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The Mastodon which Made a Museum Essay

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Updated: Mar 3rd, 2020

Ours are bigger than yours!

No, ours are bigger!

No, this is not the schoolyard banter of teenage boys, but instead a vast simplification of a vitriolic debate seething and bubbling all through the first decades of the 19th century. Although it may seem ludicrous to us today, the issue of whether America could boast large species of animals was of keen interest to intellects and patriots on both sides of the Atlantic. The French naturalist, Comte de Buffon,asserted the inferiority of New World flora and fauna.

Not only that, he contended that Old World species failed to thrive in the Americas, reflecting some sort of degeneracy. Energetically defending the salubrious character of the United States was the polymath Thomas Jefferson. In 1801, the thoughtful and innovative display of mastodon remains by Charles Willson Peale, in Philosophical Hall, in Philadelphia, and in Europe, thrust both Peale and the ancient, giant relative of the elephant into this debate.

The impact of these fossils, their excavation, and exhibition, and the fevered discussion they precipitated, was wide-reaching, and touched the fields of paleontology, anthropology, museum design, public education, and human biology and medicine.

Charles Willson Peale, born in 1741, entered the museum business as a second career after portraiture, and in response to seeing the excitement and curiosity generated by some mammoth bones he was sketching at the time[1]. Reflecting current ideas[2] and his own growing enthusiasm for natural history, Brooks quotes Peale as proposing, in a letter to George Washington, to create a museum “which would be of value to the public and a service to the nation” (Brooks 36).

In 1786, Peale gave notice that he would convert his home to a “Repository for Natural Curiosities… The several Articles will be classed and arranged according to their several species; and … on each piece will be inscribed the place from whence it came…” (Brooks 36).

This was an ambition worthy to round out the remaining decades of his life. As Hart and Ward report, Peale affirmed that, “It is his fixed determination to encrease (sic) the subjects of the Museum with all his powers, whilst life and health will admit of it” (Hart and Ward, The Waning of an Enlightenment Ideal: Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, 1790-1820 390).

In the 1780s, Peale’s exhibits were already exceedingly innovative in that he created “elaborate reconstructions of …native habitats” (Brooks 36), labeled and arranged in accord with Linnaen taxonomy [3] rather than in “cabinets of curiosities” (Prince, Rhodes and Peck 2) [4].

Charles Sellers notes that Peale pioneered many of his own techniques for preservation (Sellers, Peale’s Museum 254)[5], and display (e.g. mounting a magnifying lens over the fangs of a rattlesnake to allow for close examination. His innovations survive today in the dioramas we take for granted (Sellers, Peale’s Museum 254).[6]

Peale was an unashamed egalitarian popularizer of science, lecturing personally in the museum rather than a classroom, publishing a guide book, (Brooks 36), and inviting women to his lectures (Egmond and and Mason 96) [7]. (His long term ambition was nothing less than a national museum to showcase America’s treasures, although he was not able to fulfill this personally). [8]

Peale’s Museum was given many artifacts for his exhibits, including fossils, some in lieu of tickets. New World fossils were a hot topic of discussion by the well-known, such as Dr. Cotton Mather (of the witchcraft accusation Mathers) [9], and the decidedly unknown[10], such as enslaved Africans..

In 1801, Peale, acquired his own personal collection of mammoth bones from the Hudson Valley. He heard of them through an article in the journal Medical Depository (Sellers, Peale’s Museum 256) . Thomas Jefferson had already wasted time and effort unsuccessfully to remove these fossils.

With a new country to run, why was one of the founding fathers so obsessed with these old bones? Thomas Jefferson had powerful personal as well as civic reason for wanting to document these giant fossils. For one reason, Jefferson still entertained the possibility that these giant animals were still thriving in some unexplored portion of the United States (The Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection: The Mastodon). There was enough confusing testimony from the native peoples about these bones to plant reasonable doubt in his mind[11].

For another reason, the French Delegation in Philadelphia had asked some very searching questions about the new republic[12]. He also smarted from insulting assertions by another Frenchman, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Thomson reports that Buffon asserted that “the animals of the New World were lesser in size and numbers of species than those of the Old World; that animals common to both continents were smaller in the New World; and that Old World animals transplanted to the New World fared poorly.

