Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Charles Willson Peale illustrated the enormous effort involved in excavating the mastodon skeleton in this 1806–08 oil-on-canvas painting titled Exhumation of the Mastodon. The artist grouped members of his family at the right and included himself holding the left side of one of his anatomical drawings. Maryland Historical Society/MA5911

Charles Willson Peale illustrated the enormous effort involved in excavating the mastodon skeleton in this 1806–08 oil-on-canvas painting titled Exhumation of the Mastodon. The artist grouped members of his family at the right and included himself holding the left side of one of his anatomical drawings. Maryland Historical Society/MA5911

On October 14, 1800, a New York City newspaper called Mercantile Advertiser published a rather lengthy news/opinion piece on some large and very curious bones that had been unearthed on a farm belonging to John Masten, located about 14 miles from the New York state village of Newburgh. The unidentified author observed that “these huge bones irresistibly force upon us by the power of associating ideas, a representation of an animal, a monster so vastly disproportionate to every creature or subject on which we have been accustomed to exercise our intellectual powers; as to induce a momentary suspension of every animal faculty but admiration and wonder.”

The bones appeared to have been the remains of a claw-footed, horned creature with enormous teeth and 3-foot shoulder blades. Most of its rib bones had been broken during excavation, but a piece of one had measured 3 feet 8 inches. The author of the article explained, “I would not be understood as having formed an opinion that this animal, like the human species, did usually walk erect, but I believe he was capable of occasional progressive motion in that posture. In that position, he would have made a fearful figure — his head extended to the summit of an ordinary tree, he could seize his prey if sheltered among its branches.”

These remarkable bones had been discovered the previous year when laborers digging a pit to extract marl – deposits of clay and calcium carbonate used for fertilizer – had unearthed a thigh bone 3 feet 9 inches long and 18 inches in diameter at its narrowest point. News spread, and for the following three days, neighboring farmers and laborers arrived to bail water from the pit and offer the use of their oxen and chains to haul out other oversize bones. Unfortunately, many of them splintered and broke thanks to the rough treatment of the party-like atmosphere, fueled by the participants’ consumption of copious amounts of rum. When the water kept rising in the marl pit, the volunteers gave up their efforts on the fourth day. Masten removed the recovered bones to his granary, where he laid them out in more or less anatomical order, forming a two-dimensional skeleton that visitors could gaze upon – for a small admission fee.

Just a few days after the story appeared, Dr. Caspar Wistar (1761–1818), Philadelphia physician, anatomist and professor, wrote Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), then president of the American Philosophical Society, asking whether he had heard anything “respecting the large bones which have lately been found up the North [Hudson] River in the State of New York.” Wistar continued, “I have applied to two different Gentlemen at New York & as yet have received no information respecting it.”

Charles Willson Peale painted this oil-on-canvas self-portrait around 1791. A few years earlier he had opened a museum in Philadelphia to exhibit his paintings along with specimens of birds and animals he had collected.

Charles Willson Peale painted this oil-on-canvas self-portrait around 1791. A few years earlier he had opened a museum in Philadelphia to exhibit his paintings along with specimens of birds and animals he had collected.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

On December 14, 1800, Jefferson wrote to New York lawyer and politician Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813), inquiring whether he could procure the bones and offering to pay for them. On January 7, 1801, Livingston replied that he had already made attempts to get these bones himself, but had discovered that the local townspeople regarded them as “a kind of common property,” planning to add to the incomplete skeleton at the Masten farm with the fruits of further excavation.

Livingston followed up with a letter written on March 6, informing now President of the United States Jefferson that while Masten still refused to part with the bones, Livingston might have procured the next best thing: a full account of precisely which bones had been found written by the prominent local physician and political leader James G. Graham, who lived on New York’s Wallkill River and had been present when the bones had been unearthed. Around the same time, Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) of Philadelphia received a newspaper clipping about the discovery of the bones from his in-laws residing in New York City.

Peale is remembered today as a portrait artist of Revolutionary America and the Early Republic. He was born in Queen Anne County, Maryland, in 1741, the son of a schoolmaster. Peale’s mother, following her husband’s death, moved the family to Annapolis and apprenticed young Charles to a saddlemaker. But Peale had already demonstrated artistic talent and was soon able to study with the artists John Singleton Copley in Boston and Benjamin West in London. While serving in the Pennsylvania militia during the American Revolution, Peale painted portraits of many fellow officers, then resumed his career as a professional portrait artist following the war.

