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APSU professor Deibert publishes book on historic 1868 survey of Wyoming

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In 1871, geologist Ferdinand Hayden led the first federally funded geological survey into the Yellowstone region of northwestern Wyoming. His findings, along with the work of his survey team, were instrumental in convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first U.S. National Park, but a new book by Dr. Jack Deibert, Austin Peay State University professor of geology, sheds light on the historical significance of Hayden’s earlier journey into this region.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In 1871, geologist Ferdinand Hayden led the first federally funded geological survey into the Yellowstone region of northwestern Wyoming. His findings, along with the work of his survey team, were instrumental in convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first U.S. National Park, but a new book by Dr. Jack Deibert, Austin Peay State University professor of geology, sheds light on the historical significance of Hayden’s earlier journey into this region.

Deibert’s first book, “Tracks, Trails & Thieves: The Adventures, Discoveries and Historical Significance of Ferdinand V. Hayden’s 1868 Geological Survey of Wyoming and Adjacent Territories,” recounts Hayden’s earlier survey, which included the discovery of “huge bird” tracks in the area.

“I was talking with (book co-author) Brent Briethaupt, who is a paleontologist and spent a long time as the curator at the University of Wyoming Geology Museum, where I had studied for my Ph.D, and he told me that Hayden had noted in his report that, while traveling between train stations in Wyoming in 1868, he had observed ‘huge bird’ tracks, but made no more mention of the tracks in his report,” Deibert said.

Those tracks were actually footprints left by a three-toed dinosaur. That finding led to Hayden being credited with the earliest dinosaur fossil discovery in the state of Wyoming, as well as the first dinosaur tracks found in western North America.

“What I realized was that it was actually easier to find dinosaur tracks in the Wyoming plains than it was to find out about the expedition that discovered those tracks,” Deibert said. “Hayden did not keep a journal – he only kept haphazardly written notes on his findings. We had no idea of how he got from place to place, or what was happening around him as he was on this survey.”

Through his research, Deibert was able to tell the story of Hayden’s serendipitous journey through Wyoming. Riding the transcontinental railroad, the geologist encountered famous figures, including Generals John Gibbon and Francis Blair, Union Pacific Railroad Vice President Thomas Durant and Colorado Territory Governor William Gilpin. For a period of time, Hayden even traveled on the private railroad car that carried the body of Abraham Lincoln, following his assassination in 1865.

“Hayden was a tireless self-promoter, and he would keep running into all these famous people while on the survey,” Deibert said. “He didn’t have much in the way of money or resources, but he would gladly accept help from the people he met along the way. So when you’re scraping for information (on Hayden), you would come across the journals of people he met who would note him in their writings.”

Using the records of those men and women as a guide, Deibert pieced together an account of Hayden’s 1868 survey. But a last-second discovery before submitting his research to Briethaupt changed everything.

“I was about to send a draft of the book to my co-writer when I decided to do one final search for anything connected to that survey when I found that a journal from an 1868 geological expedition of Cheyenne belonging to James Carson had come online,” Deibert said. “I thought ‘Holy moly – this can’t be true,’ because it turned out James was one of the field assistants on Hayden’s survey.”

The discovery shed new light on the survey, providing critical information for reconstructing events and helped breathe new life into the experiences of Hayden and his team.

“Now that I’m reading these first-hand accounts and I have accurate dates and times for these events, I can go back to my previous findings and say ‘Oh, I was way off here,’ or ‘I had this detail right,’” Deibert said. “It was just as fascinating to discover that James had a much less scientific appreciation for the events going on around him. Whereas Hayden’s writings were strictly focused on science, James’ diary entries are telling the story of all the historical events going on around their survey.”

Besides the unexpected discovery of dinosaur tracks, Hayden’s work produced the first structural profile across the Rocky Mountains, from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Thanks to Carson’s journal – and the tireless research of Deibert – we now know there was much more to Hayden’s 1868 survey than just giant bird tracks. His time in Wyoming is a story of how one of America’s geological pioneers interacted with, and influenced, everyone from the country’s political and military leaders all the way down to the thieves and rogues who defined the true “wild west.”

“We never got this sense of drama from his reports, and other historians who wrote about him didn’t understand how much he really accomplished, given his resources and the circumstances surrounding his 1868 survey,” Deibert said. “What began as somewhere between a hobby and an obsession for me has turned out to be what I hope could be the definitive tale of his exhibition for the next 100 years.”

Deibert’s book “Tracks, Trails & Thieves” is available on Amazon.com and other retailers. For more information, contact Deibert at deibertj@apsu.edu, or visit the Austin Peay State University Department of Geosciences at www.apsu.edu/geosciences.