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Roy Chapman Andrews: The Real-Life Raider of the Lost Ark by WILL DABBS

Indiana Jones has become one of the most beloved film characters in cinematic history.

Per the backstory, Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones was an esteemed professor of archaeology with a diagnosable wanderlust. Professor Jones was bored with teaching and found himself trekking across the globe in search of priceless artifacts and powerful totems. Through four feature films and a television series, the adventures of Indiana Jones have captivated kids and grownups alike. Rumor has it there is yet another installment due out in 2023. I personally can’t wait.

This guy is arguably the most influential single figure in Hollywood history. George Lucas was the driving force behind Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and Pixar, to name but a few.

George Lucas of Star Wars fame first imagined the character and story arc. Steven Spielberg directed all four movies. John Mangold is on tap to direct the pending fifth. Lucas purportedly drew his inspiration from several sources.

Taxidermied pandas would be fairly impolitic these days. The Field Museum has several in their expansive collection.

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago supposedly served as inspiration for Indy’s home base. If you’ve not had the pleasure, the Field Museum is simply an incredible place. Acres of taxidermied creatures all harvested from the golden age of naturalism grace countless exhibits. Back when this collection was amassed if you wanted an example of some animal or other you just went out and shot it. Their menagerie is amply stocked with stuffed pandas, for example. We live in a different time today.

Behold Sue the T. Rex at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. She’s one impressive beast.

Their collection is full to bursting with such stuff as a massive African bull elephant and Sue, the world’s best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex. Everything from whales to bugs is meticulously cataloged and on display. My favorites were the preserved hides of the maneaters of Tsavo. In the late 19thcentury, these two maneless male African lions killed and devoured between 31 and 100 peasant workers who were building a trans-African railroad. I’ll likely do a piece on that sordid tale eventually.

The Real Deal

From a young age Roy Chapman Andrews was drawn to the outdoors.

While Lucas was inspired to build the Indiana Jones tales from a variety of sources, one guy stands out as the archetype for the fearless naturalist explorer genre. Roy Chapman Andrews was a rare breed of man. Born in 1884 in Beloit, Wisconsin, Chapman felt his calling from a very early age.

Andrews generated enough income through taxidermy to fund his college pursuits.

Roy Andrews grew up in the Wisconsin wilderness exploring the forests, creeks, and farmers’ fields surrounding his home. Along the way, he learned marksmanship and taught himself taxidermy. He made enough on mounted animals to put himself through college.

When he couldn’t land a job in his field, Roy Andrews became a custodian at the American Museum of Natural History to stay close to the work he loved.

After graduation, Andrews applied for a position with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. There were no openings available, so he took a job instead as a janitor in the taxidermy department. Along the way, he also earned a Master of Arts degree in Mammalogy from Columbia University. In 1909 Andrews embarked upon his first overseas trek.

Launched in 1913, the schooner Adventuress has been restored and is seaworthy today. It took fortitude to strike out for the arctic trying to catch a whale in a boat like this .

Andrews took the USS Albatross to the East Indies gathering examples of lizards, snakes, and similar reptiles for the museum’s collection. In 1913 he explored the arctic aboard the schooner Adventuress in search of a specimen of the bowhead whale. While he returned with the best film of seals in their natural habitat ever obtained, he remained nonetheless whale-less.

I guess that’s a baby goat or a wallaby or something. Roy Chapman Andrews was most at home living out of a tent in some desolate faraway land.

Andrews married Yvette Borup in 1914, and the couple struck out for the Far East. Over the next several years the two naturalists led the Asiatic Zoological Expedition across China. In 1920 the pair departed Peking aboard a fleet of Dodge automobiles. Along the way, they found countless fossils of prehistoric animals that had been previously uncategorized.

Andrews’ discovery of dinosaur eggs changed the way scientists viewed these extinct creatures.

In 1923 Andrews and his wife discovered the world’s first fossilized dinosaur eggs, fundamentally changing the way science regarded dinosaurs. While these eggs were originally assumed to be from a sort of ceratopsian dinosaur called Protoceratops, they were further identified in 1995 to belong to a theropod called Oviraptor. The extraordinary finds Andrews made were duly shipped back to his museum for study.

The mastodon was the archetypal example of Pleistocene megafauna. The mastodon’s range encompassed most of North America along with much of China.

By the late 1920’s the political situation in China was deteriorating, and the Great Depression was having its inevitable impact. Andrews’ final trip to China was in 1930. While there he recovered an exceptional series of mastodon fossils.

Men were not always quite so fragile as they might seem today. Here we see Roy Andrews hand feeding a brace of fledgling pterodactyls or something similar.

Throughout his adventures, Roy Chapman Andrews was armed. Where today’s naturalists might find themselves emotionally distraught over the prospect of fresh government oil leases, Andrews was the very image of the indestructible manly man. I found reference to two rifles and a handgun that were his regular companions during his travels.

Lots of folks traveled internationally with firearms back then. Humanity seems considerably more fragile these days.

