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The other George Sternberg:

George Miller Sternberg (1838-1915)

Medical Doctor, Civil War veteran, Brigadier General and Surgeon General of the Army from 1893-1902,

also one of the first to collect fossils from the Niobrara Chalk: 1866-1870


Copyright 2001-2013 by Mike Everhart

Last revised 10/30/2013

Click here for another picture of Brigadier General George M. Sternberg



LEFT: From an anonymous article, 1899. Sketch of George M. Sternberg. Popular Science Monthly 41(1): 116-121, with portrait.

While George F. Sternberg gets (and deserves) a lot of credit for his work in the Smoky Hill Chalk of western Kansas, it was his uncle, Dr. George Miller Sternberg who was one of the first collectors of fossils from the Dakota Sandstone, Smoky Hill Chalk and Pierre Shale. Although Dr. Sternberg never published anything regarding the fossils he collected, it is evident from some of his correspondence (see below) that he was intensely interested in them, and insuring that they were properly curated and studied.


The Sternberg Family

                                                                         Rev. Levi Sternberg
George Miller Sternberg                        Charles Hazelius Sternberg
           (1838-1915)                                                (1850-1943)
                 _________________________ |__________________________
|                                                  |                                                    |
             George Fryer Sternberg          Charles Mortram Sternberg             Levi Sternberg                                                          (1883-1969)                             (1886-1981)                              (1894-1976)
Charles William Sternberg


George Miller Sternberg was born in Otsego County, New York, on June 8, 1838. He was the oldest son of Rev. Levi Sternberg and Margaret (Miller) Sternberg. When he was 12, his father became the principal at Hartwick Seminary in Oneonta, New York, and George was able to pursue his studies at that school for several years.  At the age of 16, he found a job teaching school to help with family finances. After teaching for three years, he studied medicine under Dr. Horace Lathrop of Cooperstown, New York, and attended his first lectures during the winter of 1859-1860.  George Sternberg received his medical degree in the spring of 1860 at the age of 22, and briefly practiced medicine in Elizabeth City, New Jersey until the outbreak of the the Civil War.

George Sternberg  was appointed an Assistant Surgeon in the United States Army on May 28, 1861 and served with the Army of the Potomac.  He was with General Sykes Division the first Battle of Bull Run, and was captured by the Confederates on July 21, 1861, when he stayed behind to treat the wounded (Sternberg, M.L. 1920). After several days, he managed to escape and returned to his command in the defense of Washington, D.C.  He later served in the Peninsular Campaign where he contracted Yellow Fever, and was evacuated. He served the rest of the war on hospital duty in Rhode Island, Ohio and Louisiana.  For a summary of his eventful and productive medical career, you can go here.

In April, 1866, George Sternberg  was promoted to Major and assigned to Fort Harker in central Kansas. While there he became interested in collecting fossil leaves  from the Dakota Sandstone (Late Cretaceous) Formation. He also acquired land two and a half miles from Fort Harker and began ranching. In June of 1867, there was a cholera outbreak at the Fort.  Dr. Sternberg's wife, Louisa, was one of the first civilians to become sick and die. Thirty-one soldiers died of cholera between June 28 and August 1. In December, 1867, George Sternberg  was reassigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, and participated in several campaigns against the Indians along the Arkansas River during 1868.  His two younger brothers , Charles H. and Edward moved to his ranch from Iowa and later, his father, Levi Sternberg, and the rest of the Sternberg family moved to Kansas to live on his ranch. There his younger brother, Charles Hazelius Sternberg, also began collecting fossils. 

In December, 1868, Dr. Sternberg was reassigned to duty with Major General Sheridan's command on the North Canadian River. He was later ordered to duty at Fort Riley, Kansas, and on June 23, 1870, was assigned to duty at Governor's Island, New York Harbor. During those four years between April, 1866, and June, 1870, while working as an Army doctor, treating epidemics and accompanying military campaigns, George Miller Sternberg collected a number of fossils from the Dakota Sandstone Formation, the Smoky Hill Chalk Member of the Niobrara Chalk Formation, and the Pierre Shale Formation.  By my rough count, he has at least 34 mosasaur specimens in the United States National Museum (Smithsonian).   

