated scientific work at the museum. Riggs spent most of the next six years doing extensive fieldwork in Alberta, Canada (1922) and in Argentina and Bolivia (1922-1927). The former expedition was devoted to Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and yielded several exhibit-quality specimens. The objective of the latter expedition, on the other hand, was to make a representative collection of all the known fossil mammal localities of southern South America. Many unique specimens from the latter expedition are still on display at the Field Museum. Riggs was especially gratified with the discovery of a marsupial saber-toothed cat in the Pliocene of Argentina, which he dubbed Thylacosmilus atrox in 1933. His last expedition for the Field Museum was in 1931, when he brought future paleontologists Bryan Patterson and James H. Quinn to the field in order to train them as fossil collectors. He retired in September 1942, after more than forty years of service to the Field Museum.
He moved back to Lawrence, Kansas after his retirement, but remained active in his chosen field by volunteering at the university’s museum and joining its students for fossil hunting in western Kansas. He also continued to lecture, publish and revise old manuscripts. Very late in life he began assembling autobiographical materials, but he never published any of it.
Riggs died fifty years ago today, on 25 March 1963, in Sedan, Kansas, at the age of 94. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence.
Rest in peace, Elmer.
Brinkman, Paul D. 2000. “Establishing vertebrate paleontology at Chicago’s Field Columbian Museum, 1893-1898.” Archives of Natural History 27(1): 81-114.
On 12 February 1834, Charles Darwin’s sister Susan penned an affectionate birthday letter to her beloved brother, who was then enduring the voyage of HMS Beagle. She wrote (in part*):
My dear Charles
This is your Birthday; so I must begin my letter to wish you joy, and many happy returns of it (but not abroad) mind that.
Papa who never forgets anniversarys remembered this day of course at Breakfast and sends you his best love & blessing on reaching 25 years. Poor old Nurse Nancy entertained me all the time I was dressing this mor[nin]g with many lamentations over your absence on this day when you ought to be eating Plum pudding with us, & all the Servants say she has not failed to put them in mind of you; so as I have often told you before, you are not forgotten by the least of us.—
….Good bye my dearest old Charley from y[ou]r very affectionate Susan Darwin[.]
My attention was directed to this ruined wagon when I visited Killik Aike last February while doing fieldwork in the Santa Cruz beds with a very accommodating group of Argentine paleontologists and geologists, including Sergio Vizcaino, Susana Bargo and others. My trip to Argentina was funded in part by a generous Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society.
My Argentine colleagues were there to collect Santa Cruz fossils. My purpose was to revisit historic fossil localities of the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition. One morning Sergio decided to visit Killik Aike to search for fossils there, and I jumped at the chance to see this historic place and talk to the present owners about old family records. While the rest of the party was fossil-hunting, I visited the estancia and had a long interview with John Locke Blake, sheep breeder, author and master of Killik Aike. Later we were all treated to a wonderful asado of wood-fired lamb and an abundance of carrots and potatoes plucked from the estancia’s famous garden.
Locke told me that when he bought the place from the Feltons in 1980, he found two North American wagons abandoned near the shore. When he tried to move them to higher ground, they fell to pieces. He believes they were owned and used by John Bell Hatcher and the Princeton Patagonia Expedition (1896-1899). Hatcher did, in fact, bring his own outfit from the US when he came here to collect fossils, and he left this outfit in the care of Barnum Brown, of the American Museum of Natural History. Brown then abandoned the wagon in Patagonia when he returned home in 1900. Brown had collected fossils at Felton’s estancia, also, and at least one report claims that Hatcher sold his wagon to Felton. Could one of the North American buckboards found at Killik Aike be Hatcher’s wagon? Very likely.
The other wagon might have belonged to Handel T. Martin, another North American who collected in the Santa Cruz beds in 1904. Martin also brought his own outfit from North America. It is not known what Martin did with his wagon when he abandoned the field and returned home.
I took many pictures of these two wagons. I paid particular attention to marks or manufacturer names that I thought would be helpful in untangling these remains. If there are any buckboard experts out there who can identify the make and model of the wagon depicted here, and tell me something about its history, I’m all ears. Help me put the cart before the horse.