In 1782 Peale added a room to his house in Philadelphia to serve as a gallery where he could display completed portraits to stimulate future commissions. He also honed his scientific skills by developing a method to preserve the carcasses of birds, animals and insects with arsenic and alum. These he posed in lifelike positions in painted natural settings, rather than lining up his specimens on shelves in glass cases, as his gallery evolved into a museum.

When Peale got the news about the Masten farm bones, he probably would have been aware, as a natural scientist who was also a member of the American Philosophical Society, that similar large bones had been discovered elsewhere in North America and in Siberia, but generally in so mutilated a condition that no one had a clear idea what sort of animal they had belonged to. Some of the bones discovered in America had been shipped to Europe where they had been studied by French and English scientists. A few examples had been sitting in his own museum since 1783, when he had been commissioned by a European physician to make anatomical drawings, and visitors had long marveled over them. Peale would have known that in 1799, Jefferson had organized an American Philosophical Society committee to investigate some North American mysteries, including Indian earthworks, and to recover an entire skeleton of the beast that had so far been called a “non-descript animal” or “incognitum.” In summer 1801 Peale made plans to travel to rural New York state. If he could not procure the Masten remains and excavate the remainder, at least he could provide the society with good anatomical drawings.

Peale did not know it at the time, but he was embarking on America’s very first scientific expedition. What he would find in New York would not only intrigue contemporary natural scientists, but also puzzle and confound philosophers and theologians worldwide. Peale would present the public with the preserved remains of an animal that apparently no longer existed, forcing a confrontation with the concept of extinction.

According to Peale’s own diary, on June 5, 1801, he boarded a stagecoach for New York City with a trunk full of  art supplies and other necessities, plus a double-barreled shotgun. The stage halted overnight at “Brunswick,” on what was then routinely a two-day trip. Upon arriving in New York City, Peale paid his respects to his in-laws among the DePeyster family. He then booked passage on a vessel bound north up the Hudson River and disembarked at West Point, where he stayed with an officer in charge of military stores at the garrison. Two days later, Peale left West Point on a barge and soon reached Newburgh, where he hired a horse and vehicle and finally reached the home of Dr. Graham, who received him graciously and conducted him the following morning to Masten’s farm.

Rembrandt Peale, pictured here in an 1818 oil-on-canvas portrait by Charles Willson Peale, assisted his father in exhuming mastodon remains and reconstructing the skeletons.

Rembrandt Peale, pictured here in an 1818 oil-on-canvas portrait by Charles Willson Peale, assisted his father in exhuming mastodon remains and reconstructing the skeletons.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Gift of Donald Hamilton Workman in memory of his father, James Clark Workman, and his grandfather, James Henry Workman)

At long last, Peale gazed upon the bones of the huge nondescript animal laid out on the farmer’s granary floor. He pulled sheets of paper from his trunk and pinned them together so that he could make full-sized diagrams. He wrote, “I had just made a beginning when these plain folks asked me to Dinner.” Over ham and lettuce with bacon dressing, one of Masten’s sons casually inquired whether Peale might be interested in purchasing the bones, which had been his goal all along. Peale offered $200 for the bones in the granary, plus an additional $100 for the right to further excavate the site. Negotiations continued the following day, when Peale sweetened the deal by offering to buy Masten a shotgun similar to his own. Masten accepted and agreed to transport Peale and the already recovered bones in his wagon to New York City, where the cash would change hands.

On June 29, Peale wrote to Jefferson about his success but also warned, “The pits dug to get the bones I possess, are large, and now full of water, and one of them 12 feet deep — and from the situation of the morass and the surrounding lands, it appears a Herculean task to explore the bottom where the remainder of the bones are supposed to lay — but I can assure you that I have not the least doubt of completing the Skeleton without breaking a single bone.”

While he lingered in New York City, Peale was pleased to discover that quite a few New Yorkers wanted to get a peek at the bones, including U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr. Peale then shipped the bones via schooner and rode the stagecoach back to Philadelphia.

