Book Review: Bones for Barnum Brown

The book cover for Bones for Barnum Brown shows a triceratops skeleton against a bright blue background. Bones for Barnum Brown
By Roland T. Bird
Texas Christian University Press, 1985
Format: Print

Depending on how you count, Roland Thaxter Bird (1899-1978) was on his second or third career by the time he started hunting dinosaur bones for Barnum Brown and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. After dropping out of high school, Brown transformed his experience working on his uncle’s cattle farm into a career shepherding a wealthy Florida cattleman’s dairy cows to shows around the country.

When an economic downturn put an end to that, Bird purchased a 1929 Harley Davidson motorcycle, outfitted it with a handmade side camper, and took himself on a tour of all 50 states, doing old jobs to keep himself fed along the way.

While on his 50-state tour, Bird stumbled across a partial jaw of an ancient amphibian. He sent it to his father in upstate New York, who sent it on to Barnum Brown at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Brown wrote back asking where the other half was.

So Bird went looking for it. Even Bird was surprised when he found it.

That second find earned Bird a spot on Brown’s dinosaur hunting crews in the summer and in Brown’s paleontology lab cleaning bones over the winters.

Over the course of his time working for Brown, Bird participated in several major discoveries. The discovery I’m most familiar with is the work Bird did excavating the dinosaur trackways along the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas in the late 1930s. (You can read Bird’s May 1939 account of prospecting for the tracks, “Thunder in His Steps,” in the online Natural History Magazine archives.)

I first learned about Bird’s Paluxy River discovery back in 2011, while researching whether sauropods could swim at my daughter’s request (at the time, she herself was struggling with swimming lessons, and was looking to the historical record for evidence to support the idea that wading was a “good-enough” life skill).

While we’ve never found a dinosaur bone in the wild (that we know of), one of our family’s favorite outings was the one we took to South Hadley, Massachusetts to see the dinosaur footprints, so I feel a certain affinity for Bird. Once I learned that Bird had written a memoir of his time working for Barnum Brown, and even better that this memoir, Bones for Barnum Brown, was available through my library’s Interlibrary Loan Program, I decided to read it. 

Dinosaur tracks in South Hadley, Massachusetts. My daughter’s three-year-old feet provided for scale. (Photo: Michael Howell)

What I Thought

In general, Bird is a far better writer and his book much more fun to read than I had expected. Scientists have learned a lot about dinosaurs since Bird wrote this book, and it was pretty entertaining trying to figure out which tidbits were still correct and which had been amended as new discoveries had come in. For example, Bird very strongly believes that T. Rexes and other theropods couldn’t swim. New evidence suggests that yes, in fact, they probably could.

Never having been on a dig myself, I had also thought that it might be interesting to see what it would have been like to go on a dig in the 1930s, and I was not disappointed. The glimpses into what life was like back then were fascinating. Money was tight in those days, what with the Great Depression and all. The solutions Bird came up with to various obstacles on the dig seemed both ingeniously resourceful to me and second nature to him. His world was clearly not as disposable as ours has become.

One of my favorite That-Was-Such-A-Different-Time moments came late in the book, during the Paluxy River dig. One afternoon, Bird and his crew get caught in a massive thunderstorm. During the storm, Bird’s aging Buick is struck by lightning. Bird’s first reaction is to feel grateful that he wasn’t sitting in the car at the time it was struck. His next action, though, is to climb into the car to wait out the storm. (I am still shaking my head about that.)

Once the rain lets up a bit, Bird sensibly decides that he and his aging Buick had better get back to civilization before the Paluxy River floods out the roads. He calls to some nearby crew members to offer them a lift back to town.

There’s a problem, though. The car won’t start.

After inspecting the car in the rain, Bird decides that the lightning strike has created a clot in the gas line. He removes the carburetor cap, siphons off a bottle’s worth of gas, and hands the gas and the siphon hose to one of his passengers.

“‘Elmer, if you ride the fender and dribble the gas to her, we’ll get you to Glen Rose just like I said. A little wetter than sitting under that hailstone hole, but …’

… And away we went. Elmer, wedged in behind the spare tire, did a great job. So did the old Buick. We rolled into Glen Rose as proud and happy as we were wet.”

– Roland T. Bird, Bones for Barnum Brown, p. 186

Bird would never get away with doing that today. Bones for Barnum Brown is full of moments like that one, which makes for excellent reading. 

A final note: Bird’s book is definitely a product of his time. On the technology and dinosaur knowledge front, reading a paleontologist’s memoir about his work during the Great Depression can be a lot of fun. But when it comes to talking about people, well, let’s just say that a few times Bird describes the people around in him in terms that can most kindly be called dated. Those episodes were jarring for me. Thankfully they were also relatively infrequent.

Who Would Enjoy This Book

  • Anyone curious about the history of paleontology
  • Anyone who enjoys stories about dinosaurs and the people who find them

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