The earliest recorded discovery of fossil bones in Texas was in 1846, by William Carpenter, M.D., a professor in the Medical College of Louisiana. Periodically over the next six decades, modest but important collections were made in Texas and sent to Othniel C. Marsh of Yale University and to Edward Drinker Cope of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. The infamous Cope-Marsh battle was inflamed partly over these fossils, as the mutual jealousy of these great paleontologists spurred a race to be the first to publish on the Permian rocks of Texas. Cope was the first to present his findings on the Texas Permian to a scientific meeting, but Marsh was the first in print. In 1890-1894 the Texas Geological Survey, under the direction of Edwin T. Dumble, employed Cope to collect and report on Permian, Triassic and Cenozoic fossils from the northern part of the state. Among the specimens collected were several species new to science, which Cope named and described. The fossils collected under this arrangement also left the state, but in later years a few of Cope’s type specimens were repatriated and are now housed at the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory.
Museums from other parts of the country continued to collect in Texas. In the first decades of the 20th century significant collections of Permian vertebrates were made by Ermine C. Case of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, Samuel W. Williston and Everett C. Olson of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and by Alfred S. Romer of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. But it was not until the 1930s that vertebrate paleontology was systematically undertaken by any Texas state agency. From 1935 to 1937, a modest collection of Texas vertebrates was made by Dr. H. B. Stenzel, whose aim was to assemble displays for the Texas Centennial Exposition. Although most of the specimens accumulated by Stenzel were from other parts of the country, some noteworthy specimens of scientific interest were collected in Texas for the Texas Memorial Museum, which was then under construction at The University of Texas at Austin.
The first significant organized explorations for fossil vertebrates to be made under state sponsorship were begun in 1939 by Elias H. Sellards, an eminent vertebrate paleontologist. At that time, Sellards was director of both Texas Memorial Museum and the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. Sellards obtained federal support for a statewide paleontological and mineralogical survey that lasted roughly two and a half years. The project employed an average of 25 men in addition to supervisory personnel, who collected specimens from 22 different counties across Texas. By its end, the program had accumulated approximately 11,100 vertebrate specimens, at a cost of approximately $300,000. At the time, this was the largest and most diversified collection of fossil vertebrates in the south-central United States, including the largest assemblage of Triassic vertebrates from Texas ever made and an important collection of Permian vertebrates. A few display-quality specimens were exhibited at Texas Memorial Museum, but with the onset of World War II, the rest remained in inaccessible storage or were scattered about various basements and attics on The University of Texas at Austin campus.