At the same time “serpents” and insects abound.”[13] (Thomson). Europeans also doubted American claims regarding huge fossil remains. “Lycurgus”, a political commentator wrote in 1802, ”The name of the Mammoth became a proverbial expression of ridicule and reproach” (“Lycurgus”)

Responding to the damaging implication that America was unhealthy for man, beast, and plant, Jefferson penned his sole: Notes on Virginia. His anger is clear from the brief introduction which says, “To apologize for this (any deficiency in the text) by developing the circumstances of the time and place of their composition, would be to open wounds which have already bled enough. “ (Jefferson)

Jefferson’ s book is a comprehensive effort of research and documentation. (Osborn) Jefferson was determined to silence Buffon, based on his own scientific bent [14], his personal pride in his nation, and his very practical concern about his country’s reputation in the eyes the world (Wilson).

Given this background of personal and national pique, Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society funded Peale in his expedition to retrieve giant animal bones in Montgomery. Peale was a good choice.[15]. Peale’s multifarious talents shone in the ingenuity of his gargantuan bucket and chain mechanism to prevent flooding of the Ulster County marl pit (Egmond and and Mason 93).

This project struck Peale as a civilian battle for a non-military goal, equal in seriousness to any classical subject, and he recorded it via a moody historical genre painting[16]; Exhumation (Brooks 39). Abraham Davidson quotes Peale as explaining, “Having the desire to represent the scene of getting up the Bones of the Mammoth, it being a very interesting article of the Museum, last summer I undertook a picture .. my exertions excited the admiration of all the people for a considerable distance round that country” (Davidson 620-622)

Peale regarded the tedious effort of piecing together the bones as an almost sacred duty, as he noted in his unpublished autobiography, quoted by Miller, “By perseverance he [Peale] hoped to accomplish an object which would enlighten the whole world with the knowledge of what kind of animal the mammoth, so called, could be.” (L. B. Miller 51) Expressed this way, the topic justifies a historical heroic genre painting to commemorate it [17].

An eye-witness observer of the excavation, 12 year old Samuel Eager recorded his impressions 45 years later in 1846, as quoted by amateur Orange County historian, Joseph Devine, “We cannot,… omit to tell of the Mastodon. Contemplating his remains …we instinctively think of his great power and lordly mastery over the beasts, of his majestic tread.of his anger when excited to fury, stamping the earth till trembling beneath his feet.snuffing the wind with disdain, and uttering his wrath in tones of thunder,.

And the mind quails beneath the oppressive grandeur of the thought, and we feel as if driven along by the violence of a tornado. …we move along and ponder on the time when the Mastodon lived, when and how he died, and the nature of the catastrophe that extinguished … this line of terrestrial monarchs” (sic) (Devine) .

Rembrandt Peale, in recounting the events, wrote that the workers involved in the excavation exclaimed, “Great God, what a jaw! How many animals have been crushed by it!” (P. Semonin 327) The residents of Manhattan were just as interested in the remains as the locals of Ulster County [18].

The three unusually complete mastodon skeletons thus recovered formed the core of two exhibits, one of which Peale set up in the Philosophical Hall in Philadelphia[19] (Davidson 624) (Egmond and and Mason 97). Peale and his sons were, by the standards of the day, astonishingly careful of how they mounted and assembled and recorded the bones [20].

Since so many people believed the animal to be carnivorous[21], they installed the tusks facing down and inwards, after the fashion of the fangs of a saber tooth case. Despite their errors, it was unheard of to see a fossil mounted in three dimensions, with missing bones carved to fill in (and announced as such) (P. Semonin 327).

The results were gratifyingly dramatic. Peale announced the accomplishment as follows in the newspapers, the Telescope of Leominster, Massachussetts, among them:

They were then tho’t to be the remains of a Giant…” Peale goes on ,“he is in the possession of a Complete Skelleton of this antique wonder of North America;… they must have lain many hundred years – no other vestige remains of these animals; nothing but a confused tradition among the natives of our country, which dates their existence ten thousand moons ago[22]; but whatever might have been the appearance of this enormous quadruped , when clothed with flesh, his massy bones can alone leave us to imagine, already convinced that he was the Largest of the Terrestrial Beings.” [23] (sic) (Peale).

