Unearthing The Mastodon


The bones were put on shipboard for Philadelphia, on the schooner David under Captain L’Hommedieu, and their owner was homebound again by the diligence—an exciting dash through field, forest, and town, down the long highway and into Betsy’s arms, with all the eager questions from chidren, friends, philosophers at the Hall. The Society, which had fostered the study of this subject over so many years, could bring the most expert knowledge available for a correct assembling and completion of the skeleton. The news was spreading out over the country as all awaited the arrival of the David in harbor. As Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette reported it, July 22, “Mr. Peale” has now “the bones of the great American animal commonly called the Mammoth ,” and “within the space of two or three months he expects to have it in his power to put together a complete skeleton for the Museum.” On July 24, 1801, a special meeting of the Society, with larger attendance than any other of the year, met to inspect the bones and consider Peale’s plea for cooperation in completing the skeleton. The vice-presidents, Robert Patterson, an early and enthusiastic backer of the museum, and Dr. Caspar Wistar, an authority on vertebrate paleontology and the Peale family physician, had called the meeting. Peale had asked for a loan of five hundred dollars for four months. It was granted, unanimously, without interest.

Preparations were already under way. The site to be explored lay under twelve feet of water, but an unusually dry summer, so far, gave promise that it could be drained. Peale had written Jefferson for the loan of navy pumps and army tents. He now wrote to Dr. Graham, asking him to order lumber delivered to the site. That letter never reached Graham. The President was at Monticello, and his ready agreement, written July 29, with orders to General Irvine at Philadelphia and to the New York Navy Yard, came too late. The expedition had set forth in the diligence on that day, a party of four. Rembrandt Peale, aged twenty-three, was joining his father in what would be the only scientific study of his career. Jotham Fenton, a naturalist friend, was there. Young Dr. James Woodhouse, short, florid, balding, professor of chemistry at the university and soon to be recognized as America’s leading authority in that science, came as the Society’s representative. He was a Francophile and a friend of all the Peales, like them loved experiment and loved a joke, but unlike them gave God the Creator only conditional praise for what He had done.

Peale had succeeded in borrowing an army tent. In New York he procured pumps and other gear. How to set up and power the pumping operation on which all else depended remained a problem, but in looking over the ground at Masten’s a novel idea occurred to him—a huge mill wheel, powered not by water flowing over the outside but by men walking within. Such a power source attached to a chain of buckets would lift the water high enough to be channeled away to a distance—a great improvement over separately operated hand pumps.

“[August] 3d., [1801]… I rode to Doctr. Grayham’s where I made some drawings of a wheel & buckets to drain the hole where the bones lay—for last evening viewing the Ground near the Pond I found a considerable hollow over a small hill. This struck me at first sight as a favorable place to carry the water, which I could do with a trough of no great length.… By the advice of the Doctr. I went to seek a Mr. Campbell, a very ingenious workman, a wheelwright. Mr. Brown in whose employ he was very obligingly consented to let him leave his work to do mine.

“4th. Mr. Campbell began his work. He readily conceived my plan—and after viewing the Grounds round the Pond we determined how to place our wheel and water buckets. Then [we] went into the woods and fell[ed] some Trees and a number of sapplings, some to make the arms of the great wheel, others to make triangles for fixing the Tackles, &c., and we got the poles hauled to the Pond. A horseman Tent which General Ervin lent me, we set up on a Hill south of the Pond at a good distance to be out of the… mud. An appearance of Rain toward sun set induced us to make a shed of Boards to work beneath, and also to keep part of the boards dry.

“[August] 5. Having slept in the Tent & being so near to the shed altho’ it rained, Mr. Campbel & myself set about to compleat the covering of the shed—we had just compleated our work when behold, the whole fell down—having neglected to put braces to support the crotches, & some of the boards being put up in haste had a leaning position. The shaking it got by letting the boards fall against it set it going. We had each of us to scamper as fast as we could to escape being crushed beneath the pile. Each of us rejoiced to see the other safe, and after our surprise was over we set again to work, determined to be more careful in putting the boards perpendicular to brace it. With diligence we rebuilt [all] of [the] building before breakfast. Mr. Campbel went to get a cross cut Saw, buy nails & engage a Carpenter to assist us. I set about to make a work bench, which I compleated with sundry conveniences for working carpenters work.…