The first days at Rio Gallogos [were] marked by the cordiality of the English-speaking residents and their eagerness to lend a helping hand. Scarcely had our party become settled at the Hotel Argentina when Mr. Smith of the Frigorifico(Compania Swift) came in to call and to advise us of police regulations and requirements. Next day we had lunch with him and acting Supt. Whitney who had in the meantime called at the hotel. In the afternoon (Jan. 1) we went with Mr. W. for a drive on the Punta Arenas road to [see] volcanoes…. On this ride we saw our first Guanaco and first rhea. …Two days later Mr. Whitney provided us with an interpreter … to present us to the Governor…. So well was the matter handled that our party had a most cordial reception[.] [We] spent a pleasant half hour and stayed to tea.
Provided with sedulas and a special letter from the Governor, Mr. Whitney again came forward with his car and driver to take us to Killick Aike, the Felton ranch. There we had a cordial reception from Mr. Carlos Felton present owner, and were shown the really wonderful garden of the estate which is known throughout the territory. We visited also the barranca near the house and saw the first fossil in situ, part of a foot of Nesodon. This on Jan. 4. …Abbott and Sternberg remained at the ranch and began active collecting the following day. When I returned on Saturday evening Mr. S. showed [me] a fine skull of Protypotherium which he had found.
Riggs went back to Rio Gallegos with the driver the following day to buy supplies and overhaul their field equipment and arranged to have it all taken by truck to Killik Aike. When Riggs returned, the Feltons
…insisted upon my remaining at the ranch home over Sunday and made me quite comfortable. On … Sunday the men established camp at a spring just over a ridge from the house and I spent part of the day there while the family [was] away on other engagements. Monday morning Jan. 8, I moved over to camp and began work on the barranca. A standing invitation was extended for us to dine at the ranch on Saturday evenings. Had birthday dinner there.
The birthday Riggs mentions, his 54th, was 90 years ago today, 23 January 1923. The party remained at Killik Aike for the next three weeks. During that time, the Feltons supplied fresh meat,vegetables, saddle horses when needed and a team of mules to move them away when their work in that locality was finished. In gratitude, Riggs wrote: “We shall not soon forget the courtesy and hospitality of Mr. Felton and the charming hostess, his sister, Mrs. Henstock.”
Ninety years ago today, Elmer S. Riggs and his small party, including George F. Sternberg and John B. Abbott, arrived at Rio Gallegos, Argentina to begin a long fossil hunting expedition in southern Patagonia. On that day, Riggs wrote one of his longest and most memorable journal entries, most of which is excerpted below:
Sunday Dec 31. 1922.
Called by the steward at 6:40 to find that the ship had anchored in the mouth of the river. Great scurrying about and the steward called for our baggage before I was dressed. Gave him the trunks then the hurry was all over and we were told that there was time for breakfast. Packed suit case and bag and then went down for coffee 7 o’clock.
At 8:30 a ships lighter was anchored alongside and hand baggage passed down. Then men were admitted to the gangway. Passengers all lined up along the rail watching the lighter bobbing upon the waves and bumping ship and ladder. Two longshoremen stood at bottom in the lighter and when close enough, pulled and lifted passengers from the ladder to it. As I entered the smaller boat was unable to stand up because of the motion. Some passengers were lying close under the forward decking already seasick while the spray from every wave broke over us. Men, women, and children were pulled and lifted aboard, infants were carried by the sailors. Passengers dropped down on luggage and boxes anywhere.
Then the ships steam launch which had been lying off during the disembarking, came alongside and picked up the lighters hawser and took us in tow not alongside as had been done in quiet waters but with a long tow-line. After twenty minutes of buffeting and liberal of sprinkling from salt water, we ran on the beach a mile from the ship. A miscellaneous crowd lined the shore. As I approached a stack of trunks, boxes, chests, and furniture a tall young man approached and asked, “Is this Mr. Riggs[?]” Receiving my answer in the affirmative he offered a hearty handshake and replied that he was Mr. Coleman of Chicago. Then in quite as genuine a manner he asked “What can I do for you?”
This hearty and friendly greeting did much toward relieving a feeling of strangeness at being dumped ashore in a strange country amid the babble of strange tongues.
Riggs and his party stayed for several days the Hotel Argentino. Here they acclimated to their new surroundings, which – though strange at first – became more and more familiar with each passing day. In town they shopped, packed and readied their outfit for fieldwork. By the end of the first week of January they were camped on the other side of the river, searching for Santa Cruz fossil mammals along the riverbank and in the sea cliffs north of town.