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Jefferson’s Old Bones

Did the so-called father of American vertebrate paleontology believe in fossils?

Keith Thomson

2011-05MargThomsonFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn April 1836, the naturalist John Kirk Townsend wrote from Vancouver to the physician Samuel G. Morton in Philadelphia, to report that a group of Indians had told him of seeing

a quadruped of a gigantic size which from the description appeared to resemble the supposed extinct Mastodon. They said it was about the height of one of their houses (not less than 30 feet), and that it was of a brownish or blackish color, & appeared almost destitute of hair.… This story was substantiated by the whole party, & some individually did not hesitate to strengthen their affirmations by the most solemn oaths.

Similar tales of strange monsters roaming the western lands of the continent had been common in the previous century. A nice example is given in the journal of James Kenny, a frontier trader who worked for the Commissioners for Indian Affairs, from 1761:

the Rhinosses or Elephant Master, being a very large Creature of a Dark Colour having a long Strong horn growing upon his nose (wth which he kills Elephants) a Short tail like an Elk; two of sd horns he seen fixd over a Gate at St Augustine, & that its ye bnes of Some of these lies down in Buffelo lick by ye Ohio, wher ye Great teeth Comes from.

Thomas Jefferson avidly collected such accounts as they were important for his view of science. Jefferson did not believe in extinction. He was particularly fascinated by the American mastodon, the elephant relative that he referred to for many years as “the mammoth.” It was not until 1806 in Paris that the French naturalist Georges Cuvier formally separated “mastodonte” from mammoth and also concluded that there were two living species of elephant. But in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson had already concluded that the cold-adapted “mammoths” were different from the living tropical African and Asian elephants. Over many years he amassed a large collection of “mammoth” remains, which he displayed in the entrance hall of Monticello, his great house in Virginia.

Jefferson’s second great paleontological interest arose in 1799 when he was sent some bones of a huge mammal “of the clawed kind” that had been found in a cave in Greenbrier County (in present-day West Virginia). He described this creature in his writings and named it Megalonyx (“great claw”). Jefferson was sure that this creature also still lived and, as is well known, he very much hoped that the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806 would find evidence of both living mastodons and Megalonyx in the American West. He was therefore pleased when, soon after he completed his study of Megalonyx for publication in 1799 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, a correspondent informed him:

Some circumstances have lately been related to me which in my opinion go far in support of your conjecture that the species of Animal whose Bones were found in Green, still exists in the Western Country…. far up the Misouri river in which an Animal is found of a brown colour, much larger than a Bear, of astonishing strength, activity, & fierceness … a Nail [was] taken from the Claw of one killed by the party of Indians to which he belonged but not before it had torn several of them into pieces. This Nail or horny part of the Claw is said to measure six inches in length.

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