At a special meeting of the American Philosophical Society on July 24, Peale asked vice president Robert Patterson for a loan of $500 to defer expenses on a quest that could not be delayed. Peale explained in a letter to Patterson, “We have now found the remains of an animal, apparently unmixed with any other; whose structure will leave no room for false conjectures—every Bone, Tooth & Tusk will find its Counterpart, and when put together, as I think I shall be able, will speak for itself.”

On July 20, Peale wrote to Graham that he should expect his imminent return. This time he would be accompanied by his 23-year-old son, Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860).

Upon arriving in New York City, Peale arranged with the captain of the vessel that would take him up the Hudson for the loan of a pump, tools, rope and other supplies. The crowded vessel deposited the Peales in Newburgh, where they remained overnight until a local merchant could conduct them the rest of the way.

Once Peale had arrived at the Masten farm with his son and all the equipment, he turned to the real challenge of how to effectively pump the water out of the Masten marl pit. He decided to construct a giant treadmill powered by the feet of volunteers that would lift a series of buckets high enough to pour water out at a distance so that other laborers could shovel the wet marl out of the pit.

Rembrandt Peale made these sketches of the mastodon skeleton and various isolated bones in 1801. Wikimedia Commons

Rembrandt Peale made these sketches of the mastodon skeleton and various isolated bones in 1801. Wikimedia Commons

Peale’s pump quickly became a local attraction, and people rushed in to watch it in operation. In 1802 Rembrandt Peale wrote and published a pamphlet, Account of the Skeleton of the Mammoth, a Non-Descript Carnivorous Animal of Immense Size Found in America, in which he described the scene at the Masten farm. He wrote, “Every farmer with his wife and children, for twenty miles . . . flocked to see the operation; and a swamp always noted for being the solitary and dismal abode of snakes and frogs, became the active scene of curiosity and bustle; the greater part astonished at the whim of an old man travelling two hundred miles from his home, to dig up as a treasure, at incredible risk, labor, and expense, a pile of bones, which, although all were astonished to see, many imagined fit for nothing better than to rot and serve for manure.”

Work proceeded for several weeks, but the banks of the marl pit kept caving in and the water kept rising. Peale’s workers unearthed bones and bone fragments, but not the most important missing pieces. Peale finally gave up and paid off the crew.

According to Peale’s diary, Graham and a fellow doctor advised him to try another local swamp belonging to a Captain Barber where some large rib bones had been found a few years earlier; however, after spending a week to dig a ditch to drain the Barber morass, then more time excavating in the hot summer sun, they found no bone specimens that Peale did not already possess, and work once again ceased.

This was not a total waste of time, because Barber was able to lead the Peales and their equipment to the tenant farm of a man named Peter Millspaw, who had discovered several bones in a bog. At this location, the Peales used long iron rods to probe the marshy terrain and soon began striking large objects underground. Their crew dug yet another pit and set up more pumping machinery.

A few days later, just before the Peales were about to give up again, a laborer who had been probing in various directions some distance away from the main dig struck something with his rod that seemed promising. Rembrandt Peale went to help him and recorded in another pamphlet he wrote and published in 1803, “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, several toe-bones, and, the great object of our pursuit, a complete UNDER JAW!” He continued, “Thus terminated this strange and laborious campaign of three months. . . . Our venerable relics were carefully packed up in distinct cases; and, loading two wagons with them, we bade adieu to the vallies and stupendous mountains of Shawangunk.”

When the wagons reached Newburgh, the bones were transferred to a sailboat heading for New York City. Once again Charles Willson Peale set some of the bones out for display at the home of a family friend and was gratified to discover that they excited the imaginations of the “multitudes” of New Yorkers, as he noted in his diary, who arrived to get a look at them.

Ever since Peale’s first journey north, local newspapers had reported that his ultimate objective was to reconstruct the skeleton of the nondescript animal. In a letter to Jefferson dated October 11, 1801, Peale described his second expedition and mentioned that he had expanded his project. He wrote, “The quantity [of bones] we collected at the two last explored Morasses, with those that had been before taken, which we have also obtained, will enable my son Rembrandt by the aid of his Chizil to carve in wood all the deficiencies in order to compleat a second Skeleton.”