LEFT: Doctor George M. Sternberg, 1869

RIGHT: A sign commemorating the work of  Dr. G. M. Sternberg at Fort Harker.

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It appears that George M. Sternberg was more interested in collecting fossils than studying them.  While he published many medical papers, he apparently did not write about his fossil collecting,  except in his personal notes, for instance, circa 1867 ("The bluffs north and east of the fort (Fort Harker) are composed of a recent red sandstone [the Dakota Sandstone] which contains the impressions of the leaves of trees of existing species (oak, ash, willow, etc.)" (Sternberg, 1920, p. 12; note that this was originally written by G.M Sternberg in his cholera report in 1867).  Here is a recent picture of the Fort Harker Guardhouse, built from blocks of native Dakota Sandstone that were quarried from exposures in the vicinity.

In his biography (Sternberg, M.L. 1920, p. 14), his wife wrote: "His interest in gathering undescribed fossils and other animal remains resulted in frequent chidings by other officers lest he should be picked off by the Indians while securing these specimens. Some of his specimens were forwarded to Prof. Joseph Leidy, of Philadelphia, who described them in his report on "The Vertebrates of the West." The Indian crania, skulls of animals and birds, and fossil shells were sent to the Army Medical Museum and were acknowledged "to have been received in good order, being very carefully packed.""

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He certainly communicated with the scientists of his time, including Joseph Henry (1797-1878, head of the Smithsonian from its opening in 1846 to 1878), Spencer Baird (1823-1887, asst. head of the Smithsonian from 1850 until Henry's death, when he became head), and John Newberry (1822-1892, Columbia University specialist in late Paleozoic vertebrates and Mesozoic plants. There was almost immediate interest by several vertebrate paleontologists of the day (Agassiz, Newberry, and Leidy (who eventually published on them)) in G. M. Sternberg's Kansas fossils, as soon as they reached Washington, D.C. (Earl Manning, 2001, pers. comm.). A webpage regarding a collection of his papers at the National Library of Medicine is located here. At the first meeting (1868) of the State Natural History Society (now the Kansas Academy of Science) in 1868, G. M. Sternberg was elected an honorary member (Nelson, 1996).

From Fort Harker, Dr. Sternberg moved further west  and began collecting fossils in the Smoky Hill Chalk.  

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LEFT: While the name Xiphactinus has been around since 1870, there has been considerable confusion over which name is actually correct: Xiphactinus audax Leidy, 1870 or Portheus molossus Cope, 1872.  

Joseph Leidy named the fish from a fragment of a pectoral fin (LEFT) which was donated to the Smithsonian by Dr. George M. Sternberg more than a year before E. D. Cope gave the name of Portheus molossus to a collection of several nearly complete specimens found near Fort Wallace. Leidy won by virtue of being first to publish, but Cope's name was more popular and is still in use (incorrectly) in many collections of Cretaceous fish.

Recent photo by Susan Liebl HERE

According to his wife, (Sternberg, 1920; p. 14), "during the marches that he made with the command, he became interested in the geological conformation of the country, made close observations and copious notes, and collected much material.  His interest in gathering undescribed fossils and other animal remains resulted in frequent chidings by other officers lest he should be picked off by the Indians while securing these specimens.  Some of his specimens were forwarded to Prof. Joseph Leidy, of Philadelphia, who described them in his report on "The Vertebrates of the West." The ... skulls of animals and birds, and fossil shells were sent to the Army Medical Museum and were acknowledged "to have been received in good order, being very carefully packed."

Many of the specimens that he collected from the Smoky Hill Chalk were sent to the U.S. Army Medical Museum and traveled from there to the U.S. National Museum. During the summer and fall of 1867, Dr. John L. LeConte was part of a group surveying for the Union Pacific Railroad. One of the first localities mentioned in his survey report (LeConte, 1868:pp. 7-8) was Fort Harker.   He reported that a collection of fossil leaves had been "obtained in November, 1866" (possibly from G. M. Sternberg, who was at Fort Harker at the time) and had been examined by Leo Lesquereux . LeConte added that he had "procured" others while at Fort Harker and sent them to Lesquereux.  In his 1868 paper on fossil plants, Lesquereux credited LeConte and F. V. Hayden for the materials he examined, and wrote that all the specimens had "come from the Cretaceous formation north of Fort Ellsworth, Nebraska, or its vicinity" (Fort Ellsworth was renamed Fort Harker in November, 1866... the site is now in the town of Kanopolis, in Ellsworth County).   Joseph Leidy (1873) generously credited Dr. George M. Sternberg with finding a number of the fossils that he examined and described for his "Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories". Sternberg's donations included a fragmentary pectoral fin of   Xiphactinus audax Leidy 1870, one of the first vertebrate specimens to be described from the Smoky Hill Chalk Member. In a brief history of fossil collecting in the Niobrara Chalk, Samuel Williston (1898; p. 32) wrote, "Other specimens were later obtained by Drs. J. H. Janeway and George Sternberg in the vicinity of Forts Hays and Wallace, and by Mr. Webb, of Topeka."  Dr. John Janeway was the military surgeon at Fort Hays  while G. M. Sternberg was serving with Sheridan's command further west in Kansas, between Fort Hays and Fort Wallace.  In his biography, Martha Sternberg (1920; p. 52) wrote that, "In time Dr. Sternberg sent specimens to Professor Cope of Philadelphia and other scientists for description and classification." Sternberg later sent fossils from Washington state while assigned there in 1876.  (See Kansas 1872 map HERE)

In 1878, E. D. Cope credited Dr. Sternberg with the discovery of a giant deer (Cervus fortis sp. nov.) from the Loop Fork Beds in Oregon.  Cope noted that "...George M. Sternberg, M.D., U.S.A. [was] already well-known for his interesting discoveries in the cretaceous formation of Kansas."

G. M. Sternberg (along with John LeConte) was also one of the first to collect sharks teeth from the Smoky Hill Chalk and was credited by Leidy (1873) with several specimens that he illustrated.  In regard to the Ptychodus teeth, Leidy noted that. "The Smithsonian Institution has submitted to my examination a collection of fourteen specimens of teeth obtained by Dr. George M. Sternberg, United States Army, from the banks of Chalk Bluff Creek, a branch of Smoky Hill River, about sixty miles east of Fort Wallace, Kansas. The specimens were found in two parcels, each together, as if pertaining to two individuals."  The figures published by Leidy are shown below:

leidy18a.jpg (81752 bytes) Ptychodus mortoni Mantell 1836, teeth from two individuals. (collected by Dr. George M. Sternberg)

Smithsonian Collection

leidy18b.jpg (30483 bytes) LEFT: Cretoxyrhina mantelli teeth collected by Dr. George M. Sternberg (Smithsonian Collection). See other Kansas sharks here.
leidy18c.jpg (13387 bytes) LEFT: A small collection of Squalicorax teeth: left tooth - S. falcatus; the two teeth on the right are either S. kaupi or possibly S. pristodontus. (collected by Dr. George M. Sternberg) - (Smithsonian Collection)

