America’s Founding Monsters

Primary Author

Margaret Colangelo

Additional Author(s)

Dr. Bernard Means

Faculty Mentor

Dr. Bernard Means

Abstract

The first recorded mastodon (Mammut americanum) fossils were found in New York in the early 18th century. The founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, saw these and other isolated bones discovered in Kentucky, New York, and Virginia as critical to countering a notion that simply being in the Americas physically affected its inhabitants—animals, plants, and people—causing them to degenerate relative to their Old World counterparts. Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington all owned the fossils of Ice Age megafauna. Some of Jefferson’s mastodon and giant ground sloth fossils were collected by William Clark from Big Bone Lick at Jefferson’s request and these are preserved at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. While the fate of Washington’s mastodon fossils is unclear, a mastodon molar belonging to Franklin was found in property he owned in Philadelphia. However, even as more mastodon and giant ground sloth fossils were uncovered, they were not seen as a compelling counterpoint to the notion of American degeneracy—a complete or at least nearly complete skeleton was needed. In 1799, bones from a mastodon skeleton were discovered on a farm in Orange County, New York that elicited great interest from Jefferson and his compatriots, including Charles Willson Peale, a famous painter and owner of the first public museum in the U.S. In 1801, Peale traveled to New York to purchase the mastodon bones found two years earlier and the right to excavate more bones. As part of America’s first scientific excavation, he developed an ingenious pumping system consisting of a human-powered wooden wheel to remove water from his excavation areas, famously portrayed in his 1806 to 1808 painting Exhumation of the Mastodon. Peale recovered enough bones to reconstruct two mastodons, one of which was one of the first reconstructed fossil animals and displayed it in his museum in Philadelphia. A second mastodon skeleton was displayed at the Peale Museum in Baltimore, and a few bones from this skeleton survive today in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland.

Presentation

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