Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Charles Willson Peale, 28 October 1802

From Charles Willson Peale

Museum Octr 28th. 1802.

Dear Sir

A Gentleman from Virginia lately viewing the Skeleton of the mammoth, told me that 9 miles from the sweet Springs in Green bryer County, a few months past, was found in a Salt petre cave some large Bones, which they supposed, from the hole in one of Vertebræ’s, measuring 9 Inches in circumference, was of a larger species of the Mammoth than my Skeleton, and that a bone of one of the claws measured 9 inches in length. He also informed me that the person who was diging out the bones, intended them for me, but he could not recollect his name, but advised me to write to John Lewes Esqr. a magestrate who had given him this information, and whom he said was of a generous & liberal mind. He also said that the Salt Petre cave, is very long, and in it were found, some of the finest fur.

This is the same species of Animal as those bones you presented to the Philosophical Society, and not the Mammoth as those Persons have supposed—The Vertebræ may be one in the front of the Animal, the holes of which is commonly larger than those in the middle or hinder parts of the back. Some of the back bones belonging to my Skeleton has larger holes for the spinal marrow than a circumference of 9 Inches.

The obtaining bones of other nondescript Animals of our Country is now a favorite object with me, and I would have willingly made a visit to the spot, but the situation of my family does not permit it at present.

Doubtless you have seen some paragraphs in the news Papers on the half of the head of the mammoth being found in the barrens of Kentucky—it was dug up in sinking a pit to get salt water, 50 feet below the surface of the Earth—in what the people of that Country, call a sink—Doctr Hunter of this City being in Kentucky, I wrote to him my desire to obtain this relick, that I would not reguard some expence to obtain it, as being Very important to complete our knowledge of the form of the head of my Skeleton. He informs me that Dr. Samuel Brown has undertaken to procure it for me, and that he would send it to Orleans, to be conveyed to Philada. by Water. Dr. Hunter is expected in Philada. in about 2 Weeks, and probably will give me more particulars.

I have just received Letters from my Sons in London—They had obtained a Room for their exhibition of the Skeleton, in the building formerly used for the royal Academy in Pall Mall for which they are to pay 666 Dollrs. for it intill the 25 of March next. Rembrandt has been much favoured by the Officers of the Customs, by means of Letters which Mr. Bond was so obliging as to give him. And the board of Commissioners had ordered that the Valuation of the Skeleton should not exceed 50 £, and after all, the duty amounts to about 130 Dollars.

Rembrandt had gone through a great deal of trouble, with much anxiety, and he says, he could not think of writing to me before he had better Prospects—He was prepairing to get up the Skeleton & he says his next letters will be more interesting to me.

I am fully satisfied that both of my sons will make useful observations on all interresting works of Art &c. They have done well thus far.

My progress of improvements of the Museum is considerable during the absence of the Citizens.

No labour or expence shall be spared to render it conspicuously usefull to my Country.

I am Dr. Sir with much respect your friend

C W Peale

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “His Excelly. Thos. Jefferson Esqr.”; endorsed by TJ as received 31 Oct. and so recorded in SJL. Dft (Lb in PPAmP: Peale-Sellers Papers).

JOHN LEWES ESQR.: John Lewis belonged to a prominent family that owned and developed land around the mineral spring at Sweet Springs (Oren F. Morton, A History of Monroe County, West Virginia [Staunton, Va., 1916], 201–6, 370–1).


Beginning in Staunton, Virginia, early in September, various newspapers reprinted an extract of a letter from Logan County, KENTUCKY, that noted the recovery of a “half skull bone very remarkable for size.” The specimen weighed, according to the report, 246 pounds, but the cranial cavity could have been no more than one quart in volume. The opening for the eye was reputedly “so large that a common sized man can creep through it.” Peale learned from George HUNTER, a Philadelphia chemist, druggist, and surgeon, that the entire story was “a fabrication.” The false report, Peale wrote to his sons, was “a riddle which I must unriddle. I cannot conceive any accasion for the publication of such a story” (Richmond Virginia Argus, 8 Sep.; Washington Federalist, 13 Sep.; Norwich Connecticut Centinel, 21 Sep.; 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. 1:465–6n, 472; John Francis McDermott, “The Western Journals of George Hunter, 1796–1805,” APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 103 [1959], 770–1; Peale to TJ, 12 Dec.).

Rubens and REMBRANDT Peale had written to their father from London early in September. Phineas bond, resident at Philadelphia, was Great Britain’s consul general for the middle and southern states. The British customs office charged duties on “Subjects of Natural history,” Rubens Peale reported, at the rate of 33 percent of the item’s value. Regarding the customs VALUATION of the mastodon skeleton, Peale wondered in a letter to his sons: “if you have to pay 130 Dolls. when the Skeleton was valued at only £50. what would have been the duty had it been at its true value?” (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. 1:463, 466, 467; Vol. 29:228n; Vol. 35:410).

ABSENCE OF THE CITIZENS: in Philadelphia during the previous weeks, yellow fever had caused the suspension of some business, delays in opening schools and academies, the postponement of a booksellers’ fair, and the temporary removal of the customs office away from the waterfront to the former U.S. Senate chamber at 6th and Chestnut Streets. On 3 Nov., Peale wrote to his sons that the illness had abated following a frost, “and the Citizens are returning again to their Homes” (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. 1:466; Philadelphia Gazette, 30 Sep., 1, 2, 4, 14, 21, 23 Oct.).

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