An early and significant excavation of an American mastodon was undertaken in Orange County, New York during the summer of 1801. This mastodon is credited as the world’s first fully articulated prehistoric skeleton of any type. The work was directed by scientist and painter Charles Willson Peale, friend and colleague of Thomas Jefferson and a former member of the revolutionary insurgents, the Sons of Liberty.
Peale’s excavations (there were two other subsequent mastodons recovered in the area), established the anatomy of what we now know as the American mastodon by carefully documenting and organizing bones as they were excavated from the pond site. The above painting, by Peale himself show the scale of this massive undertaking.
Peale’s sons also help document the finds, illustrating the specimens with great and growing knowledge of vertebrate anatomy.
If you like your information in social media-length snippets and short soundbites then this might be a bit of a read but here is selected information from the National Register of Historic Places form summarizing the project. I’ve edited it down to make it a little more readable. You can download the full form as a pdf file from the NRHP website by clicking this link. It isn’t fine literature but gets the story across. If you don’t care to read, but are here for the images, skip on a bit.
The Orange County expedition was in large measure predicated on the desire to explain, what in fact, this “mammoth” creature was. Prior to Peale’s discovery, prehistoric bones had been found in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere, but these individual and unidentified fragments resulted primarily in speculation motivated, to some extent, by religious superstition. Peale’s 1801 expedition was inspired by the discovery of unusual skeletal remains at a number of area farms in the last quarter of the 18th century, including that of Captain Joseph Barber, who in 1793 unearthed a small number of mastodon rib bones while digging marl on his property. This and other such discoveries, like the bones unearthed on the farm of Reverend Robert Annan around 1780-remains that were subsequently viewed by General George Washington and other Continental army officers … during the war generated considerable interest in this subject and helped spur the Peale expedition.
Mastodon skull (inferior view) from from Godman’s American Natural History 1836.
Peale’s 1801 effort included a preliminary trip to the area in the spring, followed by a more extensive expedition that summer, the latter focusing on three area sites in the present-day towns of Newburgh, Montgomery, and Crawford. The summer expedition yielded enough remains to round out those bones previously collected and allowed him to form two essentially complete skeletons. One of the two reassembled mastodon skeletons was first exhibited in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve 1801, to great fanfare. Today the one remaining mastodon skeleton-that first assembled- is exhibited at the Hessisches Landemuseum in Darmstadt, Germany. The other was destroyed by fire in Baltimore, Maryland in 1850.
Sketch of the Great Mastodon by Titian Ramsay Peale, 1821.
National awareness of the mastodon remains recovered in Orange County … is illustrated by President Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence with Peale on the subject, Jefferson’s granting of Federal assistance to the summer 1801 expedition, his own attempts to acquire Hudson Valley mastodon bones, and likewise his directive to explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804 to find other examples of the mammoth during their explorations of the post-Louisiana Purchase American West. Jefferson … previously referenced the mammoth in his Notes on the State of Virginia in his effort to debunk the French naturalist Compte de Buffon’s theory of American Degeneracy, which held that mammals would reduce in size and vigor over the course of several generations due to poor environmental factors once introduced in North America. Buffon’s theory, which proved a springboard for related theories such as that promoted by Abbe Raynal who extended it to include European-born settlers undermined the young nation’s legitimacy on the international stage, rousing the passions of Jefferson, among others.
Mastodon feet, from Godman’s American Natural History 1836.
The mastodon remains unearthed in Orange County formed an important, if not watershed event, in this international debate, by providing the first essentially complete skeletons of this prehistoric mammal. They offered important data for the scientific community while likewise contributing to a shared American national identity in an age of cultural exploration and self definition. It should also be noted that, in additional to serving as a landmark event in the birth of American paleontology, Peale’s expedition represented the first American scientific expedition ever conducted, receiving as it did modest Federal assistance… This event further represented the first successful expedition in what proved an international quest to find the fist complete skeleton of the unknown animal known as the “mammoth,” as parties in France, Germany, Spain, England and America had sought to locate further remains of this species since the 1730s.
Mastodon legs, from Godman’s American Natural History 1836.
The Pleistocene-era mammal that was the focus of Peale’s efforts in the Hudson Valley and Jefferson’s queries was known informally at the time as the American incognitum, or mammoth, and is today known as the American mastodon, or Mammut americanum. Jefferson referred to the animal variously as the mammoth and “big buffalo” in his Notes on the State of Virginia; it was not until 1809 that he learned of the French naturalist Georges Cuvier’s (different link than above) use of the term mastodonte, at which time the term mastodont or mastodon came into broad usage. The term “mammoth” relates to contemporary speculation regarding the size and the unknown nature of the animal …
Eighteenth-century drawing of a mastodon tooth from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky.
The Cost of Field Work (what follows is the agreement made to purchase the initial specimens and conduct further work at the Masten site) that did not yield the hoped-for results.