The mastodon was at least 12 feet at the shoulder and of its tusks Peale said “the form is beautiful as infinitely varied circles and spirals can make it” (P. Semonin 327). Peale exploited this drama to stage a lavish and very alcoholic dinner party for 13 inside the skeleton (Egmond and and Mason 98). The brute reality of the skeleton vaporized all the conjectures about giants (“Lycurgus”).

How did visitors view the fossils in this newly dawning Age of Enlightenment?

The term “wonder of the world” was used universally in papers around the colonies (The Mammoth. The National Aegis). There was alarm at the image of a carnivorous monster roaming the colonies. There was relief that this creature did not seem to be immanently threatening to tromp, lope, or race ravenously up Walnut Street in Philadelphia to carry off the young scions of the new republic, bleeding and screaming, in its paradoxically pointed teeth.

There was also curiosity. A neighbor of the excavation, Silvanus Miller, asked in a letter to the prominent lawyer and future New York State Governor, “why in the dispensation of an overruling providence…should the animal now be extinct?” (S. Miller) For many thoughtful people, including Peale himself, catastrophism was the best answer[24] (Davidson 624).

In a never-published autobiography manuscript housed in the Charles C. Sellers’ Collection of Peale Documents in Hebron, Connecticut, Davidson reports that Peale affirmed that this animal to be a “carniverous [sic] elephant of the north” (Davidson 625).

This titillating idea was echoed by the popular press, as for example in the headline describing the mystery creature as;”the LARGEST of terrestrial beings”, buried and lost to human sight since Noah’s flood (Davidson 625)… If this animal was indeed carniverous [sic], which I believe cannot be doubted, though we may as philosophers regret it, we cannot but thank heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct.” (added emphasis) (Davidson 625)

As cited in Davidson, a reading of Peale’s own words in his Scientic (sic) and Descriptive Catalogue of Peale’s Museum, dated 1796, suggests that Peale clung to the chain of being as well as the notion of catastrophism theory , writing, “…we find that nature gradually, and almost imperceptibly, passes from the most simple beings to the most compound; thus forming that chain or series of being, …to the end of time” (Davidson 626)[25]

To reinforce this philosophical stance, Peale inscribed over the museum’s south entryway the following verse from Fettiplace Beller’s 1732 poetical drama, Injured Innocence, (L. B. Miller 50): “The book of Nature open- -Explore the won’drous work. A solemn Institute of laws eternal, Whose unaltered page no time can change, No copier can corrupt.” (La Follette 100) (added emphasis)

If going nose to tusk with an extinct animal could not prompt Peale (or Cuvier) to immediately dump the great chain of being and the unchanging creation concepts, then did the mastodon bones have any impact at all? Yes, although some effects took several decades to be felt. The unimpeachable documentation of an extinct species was critical to the acceptance of the notion of species change over time, which permitted a discussion of an older earth. Without these two ideas, paleontology and geology could not develop apace.

The unambiguous demonstration in the instance of the mastodon, by Cuvier and others, of the obvious relationship of an extinct animal to a modern animal, contributed to an intellectual climate conducive to Darwin’s synthesis of theory of evolution, even if Cuvier himself did not see it.

The careful and thorough study of the Peale mastodon remains also created the groundwork for advances in the study of ancient populations in the New World. Although it was not until 1839 that definitive evidence was presented that human beings co-existed with the extinct species of North America, this evidence might not even have been recognized without the mastodon investigation. (Montagu and Peterson 407-419).

Many of the men in the Philosophical Society were also physicians. The study of the mastodon bones, and the debunking of cherished fictions regarding them, can be viewed as part of a secular

shift towards the abandonment of medieval, received wisdom (often obscured by religion) about, among other subjects, the human body, which had characterized the colonial period. It was much easier to reject theories such as that of men possessing one fewer ribs than did women. Instead, the study of human biology was pushed in the direction of direct observation and experimentation, without which modern medicine is not possible.

