Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Charles Willson Peale, 10 June 1802

From Charles Willson Peale

Museum June 10th. 1802

Dear Sir

The Bone from Mr Jno. Brown I have received to day, and great was my surprise to find it in form corrisponding to the ox, which the enclosed drawing will best explain. It is a proof that the Indian Tradition has a good foundation. It certainly must have been a Buffalo of vast size, for compairing this fragment with the same parts of a common Ox and its size may pretty nearly be computed to be at least 3 times as large: The width between the Horns of an ox (before me) is 3½ Inches, and the Ohio Bone would measure1 in width 14 Inches. The desparity would have been more apparent had the width of the head from the Horns forward been preserved. We have only the actual measurement of the hind & smallest part of a head, supposing it to be exactly formed like the ox. I have made a slight sketch to shew the direction of the horns viewing the Top of the head which shew them from their Base inclined back—and they have also about the same inclination downward.

The View of the Back part shews deeper furrows, lengthways of the horn, than is the other view—The whole appearance of this bone, is like that filling the horns of common cattle.

I cannot help saying that I am disappointed in not seeing a head to corrispond with my Skeleton of the Mammoth, yet pleased at the discovery of another Wonder. What are we to think of the former inhabitants of this Land2 when we find Bones of such vast magnitude? A wonderful revolution is testified by these various relicks—I wish I could explore & put the Bones together of several of them! It is a vain wish—I am tyed at least for a3 time to this spot.

The following is an extract of Mr. Browns letter, a part is evidently for my self alone—After naming the Captn. & Vessel he send it by, he says—

“I present to the Philosophical Society of America this Curiossity among the works of Nature as a mark of the High Oppinion I entertain of that Body of men & of their Usefullness to the Community their Liberal Persuits so nobly displayed & Promulgated for the satisfaction of men— “I make you the Depot of this Extraordinary mass of Matter that you may have the opportunity to finish in some measure the great work of that enormous Skeleton which will always intitle you to the highest Respect among your fellow Citizens. In the course of a few months I may be in Philada. I will there do myself the pleasure to wait on you at the Museum &c”

I hope we shall soon see some other Bones—

with the highest respect your friend

C W Peale

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 12 June and so recorded in SJL. Dft (Lb in PPAmP: Peale-Sellers Papers).

INDIAN TRADITION: several Native American groups in the Ohio Valley region had oral traditions that associated the bones of large prehistoric animals with an enormous form of bison. TJ included one such account, which had been told to him by Delaware Indians when he was governor of Virginia, in Notes on the State of Virginia (Stanley Hedeen, Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology [Lexington, Ky., 2008], 20–30; Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , 43–4).

BUFFALO OF VAST SIZE: the partial skull sent from Kentucky was the first specimen recorded by scientists of an Ice Age bison that was later named Bison latifrons. The American Philosophical Society formally received the fossil in a meeting held on 18 June 1802. In July, Peale put the piece on display in the “Mammoth Room” of his museum in Philadelphia, where visitors also saw Peale’s new mastodon skeleton and casts of the megalonyx fossils that TJ conveyed to the APS in 1797. Rembrandt Peale obtained a cast of the bison skull, which he described and illustrated for the Philosophical Magazine while he was in London in 1803. He conjectured that the animal, “one of the ox or buffalo kind,” must have stood at least ten feet high and that each of its horns was at least six feet long. He also referred to the Indians’ stories about the “great Buffalo.” Later that year, he included a brief description of the skull in his Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth. In that work the younger Peale gave a full text of one of the Native American traditions and mentioned the one recounted by TJ in the Notes. The extinct Bison latifrons is the largest species of bison discovered in North America. The Kentucky specimen became part of the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (Rembrandt Peale, “Account of Some Remains of a Species of Gigantic Oxen Found in America and Other Parts of the World,” Philosophical Magazine, 15 [1803], 325–7; Rembrandt Peale, Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth, or, Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal, Whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America [London, 1803], 84–9; Jerry N. McDonald, North American Bison: Their Classification and Evolution [Berkeley, Calif., 1981], 65–75, plate 2; Peale, Papers description begins Lillian B. Miller and others, eds., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, New Haven, 1983–2000, 5 vols. in 6 description ends , v. 2, pt. 1:435n, 443n; v. 2, pt. 2:764; APS, Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 325; Philadelphia Gazette, 24 July 1802; Richard Harlan, Fauna Americana: Being a Description of the Mammiferous Animals Inhabiting North America [Philadelphia, 1825], 273; Vol. 29:291–304).

1Word omitted in RC, supplied from Dft.

2Word written over “Country.” Dft: “Land.”

3Peale first wrote “the present.” Dft: “a.”

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