Shown below are several of the G. M. Sternberg specimens in the United States National Museum (Smithsonian) in Washington, D.C.:

asnm9438.jpg (3952 bytes) Two pictures of a piece of a Platecarpus pterygoid bone (USNM 9439).  The blue star indicates that this specimen was figured in a publication.  RIGHT:  In this case, it was Figure 12 on Plate 34, pages 277-278 of: Leidy, J., 1873. Contributions to the extinct vertebrate fauna of the western interior territories. Rept., U.S. Geol. Surv. Terr. (Hayden) 1:358 pp., 37 pls.. Dr. Sternberg's original specimen number is in the upper left (76). 9438-2a.jpg (4270 bytes)
asnm9230.jpg (3304 bytes) LEFT: USNM 3894 - The premaxilla of a large Tylosaurus proriger (also figured in Leidy, 1873). The letters "A. M. M." show up faintly on this and other G. M. Sternberg specimens that were originally sent  to the "Army Medical Museum"; USA stands for United States Army.  This material was re-identified by Russell (1967) as Tylosaurus nepaeolicus and is the first known example of that species to be found.  RIGHT: A limb bone (ulna) from a Platecarpus (USNM 50).  Contrary to the information on the upper card, a drawing of this specimen was published in Leidy (1873; pl. 36, fig.13). asnm9450.jpg (4807 bytes)
asnm92-1.jpg (4301 bytes) These four Clidastes velox (now C. propython)  cervical vertebrae (anterior end is to the right) from a single specimen (AMM 9331). It's not clear why they that were given four different catalog numbers (USNM 58, 59, 61, 68) when curated into the United States National Museum collection . asnm92-2.jpg (4131 bytes)
asnm9235.jpg (3795 bytes) LEFT: Three crushed Platecarpus vertebrae (USNM 62) that bear G. M. Sternberg's name. These are part of a larger collection of vertebrae from a single specimen that was figured in Leidy (1873).  RIGHT: A single large Tylosaurus proriger vertebra (USNM 45), with the markings:  AMM   9232 Kansas  Dr. Sternberg USA asnm9232.jpg (3434 bytes)

According to Craig (1998, p.200), Sternberg was fascinated with the "natural beauty of the undeveloped western Kansas with its abundance of flora and fauna." "His inherent scientific curiosity led him far afield to gather fossils, animal remains, and Indian artifacts, which he dutifully sent to the Army Medical Museum.   So far afield would he go, in fact, that officers in the command feared he might fall prey to the Indians on his excursions. Apparently unconcerned for his safety, Sternberg continued his explorations throughout the campaign." The text of a letter written by Sternberg in 1868 is shown below (From the Smithsonian Institution Archives, provided by Earl Manning):

Headquarters, Department of the Upper Arkansas (In the field)
Office of the Chief Medical Officer
Camp near Fort Dodge, Kansas
November 6th, 1868

Bvt. Lieut. Col. Otis, Asst. Surgeon, U.S.A., Curator of the Army Medical Museum, Washington, D.C.


     I have stored at Fort Wallace, Kas., in charge of Lieut. Wood, 5th U.S. Cav., four boxes of fossils from the cretaceous beds of Western Kansas. I have had unusual advantages during the past summer for making a collection from these beds, and as it was nearly all new and unexplored ground, I have succeeded in obtaining a very valuable collection.

     The collection consists principally of teeth, jaws, vertebrae, etc. of numerous species of saurians and fish.  About two months since I met Proff. Agassiz at Fort Hays and told him of my collection, presenting him with a few specimens. He was much delighted with the specimens I gave him and expressed an intention of going to Washington to see my collection as soon as it should arrive there. I told him that you would doubtless be glad to have him assist you in identifying specimens of known species and in describing new species. I also promised him that in case he rendered you such assistance, I would request you present him with duplicates of specimens, where they could be spared from the collection. My boxes were packed hastily, with the intention of carefully repacking and labeling them when I should have more leisure, but  I was obliged to leave them at Fort Wallace for want of transportation and have not since had an opportunity to obtain them and may not have for a long time to come. I therefore write to you leaving it optional with you whether to send for them yourself, or take the chances of my being able to repack and forward them at some future time. If you decide to send for them now, you had better write to Asst. Surgeon Turner, Post Surgeon at Fort Wallace, requesting him to obtain them from Lieut. Wood and forward them to you.  I fear that no one but myself can unpack and arrange the specimens without getting them in confusion and it would add very much to their scientific value if I could have an opportunity to describe the location and position in which the different specimens were found.  It has occurred to me that the Surgeon General might be willing to order me to Washington to assist in unpacking and arranging the collections. Please mention the matter to the Surgeon General or to his Assistant Surgeon General. I have never seen the Army Medical Museum and it would be a great pleasure for me to see it. I have now been in the field for over six months and have had a pretty hard time of it ever since I came to this Department.  I think that in the course of two or three months my services could be spared for a time.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, signed, G. M. Sternberg, Bvt. Major and Asst. Surgeon, U.S.A., Chief Medical Officer

