By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, respiratory mastodon in The united states, and this lofty blueprint ended up being a motivating force all the strategy thru extra special of his existence. Even in the midst of the Modern Battle, and even when he ran for the very ideal place of job in the land, he had mastodons on the thoughts. Jefferson turned into convinced that the bushy beasts mute roamed the continent, doubtlessly somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he turned into agency to ranking them—or, no no longer up to, enlist a number of heroic explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to build the looking on his behalf.
The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on Might presumably presumably well 14, 1804 and headed into the colossal unknown of the Louisiana Rob looking for an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the 2-and-a-1/2-twelve months round day out—mapping the geography of the region and logging pretty a number of of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—nevertheless the directive to leer mastodons is moderately of-identified footnote to their current expedition.
On the muse of their day out, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be looking for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] that will be deemed rare or extinct.” Regardless that he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at the least no longer in any of the written correspondence on file—the 2 explorers had been all too accustomed to Jefferson’s well-behaved ambition. “Absolutely Jefferson mute had the M-be conscious in thoughts, and absolutely Lewis knew it,” creator Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Quantity 2.
Jefferson had long been attracted to paleontology, nevertheless his mastodon obsession turned into fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who belief The united states’s animals and of us had been minute. Jefferson’s bone-collecting ardour quick developed into a mission to remark The united states’s dominance in the Western world and show that it turned into “a land plump of sizable and delicious things,” as journalist Jon Mooallem assign it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to show your country is house to a 12,000-pound monster.
A Competitors Forms
For diverse his adult existence, Jefferson turned into an avid collector of fossils and bones. At diverse choices in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, pretty pretty a number of mastodon bones.
Although his usual hobby might well well perchance also had been purely tutorial, Jefferson’s publicity to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” printed in the 1760s, postulated that the of us and animals of The united states had been small and customary since the local weather (he assumed, with out extra special evidence) turned into too cool and wet to motivate enhance.
Jefferson turned into inflamed. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon’s beliefs referring to the mastodon. Buffon advised that the American mastodon turned into a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, nevertheless on myth of Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements did no longer match these of beforehand identified species. As a replace, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a assorted animal completely. (Regardless that they’re determined species, woolly mammoths and mastodons had been lumped into the same class at the time, and had been called one in every of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)
“The skeleton of the fantastic … bespeaks an animal of 5 – 6 conditions the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled wait on his argument pretty, including, “Nonetheless to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it’s far sure this kind of one has existed in The united states, and that it has been essentially the most sharp of all terrestrial beings.”
He didn’t marvelous deem that mastodons had existed at one time limit, though—he believed they had been mute on the market somewhere. It wasn’t odd for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson’s generation to rob that bones had been evidence of a mute-living species. Finally, dinosaurs had no longer yet been chanced on (though their bones had been chanced on, nobody would name them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the blueprint that of extinction wasn’t widely permitted or understood. Dominant non secular beliefs furthermore reinforced the premise that God’s creations couldn’t be destroyed.
For his section, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural show, and that getting rid of a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the general map into disarray. Taking the tone of a thinker, he as soon as questioned, “It would be requested, why I insert the Mountainous, as if it mute existed? I anticipate in return, why I must mute inch over it, as if it did no longer exist?”
This region might well well perchance also had been partly fueled by wishful pondering. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon might well well perchance be essentially the most graceful methodology to stay it to Buffon and inform, “I told you so.” (Within the meantime, though, he needed to set up for a ineffective moose, which he despatched foreign to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to show that substantial animals did, in level of fact, exist in The united states.)
The Hunt Continues
In gradual 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and requested him to rep some mastodon teeth from a inner reach “mastodon boneyard” in northern Kentucky called Gargantuan Bone Lick. “Had been it probably to derive a teeth of each and every form, that’s to remark a foretooth, grinder, &c, it might perchance well well perchance specifically oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark in a well mannered method explained that the chance of Native American attacks made this job impossible, nevertheless he turned into in a blueprint to salvage a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from vacationers who had managed to discuss about with the frontier.
Alternatively, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark’s acknowledge until six months later in August 1782 (on account of, you perceive, the Modern Battle). Regardless that the war technically did no longer cease until the next twelve months, peace talks between the 2 facets had been nearing a conclusion, and everyone knew it. With an cease to the war in survey, Jefferson doubled down on his anticipate for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each and every of the several species of bones now to be chanced on is to me essentially the most desireable object in Pure Historical previous, and there’ll not be any longer a expence of equipment or of safe transportation which I will no longer gladly reimburse to salvage them safely.”
Later, whereas serving as The united states’s first Secretary of Converse, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that will bask in preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Prior to the expedition turned into called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to leer mastodons along the methodology. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Below the head of Animal history, that of the Mountainous is specifically advised to your enquiries.”
Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he turned into mute pondering about mastodons. His preoccupations had been so widely identified that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “well-behaved infidel” in reference to his odd ardour and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Journal of American Historical previous recalled, “When Congress turned into vainly attempting to untangle the difficulties coming up from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when each and every flesh presser at the capital turned into busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate turned into balanced on a razor’s edge, turned into corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to a number of bones of the fantastic which he had marvelous procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”
Once president, Jefferson ragged his place of job to extra the subject of paleontology. Not long after he turned into elected, he loaned one in every of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wished to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-stuffed pit. It in a roundabout method became the principle fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in The united states.
For certain, there might be furthermore evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon in the midst of their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, turned into impossible. After their return, Jefferson despatched William Clark on a 2nd assignment to salvage artifacts from Gargantuan Bone Lick. He despatched three sizable packing containers of bones wait on to Jefferson, who bought to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room the place John and Abigail Adams as soon as hung their laundry.
Unexcited, something wasn’t pretty compatible, and Jefferson might well well perchance also bask in identified it even then. By 1809, the animal in anticipate had been identified and given the title mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse a number of of his beforehand held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon turned into no longer a carnivore, as he as soon as believed, nevertheless an herbivore. “Nature appears now to no longer bask in offered other food ample for him,” he wrote, “and the limb of a tree might well well perchance be no extra to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse.”
Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate
The indisputable truth that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West might well well perchance also bask in helped Jefferson get the inevitable: Mastodons had long gone extinct long previously. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well identified, bask in disappeared, novel ones bask in near into peer, comets, of their incalculable programs, might well well perchance also scuttle sinister of suns and planets and require renovation beneath other authorized guidelines; clear races of animals are become extinct; and, had been there no restoring energy, all existences might well well perchance extinguish successively, one after the other, until all wishes to be decreased to a shapeless chaos.”
Regardless that he turned into unsuccessful in his quest to ranking a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the subject of paleontology. The fossils of yet any other mysterious creature he believed to be a lion had been later printed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “colossal claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature turned into renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.
On the moment, the bottom sloth fossils—and several other other objects that shaped the “cabinet of curiosities” Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are section of The Academy of Pure Science collection at Drexel College. Pondering that Jefferson is frequently called “the founder of North American paleontology,” it might perchance well well perchance appear he bought his revenge against Buffon despite everything.