The giant bones served another set of purposes as well. Of course, their immense size silenced all commentary, from Comte de Buffon, or anyone else, about the putative degeneracy of the American continent (The Thomas Jefferson Fossils). Jefferson must have felt that his $2000 investment in Peale’s excavations operation was well worth it. Additionally, Semonin suggests that the mastodon was “a symbol of the new nation’s own conquering spirit–an emblem of overwhelming power in a psychologically insecure society.

For them the animal’s symbolic meaning far outweighed its scientific significance as evidence of extinct species or a prehuman past. While the mastodon did not compete with the bald eagle as the nation’s official emblem, this majestic Ice Age creature did become an informal icon of national identity for citizens of the new republic.”[26] (P. Semonin)

Peale’s Museum succumbed soon after his death, shafted by political inconstancy. This pattern of financial vulnerability is familiar today. His legacy was not lost, however, nor were his mastodons actually lost[27]. Legacy institutions included the Baltimore Museum Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, The American Museum of Natural History (think of those dioramas!). The Academy of Natural Sciences, and the dinosaur exhibit at the Crystal Palace [28] (Egmond and and Mason 100).

Peale’s broad and generous vision is reflected almost to the word in the founding statements of the Smithsonian Institution[29]. Follette also points out that the struggle over what to show and what to hide continues today, especially when government funding is at stake, as in the Smithsonian [30].

The idea of a public museum, either free or cheap, readily accessible to all classes, genders, and conditions, is a huge contributor to social and educational mobility, offering all citizens the chance to learn outside the classroom, despite the objections, previously noted, of David Brigham, as reviewed by Sidney Hart (Hart, Untitled 11-16).

Follette, explicitly drawing a connection between Peale and the hands-on approach of contemporary science museums, points out that, “Although the modern science and technology centers express continuity with the legacy begun by Peale, in many ways they are also a reaction to the inability or unwillingness of the traditional museums to live up to Peale’s vision; the older institutions no longer successfully walk the “tightrope” between science and popular appeal” (La Follette 44).

Charles Willson Peale’s 1801 exhibition of the mastodon skeleton in his Museum was an important event, and not just because the acquisition of the fossils was such a logistical ordeal. The giant bones played a part in the development of paleontology, museum science, the archeological study of Native Americans, human biology, and geology, and the push for public educational institutions.


“Lycurgus”. “Politics, For the Chronicle. The Constitutional Federalist, No. 4, Read and Consider.” 1802. newsbank. Web.

Annan, Robert. “Account of a Skeleton of a Large Animal, found near Hudson’s River.” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2.1 (1793): 160-164.

Bell, Whitfield J., Jr. “A Box of Old Bones: A Note on the Identification of the Mastodon, 1766-1806.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 93.2 (1949): 169-177.

Brooks, Christopher. “Painting and Natural History in Eighteenth-Century North America.” Oxford Art Journal (1982): 31-39.

Davidson, Abraham A. “Catastrophism and Peale’s “Mammoth”.” American Quarterly 21.3 (1969): 620-629.

Devine, Joseph. Mastodons of Orange County. 2010. Web.

Egmond, Florike and Peter and Mason. “Skeletons on Show: Learned Entertainment and Popular Knowledge.” History Workshop Journal 41 (1996): 92-116.

“Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.” 2010. Philosophyprofessor. Web.

Hart, Sidney and David C. Ward. “The Waning of an Enlightenment Ideal: Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, 1790-1820.” Journal of the Early Republic 8.4 (1988): 389-418. Hart, Sidney. “Untitled.” (n.d.).

Jefferson, Thomas. ” Notes on the State of Virginia.” 2010. Xroads virginia. Web.

La Follette, Marcel C., Lisa M. Buchholz, and John Zilber. “Science and Technology Museums as Policy Tools- An Overview of the Issues.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 8.3 (1983): 41-46. Web.

Miller, Lillian B. “Charles Willson Peale as History Painter: The Exhumation of the Mastodon.” American Art Journal 13.1 (1981): 47-68.

Miller, Silvanus. “Private letter to De Witt Clinton from Silvanus Offacer.” Nicholas Van Riper, 1815.

Montagu, M. F. Ashley and Bernard C. Peterson. “The Earliest Account Of The Association Of Human Artifacts with Fossil Mammals in North America.” (n.d.): 407-419.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield. “: Science, New Series,Vol. 82, No. 2136 (Dec. 6, 1935), pp. 533-538.” 1953. Web.