Peale and Masten agreed to the following transaction: $200, a shotgun for Masten’s son and gowns from N ew York City for his daughters in exchange for the existing set of bones, and an additional $100 to conduct further excavations on site… Peale exhibited his drawings of the mastodon at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, at which time he requested a loan of $500 to support his upcoming field work. After appealing to President Jefferson for several large tents and a pump to further his work at the Masten farm, Peale left for the Hudson Valley with his son Rembrandt, museum assistant Jotham Fenton, and Dr. James Woodhouse, a chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Although three sites were excavated in the months of August and July 1801, the first of which was Masten Farm.
The site presented considerable challenges, given the uncharacteristic depth of the pit, which was likewise filled with 12 feet of water upon the expedition’s arrival. After constructing the “crab,” which only heightened the curiosity of the many people who came to watch the unusual work of
Peale’s team first-hand, a dozen laborers descended into the pit to begin the process of shoveling marl.
It proved to be a bust with little recovered. The team then turned to Barber Farm.
The site-a small marl bog-presented far less challenges (than Masten), as it was very easily drained through the construction of a trench and the use of the nautical pump, unlike the Masten site which was fraught with complexities. Laborers removed the marl, careful not to damage any bones, and set it aside for Barber’s subsequent use. Barber gave Peale two ribs he had found previously, and the site yielded a small collection of bones, including two rotten tusks, a few small grinders, toes bones and vertebrae, a broken scapula, and an almost entire set of ribs. The nearly intact set of ribs would later prove important to the Peales as they worked to assemble a complete skeleton…
Peale really wanted a complete skeleton. There were several lead as to other mastodon sites nearby but he chose the Millspaw morass; and he chose wisely.
In early September Peale considered a new site to focus his attention on, in order to find the missing bones that had been eluding his team-those necessary to form a complete skeleton. Captain Barber accompanied Peale to the farm where Reverend Annan had made his discoveries some two decades prior, and to the farm of Alexander Colden; however the team, at the urging of Dr. Gallatin, finally selected the tenant farm of Peter Milspaw, where significant bone deposits were discovered a decade earlier.
At this point, Peale used a technique that any modern archaeologist will recognize. As the area to search was large and the strata to be examined deeply buried, he devised a probe by putting wooden cross handles on long iron rods. When bone was struck, a pit, forty feet square was excavated and the water was pumped out.
Drawing of mammoth and elephant skulls from Rembrandt Peale, “On the differences which exits between the Herds of the Mammoth and ‘Elephant,'” Philosophical Magazine 14 (1803). American Philosophical Society.
What follows is a short excerpt from the notes of Rembrandt Peale from the frustrating search –
“Here alternate success and disappointment amused and fatigued us for a long while; until our pockets emptied, our spirits low, our workmen languid, we were about to quit the morass with but a small collection, though in good preservation …
“In the meanwhile the ground was searched in various directions with long-pointed rods and cross handles … and by this means, in a very unexpected direction, struck upon a large collection of bones, which were dug to and taken up with every possible care. They proved to be a humerus, or large bone of the right leg with the radius and ulna of the left, the right scapula, the atlas, and, the great object of our pursuit, a complete under jaw!
“After such a variety of labour and length of fruitless expectation, this success was extremely grateful to all parties, and the woods echoed with repeated huzzas. “Gracious God, what a jaw! How many animals must have been crushed between it!” was the exclamation of all; a fresh supply of grog went round, and the hearty fellows, covered with mud, continued the search.”
Reconstructing the mammoth for the first museum display.
Using the bones from the three sites, Rembrandt Peale carved wood duplicates of missing bones in order that two nearly complete skeletons could eventually be formed. On Christmas Eve, 1801, the first of these skeletons was displayed at Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, while the following year Rembrandt and Rubens Peale exhibited the second skeleton in London.
Knowledge of the mastodon was not confined solely within intellectual and scientific circles, however, as the prehistoric mammal captured the American public’s attention; the skeleton displayed in Peale’s Philadelphia museum was among the preeminent curiosities of its day, and much admired by visitors.
An invitation to the Peale Museum 1829.
In addition to their cultural relevance, the ability of the Peales to form a complete mastodon skeleton from the Orange County remains was critical to the contemporary international scientific community. Prior to the articulation of a complete mastodon skeleton, made possible only after the 1801 expedition, there was little consensus so far as the nature of this animal was concerned; the two Peale-assembled skeletons allowed for a more thorough interpretation of the mastodon’s movement, weight, potential range, and other important considerations. Some in Europe, such as Buffon, had previously claimed the American mammoth to simply be a relative of the elephant, an argument that continued to be forwarded by critics of the London exhibition. Yet more importantly, the articulation of a complete skeleton and with it the ability for a more precise interpretation provided the critical information necessary for naturalists like Georges Cuvier, once and for all, to prove definitively that some animals had become extinct over the course of history-a theory considered heretical to some, as it ran counter to existing views of the world as seen through the lens of contemporary religion.
The Artist in His Museum, Charles Willson Peale 1822 (1741–1827). Notice the mastodon specimens in the foreground and the glimpse of the articulated behemoth behind the curtain; a high point of his career.