- Historic Sites
Unearthing The Mastodon
Peale’s Greatest Triumph
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
“6th. We sleep at Brunswick, & had an agreable journey to New York where we arrived at noon. Not to leave John Bull without further remarks, would be omitting what I thought remarkable, i.e. he has been almost dumb, perfectly chop-fallen, sullen as any hog to this end of our Journey.”
At New York Peale found the DePeysters, some in town, some at their country place in Harlem, everything ,bright and green. He dined well, suffered a spate of violent indigestion, cured it by his newly invented steam bath, and then, having astounded them all by this demonstration, built baths for both households. Brother-in-law Philip was there to tell of his visits to the museums of Paris and Madrid—in Paris a dismal building surrounded by a menagerie, pictures separate from natural history, stuffed birds packed together on shelves, and in Spain a rare sight of gems, gold, and silver. They all went shooting at Coney Island, and Peale preserved birds and fish. When he embarked for the upriver voyage on June 19 he had letters of introduction to Dr. Graham from Betsy’s cousin, Colonel Henry Rutgers (trustee and namesake of the university), and from Dr. Mitchill. The DePeysters stood ready as bankers.
There were two days of waiting for a favorable wind. It was midafternoon when the little sloop at last moved out, and on to where the towering Palisades threw the whole river into shadow—on then as darkness fell into wilder country, the storied highlands of Hudson. Lowland-bred, a romantic at heart, Peale sketched constantly and compulsively as each new view appeared, the Priscilla sometimes speeding around into a new vista, sometimes fluttering her sail below the mountain crags. This was the giant’s lair of mountain and marsh. Here was a wildness matching the beast as he had heard it described at Philosophical Hall—enormous in size but with “the ferocity and agility of the tiger,” armed with great tusks and claws, seizing its prey in “one gigantic leap,” and then crushing body and bones in huge teeth.
That had been the paper read to the American Philosophical Society by George Turner, Revolutionary veteran, judge of the Northwest Territory, an astute amateur naturalist, though he endowed the lumbering creature with so much ferocity—“once the terror of the forest and of man!”—Turner’s paper still holds a certain respect. He correctly j udged it to be extinct, though at the same time conjuring up a fanciful vision of how it became so: “And may not the human race have made the extirpation of the terrific disturber a common cause?” Drawing his deductions largely from the form of the teeth, he had defined two types of mammoth, one, the American, carnivorous or with a mixed diet, the other herbivorous. His conclusions were close to those which Georges Cuvier, friend and colleague of Geoffroy and Lamarck, published in 1799. Cuvier, however, rightly pronounced both types herbivorous.
Landing at West Point, Peale was entertained overnight in Major Fleming’s family, toured and made drawings of the post, and then was driven north to Newburgh where he found Dr. Graham equally hospitable. On June 25 Peale and the doctor drove out to the nearby farm of John Masten, who, three years before, had retrieved the greater part of a skeleton from his marl pit and had been exhibiting it for a small sum. “Bones of a Mammoth found by some rude boor,/While, heedless of his luck, dug manure,” as the incident would be cited in a satirical poem the following year. Here, spread out over the old farmer’s granary floor, lay the bones of the Incognitum —incomplete, damaged, yet far more than Peale had ever seen and, a point whose importance he fully appreciated, all indisputably from the same animal.
Word of Masten’s discovery of the huge, dark bones embedded in the white shell marl had spread quickly among his neighbors. A hundred or more had gath ered to see and then, encouraged by local savants, mostly medical men, had set about heaving them out. A gay country frolic had followed, a flow of liquor warming the workers while they dug and dragged, racing against the flow of water into the deepening pit. Peale could see ample evidence of their zest and speed in the wreckage around him. There lay some fragments of the head and five feet of one tusk, broken midway. All of the neck, most of the back vertebrae, and some of the tail seemed to be present. Breastbone and ribs were there, but much broken. The pelvis too was damaged. He saw both scapulae, or shoulder blades, both forelegs complete, and of the hind legs one femur, a tibia, and a fibula. Some bones of the feet were missing, but there were enough to reconstruct the form. Missing parts still might be found in the morass, but, lacking that, there was enough to reproduce on one side what had been on the other. The most serious lacks were the upper part of the head and parts of the jaw.
It was known that the old farmer initially had refused to sell the skeleton, but by now it had ceased to attract much local interest and his income from showing it had dwindled to very little. Peale, all eagerness, was careful not to seem too eager. He asked merely if he might make drawings. Permission was granted, and he set to work. What followed is best told in his letter home to Betsy: