- Historic Sites
Unearthing The Mastodon
Peale’s Greatest Triumph
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
There had been one moment of crisis that he long remembered, but told best in his well-known painting of 1806, The Exhumation of the Mastodon . With all in order and hopes high, the skies had darkened, lightning flashed, and thunder rolled with all the flamboyant fury of a Catskill mountain storm. The downpour it threatened would have washed down banks and wheel together, wrecking and flooding all. Boldly, however, his men stayed at their work as the black clouds and downpour passed them by, lightning flash and thunder roll receding into the mountains beyond.
He had paid his workmen good wages. He had also, for their own good as much as for thrift, watered the liquor ,doled out to those who labored in the pit. It always had been accepted that the body should be fortified with alcohol against cold and wet, but, two years before, Peale had defied that dictum, and with success. It had been on an expedition to Cape May with Jotham Fenton, and a weakness of Fenton’s for the bottle had become apparent. No ardent spirits for either, therefore, in spite of storm and stress, and everyone came through in fine shape. The major task of pumping water cost Peale nothing, for he had found plenty of youths in the ever-present crowd eager for a chance to walk inside the great wheel—laughter and shouts, back and forth, inside and out, 1,440 gallons an hour.
When the expedition moved on to Captain Joseph Barber’s and other sites in its search for an under jaw and perfect skull, Rembrandt’s ingenuity came into play. He had a blacksmith make a number of slender, pointed steel rods. These could be thrust easily through the swamp mold, and one could as easily judge the nature of what the point might strike, whether rock, soft root, or a hard substance between rock and root—a bone.
As Peale reported to Jefferson soon after, the work at Masten’s had added part of the sternum or breastbone, all the remaining vertebrae and part of the sacrum, a tibia and fibula, as well as those fragments of under j aw and the second tusk. “Some inconsiderable additions of carved pieces,” he wrote, “will render this a tolerable compleat skeleton.”
Unsatisfied, however, they moved a few miles westward into Montgomery township on lands of Captain Barber and Peter Millspaw, with much labor but highly satisfactory results.
”… I determined to try at some other morasses where some few bones had before been found. I went to a morass 16 miles distant from this where only 3 ribs had been taken up. Here I obtained 43 bones of the feet, 10 tail bones, 2 Tusks, many ribs, some Vertebrae, and a blade bone. I found these bones scattered in every direction, and some of them buried between large stones & even under them, tho’ the stones that covered them were not large. After digging about 40 feet square, and spending about 8 or 9 days of several mens labour, I went to another morass 5 miles further, where several bones had been taken up, but as no part of the head had been found my hopes were particularly to obtain that part. Here I found the bones more scattered than at the last place. This part of the morass was not so deep as those I had explored before. After finding a number of ribs & some few bones of the feet, and having dug up the manure to a very considerable distance round, in the moment of despairing of getting any more bones and thinking to discharge the labourers—by means of a spear which we used we luckily discovered other bones—which uncovered prooved to be a fore leg beneath which was an intire under Jaw—not a part deficient except one of the lesser grinders, which appears to have been lost while the animal lived. Here we also found part of a foot. From this spot to where we found the heel of the hind foot measured 82 feet. After exploring in every direction [we] at last found the upper head, but in such total decay that no part would hold together except the enamel of the grinders & that part which joins the neck. The place the skull once occupied appeared to be a little blacker than other parts of the mud. The form, in part was discoverable, although all was converted into manure, yet it would separate and shew the rounded parts.
“The great quantity [of bones] we collected at the two last explored morasses with those that had been before taken … will enable my son Rembrandt by the aid of his chizel to carve in wood all the deficiencies in order to compleat a second skeleton—with which he hopes to pay his expences of traveling in Europe. He has now long wished to improve his talents in Painting and I am happy to have it in my power to aid him, more especially as by the exhibition of it, there is a chance of his making something handsome and at the same time to make an exchange of the duplicate subjects I possess for those of Europe yet wanting in my Museum, besides settling a good and sure correspondence for a reciprocal exchange of Natural Subjects. It is supposed that a great deal of money may be made in London & Paris with such a Skeleton, but I am taught not to be so sanguine in my expectations. If he can meet all his expences and take the portraits of distinguished characters in the large Cities of Europe, and gain more knowledge with a small addition to his purse it will be well. The first Skeleton might soon be erected in the Museum but the necessity of keeping it apart until my Son has made up the deficiencies of the 2d Skeleton will be a cause of some delay.…”