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The Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Roy Chapman Andrews: A Real Life Indiana Jones

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The Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Since the '80s, one name has been synonymous with adventure: Indiana Jones. The iconic film character has been envied and emulated by children, adults, and other fictional characters alike. With his hat and his whip, his brain and his brawn, and that amazing theme music, who hasn’t dreamed of being like Indy, roaming the world and hunting down treasure? One man, Roy Chapman Andrews, was very nearly the real thing. Though his adventures didn’t involve faces melting or hearts being torn out, they were still perilous and often produced artifacts of great significance.

An Adventurous Childhood

Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Roy Chapman Andrews was born in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1884. As a child, he was an avid explorer of local forests and waterways. In his autobiography, Under a Lucky Star, Andrews describes himself as “like a rabbit, happy only when [he] could run out of doors.” When he turned 9, Andrews received a little single-barrel shotgun, and as he grew up, he became a skilled marksman. He later taught himself taxidermy and used that skill to earn money for his education at Beloit College.

Andrews had known since he was a young boy that he wanted to be an explorer, and he realized that there would be risks in pursuing adventure—but he could not have imagined the peril that he would face on a routine hunting trip while he was still in college. When he was 21, Andrews was duck hunting on Wisconsin’s Rock River with Montague White, a member of Beloit College’s English department. It was March, so both the weather and the waters were cold. The river had also been rising steadily for days and held strong, dangerous currents. On what tragically became the last day of their hunting trip, Andrews and White’s boat was upset and they were thrown overboard, into the frigid river. Andrews was swept away by the current and struggled to swim towards shore. He managed to reach a submerged tree, and finally solid ground, but his friend was not so lucky. White, plagued by muscle cramps, had not made it to the bank, despite being a strong swimmer. This incident made a lasting impact on Andrews and seemed to set a precedent for his future, both in his additional brushes with death and in his attention to safety and detail in his fieldwork.

After graduating from college in 1906, Andrews hopped on a train to New York City to pursue another thing he had wanted since he was a boy: a job at the American Museum of Natural History. When Andrews reached the museum, however, he was told that there were no jobs available. Refusing to be discouraged, Andrews volunteered to scrub the museum’s floors. He was hired to clean and perform basic assistant duties in the taxidermy department, as well as to help the director of the museum with odd jobs when asked. Andrews quickly moved up the ranks and, despite several “better offers” throughout his early career, stayed on with the museum. He was soon doing the type of adventurous fieldwork he had dreamed about.

Andrews’ Early Career and Narrow Escapes

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Andrews’ first major interest in the field was marine mammals—specifically whales. This fascination began when, after only being at the museum for seven months, he and colleague Jim Clark were assigned to retrieve the skeleton of a dead whale from a Long Island beach. The director instructed Clark and Andrews to retrieve every bone, but never believed they could do it because of how quickly the bones of beached whales sink into the sand. But Andrews and Clark returned to the museum with the entire whale skeleton; they had guarded it from a storm and retrieved it from the sand in freezing conditions (this whale's bones are still in the museum's department of mammalogy). Inspired by this retrieval, Andrews took part in many expeditions in Alaska, Indonesia, China, Japan and Korea, where he observed and collected marine mammal specimens. As Andrews’ career progressed, his subjects of study expanded and he continued to travel the world in search of animals and their remains.

Like the fictional Dr. Jones, Andrews found he had many brushes with death as he traveled the world. In this quote from his book On the Trail of Ancient Man, Andrews reflects on several of his nearly lethal experiences from his early career:

“In [my first] fifteen years [of field work] I can remember just ten times when I had really narrow escapes from death. Two were from drowning in typhoons, one was when our boat was charged by a wounded whale, once my wife and I were nearly eaten by wild dogs, once we were in great danger from fanatical lama priests, two were close calls when I fell over cliffs, once was nearly caught by a huge python, and twice I might have been killed by bandits.”

A Desert of Discovery

Andrews is best known for the numerous expeditions he led in the Gobi Desert during the 1920s. These expeditions began with the desire to survey the Central Asian plateau in its entirety, including collecting fossils, living animals, and rock and vegetation samples. Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the museum, put his full support behind Andrews, as he hoped the explorer and his team might find evidence that supported his pet theory that Central Asia was the staging ground, or place of origin, of all Earth’s life.

