Stones and “Bones” Set by William (Billy) Octavius Owen in Wyoming

By J.D. “Sam” Drucker

In November 2000, while helping to create the BLM’s geographic information system (GIS) base layer, termed the Geographic Coordinate Data Base (GCDB), I stumbled upon a General Land Office survey plat that fascinated me.  It was drawn from work conducted by William (Billy) O. Owen in March and April of 1881 in southern Wyoming.

Cast of a fossil used as a marker. (BLM)
Cast of a fossil used as a marker. (BLM)
Noted on the plat is a line of section corner monuments labeled as “Mastodon Bones.”  The idea of relocating and collecting some of these “bone” section corners was intriguing.  I mentioned my intent to John Lee (cadastral chief, Wyoming State Office) and learned that his staff had first brought the idea to paleontologist Laurie Bryant in 1999.  I soon realized that finding these corners was also interesting to others within the BLM.

Through research at the Albany County Courthouse, we found that some of the fossil corners did, in fact, monument the location of federal lands.  Dr. Danny Walker, the assistant state archaeologist, suggested that we contact Brent Breithaupt of the University of Wyoming’s (UW’s) Geological Museum for information concerning the history and the types of fossils discovered in the survey area.  Breithaupt introduced the potential for finding not mastodon, but dinosaur fossils, and excitement for the project grew.  Beth Southwell, Breithaupt’s assistant, began preliminary research in the American Heritage Center on the UW campus and located a partial autobiography written by William O. Owen (Owen 1930) that made reference to the survey of the area and described what happened early in April 1881:

We had our team and wagon with us, and it was our custom, when possible, to load in the necessary number of stones at any favorable place and haul them along with us against the frequent happening that no corner material could be found when we have to have it.  There was no sign of a stone near our corner point so I ran on north half a mile hoping to find a supply near the quarter-section corner.  But in this we were disappointed. . . . Tom Hale, my old side-partner, was my cornerman and in our extremity he pointed to the east where, about half a mile distant, lay two hillocks where, in his opinion, might repose the material we needed.

Two of the boys jumped into the wagon and off they set for the hillocks. . . . After some time they started back and as they drew near I could tell they had considerable of a load. . . . ‘We’ve got something,’ said Tom, ‘but God knows what it is - I don’t.  It’s harder then h___ and every piece weighs a ton!’  Now, what do you suppose those boys had in that wagon?  Fossil bones of a dinosaur!

Upon reading this, the anticipation of discovery buzzed in the office, and soon a date was set for our long-awaited field trip.  After acquiring GCDB coordinates for selected corner locations and inputting them into a hand-held global positioning system (GPS) unit, we began preparing for the field work.

On May 31, 2001, Lee, Mike Whitmore, and I, from the BLM cadastral staff, BLM paleontologist Dale Hanson, and Marty Griffith, from the BLM Wyoming State Office, set off for a day of investigation.  Breithaupt and Southwell joined us in Laramie.  We visited the site of the Bone Cabin Quarry to give us an idea of the type of material that Owen’s crew probably collected for corner material.

Our search began at the closing corner on the north boundary of the township.  Whitmore was the first to see the corner stone, and almost in a daze of exhilaration, we photographed and chattered ecstatically about the piece of Sauropod fossil leg bone situated in a fence line.  Sauropods were very large, plant-eating dinosaurs.  The Apatosaurus (formerly known as the Brontosaurus) is one of the best-known sauropod dinosaurs.

Following our projected section lines and using GPS coordinates, we continued our search for one-half mile south of this corner stone and found the next quarter-section corner.  This position had been monumented with a portion of a large fossilized Apatosaurus tail vertebra that, to our amazement, was plainly marked with “1/4” on the upper right corner.  Owen had stated that these stones were too hard to scribe, so finding one that was marked only added to the historical significance of the original survey.  It is possible that we were the first people to see this particular monument in 120 years.  This fossil corner was collected and replaced with a BLM brass cap.  It is currently housed at UW.  Although we located several more bone monuments, there are several more we have yet to locate.

As we gather more information on the life and times of Owen, it seems fitting to call him a long-lost friend and comrade, a surveyor from the past, but one we all feel akin to.  His accounts of surveying the high plains, deserts, and mountains of Wyoming convey the enthusiasm Billy must have had for life, his work, and adventure.

J.D. “Sam” Drucker has nearly 20 years of experience as a surveyor.  He has worked for the BLM as a seasonal archaeological technician in the Lander Field Office, a cadastral surveyor in the state office, and for the last 6 years, an archaeologist and paleontological coordinator in the Pinedale Field Office in Wyoming.