Bayard in Morrill County, Nebraska — The American Midwest (Upper Plains)
The Innocent Assassins
“Once in the sun-fierce badlands of the west in that strange country of volcanic ash and cones, . . . we found a sabertooth, most ancient cat, far down in all those cellars of dead time.”
by Loren Eiseley
The twenty-five-million-year-old cat described in the above passage was found only a few miles from here by a University of Nebraska paleontology crew. One of the more unusual paleontological finds ever made in Nebraska, the sabertooth was found with one of its sabers thrust through the upper arm bone of another of its species. Both animals died locked together as a result of their combat.
One of the members of the paleontology crew working at the site was a young student named Loren Eiseley, a native of Lincoln who received his degree from the University of Nebraska in 1933 and who went on to achieve fame as an anthropologist, literary naturalist, author, and philosopher.
During the summers of 1931, 1932, and 1933 Eiseley participated in the University-sponsored “South Party” or Morrill Paleontological Expedition under the direction of Dr. E. H. Barbour. After graduating from Nebraska Eiseley received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 and for ten years taught in Kansas and Ohio before becoming a member
Eiseley’s poem describing the sabertooth find in western Nebraska was published in 1973 as The Innocent Assassins. Author of thirteen books, some of his best-known works include: The Immense Journey, The Night Country, The Firmament of Time, and The Unexpected Universe.
The sabertooth fossil found by the “South Party” in 1932 is on display at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Morrill Hall, Lincoln.
The Innocent Assassins
Once in the sun fierce badlands of the west in that strange country of volcanic ash and cones, runneled by rains, cut into purgatorial shapes, where nothing grows, no seeds spring, no beast moves, we found a sabertooth, most ancient cat, far down in all those cellars of dead time. What was it made the mystery there? We dug until the full length of the striking saber showed beautiful as Toledo steel, the fine serrations still present along the blade, a masterpiece of murderous art conceived by those same forces that heaved mountains up from the flat bottoms of Cretaceous seas.
Attentive in a little silent group we squatted there. This was no ordinary death, though forty million years lay between us and that most gaping snarl. Deep-driven
Pure nature had devised such weapons, struck deep in the night, endured immortally death, ambush, terror, by these, her innocents whose lives revolved on this, whose brains were formed only to strike and strike, beget their kind, and go to strike again.
There were the great teeth snarling in the clay, the bony crests that had once held the muscles for this deed, perfect as yesterday. I looked a little while, admiring how that marvelous weapon had been so designed in unknown darkness, where the genes create as if they planned it so. I wondered why such fury had been swept away, while man, wide-roaming dark assassin of his kind, had sprung up in the wake of such perfected instruments as these. They lived long eras out, while we in all this newborn world of our own violence show uncertainties, and hopes unfostered when the cat’s sheer leap wrenched with his killing skill his very self from life.
I see us still upon that hilltop, gathered like ancient men who, weaponless, detach from an old weathered skull a blade whose form reshaped in flint could lift death up from earth’s inanimate core and hurl it at the heart. Whatever else would bring cold scientists to murmur over what they saw? We are all atavists and yet sometimes we seem wrapped in wild innocence like sabertooths, as if we still might seek a road unchosen yet, another dream.
published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973.
Erected 1997 by Nebraska State Historical Society.
Location. 41° 42.156′ N, 103° 19.907′ W. Marker is in Bayard, Nebraska, in Morrill County. Marker is on Chimney Rock Recreation Road (Nebraska Route 62F), on the right when traveling south. Click for map. Marker is located at Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Marker is in this post office area: Bayard NE 69334, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 7 other markers are within 12 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. Mary Murray Murdoch (approx. half a mile away); Chimney Rock Cemetery (approx. half a mile away); Chimney Rock Station (approx. 1.3 miles away); Chimney Rock (approx. 1.3 miles away); The Oregon Trail (approx. 1.3 miles away); Camp Clarke Bridge and Sidney-Black Hills Trail (approx. 8.7 miles away); Ficklin Springs Pony Express Station (approx. 12 miles away).
More about this marker. A photograph of the skull of a sabertooth appears at the top left of the marker. Below this is a portrait of Loren Eiseley, provided by the University of Pennsylvania.
Categories. • Animals • Paleontology •
Credits. This page originally submitted on , by Bill Coughlin of North Arlington, New Jersey. This page has been viewed 131 times since then and 67 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on , by Bill Coughlin of North Arlington, New Jersey. This page was last revised on June 16, 2016.