A New York Minute In History
A New York Minute In History
Discovering the Nation's "Founding Fossils" | A New York Minute in History

It’s a new season of A New York Minute in History! In this episode, Devin and Lauren dig into the 19th Century discovery of a mastodon skeleton in Orange County. The “Orange County Mastodon” was one of the earliest, if not the first, complete mastodon skeletons discovered in the U.S. As our hosts will learn, these large fossils captured the attention of many of America’s Founding Fathers, who were determined to dispel the myth of American degeneracy.

Marker of Focus: Mastodon Dig, Montgomery, Orange County

Guests: Dr. Robert Feranec, director of Research and Collections, curator of Pleistocene vertebrate paleontology, and curator of mammalogy at the New York State Museum; and Dr. Bernard K. Means, project director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, and co-author (with Maggie Colangelo) of Founding Monsters and Founding Monsters Tales

A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.

Further Reading:

The Cohoes Mastodon: a virtual exhibit from the New York State Museum

Bernard K. Means and Maggie Colangelo, Founding Monsters (2021) and Founding Monsters Tales (2021).

Paul Semonin, American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity (2000).

Teacher Resources:

Ice Age Mammals Colonize New York: A Stem Lab Derived from Collections-Based Research at the New York State Museum 

Field Trip to the New York State Museum: A Closer Look at the Cohoes Mastodon

Founding Monsters Teacher’s Guide

Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) Credit: The New York State Museum is an approved provider of Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE). Educators can earn CTLE credit (.5 hours) by listening to this episode and completing this survey. Please allow up to two weeks to receive confirmation of completion.

Follow Along

While mastodons are frequently confused with mammoths, they are actually distant relatives, with many skeletal differences. (NYS Museum)

Devin: Welcome to A New York Minute in History. I’m Devin Lander, the New York state historian.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Roberts, the historian for Saratoga County.

Devin: We are very excited, because we have a new season for our listeners, we have many new stories to tell. Luckily, New York State is full of history full of interesting topics. We have no shortage of material to bring you.

Lauren: So today we’re taking things back in time a little bit farther than we usually do by a few thousand years. For this episode, our focus takes us to a marker in the town of Montgomery in Orange County, along State Route 17K. The title of the marker is “Mastodon Dig,” and the text reads: “Charles W. Peale, with support of President Thomas Jefferson, uncovered bones here in 1801. Later exhibited at American Philosophical Society. William G. Pomeroy Foundation, 2020.”

So today, we’re talking about an early mastodon discovery in Orange County, and its connections to some pretty well-known Americans. But before we get into the details of the particular discovery, Devin, maybe you can help me out here. Can you tell me what exactly is a mastodon? When did it live? Because obviously, it’s now extinct. They’re not walking around New York State. And what’s the difference between a mastodon and a woolly mammoth?

Devin: Right, those are great questions, and that’s kind of where I began as well. Going back to the basics. What is the difference between a mastodon and a woolly mammoth, as you noted? I think we vaguely know that they are two separate things, but somebody like me, who’s a historian and not a scientist, I only have a peripheral view of these creatures. So I sat down with my colleague, Dr. Bob Feranec from the New York State Museum, who told us more

Bob: Broadly, paleontology is the study of ancient life. More specifically, paleontology can be broken down into different subfields. So at the State Museum, we have an invertebrate paleontologist, Dr. Lisa Amati, and she studies things that more or less don’t have bones. I’m a vertebrate paleontologist, and my field of study is more or less things that had bones.

Mastodons are a taxon of elephant-like creatures that first split off from the elephant line about 25 million years ago. The family is called Mammutidae. Mammut is the genus for the animal that we’re ultimately going to be talking about, which is the American Mastodon, Mammut Americanum. I think when people think of mammoths or mastodons they just think, in general, of these hairy elephant like critters, and the mammoths broke off about 5 million years ago. They’re only distantly related to each other, and skeletally, you can see distinct differences among those. So, if you know what you’re looking at, you can see these distinct differences. Mammoth teeth are very similar, almost exactly the same as elephant teeth. They’re made up of what we call “loafs,” and they’re more flattened, and they have enamel ridges and plates. They are used to grind down grasses and sedges, and here they would have been in tundra environments, so low-lying tundra plants. Mastodon teeth are cusped, more like your teeth and my teeth, so they have points on them. And those were used for crushing rather than grinding. They did live in the similar time period in New York state and across North America, but they occupied different habitats. So, mammoths would have been more out in the open while mastodons were more of a deep forest animal.