Peale’s first mastodon skeleton is today on exhibit at the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt in Germany. Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt/Photo by Wolfgang Fuhrmannek

Peale’s first mastodon skeleton is today on exhibit at the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt in Germany. Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt/Photo by Wolfgang Fuhrmannek

For the following three months, Peale worked with his sons Rembrandt and Raphaelle on his skeletons, with expert input on anatomy from Wistar. Peale’s servant Moses Williams fitted many bones together using a kind of trial-and-error method. When one skeleton or the other lacked a particular bone, Rembrandt carved the missing piece using the corresponding bone in the other skeleton as a model. In the end, the only bones completely missing were the end of the beast’s tail and the top of its head.  Peale used papier-mâché to sculpt a skull similar to that of an elephant, to which the nondescript animal had previously been compared. He noted with a red line that this addition was mainly guesswork.

The next puzzle was whether to mount the animal’s tusks pointing up or down. In the 1802 pamphlet Rembrandt wrote, “It is the opinion of many, that these tusks might have been reversed in the living animal, with their points downwards; but as we know not the kind of enemy it had to fear, we judged only analogy in giving them the direction of the elephant. . . . Neither the tusk itself, nor the cavities for the reception of them, could assist in the determination, as they were both very straight, and would equally answer one way as the other.”

Later, on April 19, 1803, Peale wrote to Jefferson that Rembrandt had turned the tusks downward, because “if placed as the Elephants, their great curvature and twist over the head would render them less useful in defense, but his best reason is drawn from a Pr of Tusks that we dug up that had their ends very much worn, which could not have happened to the uppermost side.”

On Christmas Eve 1801 Peale sent an announcement to the members of the American Philosophical Society inviting them to be the first to see the mounted skeleton, and acknowledging their “friendly aid” in his project “to bring into form, the relics of an animal which has so long excited the wonder and admiration of Europe and America.” When the society members arrived at what Peale had named his Mammoth Room in Philadelphia’s Philosophical Hall, they witnessed a skeleton 15 feet long with shoulders 11 feet high.

This low-key opening was quickly followed by Peale’s advertisement in Philadelphia’s newspapers stating that he was “in possession of a COMPLETE SKELETON of this ANTIQUE WONDER of North America. . . . Whatever might have been the appearance of this ENORMOUS QUADRUPED when clothed with flesh, his massy bones can alone lead us to imagine.” The advertisement concluded with the news, “Both the Museum and Mammoth will be abundantly illuminated every night, until ten o’clock. Except Sunday.”

During the previous century, when travelers through Siberia had also encountered the remains of large quadrupeds with tusks, they had derived the word “mammoth” from the term that the Russians had used to describe these creatures. In a letter to Jefferson dated January 1, 1802, Caspar Wistar acknowledged the president’s earlier observation: “Your suggestion that these [North American] bones were similar to those found in Siberia was very happy, especially as so few of the American bones at that time had been found.” By the late 18th century, the American public had adopted the name “mammoth” for the American nondescript animal, and folks even turned the noun into an adjective to describe anything remarkably large.

But Wistar’s letter to Jefferson, written following Peale’s reconstruction, implied that the ancient earth might have been home to another animal besides the Siberian mammoth. Wistar wrote, “There certainly was another large Animal in both countries, you know we have other teeth as large as those of the Mammoth but constructed differently, having a resemblance in their structure to those of the Elephant.” Eventually Peale’s nondescript animal would be identified as a mastodon, but exactly what it was would remain a mystery for some time to come.

Rubens Peale, here in 1807, took one of the mastodon skeletons on tour through Europe in 1802 with his brother Rembrandt Peale, who painted this oil-on-canvas portrait.

Rubens Peale, here in 1807, took one of the mastodon skeletons on tour through Europe in 1802 with his brother Rembrandt Peale, who painted this oil-on-canvas portrait.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Gift of Mrs. James Burd Peale Green and gallery purchase)

In the meantime, the Peale reconstruction inspired a lot of speculation about how the nondescript animal might have interacted with its ancient environment. The fact that so many of its bones had been discovered in Hudson River Valley swamps led Rembrandt Peale to speculate that it had been semiaquatic and could submerge its huge body, rather like a hippopotamus. In both his 1802 and 1803 pamphlets, he laid out his case that the creature was a carnivorous beast. In 1802 he wrote, “I believe it has been well enough ascertained that the teeth of this animal are perfectly carnivorous, as they have every quality of form and substance that is required.” In 1803 he expanded, “When it has been said of the Mammoth that it must have been carnivorous, the word is not intended to convey the idea of his being a beast of prey, like the tiger, wolf, &c. but that his food must have been animal,” and he speculated that the animal’s downward pointing tusks would have helped it gather and consume “shellfish, turtles, fish, or such other animals as might be found in or near lakes.”