Katherine Rogers (1991, p. 23) notes in her book on the Sternberg family that Dr. Sternberg's "interest in fossils and strange, old bones reached from one fort to another, and one day he received a collection of fossils from Dr. Theophilus Turner at Fort Wallace, near the Kansas-Colorado border.  (Editor's note: Turner had discovered the type specimen of Elasmosaurus platyurus in 1867 near Fort Wallace and sent three of the vertebrae to E. D. Cope by way of LeConte.  It is unknown what other material he may have collected before he died unexpectedly on July 27, 1869)  Sternberg bided his time until he had occasion to go to Washington, then took the fossils to paleontologists in Philadelphia [Cope?]." 

Later  (1991, p. 129) she says that Charles H. Sternberg and his son, George F. Sternberg went to Washington D.C. in 1912, to visit Dr. Sternberg  [ten years after his retirement from the Army and the post of Surgeon General of the Army].  Apparently the two brothers had not seen each other in many years.  "Charles felt that at last he was in a position to let his brother know he'd made a success of life as a fossil hunter, and attributed no small part of that success to his brother's continued encouragement and assistance. ... Charles gratefully recalled that it was his brother who had first alerted O. C. Marsh, Joseph Leidy and other paleontologists to the existence of Kansas' vast fossil beds, worthy of exploration" (p. 130).  Rogers also noted that "Charles' son, George F. Sternberg, was his uncle's namesake, and so appreciative was the old doctor of this gesture on the part of his brother, that he remembered young George quite generously in his will." A copy of George Sternberg's will is part of the Sternberg papers at the Forsyth Library at the Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas. 

More to come: The early paleontological work of George M. Sternberg is the subject of a paper in preparation by Earl Manning and Mike Everhart.

Web pages about early workers in Kansas paleontology (in order of year of birth):

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) - Swiss born scientist and paleontologist, one of the founders of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

E. D. Cope (1840-1897) - Described the first Cretaceous vertebrate from Kansas in 1868; named most of the mosasaurs, marine turtles and fish from the Smoky Hill Chalk Member. (Picture)  (Picture)

F. V. Hayden  (1829-1887) - A geologist, who with F. B. Meek, named the Niobrara Formation.  Another F. V. Hayden Page

John H. Janeway (?-?) - Little is known about Dr. John H. Janeway, save that Williston and Cope give him credit for collecting fossils in Western Kansas. Cope (1875, p. 17-18) wrote of him, "Fragments of fish-vertebrae of the Anogmius type were also found hereby Dr. J. H. Janeway, post-surgeon. These were exposed in the yellow bed. Several miles east of the post, Dr. Janeway pointed out to me an immense accumulation of Inoceramus problematicus in the blue stratum."

Joseph Leidy  (1823-1891) - The Father of American vertebrate paleontology (Picture); described many Kansas fossils;  Another Joseph Leidy Page

John L. LeConte 1825-1883 - Entomologist; one of the first to publish a description of the geology of western Kansas (1868).