Interestingly, we find a lot of Mastodon skeletons or pieces of mastodons in ponds or baggy environments – a lot of times in people’s backyards. [A person will] have a pond in their backyard, and they don’t want it to be a pond anymore, and they’ll drain it, and at the bottom of that pond, there’s a mastodon [there]. The development of these ponds from the glacial environments seems to have gone through a relatively common sequence. So, at first after the glacier, you have development of clays. And then just above that, which is more recent in time, you have this immoral sediment and a moral sediment. It’s like a calcium carbonate-dominated sediment – it precipitates out of the boggy environment, and deposits on top of that clay. After that moral is deposited, a lot of times you find in the ponds, peat, which is indicative of a bog or marshy-type of environment. And we think that’s really what the mastodons here in New York state would have loved to have lived in. We think that they were kind of living in these boggy, marshy environments, and then died for some [reason] – old age or maybe they got stuck, or maybe later on, we’ll find out a human was chasing them. They died in this pond or this bog. And the moral is squishy enough that when that animal dies, it kind of sinks into that sediment. I think also that the moral has a type of environmental condition that is good for preserving these types of bones.

Devin: The earliest discovery of a mastodon tooth by colonists took place in Claverack, New York in 1705. Of course, indigenous people had long known of these types of fossils, but for the colonists, it was something new. At that time, it was thought that these teeth were those of giants described in the Bible. We have to remember that at this time, there was no real understanding of any type of evolution. It was believed that extinction itself was impossible, as it would mean that God designed something that failed. But similar fossils were being found in Europe and other parts of the world, so there was an understanding eventually, over time, that these were creatures that used to live in North America.

Lauren: Also, we’re calling it a mastodon. We know that that’s what it’s called now. But at the time, when you look at the literature that was written, they’re referring to it as a mammoth, and sometimes as the “American Incognito,” because they didn’t really know what it was. It wasn’t until later that they made the distinction that these were actually mastodon fossils.

OK, so let’s talk about the 1801 discovery of the Orange County mastadon. It seems a little odd that Orange County was in a rural area, pretty far away from New York City, you know, the big urban center at the time. So how did these big names like Charles Willson Peale and Thomas Jefferson get involved in this excavation on a farmer’s field, far away from a major city?

Devin: What it comes down to is a kind of war of words between naturalists and learned men on two different continents. On one side, you have the French nobleman and scientist the Comte de Buffon, who proposed the theory called “American degeneracy” in 1755. The theory basically stated that nature in the New World was inferior to that of in Europe, and that the Americas lacked the large land animals whose bones had been found in Europe, and that still existed in places like Africa and Asia. Buffon even suggested that the people of the New World, including the colonists, were less virile than Europeans. We spoke with Dr. Bernard K. Means, an assistant professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Bernard: The Comte de Buffon, he argued that the entire New World sapped the vitality of everything living in it, and had been since the Americas, for him, were “newly risen out of the water.” Everything in the Americas was considered, by him, to be weaker and smaller. So you know, I mean, when people say like, “Size matters,” I mean, this is actually, literally true. And probably one of the biggest insults is he talked about how degeneracy made men more effeminate.

Devin: Obviously, this theory did not sit well with the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, who became kind of obsessed with this.

Bernard: You know, you want to produce goods that you want to be able to trade with people. You want skilled artisans and people all kinds of talents to come to your new nation. And how are you going to get people to buy your goods if they’re somehow considered to be tainted? How are you going to get people to come to your country if they think that they and their children will be impacted?

Jefferson goes to Paris, and he brings what he refers to as “uncommonly large panther skin” for them to try to show to Buffon and say, “Look, we have a big cat.” The following response was, “Your cats don’t have beards. They don’t have manes, so therefore they’re not masculine.”