Peale, Charles Willson. “The Telescope , or American Herald ( of Leominster Massachussetts); Domestic Intelligence: Pennsylvania. Philad. Dec. 24,.” 3 February 1802. Newsbank/Readex, Database: America’s HIstorical Newspapers, SQN: 10C1052A468908E0. Web.

Prince, Sue Ann, et al. “Stuffing Birds, Pressing Plants, Shaping Knowledge: Natural History in North America, 1730-1860.” Transactions of the American Philosophical SocietyTransactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series 93.4 (2003): 55-74.

“Revolutionary Minds.” 2010. American Scientist. Web.

“Rhode-Island. Providence, Aug. 10. the Mammoth Cheese.” XXXV.47 (1801): 2.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. “Peale’s Museum.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 43.1 (1953): 253-259.

—. “Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea”.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124.1 (1980): 25-34.

Semonin, Paiul. “A Cabinet of Curiosities: Peale’s Mastodon:The Skeleton in our closet:.” January 2004. Common-place. : Illinois Press U., Organization of American Historians, JSTOR. Web.

Semonin, Paul. American Monster . New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Simpson, Gayllord George and and Tobien, H. “The Rediscovery of Peale’s Mastodon.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 98.4 (1954): 279-281.

Simpson, George Gaylord. “. “The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 86.1 (1942): 130-188.

“The Mammoth. The National Aegis.” The National Aegis 1.3 (1802): 4.

The Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection: The Mastodon. 2010. Web.

“The Thomas Jefferson Fossils.” 2010. American Philosophical Society. Web.

Thomson, Keith S. Jefferson, Buffon, and the European View of America. 2010. Web.

Wilson, Gaye. “Jefferson, Buffon, and the Mighty American Moose.” 2010. Monticello. Web.