Leo Lesquereux (1806-1889) - The Father of American paleobotany; described many plants from leaves in the early Cretaceous Dakota Sandstone near Fort Harker, especially those collected by C. H. Sternberg.  Another good page is here: Leo Lesquereux (1806-1889) paleobotanist 

O. C. Marsh (1831-1899); Organizer of the Yale College Scientific Expeditions.... sent teams of collectors to Kansas 1870-1876; Another Marsh Page Here includes information on the expeditions. (Picture)

Handel T. Martin (1862-1931) - Student of Williston, Curator at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History

Benjamin F. Mudge (1817-1879) - First State Geologist of Kansas, one of the first to collect fossil leaves, tracks and invertebrates; one of first to collect fossils in the Smoky Hill Chalk; discovered Ichthyornis; collected for O. C. Marsh for several years.

Charles H. Sternberg (1850-1943) - Brother of George Miller Sternberg; major collector of fossils from the Smoky Hill Chalk and elsewhere. (Picture)

George F. Sternberg ( 1883-1969) - Son of C. H. Sternberg; collected in Kansas, Texas, and Canada; Dug and prepared the famous "Fish in a Fish"

George Miller Sternberg (1838-1915) - This page; soldier, medical doctor, fossil collector; older brother of Charles H. Sternberg.

Theophilus H. Turner (1841-1869) - Post surgeon at Fort Wallace - Discovered and dug the remains of Elasmosaurus platyurus in 1867.

Samuel Wendell Williston (1851-1918); Paleontologist, entomologist, medical doctor; Reviewed the vertebrates from the chalk in 1898; began the study of the biostratigraphy of the chalk. (Picture)

References: (See Kansas 1872 map HERE)

Almy, K. J. 1987. Thof’s Dragon and the letters of Capt. Theophilus Turner, M.D., U.S. Army, Kansas History Magazine, 10(3):170-200.

Anonymous. 1899. Sketch of George M. Sternberg. Popular Science Monthly 41(1):116-121, with portrait.

Cope, E.D. 1875. The Vertebrata of the Cretaceous formations of the West. Report, U. S. Geol. Surv. Terr. (Hayden). 2:302 pp., 57 pls.

Cope, E.D. 1878. Descriptions of new Vertebrata from the upper Tertiary formations of the West. Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc. 17(100):219-231. (mention of Dr. George Sternberg's discoveries) <EM>

Craig, S.C. 1998. Medicine for the military: George M. Sternberg on the Kansas Plains, 1866-1870. Kansas History 21(3):188-206.

Everhart, M.J. 2005. Oceans of Kansas - A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press, 322 pp.

LeConte, J. L. 1868. Notes on the geology of the survey for the extension of the Union Pacific Railway, E. D., from the Smoky Hill River,
Kansas, to the Rio Grande. Review Printing House, Philadelphia, 76 p. with folded map.

Leidy, J. 1873. Contributions to the extinct vertebrate fauna of the western interior territories. Rept., U.S. Geol. Surv. Terr. (Hayden) 1:358 pp., 37 pls.

Lesquereux, L. 1868. On some Cretaceous fossil plants from Nebraska. American Journal of Science, Series 2, 46(136):91-105. (for July)

Nelson, M.E. 1996. Geological exploration of Kansas as recorded by the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1868-1879). Kansas Acad. Sci. Trans. 99(3-4):115-123.

Peterson, J.M. 1987. Science in Kansas: The early years, 1804-1875, Kansas History Magazine, 10(3):201-240.

Rogers, K. 1991. A dinosaur dynasty: The Sternberg fossil hunters, Mountain Press Publishing Company, 288 pages.

Sternberg, C.H. 1909. The life of a fossil hunter. Henry Holt and Co. 286 pp.  (re-published 1990 by the Indiana University Press).

Sternberg, G.M. 1867. Report on epidemic cholera and yellow fever in the Army of the United States during the year 1867. Surgeon-General's Office, Circular No.1, pp.29-30.

Sternberg, M.L. 1920. George Miller Sternberg; A biography. American Medical Association., Chicago. i-ix, 331 pp., 10 pls.

Williston, S.W. 1898. Addenda to Part I. The University Geological Survey of Kansas, 4:28-32.

Credits: I thank Earl Manning for the inspiration to produce this webpage, his advice on historical issues, and many useful references.