Back in those days if you wanted to have a gun in a foreign country you just packed it in your suitcase. Gun control was really not a thing around the globe, and folks appreciated the unique utility of these indispensable tools. We really cannot imagine such today.

The Mannlicher–Schönauer is an undeniably elegant rifle.

One of Andrews’ primary hunting rifles was a 6.5×54mm Mannlicher–Schönauer. Introduced at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, this novel bolt-action rifle sported a rotary magazine and saw military service with the Greek and Austro-Hungarian armies. After World War I, these rugged accurate rifles were sold widely to civilians and sporterized. Civilian sporting versions were marketed aggressively.

The famed elephant hunter Dalrymple Maitland “Karamojo” Bell used a Mannlicher–Schönauer rifle as well. I’m sure we’ll explore his story eventually.

Ernest Hemingway was a fan and mentioned the rifle in his writings. The famed elephant hunter Walter Dalrymple Maitland “Karamojo” Bell killed more than 1,000 elephants during his long career, many of which he took with this rifle. The bullet’s high sectional density offered exceptional penetration through thick muscle and bone.

This looks to be Andrews’ Savage Model 99. He named his horse Kubla Khan.

The other rifle Andrews was reported to have used was the Savage Model 99 in .250-300. First developed in 1892, the Savage 99 was a hammerless lever action design that fed from a six-shot rotary magazine. The Model 99 was originally floated as a replacement for the GI-issue Springfield Model 1873 Trapdoor rifle but failed to win the contract. The basic design was nonetheless represented in the Model 99 “Musket” issued to the Montreal Home Guard during World War 1.

The Savage Model 99 was remarkably advanced for its day.

The Model 99’s rotary magazine made it one of the first lever-action rifles that could safely feed spitzer (pointed) bullets. Spitzer rounds in tubular magazines run the risk of a primer strike by the bullet tip of follow-on rounds and subsequent uncontrolled detonation. The Model 99 action includes a modest pin that protrudes above the action as an indicator that the rifle is ready to fire.

Andrews’ .38 revolver was rumored to be a Colt Army Special.

Roy Andrews also packed a .38 revolver as a sidearm. I found an anecdotal reference claiming it was a Colt Army Special. During a 1928 foray through the Gobi Desert, he had an accidental discharge as he drew the gun to dispatch a wounded antelope. The round created a through-and-through wound to the man’s left leg. In the immediate aftermath, Andrews described himself as “almost happy” when he realized the bullet had missed his knee. His immediate concern had been that he might have a “stiff leg for the rest of my life.”

It took the toxic combination of a Chinese sandstorm and a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the leg to put a dent in Andrews’ cheerful disposition.

With the able assistance of his head mechanic McKenzie Young, the camp doctor operated on the wound to clean it out and staunch the bleeding. Andrews later observed that Dr. Perez, “Had given me such a dose of morphine that the world looked bright and rosy; in fact, I was rather pleased with myself.” The subsequent arrival of a severe sandstorm combined with the passing the morphine’s effects “obscured my particular sun.” Fortunately, the wound healed without further difficulty.

The Rest of the Story

Roy Andrews sought out adventure.

Most normal folk do not court danger or hardship. Most of us, after a lifetime vigorously invested, will have had a close scrape or two but nothing that might pass for true regular peril. Roy Chapman Andrews, by contrast, was definitely not normal folk.

The similarities between Roy Chapman Andrews and the fictional Indiana Jones were uncanny.

When asked to describe some of his most memorable moments he responded thusly, “In the fifteen years 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.” Wow.

Here we see Andrews’ first wife Yvette hand feeding a bear cub. She and Roy had two sons.

When Andrews finally returned to the US after that final expedition he and Yvette divorced. By that point, they had two sons. Andrews subsequently married Wilhelmina Christmas in 1935.

Toward the end of his life Roy Chapman Andrews had become quite the celebrity.

To an impoverished world so encumbered by chaos and hardship, the exotic life of Roy Chapman Andrews provided a welcome respite. He penned several books on his exploits, and his visage graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1923. In 1927 he was given the title Honorary Scout by the Boy Scouts of America. This award was bestowed to, “American citizens whose achievements in outdoor activity, exploration, and worthwhile adventure are of such an exceptional character as to capture the imagination of boys…” Sigh. Nowadays we cannot even intelligently articulate exactly what a boy is.

Not satisfied to grow old gracefully, Andrews was ever the compulsive naturalist.

Once China was closed to exploration, Roy Chapman Andrews did not sit idle. He helmed The Explorer’s Club from 1931 through 1934. Afterward, he assumed the position of Director for the Natural History Museum.

Andrews’ adventure writings captivated a generation.

In reminiscing over his long and storied career, Andrews wrote, “I was born to be an explorer…There was never any decision to make. I couldn’t do anything else and be happy.” In 1942 he and Wilhelmina retired to their rural farm in Connecticut. On March 11, 1960, Roy Chapman Andrews died of heart failure in Carmel, California at age 76. His was a vigorous life exceptionally well-lived.

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