  1. Peale, largely a self-made man, first established a career as a portraitist in Maryland and Virginia, two areas capable of supporting this profession. He moved to Philadelphia in the early 1776, and in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, a lucrative portrait commission of George Washington in 1779 gave him a career boost. This allowed him to build a studio, sky-lit and spacious, with room for events to publicize his services. However, the 1780s were economically constrained, and additional commissions were hard to come by, no matter how assiduously Peale marketed himself (Brooks 34). From 1784 onwards, his collection of natural and other curiosities, which would evolve into his museum, absorbed his attention, and by the 1790s, he was no longer earning his living by painting (Brooks 35).
  2. Brooks asserts that Peale, like other colonial revolutionaries, held that the war had concerned more than merely political change. They “thought that it might herald a new dawn for mankind in which knowledge would replace superstition and all human institutions would be remade according to the light of reason and utility.” (Brooks 35) Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ideas likely impacted Peale; “A deist, who was strongly influenced by Rousseau’s Emile, he (Peale) thought that the inherent potential and goodness of man could best be realized by non-coercive teaching which illuminated the truth and harmony of nature. “ (Brooks 35) .
  3. The Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, although he made some whopping errors in his Systema Naturae, at least provided a framework for understanding the relationship between species that was based on the observed attributes of the creature, rather than some a pre-conceived, received notion of what animals belonged in what categories (Prince, Rhodes and Peck 2). As an example of the sort of silliness that was in effect before Linnaeus, dolphins were grouped with fish, and thus could be eaten on fast days.
  4. As Prince observes of the displays of the 17th century, “In such cabinets, aesthetically inspiring arrangements were used to create a sense of awe and wonder by stimulating the senses as well as the mind, without regard for an object’s place in a presumed natural order.” (Prince, Rhodes and Peck 2)
  5. Prince quotes Peale’s 1792 promotional literature as follows: “His labours (sic) herein have been great and disappointments many, especially respecting proper methods of preserving dead animals from the ravages of moths and worms. In vain he hath sought, from men, information of the effectual methods used in foreign countries; and after experiencing the most promising ways recommended in such books as he has read, they proved ineffectual to prevent depredations by the vermin of America. But, in making various other experiments, he at length discovered a method of preservation which he is persuaded will prove effectual“ (Prince, Rhodes and Peck 16) His first efforts were a complete flop (perhaps literally) but he improved swiftly. In the process, he discovered some very successful techniques, such as the use of arsenic to keep away all sorts of pests (Prince, Rhodes and Peck 4). He utilized his early experience in saddle-making to stretch skins over forms of hand carved wood, which was another innovation (Prince, Rhodes and Peck 18) . He taught himself glass-blowing in order to craft eyeballs.
  6. Initially, in his effort to show the whole world in miniature, he set up his specimens in the center of the room with plants and rocks around them; birds above, land animals below. This exhibit design was later replaced by protective cases (Sellers, Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea” 28). Sellers also describes the painted backgrounds and accompanying props, such as nesting material, or the sort of foliage amongst which the animal might have been found, with which Peale routinely surrounded his specimens (Sellers, Peale’s Museum 254). Peale also developed ways of shipping specimens for receiving specimens and sharing them with other institutions around the world, a practice which is critical to modern museums to maintain their currency and avoid boring their visitors (Sellers, Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea” 28). All these techniques have been bequeathed to us as museum goers. (Sellers, Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea” 28)
  7. Of interest to the field of women’s studies is the acknowledgement that he gave, in his 1800 Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on the Science of Nature; with Original Music, Composed for, and Sung on, the Occasion, to the issue of women’s education, as follows, as quoted by Sellers, “If education is essential for obtaining happiness-have not our daughters an equal right with our sons to our instruction? and if we consider what kind of education is most useful, we will find generally that which benefits our sons, may equally be serviceable to our daughters; and it is, with real concern, I have noticed the neglect of female education in some of the states.” (Sellers, Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea” 29) Given that women had lost whatever suffrage rights were accorded them before 1800, and would not re-acquire that right for decades, and that higher education and all professions, access to the courts, and ownership of property were all unavailable to women, this is a stunning affirmation of support for women. It is worth considering whether the successful penetration women have made in participation in jobs and influence in cultural institutions could owe something to Peale’s statement and actions in including women in his lectures.