There was a period during the Revolution where Franklin is in France. He’s at a dinner, he and a bunch of Americans are sitting on one side of the table, and the French are sitting on the other side of the table. And apparently, Franklin challenged everybody to stand, because he knew all the Americans were taller. But the French did not take him up on that.

Jefferson actually got somebody to kill a moose for him – but they dragged it like 20 miles through the woods, and by the time it got to Jefferson, it must have been pretty decrepit-looking. But we don’t actually know what Buffon thought of this stinky moose carcass because he died.

Now, while he dies, the theory of American degeneracy lives on. And so, they’re finding these fossils, and they became very concerned. Clearly, we have something big, we don’t quite know what it is. But it’s going to help us prove that we have something bigger than anything known at that time. The issue – and this will segue us into Peale – the issue is that they’re mostly finding teeth. They didn’t find complete skeletons.

Lauren: We all know the names of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin, but Charles Willson Peale may be a name that’s less familiar to our listeners. Devin, can you tell us a little bit about who Charles Willson Peale was, and why he’s important?

Devin: Yeah, absolutely. Charles Willson Peale was a prominent painter. He was born in 1741 in the British colony of Maryland. He’s really known as an artist, for painting many of the Founding Fathers. Besides being an artist, Peale was a bit of a Renaissance man. He had a great interest in natural history, and after the Revolution, he opened what is now considered to be the first museum that was open to the public in the United States, which began operations in 1786 in Philadelphia. In the museum, Peale displayed his artwork, along with the work of others, as well as a variety of animal specimens, archaeological artifacts, and fossils.

Lauren: Another connection between the Founding Fathers and Charles Willson Peale was the American Philosophical Society. This society is known as the oldest learned society in the United States. It was founded by Ben Franklin in 1743. We might think that the American Philosophical Society was where people would meet to talk about philosophy, but actually, they were focusing on the study of nature. So this would have been naturalists and scientists that were interested in the world around them, the scientific world around them. And many Founding Fathers – remember, not just Thomas Jefferson, but also Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine (someone who we’ve talked about in a previous episode) – [were part of it]. And so it was a prestigious society. They were actually given space right in Independence Square in Philadelphia, where they built Philosophical Hall in the 1780s. So the connection for this particular dig in 1801, between Jefferson and Charles Willson Peale, really stems from them both being members of the American Philosophical Society.

Devin: So let’s talk a little bit about the excavation. Well, in 1799, a farmer discovered some mastodon fossils, and this discovery made the newspapers. And Peale believed that he could potentially uncover an intact skeleton. So, with support from the American Philosophical Society, he traveled to Orange County in 1801.

Bernard: And he said, “Look, we need to excavate this mastodon.” And so he gets permission from [farmer] John Maston, to try to dig out more of the morass. And this is sort of like a celebrity discovery, right? People are coming from all over to look at this. And in fact, they’re willy-nilly ripping bones out of the moral pit.

Lauren: He knew he was going to have to bring in some help, and one of the things he did was write to Thomas Jefferson to ask for the use of pumps. He thought, because it was such a watery area, that the use of large pumps would help him to pump the water out. And Thomas Jefferson actually agreed to help him by sending these pumps. However, in the meantime, Peale had devised a plan to build a wheel that would use buckets and the power of humans, turning this wheel – kind of like a hamster wheel – to be able to remove the water from the site. He actually describes this contraption to Jefferson in a letter: “The idea instantly occurred of a chain of buckets carried around an axis, pouring the lifted water into a trough communicating to the basin.” And he’s referring to a pond here, that he’s going to dump the water into. “The power of raising the weight of which, obtained by a wheel of 20 feet diameter of a width for men to walk within, as a squirrel in a cage.” So the men would walk in the wheel, turning the wheel, and that would propel the buckets out of the morass and then dump them into the corresponding pond.

Bernard: He’s a showman. You know, he wants to get people engaged. He wants people to feel like they’re part of what they’re doing. And so people come in, they run inside of this hamster wheel and help pump out the water.

