An 1842 letter from Benjamin Silliman, Jr., to Edward Hitchcock contains the only known text of a poem that was reportedly composed five years earlier by an anonymous ‘tutor’ at Yale College. The poem's light-hearted verses depicted how the recently-described three-toed fossil footprints (now known to have been produced by theropod dinosaurs) were supposedly made by “giant birds of old”, as Hitchcock's recent investigation had concluded. The poem's lines offered a verbal ‘reconstruction’ of that ancient scene, along with suggesting the existence of two marsupial animals which may have borne witness to the passage of the trackmakers; one of which was plausible while the other was not. These ‘witnesses’ provide evidence that the poem's author was well informed upon contemporary geology and paleontology in a manner far beyond that of the common person.

This article first reviews Hitchcock's inferences derived from the fossil evidence that the footprints had been made by multiple species of extinct birds, one of which attained enormous size, and the subsequent controversies regarding those claims that arose in America and Europe. Description by comparative anatomist Richard Owen of fossil bones of the much younger Moa or Dinornis from Recent strata in New Zealand seemingly vindicated Hitchcock's arguments and brought those disputes to a close. While the true identity of the poet remains inconclusive, internal evidence from the poem itself points to it having been composed by Yale graduate James Dwight Dana. His placement as an ‘assistant’ within the chemistry laboratory under Benjamin Silliman, Sr., at that time appears to support Silliman, Jr.'s assertion regarding the poet's identity. Probable reasons for the apparent suppression of the poem's existence and its authorship are likewise explored. The former was finally eased after Dana's return from the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1842, but the latter was not.

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