In his letter of October 11, 1801, to Jefferson, Charles Willson Peale also mentioned the real purpose of the second skeleton that the Peales were then reconstructing: Rembrandt Peale wanted to visit Europe, and he hoped that the second skeleton would pay his way. Peale expressed his hope that such a trip would benefit his son, his museum, and his family enterprise: “[Rembrandt] 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 [the second skeleton] there is a chance of his making something handsome and at the same time make an exchange of the duplicate subjects I possess for those of Europe yet wanting in my Museum.”

In March 1802 Rembrandt Peale kicked off his European adventure by hosting a dinner for 13 gentlemen in Philosophical Hall at a table set beneath the breast bones of the nondescript animal’s skeleton. He and his younger brother Rubens Peale (1784–1865) then erected the skeleton in New York City’s public Assembly Room, where it drew such a crowd that Rembrandt postponed the brothers’ departure for Europe until mid-June, by which time they had collected more than $2,000. On June 6 Charles Willson Peale had reported to Jefferson, “The Success of the Exhibition in New York enables [Rembrandt] to pay the expenses of crossing the Ocean with a surplus sufficient to make them welcome and easy untill they open again. It seems to be a general opinion that they will make a profitable jaunt of it.”

The Peale sons arrived in Brighton in September 1802. Rembrandt carried letters of introduction from his father to the celebrated artist Benjamin West and the British botanist and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, seeking their assistance in the education of Rembrandt in art and Rubens in museum management. On September 6 Rubens wrote his father that he was dutifully visiting museums.

Then on October 3 Rubens wrote his father that the skeleton had been erected in a setting called the Green Room, formerly used by the Royal Academy, in Pall Mall near the residence of the prince of Wales. The Peale brothers opened the exhibition the following day. Rembrandt published his 1802 pamphlet to serve the purpose of a modern-day museum catalog, its 46 pages including his first-person account of the Hudson River Valley discoveries together with a history of the scientific debate about the bones.

In 1822 Charles Willson Peale included the mastodon skeleton in his 103¾-by-79-inch, oil-on-canvas self-portrait The Artist in His Museum. The skeleton is under the curtain at the far right. Courtesy Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison, The Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection)

In 1822 Charles Willson Peale included the mastodon skeleton in his 103¾-by-79-inch, oil-on-canvas self-portrait The Artist in His Museum. The skeleton is under the curtain at the far right. Courtesy Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison, The Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection)

Unfortunately, the London exhibition attendance proved to be very disappointing. Rubens blamed the weather for their poor receipts, writing his father on October 15 that following a windy and rainy opening day, the cold, foggy weather had continued. He concluded, “I wish we were only in America once more, with the Skeleton; I have no doubt we would make more than we shall heare, for we pay so dear for every thing, the expences runs away with the profits.”

The Peale brothers canceled their plans to take their skeleton on tour through France, both for financial reasons and due to the threat of war between England and France caused by Napoleon’s rise to power. Instead they closed their London exhibition and took their “pet” on tour through the smaller cities of England, including Bath, Bristol and Reading. Still failing to break even, and increasingly alarmed that Napoleon might soon invade England, the Peale brothers announced their departure in mid-July 1803.

The brothers arrived in Philadelphia that November with their disassembled skeleton. The Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser lightheartedly reported on November 22, “Various reasons have been given for his [the skeleton’s] abrupt departure from Great Britain, some say that he was expelled as an Alien, others that Mr. Peale was apprehensive he might be seized as a war horse for the first consul, and others again, that Mr. P. had heard of the voracious appetite of the French soldiers, as also their late invention of extracting soup from bones, and feared his precious skeleton might be stewed down into a kettle of ‘bone soup’ for to refresh the army, after the grand expedition.”

Rembrandt and his older brother Raphaelle then took the second Peale skeleton on tour through Charleston, South Carolina, and Baltimore, Maryland, where it was later installed in the museum established by Rembrandt in 1814.