Andrews embarked on his first expedition in the Gobi in 1922. On this trip, Andrews and colleagues from the museum uncovered several complete skeletons of small dinosaurs, as well as portions of larger dinosaurs. These were the first dinosaurs ever to be discovered north of the Himalaya mountains in Asia. They also recovered preserved insects and other animal remains, and secured the largest single collection of mammals to come from Central Asia, including several new species. The results from this expedition, according to Andrews, simply scratched the surface of what could be gained from the Gobi Desert.

With his curiosity piqued, Andrews wanted to dig deep beneath the surface he and his team had scratched, so he proposed and led several more expeditions into the desert. His second expedition, in 1923, provided some of the most groundbreaking finds of Andrews’ career. Arguably the most scientifically significant of these finds was the skull of a small mammal, no bigger than a rat, that had lived alongside the dinosaurs; very few skulls of mammals from this time had been discovered before this one. The skull was found by Walter Granger, the chief paleontologist of Andrews’ team, embedded in sandstone from the Cretaceous period. Not knowing what sort of creature the skull belonged to, Granger labeled it “unidentified reptile” and sent it to the museum so it could be removed from the stone, identified, and perhaps analyzed further. When word came back in 1925, during Andrews’ third expedition, that the skull did not belong to a reptile but instead to one of the earliest known mammals, the team was thrilled. After hearing this news, Andrews and many members of his expedition were resolved to find more remains of these tiny creatures. During this expedition, the team found seven additional mammal skulls, as well as parts of mammal skeletons.

Probably the most famous find to come out of one of Andrews’ expeditions also came in 1923. It was only the second day after making camp that George Olsen, a paleontology assistant, made the find. He rushed into camp reporting that he had found fossil eggs, but was met with quite a bit of skepticism and teasing. Andrews and the others were, of course, still curious to see what Olsen had found, so went to investigate after they finished their lunch. Lo and behold, Olsen had found eggs—dinosaur eggs! There were three eggs exposed, broken out of the neighboring sandstone ledge, and other full eggs and fragments that could be seen embedded in the rock. This was a momentous find because, at that time, scientists weren’t actually sure how dinosaurs reproduced. It was assumed that dinosaurs laid eggs, as they were reptiles, but it had never been confirmed until Andrews’ team found the eggs.

Scientific American

A total of 25 eggs were retrieved during this expedition and the team thought that the location of these finds probably indicated that the spot was a popular breeding ground. What’s more, it wasn’t just eggs that Olsen found; upon further investigation of the first egg site, the skeleton of a small dinosaur was discovered above the nest. It was posited, at first, that this dinosaur was trying to steal the eggs from their nest for a meal, so it was dubbed Oviraptor (egg seizer). Based on later finds of this same dinosaur, however, scientists now believe it was much more likely that the eggs belonged to that dinosaur and it was protecting them.

Andrews found that the public was so facinated by the eggs that they didn't care about the other discoveries made on the expedition. While the constant focus on these eggs irritated Andrews, he found a way to use this to his advantage. He needed more money to mount further expeditions, and while he found support from several rich backers, it just wasn't enough. To spread the word that the small contributions the public could afford would be appreciated, Andrews and the director of the museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, decided to auction off one of the dinosaur eggs they had recovered. All the publicity for this auction included pleas for funding; Andrews is quoted in a New York Times article saying, “We have felt there is no good reason why we should not sell one of these eggs. We have twenty-five of them . . . There is no desire on our part to make any money for the museum, but only to help defray the expenses of the Asiatic expedition.” In the end, Andrews collected $50,000 in public donations in addition to the winning bid of $5000 for the egg, which was won by Mr. Austin Colgate and given to Colgate University as a gift.

Austin Colgate (right) gives Roy Chapman Andrews a check for the dinosaur egg. Photo courtesy of Colgate University's Geology Department.

