In 1836, Edward Hitchcock delivered a report to the American Journal of Science about "remarkable footmarks in stone in the valley of Connecticut River, which have since awakened so much interest among intelligent men." Throughout his life he collected over 20,000 fossil footprints and established a footprint museum at Amherst College. To this day it remains the world's largest fossil footprint museum.
Hitchcock, professor of geology and theology, and president of Amherst College, devoted his life to natural history and the Bible. He believed the footprints had been made by giant birds. We now know the fossil footprints were made by bipedal dinosaurs.
Hitchcock's assumption might seem quaint today, but it's important to remember the times in which he worked. He delivered his report several years before Richard Owen even named the Dinosauria, when the only known dinosaur fossils were fragmentary. Hitchcock became a professor of chemistry, geology and natural history at Amherst before the first dinosaur, then called a fossil reptile, was formally described, and the prevailing view of ancient reptiles was that they were like today's lizards, just many times the size. Only with later discoveries, such as the first relatively complete dinosaur skeleton of Hadrosaurus foulkii did paleontologists realize that some dinosaurs were bipedal. And when Hitchcock published another report in 1858, Ichnology of New England, he considered the possibility, based on occasional tail impressions, that the "giant birds" who made the tracks might have had some reptilian characteristics.
Even if he didn't accept a dinosaur as the track maker, Hitchcock did demonstrate some impressive logic. He undertook extensive comparisons between the fossil tracks and those of modern birds, and he identified several potential species among the track makers. He speculated (correctly) that many more fossil tracks might be found if quarries were to be opened. He also reasoned that tracks on inclined rocks were probably originally made of level ground, remarking, "There is no appearance as if the animal had scrambled upwards, or slid downwards, except in one or two tracks of great size, where the mud appears to have been rolled up a few inches before the feet."
Hitchcock might have disagreed with Owen about the maker of the footprints, but there was one stance that the men shared: an opposition to evolution. In his Elementary Geology, Hitchcock included a foldout Paleontological Chart showing nonevolutionary trees mapped to geologic time. But Hitchcock was, in the end, no biblical literalist. He may have started his career thinking the Bible told all anybody needed to know about Earth's history, but by the end, he conceded that the Bible was no scientific textbook.
As a professor and author, Hitchcock enjoyed unusual and valuable support. His wife, Orra White Hitchcock, shared his love of natural history and devoted her artistic talents to illustrating classroom aids and book illustrations.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated March 13, 2019