By the 19th century, American mastodons – prehistoric relatives of the elephant – had been extinct for about 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson did not know that. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal has been a motivating force throughout his life. Even during the War of Independence, when he ran for the highest office in the country, he had mastodons in his head. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy creatures still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the unknown western border, and he was determined to find them – or at least some intrepid explorers named Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to win The Corps of Discovery left St. Louis on May 1
At the beginning of their journey, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to look for "remnants and reports from [animal] that might be considered rare or extinct." Although he did not. Not to mention mastodons-at least not in the written correspondence-the two explorers knew Jefferson's mammoth ambitions only too well. "Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind and certainly Lewis knew it," author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World by Lewis and Clark, Volume 2 (19459005).
Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his Mastodon obsession was fueled by a long-standing beef that he had with a French naturalist who considered America's animals and humans puny. Jefferson's bone-collecting hobby quickly became a mission to enforce America's dominance in the Western world, proving that it was "a land of great and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book Wild Ones . In fact, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove that your country has a 12,000-pound monster.
Forms of Rivalry
For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various times he possessed a bison fossil, moose and elk antlers, giant sloth fossils, and of course a number of mastodon bones.
Although his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, ignited the flames of his obsession. Buffon's Theory of American Degeneracy, published in the 1760s, postulated that America's humans and animals were small and weak because the climate (he suspected, without much evidence) was too cold and humid to promote growth.
Jefferson was angry. He formulated a refutation that partially drew attention to the disagreements in Buffon's beliefs about mastodon. Buffon suspected that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippo bones, but since Jefferson had examined the bones, he knew the measurements did not match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged entirely to another animal. (Although different species were involved, woolly mammoths and mastodons were categorized into the same category at the time and referred to as one of two names: mammoths or the American incognito.)
"The skeleton of the mammoth … indicates an animal five times or six times the cubic volume of the elephant, "Jefferson wrote. He later reduced his reasoning slightly and added, "But whatever we attribute to these remains, it is certain that such an animal existed in America and that it was the greatest of all earthly beings."
He did not it I do not just believe that Mastodons existed at some point – he thought they were still out there somewhere. It was not uncommon for Jefferson thinkers and scientists to assume that bones were evidence of a living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the beginning of the 19th century), and the concept of extinction was not universally accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the notion that God's creations could not be destroyed.
Jefferson, for his part, believed that animals became natural and that removing one link in the "chain of nature" would disrupt the entire system. He took on the tone of a philosopher and once asked: "One might ask why I insert the mammoth as if it still existed. In return, I ask why I should leave it out, as if it did not exist. "
This position could have been partly inspired by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a live mastodon would be the most satisfying way to tie him to Buffon and say, "I told you." (In the meantime, he had to settle for a dead moose he took overseas sent the door of the Frenchman in Paris to prove that big animals actually exist in America.)
The Hunt Continues
In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his friend George Rogers Clark in the Ohio Valley and asked him to hunt them down Fetch Some Mastodon Teeth from a nearby "Mastodon Boneyard" in northern Kentucky, called Big Bone Lick. "If it were possible to get a tooth of any kind, that is, a gear grinder, etc., it would make me particularly committed," Jefferson wrote. Clark politely stated that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to get hold of thigh bones, jawbones, grinders, and tusks by travelers who had managed to cross the border. However, Jefferson did not do so until six months later in August 1782 (because of the Revolutionary War) receiving Clark's answer. Although the war was not over until the following year, the peace talks between the two sides were nearing completion, and everyone knew it. When the end of the conflict was in sight, Jefferson doubled his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark: "A specimen of each of the different types of bones that are now found is, to me, the most desirable object in natural history, and there are no costs for packaging or safe transportation, which I would not like to repay to them to procure it for sure.
Later, Jefferson, as America's first Secretary of State, supported a planned Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expeditions. Before the expedition was aborted, Jefferson had instructed the budding explorer, the French botanist André Michaux, to search for mastodons en route. He wrote to Michaux in 1793: "Under the motto" Animal History "the mammoth is especially recommended for your investigations."
Even as Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and applied for presidential office against reigning John Adams in 1800. He was still thinking about Mastodons. His employment was so widespread that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a "mammoth unbeliever" in terms of his unusual hobby and his alleged secular leanings. An article from 1885 in the Magazine of American History states: "When the Congress tried in vain to solve the difficulties that resulted from Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr's electoral tie, every politician In the capital were plans and counter-plans, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a knife edge, corresponded with [physician and professor]. [Caspar] Wistar regarding some mammoth bones he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.
Once President, Jefferson used his office to advance the field of paleontology. Shortly after his election he lent to the artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to pull a pile of freshly excavated mastodon bone from a water-filled pit, one of the pumps of the Navy. It was, after all, the first fossilized skeleton ever assembled in America.
Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson had silently hoped Lewis and Clark would trip over a living mastodon during their expedition, which began formally in 1804 and ended in London in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. Upon her return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second mission to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three large boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who had to unload them and study them in the White House ostraum – the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.
Still, something was not quite right, and Jefferson may have known it back then. By 1809, the animal in question was identified and named Mastodon and Jefferson began to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he admitted that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature does not seem to have provided him with enough other food," he wrote, "and for him the branch of a tree would be no more than a branch of a cotton tree for a horse."
Accepting the Destiny of the Mastodon  The fact that Lewis and Clark have never discovered giants from the West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had long since died out. Jefferson, poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, wrote: "Well-known stars have disappeared, new ones have come into sight, comets can flee in their unpredictable orbits from suns and planets and must be renovated under other laws; certain animal breeds are extinct; and if there were no restorative power, all existences could be wiped out one at a time, until all had degenerated into a formless chaos.
Although he was unsuccessful in the search for a living mastodon, Jefferson made other significant contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature that he believed were a lion were later exposed as giant sloths. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for "Great Claw"), and in 1822 the extinct entity was renamed to Jefferson's Honor in Megalonyx jeffersonii .
and several other items that make up the "Cabinet of Curiosities" that Jefferson exhibited at his Monticello estate are part of the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University. Given that Jefferson is sometimes referred to as "the founder of North American paleontology," it seems he's finally taking revenge on Buffon.