Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Caspar Wistar, 1 January 1802

From Caspar Wistar

Philada. Jany. 1—1802.

Dear Sir

The fear of intruding upon you at a time when you had not leisure, & the belief that you seldom have leisure now, have prevented me so long from offering you my sincere thanks for your kindness in the appointment of Mr Dobell—I hope & believe that he will merit your confidence, and am certain that he will ever retain a grateful sense of it—Since my last I have been favoured with two notes from you inclosing communications for the Philosophical Society, which were delivered accordingly, & will appear in our Sixth Volume now going to the Press, altho the fifth is not yet published, owing to copper plate work which however is at length done—

Mr. Peale has erected the Skeleton of the Mammoth & commenced an exhibition of it. It resembles greatly the Skeleton of the Elephant, & particularly in some points where the Elephant differs from other Quadrupeds, as in the large size of the lower end of the Ulna, & the figure of some of the bones of the hind foot—The tusks however are very different, they are not only longer but have a particular twist or tendency to a spiral direction, like the horns of some Cows, so that they cannot lay flat on a level surface—this appears to be the case with the tusks found in Siberia represented in one of the volumes of the Abridgement of the Transactions of the Royal Society—Your suggestion that these 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—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, but differing materially in the size of the transverse Septa of enamel, which form the ridges of that Substance upon the grinding surface of the tooth. A figure of this tooth is also to be seen in the plate above mentioned which contains the view of the Spiral tusk from Siberia—A tooth of this kind, & also a Mammoths tooth, & some fragments of bones have been found in digging the canal at Santee in South Carolina. We must endeavour to procure the Skeleton of this Animal, & no man is so likely to be successful as Mr Peale for I believe no other in the U.S would have compleated the Skeleton of the Mammoth—Two great Animals existing formerly in America & Siberia give additional importance to the Sagacious remark of Buffon respecting those animals which are common to both Continents.

Your valuable time is now occupied with so many more important subjects that I ought only to add the assurance of the greatest regard & attachment of your obliged friend

C. Wistar Junr.

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as a letter from “Caleb” Wistar received 4 Jan. and so recorded in SJL; TJ later corrected the endorsement to “Caspar.”

Wistar’s last letter was undated, received by TJ on 9 Apr. 1801. In it, Wistar recommended Peter Dobell, who received an appointment in June as U.S. commercial agent at Le Havre. TJ had written only once, on 4 Dec., since receiving that letter. Wistar’s reference to two notes may have included TJ’s letter of 31 Mch. In both that letter and the one of 4 Dec., TJ passed along scientific papers he had received from others (Vol. 33:511–12, 556–7; TJ to Wistar, 4 Dec.).

Charles Willson Peale had mounted the skeleton of the mastodon in Philosophical Hall in Philadelphia and opened the exhibit on 24 Dec. The skeleton stood 11 feet high at the shoulder. Borrowing language from TJ’s comments about the mammoth in Notes on the State of Virginia, Peale advertised the creature as “the LARGEST of Terrestial Beings!” (distinctions between mastodons and the larger mammoths were not yet understood). Peale, who needed to repay a loan from the American Philosophical Society for the expenses of excavating the bones in New York State, charged visitors 50 cents to view the skeleton. That was twice the cost of admission to his regular museum. The excavations by Peale and his son Rembrandt during the summer had yielded enough bones to mount, with the reconstruction of some elements, two skeletons. Rembrandt Peale hoped to exhibit the second one in Europe (Philadelphia Gazette, 24 Dec. 1801; Paul Semonin, American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity [New York, 2000], 327–30; Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art [New York, 1980], 141–7; Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , 47; Charles Willson Peale to TJ, 11 Oct. 1801).

Particular Twist: Wistar may have been referring to a paper given by Dr. John P. Breyne at Danzig in 1728 and subsequently sent to the Royal Society in London. Reporting on some mammoth bones and teeth found in Siberia, Breyne described and illustrated the curvature of the tusks. He also discussed and illustrated a ridged tooth (mentioned by Wistar in the letter above), a skull, and a femur bone. Breyne’s report appeared in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in the 1730s and subsequently in an abridged version of the publication (“A Letter from John Phil. Breyne, M.D. F.R.S. to Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Pres. R.S. with Observations, and a Description of some Mammoth’s Bones dug up in Siberia, proving them to have belonged to Elephants,” Philosophical Transactions (1683–1775), 40 [1737–8], 124–38; John Martyn, ed., The Philosophical Transactions (From the Year 1732, to the Year 1744) Abridged, and Disposed under General Heads … In Two Volumes, viz. Vol. VIII … Vol. IX [London, 1747], 9:87–93).

TJ’s suggestion that elephant-like teeth, tusks, and bones found in North America were “of the same kind with those found in Siberia” appeared in Notes on the State of Virginia (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , 44).

In a paper given before the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends in July 1797 and published in the society’s Transactions, George Turner mentioned the fossils from South Carolina (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 261; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 4 [1799], 511).

One premise advanced by the Comte de Buffon—one of his “dreams,” in TJ’s opinion—was that animals native to both the Eastern and the Western Hemispheres were smaller in size in the Western Hemisphere (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , 47; Vol. 31:62).

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