Nebraska’s Bones

Erwin Barbour’s family was very interested in old bones! From discovery to display, the family was a central part of Nebraska paleontology, expanding knowledge of the state’s fossils and making possible the University of Nebraska State Museum at Morrill Hall. In the Winter 2013 issue of Nebraska History, author Lois B. Arnold explores the family that had such a large impact on Nebraska paleontology as we know it.


When Erwin Barbour accepted a position at the University of Nebraska in 1891, he began to stimulate the program right away with his discovery of “a new order of gigantic fossils.” For years, under Barbour’s direction, groups of experts and students would camp out during the summers at various fossil sites, digging and sorting and transporting fossils back to the University. In fact, they uncovered so much good material that the workrooms and museum were overrun! In 1907, Barbour began working with donor Charles Morrill to create a new museum. The building of a new museum took a lot of time and effort, and due to a series of setbacks and a devastating fire, the new museum Morrill Hall did not open to the public until 1928. However, the work seemed worth it, as the museum attracted so many visitors that Erwin lost count. The University had found a new way to make its discoveries accessible.


The old museum in Nebraska Hall was far too small to showcase all the fossils.
This picture is from a corner of the museum in 1904. NSHS RG2658-23-1

Erwin H. Barbour. NSHS RG2411-0266

Erwin’s sister Carrie Barbour was an expert paleontologist as well. As assistant curator of the museum, an instructor of paleontology, an author, artist, and scientist, Carrie was known for her hard work and her wide range of knowledge. On top of her work at the University, she also participated in fossil discoveries. On one occasion she and her brother were called to examine bones that were found while excavating a cellar on U Street in Lincoln.  To the surprise of the excavators and the homeowner, the Barbours confirmed that the ancient bones were from a mammoth!

erwin and bones

Erwin Barbour (left) with a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor in storage area
of the old museum. NSHS RG2758-23-2


Exploring family drama and great scientific discoveries, Arnold’s article also describes the impact made on Nebraska paleontology by Erwin’s daughter Eleanor, his son-in-law Harold Cook’s family, and several of Erwin’s grandchildren. Together, the family authored hundreds of scientific articles, discovered multiple species, and made possible the University of Nebraska State Museum, the Eleanor Barbour Cook Museum of Geology, and the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument that still exist today. To learn more about the work of these incredible scientists, you can order a copy of the full Winter 2013 Nebraska History issue at 1-800-833-6747. – Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

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