Lauren: This particular morass that he refers to – the skeleton within it was not complete, so he did have to go to some other moral pits in the local area. And by going to those places and getting more bones, he actually had enough at the end to make two mastodon skeletons.

Devin: It took him several months to actually put the skeletons together because, although it was the most complete skeletons of a mastodon that had been found, they weren’t 100 percent complete, so they had to fabricate missing pieces and bones. And that was done by Rembrandt Peale, his son.

Bernard: Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, and Rubens Peale, their enslaved servant, Moses Williams – who Charles Willson Peale credits with being particularly good at piecing the bones together – and Casper Wister [were involved]. Casper Wister was a prominent physician in Philadelphia, and also basically a leading paleontologist himself. And he had actually done the same thing for [another fossil]. Jefferson was sent bones in 1796 from what is now West Virginia, from an animal with giant claws, which Jefferson was convinced was a giant lion. He gave a presentation about this giant lion, and he was about to publish it, and Casper Wister goes, “You know, there’s some report coming out of South America. I think what you have is a giant ground sloth.” And it turns out, it was, in fact, a giant ground sloth – so not a meat-eater.

And then they get William Rush, who was making a name for himself as a carver. And he actually carved bones out of wood, as do the Peale sons, and as does Moses Williams, to replace bones that they’re missing. So, they have more than one mastodon skeleton. And they reconstruct the most complete one, but they use the other skeleton to help them sort of figure out what the bones should look like, that they’re missing. And so the mastodon that gets reconstructed is a mixture of actual fossils, some wooden bones, and the very top of his skull is reconstructed in plaster. Using wood was actually kind of a unique thing to be done at that time. But I should also point out that the mastodon that Peale and his team put together is only the second fossil reconstruction done anywhere in the world, of any type.

Devin: The skeletons were accurate, except that Rembrandt Peale insisted that the tusk be placed in such a way that would suggest that the mastodon was a carnivore. So, he put the tusks in facing the wrong way, so that they were facing down – because this carnivore would use the tusks for battle, but would also use them to dig rodents or shellfish out of areas and that, again, they were hopeful that this creature was a carnivore. Of course, that was incorrect, and over time, they did acquiesce to the reality that the tusks would fit much like a modern elephant.

Lauren: He was so adamant on this that he actually [put it] in the title of the paper [in which] he writes about this excavation. He refers to it as a carnivorous animal. The title, which may be one of the longest titles ever, is: “An historical disquisition on the mammoth, or great American Incognito, an extinct, immense, carnivorous animal whose fossil remains have been found in North America.”

Bernard: They have this mastodon reconstructed, and it premieres to the members of the American Philosophical Society on Christmas Eve, 1801. And then it opens up to the public the next day. It’s Christmas Day, and it’s popular. It’s the dinosaur craze of the day. Here’s this giant skeleton, the largest animal known to exist anywhere in the Americas. Peale actually charges extra money for people to see it. It was in a separate room. This is probably hyperbole, but apparently women were fainting when they saw how big this thing was. There’s literally what becomes referred to as a “mammoth craze.” And it’s because of the mastodon that we actually have the word “mammoth” used to mean something large.

Devin [to Bernard]: Going back to the impetus behind this discovery – to dispel the theory of American degeneracy. Did it have that effect in Europe?

Bernard: Not by everybody. There was actually a guy who was trying to get in good with the King of Prussia, and he was really pushing the theory of American degeneracy well into the 1850s, because the King of Prussia was trying to encourage emigration to Prussia. But eventually, people are becoming more scientific. We have Cuvier, we have Lamarck, we have Darwin, we have Humboldt, we have Franklin – Franklin, by the way, who was seen as proof of America degeneracy, because he was widely recognized as the smartest man in America, and if there wasn’t American degeneracy, we should have more than one genius in the Americas. You know, you can bend the evidence to whatever you want. So it begins to sort of wane throughout the 1830s and well after, you know, the Founding Fathers are all dead. And of course, we start seeing dinosaurs being discovered, right? And those are truly massive animals. And some of the major dinosaurs are from out in the Western U.S. You have T. Rex, Triceratops, you have these clearly, really big animals. And so Buffon’s theories, you know, really seem dated and quaint.