  8. His commitment to universal edification for all, rather than solely for an elite few, is clear in the following quote from his 1800 Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on the Science of Nature; with Original Music, Composed for, and Sung on, the Occasion, He described his idea for the world in miniature, set up to teach everyone in the optimal way, housed in an ample structure, “in which are arranged specimens of all the various animals of this vast continent, and of all other countries;- these in high preservation, under glass to secure them from injury. Let us suppose them classically arranged, so that the mind may not be confused and distracted in viewing and studying such a multitude of objects… It is by this kind of order, we may with ease and pleasure acquire knowledge from the great book of nature – Thus reading one leaf at a time, progress to comprehensive acquaintance with the subjects of every country yet explored,-enjoying the whole world!” (Sellers, Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea” 29)In 1792, he published his proposal to create “a MUSEUM, by a Collection, Arrangement, and Preservation of the Objects of Natural History, and things useful and curious,” organized according to Linnaen principles of taxonomy, and using his own techniques for preservation” . In this broadside cited by Sellers, Peale sought the public’s aid in helping this idea grow to a “National Museum” (Sellers, Peale’s Museum 255), similar to those developing contemporaneously in Europe. Peale’s broadside pointed out that, “America has in this a conspicuous advantage over all other countries, from the novelty of its vast territories. But a small number is yet known of the amazing variety of animal, vegetable and mineral productions, in our forests of 1000 miles, our in-land seas, our many rivers, that roll through several states, and mingle with the ocean. A Museum stored with these treasures must indeed become one of the first in the world; the more so, as the principal naturalists in Europe, will be anxious to acquire. ” (Sellers, Peale’s Museum 255) Peale never abandoned this vision of a national educational institution. In one of his lectures about natural history, he stated, as quoted by Prince, “It (natural history) ought to become a national concern, since it is a national good.” (Prince, Rhodes and Peck 7)Brooks points out that Peale was in congenial company in Philadelphia in proposing the creation of an institution which could both amuse as well as edify. He received support from people nearby like Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician, Robert Patterson, a mathematics professor, and David Rittenhouse, the astronomer (although this practical gentleman worried about Peale abandoning his established portraiture career ) (Sellers, Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea” 26), as neighbors and colleagues, gentlemen who all admired the sciences as the proper application of intellect, energy and talent. In such company, Peale and his curiosities of the natural world fit right in (Brooks 37).
  9. In a 1712 proposal for a Biblia Americana, Reverend Cotton Mather recounts that “Another tooth and some bones were found at “Cluverack,” thirty miles from Albany.”He then gives the Description of one, which he resembles to the Eye-Tooth of a Man; he says it has four Prongs, or Roots, flat, and something worn on the top; it was six inches high, lacking one eighth, as it stood upright on its Root, and almost thirteen inches in circumference; it weigh’d two pounds four ounces Troy weight.” This quote reflects a common theory, then current among even the best educated, that the huge bones were those of the giants mentioned in the Old Testament. As noted elsewhere, native American legends were oddly congruent with this notion of giants living in the past. (G. G. Simpson 135) (Claverack is the charming old Dutch town to which this refers, located in what is today Columbia County, New York. The story came from Governor Dudley, presumably Joseph, governor of Massachusetts and son of one of the original colonists, to whom these remains were brought in 1706 by unnamed Dutch settlers).
  10. Mark Catesby, an English naturalist who made observations in the Carolinas, benefitted from the definitive identification by his unnamed African slaves of hitherto unrecognized remains as belonging to some sort of elephant (G. G. Simpson 145).
  11. Jefferson is quoted by Osborn as writng, “Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Lin-naeus and Mons. de Buffon. Of these the mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest. Their tradition is, that he was car-nivorous, and still exists in the northern parts of America. A delegation of warriors from the Delaware tribe having visited the governor of Virginia, during the revolution, on matter of business, after these had been discussed and settled in council, the governor asked them some questions relative to their country, and among others, what they s Loc. cit. knew or had heard of the animal whose bones were found at the Saltlicks on the Ohio. Their chief speaker im-mediately put himself into an attitude of oratory, and with a pomp suited to what he conceived the elevation of his subject, informed him that it was a tradition handed down from their fathers, “That in ancient times a herd of these tremendous animals came to the Big-bone licks, and began an universal destruction of the bears, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals which had been created for the use of the Indians: that the Great Man above, looking down and seeing this, was so enraged, that he seized his lightning, descended on the earth, seated himself on a neighboring mountain, on a rock of which his seat and the print of his feet are still to be seen, and hurled his bolts among them till the whole were slaughtered, except the big bull, who presenting his fore-head to the shafts, shook them off as they fell; but missing one at length, it wounded him in the side; whereon, springing round, he bounded over the Ohio, over the Wabash, the Illinois, and finally over the great lakes, where he is living at this day.” It is well known, that on the Ohio, and in many parts of America further north, tusks, grinders, and skeletons of unparalleled magnitude, are found in great numbers, some lying on the surface of the earth, and some a little below it…. It is remark-able that tVe tusks and skeletons have been ascribed by the naturalists of Europe to the elephant, while the grinders have been given to the hippopotamus, or river horse. Yet it is acknowledged, that the tusks and skele-tons are much larger than those of the elephant, and the grinders many times greater than those of the hippo-potamus, and essentially different in form “ (Osborn) .(sic)These native legends of huge animals sharing the continent in ancient times were paraphrased fancifully and ethnocentrically by Peale as follows: “TEN THOUSAND MOONS AGO, when nought but gloomy forests covered this land of the sleeping Sun, long before the pale men, with thunder and fire at their command, rushed on the wings of the wind to ruin this garden of nature.. a race o f animals were in being, huge as the frowning Precipice, cruel as the bloody Panther, swift as the descending Eagle, and terrible as the Angel of the Night…” (L. B. Miller 51)
