Mammoths and Mastodons: All American Monsters

A mammoth discovery in 1705 sparked a fossil craze and gave the young United States a symbol of national might

Columbian mammoths were larger than mastodons. Both once roamed North America. (Velizar Simeonovski / The Field Museum, Chicago)
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In Philadelphia, the portrait artist Charles Willson Peale first examined incognitum bones from the Ohio River Valley in 1783, and the encounter set him on what he called an “irresistibly bewitching” quest for knowledge about the natural world, leading him to create what was in effect America’s first national museum. (The Smithsonian Institution was still more than a half-century in the future.) Tickets to Peale’s museum, in Philadelphia, bore the slogan “The Birds & Beasts will teach thee,” and he saw to it that they taught lessons in the greatness of the American republic.

For Peale, the massive size of the incognitum made it the perfect answer to Buffon’s “ridiculous idea,” and in 1801 he got word of “an animal of uncommon magnitude” discovered by a farmer named John Masten in the Hudson River Valley near Newburgh, New York. That June, Peale traveled by stagecoach and sloop from Philadelphia to Newburgh, where he paid $200—roughly $2,500 in today’s currency—for the bones, plus $100 more to do additional digging on his own. Before long, he had a $500 loan from the American Philosophical Society, a science and natural history organization of which Jefferson was then president, to support an ambitious effort to excavate bones from a pond on Masten’s farm.

Peale commemorated the scene in a famous painting, with lightning crackling down from a black corner of the sky and horses panicking in the distance. To drain the pond that dominates the scene, Peale had devised a huge wooden wheel on a high bank, with men treading inside like hamsters in an exercise wheel. The turning of the wheel drove a long conveyor belt of buckets, each carrying water up and over, to spill down a chute into a nearby vale. Workers on staged platforms passed dirt up from the exposed bottom of the pond. In the lower right quadrant of the painting, Peale himself presided, grandly presenting the scene with one outstretched arm.

The painting was originally titled Exhuming the Mammoth, but the excavation at the pond actually recovered only a few more bones to add to Masten’s original discovery. Peale did better with two less picturesque excavations up the road, recovering a nearly complete skeleton. But the painting made for a shrewd piece of self-promotion.

Back in Philadelphia, making sense of the bones took three months and “numberless trials of putting first one piece, then another, together, and turning them in every direction.” Peale’s slave Moses Williams did much of the work. He “fitted pieces together by trying, [not] the most probable, but the most improbable position, as the lookers-on believed,” Peale wrote. “Yet he did more good in that way than any one among those employed in the work.” Peale filled in missing parts in papier-mâché and wood, scrupulously indicating these substitutions. But the showman or patriot in him exaggerated the size of his incognitum slightly, yielding a skeleton 11 feet high at the shoulder. Later, he corked the joints, adding extra “cartilage” to make it even bigger. For a time, he also pointed the tusks downward, the better for skewering prey.

To drum up business for the opening of his museum, Peale had Williams put on an Indian headdress and parade through the city streets on a white horse, with trumpet fanfare. Fliers invoked an Indian legend: “TEN THOUSAND MOONS AGO” a creature had roamed “the gloomy forests...huge as the frowning Precipice, cruel as the bloody Panther.” For 50 cents additional admission to the museum’s “Mammoth Room,” Philadelphians could see “the LARGEST of Terrestrial Beings!” with their own wide eyes.

It was only the world’s second reconstruction of a fossil species (the one prior attempt being a decidedly less thrilling giant ground sloth in Madrid), and it became a national sensation, with word spreading until “the masses of the people were now even more eager than the scientists to view the great American wonder,” according to Peale biographer (and descendant) Charles Coleman Sellers. “The mere idea of bigness stirred every heart.” Peale’s “mammoth” would turn out to be a mastodon, but “mammoth” was the word on every tongue, gaining overnight “a fresh and spectacular currency.” A Philadelphia baker offered “Mammoth Bread.” In Washington, a man who proclaimed himself a “Mammoth Eater” dispatched 42 eggs in ten minutes, and a New Yorker grew a 20-pound “mammoth” radish. Knowing of President Thomas Jefferson’s long interest in all things mammoth, the women of Cheshire, Massachusetts, presented him with a 1,230-pound “Mammoth Cheese” on New Year’s Day 1802.

Politics also infected a publicity stunt staged by Peale’s son Rembrandt. Thirteen gentlemen sat at a round table beneath the “mammoth’s” monstrous rib cage while a musician played “Jefferson’s March” and “Yankee Doodle” at a piano tucked under the pelvis. The diners offered patriotic toasts, being careful not to raise their glasses too high: “The American People: may they be as preeminent among the nations of the earth, as the canopy we sit beneath surpasses the fabric of the mouse!” Young Peale soon boarded a ship with the second skeleton from the Hudson River Valley to show off in Europe.

Caught up in the effort to prove the vitality of the American experiment, Thomas Jefferson had convinced himself by the 1780s that the mammoth still lived. He gave credence to an Indian legend about a mammoth that shook off lightning bolts, bounding away over the Ohio River to somewhere beyond the Great Lakes. “In the present interior of our continent,” Jefferson wrote, “there is surely space and range enough for elephants and lions.” He imagined this pair of American titans roaming the Great Plains.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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