Peale’s other skeleton remained in Philosophical Hall, where it was later joined by his monumental painting of the excavation at the Masten farm aided by his treadmill pumping machine at a moment in time when the entire operation had been threatened by an oncoming summer storm. Currently on display in Baltimore, this painting has been interpreted as both a history painting in the style of Benjamin West and a charming early 19th-century genre painting.

Rubens Peale took over management of the Peale museum in 1810, following his father’s retirement to a farm near Germantown. The museum and its reconstructed skeleton continued to attract visitors through the 1820s, but by the late 1840s, the museum’s trustees were dealing with debt and the threat of bankruptcy. Eventually the first of Peale’s reconstructed skeletons was sold to German speculators who found a home for it in a museum in Darmstadt, where it remains. The second skeleton was purchased by P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball around 1850, but it was later destroyed in a fire.

Philosophers, scholars, theologians and scientists of the early 19th century continued to wrestle with the concept of extinction. The idea that a species could die off had implications for the validity of the Book of Genesis and the geological age of the Earth. Some theologians were willing to entertain the idea of widespread destruction of a species, but only if that had been caused by the Biblical Flood. Thomas Jefferson and others speculated that the American nondescript animal might not be extinct at all but still crashing through America’s unexplored northern or western wilderness. Indian tradition did mention that there remained some very large animals in the West, and finding a living specimen might well have been among the objectives on Jefferson’s mind when he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their famous expedition.

Similar to Peale’s mastodons, this specimen known as the Marshalls Creek mastodon, after the location where it was discovered in Monroe County, is now on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

Similar to Peale’s mastodons, this specimen known as the Marshalls Creek mastodon, after the location where it was discovered in Monroe County, is now on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania/Photo by Don Giles

In 1932 spearpoints were discovered in the rib cage of a mammoth skeleton in Clovis, New Mexico, finally confirming that mammoths had shared the Western Hemisphere with Paleolithic people. Scholars then long accepted that a group of humans originating in Eurasia who had invented the distinctive fluted “Clovis point” had been first to migrate south from Alaska into North America around 11,000 years ago, when climate change opened an ice-free corridor through the glaciers that had covered most of Canada. However, archaeologists have recently discovered sites that challenge the “Clovis first” model where the radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal from cooking hearths suggests that the humans who left their tools nearby might have been hunting in North America at least 14,000 years ago.

Mammoth and mastodon remains have been unearthed in many diverse locations, including northeastern Pennsylvania, where a mastodon skeleton was discovered at Marshalls Creek, Monroe County, in 1968. Now on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, the skeleton was remounted in 2010 in a lifelike pose, its size and stance often evoking in modern visitors the same shiver of awe as Peale’s reconstructions (see “Rising from the Muck: The Marshalls Creek Mastodon,” Fall 2010).

Lately, frozen mammoth carcasses with intact soft tissue and blood have also been unearthed, making it not inconceivable that mammoth DNA might be inserted into a female elephant’s egg cell to clone a modern mammoth. Early 19th-century visitors to Peale’s museum might have wondered if they had a chance of encountering a live animal in the wild; might future generations look forward to the actual experience?

 

For More Information

The writings of Charles Willson Peale and his family can be found in the annotated multivolume work The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, edited by Lillian B. Miller (Yale University Press, 1983-2000). Covering the 1740s to 1885, the papers illustrate the family’s contribution to the cultural life of America. The full text of Rembrandt Peale’s two publications, Account of the Skeleton of the Mammoth, a Non-Descript Carnivorous Animal of Immense Size Found in America (1802) and Historical Disquisition of the Mammoth, or Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal Whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America (1803) can be found online at archive.org. The definitive edition of the papers of Thomas Jefferson, including the letters he wrote and those he received, can be found at founders.archives.gov.

American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity by Paul Semonin (New York University Press, 2000) covers the impact of Peale’s discovery on American intellectual and social history. Keith Thomson’s The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America (Yale University Press, 2008) explores the history of fossil hunting in America, primarily in the years 1840 to 1890, but also includes a survey on the earlier history of American paleontology.

 

Lorett Treese is a resident of Chester County and the author of numerous articles and several books on Pennsylvania history, including The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution, Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol, and Railroads of Pennsylvania. Her latest book, A Serpent’s Tale: Discovering America’s Ancient Mound Builders, covers the history of archaeology in America and the nation’s discovery of its ancient history.