Tales of the elephant bones

Finding prehistoric “elephants” was often an accident for farmers and other amateurs just stumbling over bones and tusks in an open field.

When Tarzan was searching for the fabled elephant graveyard, a pachyderm ride to Jackson County might just have been the ape man's ticket.

For well over a century, miners, contractors and backyard gardeners from Maine to Oregon have been digging up "elephant" bones.

If you go

In the words of Johnny Weissmuller, "Ungawa, Bwana!" we send you on an expedition.

The Oswald farm, near Antelope Creek, is now in the middle of a large piece of private property southeast of Agate Reservoir.

If you'd like to get a look at the country surrounding one of Jackson County's "fossil beds," drive 5.8 miles north on Highway 62 from Medford to Highway 140 and turn right. Continue 3.6 miles and turn right onto East Antelope Road. Follow East Antelope past Agate Reservoir to Old Dry Creek Road. Drive a few hundred feet and look toward the hills on your far left. In these hills Oswald unearthed his "elephant bones."

Discoveries in Jackson County started with the gold miners when they blasted through solid rock and washed away hillsides with a punishing plume of water. Sooner or later, the gold trickled out along with an occasional gigantic bone and sometimes an ivory tusk.

It probably wasn't the first discovery, but out in the Applegate in 1867, two newspaper editors, Daniel Gault of Jacksonville's Oregon Sentinel and James Sutton, his predecessor, just happened to be there when Chinese miners uncovered a 75-pound bone, two teeth weighing 3 pounds each, and a broken tusk more than 6 feet long.

Further digging revealed a 7-foot portion of a rib cage, a broken shoulder blade and a shattered white chunk thought to be part of an upper leg bone.

"An examination proves conclusively," Gault wrote, "that these bones belong to a mastodon. "… The immense size of the leg bone would lead us to believe that the animal must have been 11 or 12 feet in height."

In what would be the pattern until scientists took over, Sutton took the bones and put them on display, "simply for the gratification of those who are curious in such matters."

Another mammoth find came in the early 1870s, when the banks of Foots Creek gave up at least six tusks, some more than 7 feet long. Reporters were confused whether these were mastodon, mammoth or just plain old elephant tusks, but all agreed, "This was quite a formidable animal to be roving about the mountains of Southern Oregon."

Whether looking into a gravel bed 8 feet under Bear Creek, or in gravel slides on the hillsides near the Sterling Mine, amateur miners were becoming unwitting paleontologists.

The only difference between them and a real scientist was that miners could care less what happened to the bones.

The great discovery of 1928 was "fossil elephant bones" plowed up by Herman Oswald on his father's Antelope Creek farm.

Herman gathered up his collection and took it to professor Edward Hussong, biology teacher at Medford High School. Hussong identified a 19-inch molar, an 8-inch femur ball, and what appeared to be a piece of a large ankle bone.

He also examined what he believed was a partial skeleton of "probably a baby elephant."

"The Oswald fossil beds," as a Mail Tribune reporter called them, "may become an added attraction to Medford visitors in future years." But they didn't.

Six years later, Hussong was ready to identify petrified pieces of bone from another half-million-year-old "elephant skeleton." Sadly, by the time the fragments reached him, the "complete skeleton had crumbled into dust."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.

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