  12. Francois, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, who came to America to see, in person, the states France had been helping militarily
  13. Comte de Buffon was a powerful influence on natural history on both continents. His multi-volume work, Histoire Naturelle, demonstrated his belief that species differed the world over, and that the planet was tens of thousands of years older than the mere few thousand years which the Biblical account implied (Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon). In all of this he was at odds with prevailing thought, and Prince describes him as iconoclastic (Prince, Rhodes and Peck). Thomson points out that Buffon’s observations were hampered by not having visited the American continent, by his cherishing a priori ideas about the New World, and by his careless conflation of the vastly differing climates and eco-systems of the various parts of the continent (Thomson).
  14. Jefferson was, himself a careful scientist, e.g. in recording meteorological data for Monticello (Revolutionary Minds)
  15. Peale had experience with drawing fossils, having been commissioned to record fossils from the Ohio River Valley several decades earlier. (In fact, it was while these fossils were sitting about his studio that Peale noticed how much public attention they attracted) (Bell 172).
  16. With an air of menace reminiscent of Bosch, the giant wheel mechanism dwarfs the insignificant human figures.
  17. It is interesting that both the fossils themselves and the paleontological process were thereby permanently documented. This was a novel addition to the protocols of scientific endeavor. It may have helped to set the pattern of mapping and recording of all excavation activities which is de rigeur for any expeditions whether archeological or paleontological or geological, these days.
  18. Peale seems to have taken full advantage of his temporary stay in the New York market to exhibit a portion of what he had excavated, and reported his very modern strategic thinking in his diary from 1801, as quoted by Egmond and Mason, noting that “multitudes of the Citizens came to see them – this exhibition of the Bones might to some appear a disadvantage in the gain of my future exhibition of them but it appeared in different point of view to me – their magnitude surprised many and only served to excite their curiosity to see the intire (sic) Skeleton and I doubt not but many of those Citizens of New York will come to Philada. (sic) on purpose.” (Egmond and and Mason 97)
  19. , The other which he sent, in the care of two of his sons, and with great fanfare in the press, to display in Reading and Bristol, England in 1802 (Davidson 624) (Egmond and and Mason 97)
  20. They consulted with the available experts, such as Caspar Wistar, a Philadelphia scientist of note, and Peale even wrote for help and advice to Georges Cuvier, Europe’s leading scientist in paleontology.
  21. (From the appearance of its monftrous grinders, it would ieem as if it had been of the carniverous kind.” (Annan) (sic)
  22. It is intriguing to consider that the date of earliest occupation of the North American continent has been pegged popularly at roughly 10,000 years ago.
  23. Peale goes on to announce that a separate ticket price will be charged for this exhibit
  24. Catastrophism “was a doctrine able to bridge successfully the gap between the Biblical account of creation, which held that the world was but a few thousand years old, and recent excavations, which seemed to prove empirically that profound changes had occurred upon the earth since earliest times” (Davidson 624).
  25. Peale was entranced with the serene static beauty of the Great Chain of Being for more than just its scientific use. He felt that it was a spur to right thought and behavior. In 1801, as quoted by Davidson, Peale expressed this idea in an address entitled Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on the Science of Nature; with Original Music, Composed for, and Sung on, the Occasion, “While we are fulfilling the duties which virtue dictates, there is no science that affords us as many lessons to aid us in trying scenes, as the knowledge of natural history; it is a solace producing a serene tranquility of mind amid the turmoils of our worldly concerns; to our youth (to whom all things are new) it is a source of infinite utility in [illegible word] them from destructive habits, for, if they enter with zeal into this pleasing source of meditation, they will not easily be seduced from the paths of virtue” (sic) (Davidson 627).
  26. Within months of Peale’s exhibit, a huge cheese was created and christened the Mammoth Cheese, and carted around to publicize the superb dairying in Cheshire, in Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts (Rhode-Island. Providence, Aug. 10. the Mammoth Cheese)
  27. The fossils avoided fire, and endured at least four re-mountings, ending up in Germany (G. G. Simpson and a. T. 279-281)
  28. English exhibitors copied several of Peale’s publicity stunts, e.g. the much more famous dinner party inside the Iguanodon at London’s Crystal Palace.
  29. Sellers quotes the institutional goals of the Smithsonian Institution as the “arrangement, upon a liberal scale, of objects of natural history, including a geological and mineral cabinet, also a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and the necessary lecture rooms.” (Sellers, Peale’s Museum and “the New Museum Idea” 32)
  30. Today the conflict may concern the Enola Gay bomb carrying airplane, whereas Peale had to contend with the decision whether or not to display birth monstrosities (La Follette 46)
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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Mastodon which Made a Museum." March 3, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-mastodon-which-made-a-museum/.


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