Lauren: Not being a scientist, I wasn’t really sure how this episode was going to play out before we started doing the research for it. But it actually turned into a really interesting, prehistoric and historic story.

Devin: Lauren, I agree. This episode turned into a really interesting story about the history of science, but also a conflict between Europe and the United States, or what became the United States, as well as the role of very prominent founders in science and early naturalism on this continent, and how that played out as well. It also kind of makes me look at things like our own mastodon skeleton, the Cohoes Mastadon, which we have at the New York State Museum now, and any school group in the Capital Region has seen that. But it really makes you look at it in a different way, and understand what these large fossils symbolized even beyond their actual scientific importance. And we’re still discovering mastodon fossils today. Dr. Feranec says the remains of over 160 individual mastodons have been discovered in New York state alone.

Bob: I would say every couple of years, we get a notification that somebody’s found one. There was one, I think found in 2017, a fairly complete specimen that was excavated on a farm. In 2009, there was another gentleman that was goting down the Wallkill River and noticed that there was a tusk coming out of the river. And so far, actually, they turned out to be the oldest – we radiocarbon-dated them, and so far, they’re the oldest specimens that we know [of]. They radiocarbon-dated to, I think, 12,900 radiocarbon years ago, and that’s about 14,500 or 14,000 years from the present.

Devin [to Bob]: Why do we think mastodons and mammoths, as species, died out?

Bob: I have my own personal [theory], and I think it’s accurate. There’s been a long debate as to whether humans were the major cause, or climate change was the major cause, particularly in North America. Mammoths and mastodons are part of a large extinction that happens in North America, where over 50 taxa of large animals go extinct at the end of what we call the Pleistocene epoch. In New York state, we think these animals went extinct about 12,000 years ago. And for me, you have these two things, kind of working in tandem. At the end of the Pleistocene epoch, we go from a really cold environment, and it starts to warm up, and it warms up fairly quickly. And then for about 1,500 years, it reverts back to a glacial environment. We call that period the Younger Dryas. And so it’s warming up, and then it reverts back to a cold environment for 1,500 years, and it warms back up really quickly. And it’s more or less in the warm, interglacial environment that we’re living in today. But what we know from the Pleistocene epoch is that those types of climate changes occurred many times in the past. And we didn’t see the scale of extinction that we have at the end of the Pleistocene. So what’s the difference? Well, the difference is, geologically, shortly before this extinction event: humans get here. And we know from many different places that, when humans get to certain areas, generally extinction follows them. If we look at the habitats that are present in New York state, the habitats that these animals prefer are absolutely present in the state at that time. So the habitats that they prefer are here, but they’re still going extinct. So to me, maybe climate change affected something of their population sizes, but humans had to have some influence.

Devin [to Bob]: But in recent developments in the scientific world, there’s been discussion of the possibility of bringing either a mastodon or mammoth back to life using a process called genetic transformation. I don’t know if anybody’s talked about really bringing a dinosaur back, and I hope they don’t. But what are your thoughts on a.) Is it scientifically possible? And b.) Is that something that we should do?

Bob: I don’t think I’m certain that we’ll never have the genetic material to recreate a dinosaur. They do have whole genomes of mammoth and mastodon. However, you’re never going to recreate this creature as it was in life. What you may create is a hairy elephant. I don’t think they would ever be able to utilize an elephant egg for genetic material for a mastodon. I’m not certain that would work. But in my opinion, you’ll never get what they’re trying to get, which is to recreate the exact species. I don’t know what really the point of it is, in that, when we talk about species, species have a particular niche that is specific to that particular animal. The types of environments that are around today were not around 25,000 years ago, 30,000 years ago. The habitats that we have today are absolutely different from what the habitats were like when those animals were alive.

It seems to me that it would be much a better use of finances – if you’re really concerned about conservation and conservation biology – to utilize those funds, instead of recreating something that you’re really not ever going to recreate anyway, but to study and understand the ecosystems of today, and how we might prevent further extinctions of animals that we have around today. Whether that be just buying up land so animals have space to live, or making sure that specific species survive.

A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.