And a Desert of Danger

The staggering finds made by Andrews and his team were not the only excitement to be had on these Gobi expeditions, however. In Under a Lucky Star, Andrews recounts many dangerous encounters the desert provided. In one instance, Andrews was on his way back from a supply run when he encountered some bandits. He was driving down a steep slope when he saw, at the bottom, four men with rifles on horseback. Knowing he couldn’t turn around on the rocky slope, Andrews decided his best course of action was to head straight for the bandits with some speed. He remembers that as soon as he hit the accelerator, the horses “went mad with fright.” The bandits tried to reach for their rifles, but found that all their effort was needed just to stay on their horses. While three of the ponies ran off into the desert, the fourth, scared stiff, was left behind. Andrews drove right up next to it and, though he easily could have killed the bandit, took a couple of shots at the hat the bandit wore and chased him away. Andrews writes that the hat, which “bobbed up and down . . . was too great a temptation to be resisted.”

Another incident in the desert had Andrews and his team nervous to sleep in their own camp at night—but not because of bandits. The team had their camp set up on high ground and, on one particularly cold night, a great number of incredibly poisonous pit vipers slithered up the slope seeking warmth. The first to notice this invasion was Norman Lovell, a motor engineer, who saw one of the serpents crossing a patch of moonlight in his tent. Lovell was about to get out of bed to kill the snake when he thought to look around before putting his bare feet on the ground. He noticed two snakes coiled around the posts of his bed and the original emerging from under a gasoline box near the head of his cot.

Lovell was not the only one to encounter vipers. Many others found snakes hiding in their shoes and caps and among their rifles. Fortunately, the cold temperature made the snakes sluggish and slow to strike; the men killed 47 snakes in their camp that night. Everyone came out of the incident unbitten and unscathed, but certainly much more wary. Andrews even recalls how he was frightened and how he screamed when he, sometime later, stepped on something soft and round; to his embarrassment and fortune, it was only a coiled rope. This experience certainly made Andrews share Indiana Jones’ dislike of snakes.

Andrews Gives Up the Gobi

Wikimedia Commons

Andrews thought there was still much to be learned in the Gobi Desert, but political situations in Mongolia and China forced him to suspend expeditions after 1930. Andrews found that his team was severely restricted in the work they were allowed do and the data they could record, not to mention the drastically increased levels of physical danger they faced from bandits and others hostile towards outsiders.

While this phase of Andrews’ career was over, though, another was getting ready to begin. In 1934, Andrews became the director of the American Museum of Natural History and held this post until January 1, 1942, when he decided to turn the museum over to a younger generation of scientists. After retirement, Andrews and his wife Yvette moved to California. He spent much of the rest of his life writing about his many adventures and died of a heart attack in 1960.

Is Andrews the Inspiration for Indiana Jones?

It is widely believed that Andrews was the inspiration for the ingenious adventurer Dr. Henry Jones Jr. While George Lucas never cited Andrews, or anyone else, as a specific real-life model for Jones’ character, it is known that he took a lot of his inspiration for the series from movie serials of the '40s and '50s that he had seen and enjoyed as a child. It is likely that these movie serials Lucas was fond of took inspiration, in turn, from the scientists and explorers of Andrews’ time. Due to his work and discoveries in the Gobi Desert, Andrews is one of the best-known of this crowd and an influential figure in promoting scientific study. However indirect the inspiration may be, there are no doubts in many people’s minds that Andrews was a model for the famous whip-wielding professor. Andrews even consistently wore a ranger hat on his expeditions; Indy fans know that Dr. Jones, too, would never be caught leaving his hat behind.

Andrews’ Legacy

Being the Indiana Jones of his time, however, is not Andrews’ only legacy. The Roy Chapman Andrews Society was formed in 1999 in Andrews’ hometown of Beloit to honor the explorer and his influential work. According to the society’s website, the founders were “intent on building more awareness of one of the 20th Century’s most famous explorers,” as well as promoting the small town of Beloit. In honor of Andrews’ life and achievements, the society presents the Distinguished Explorer Award (DEA) every year to an explorer or scientist who has made or contributed to making scientific discoveries of world-wide significance. This year’s award was presented to Dr. John Grotzinger for his work as the lead scientist of the Mars Curiosity expedition.

Sources: The Roy Chapman Andrews Society; Unmuseum.org;  Beloit University.

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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