Unearthing The Mastodon

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During the spring of 1801 Charles Willson Peale learned of a remarkable discovery—the huge bones of an “animal of uncommon magnitude” had been found in Orange and Ulster counties north of New York City. The great relics were scattered abundantly through the swamps where the local farmers dug white marl for fertilizer but they were rapidly being dispersed among clumsy, amateurish collectors. No one had yet assembled a complete skeleton.

Peale resolved to try. If he succeeded, he would at once provide the final answer to the most teasing mystery of the age and win the world’s attention for his struggling museum.

He set off by coach, at dawn on June 5,1801, a gray-haired, pink-cheeked man of sixty, adventure-bound, small trunk in one hand and double-barreled shotgun in the other. The trunk contained not only clothing but also material for preserving birds and other small animals, gunpowder and shot, paper, ink, and charcoal. Every interval in the search for the Incognitum must be used to enrich the museum, and if he could not, finally, bring back a skeleton, at least he must have an authentic record on paper. Here, to all appearances, was a gentleman on vacation, and he would keep it so, though he was inwardly alert to the excitement and importance of the quest. The chance of a lifetime lay before him: the hidden monster, the “Behemoth” for those who thought in terms of scriptural majesty. He himself, partial to descriptive names, preferred “Carniverous Elephant of the North.”

He had a plan of campaign. He would move step by step rather than in haste. In New York he would get letters of introduction to Dr. Graham of Newburgh, who had reported the largest find. His wife Betsy’s family, the DePeysters, would be ready to lend financial aid. He would go on to Newburgh by way of West Point, where an old friend, Major George Fleming of the Artillery, was in command. The major had been at the museum in the spring of ninety-seven with a gift, one of the torpedoes floated down the Delaware in the famous “Battle of the Kegs,” January 5, 1778. Army help might be offered, perhaps in response to an order from the President of the United States, for all through the touch-and-go of Aaron Burr’s claim to the Presidency, Jefferson had been dividing his attention between the constitutional crisis and the huge fossil bones newly found between the Shawangunk Mountains and the Hudson River.

Peale’s own enthusiasm for his friend Jefferson and for republican principles in general was put to the test during the jolting, two-day stagecoach journey to New York, a story neatly told in Peale’s own words:

“… Among our Company was a french Gentleman who could not speak English, who afforded me the opportunity of exercising my french. Another passenger was an Englishman who was fond of talking, and I soon found he wished to know my political sentiments by his various questions about our Governor and the President of the United States. Not willing to indulge him, my answers puzzled him, for I told him that I voted my sentiments when called upon to exercise such rights, and whether I gave a successful ticket or not I submited to the power choosen to govern, content to wait and if so pleased to make my objections at the proper time.

“However, making some general reflections on the folly [of] Nations making war, hoping I might live long enough to see mankind more wise and not disgrace themselves below the brute Creation, even the more voracious of which did not kill their own species—In such train I leveled at many of our follies & vices—and thus passed the forenoon—but after dinner John Bull having wetted his whistle, his pipes were louder & more grating to my Ears, and as he throws out some ill natured sarcasms on our public men with much low slander, I then thought his venemous tongue ought not to be allowed to slobber his venum to pison the minds of some of our company, to prevent which I told him, that he should not believe such Idle tales, that as party did not stop to say many things without the least foundation for much slanders both against our President & Govr. McKean. On this he was vociferous & Insolent and he seemed to exult at finding my oppinion. I replied that he had exposed himself sufficiently to my mind, that such sentiments did not accord with my Ideas of what ought to be the state of things, to render a people happy. He called Bonaparte a boy, and wondered france would submit to be governed by a Corsican when they certainly possessed many great men of their own Country—Boy or not, he shewed more good sence than any of the Monarks of Europe, for in his moments of Victory he demanded peace, and many of his actions proved him to be a wonderful man, and it was of little consequence of what country a Governor was, provided he governed with prudence & no man could act with more liberality than actuated Bonapartte, John Bull replied, ah we shall see by & by—Robertspere, once was thought highly of and we shall see whether the President will have resolution to keep to the Sentiments of his Speech. I replied that he had before shewed himself to be a man of firm nerves.… We spar[r]ed thus for some time, and I was heartily tired with his gabble. But taking in other passengers in the place of some ladies who gave up their seats at Princeton, these were more rational beings & therefore more agreable.