Benjamin Franklin Papers

List of Fossils Sent by George Croghan to the Earl of Shelburne and Benjamin Franklin, 7 February 1767

List of Fossils Sent by George Croghan to the Earl of Shelburne and Benjamin Franklin

Printed in The Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions, LVII. Part i. For the Year 1767 (London, 1768), 467.

The earliest fully authenticated discovery of fossil vertebrates by a white man in what is now the United States was made in 1739 by Charles Le Moyne, Baron de Longueuil, near the Ohio River at a point an unknown distance above the falls that mark the site of the present Louisville, Kentucky. The fossils he recovered traveled back to France with him the next year and were eventually lodged in the natural history museum in the Jardin des Plantes. During the next decades several British settlers and traders reported finding large bones and teeth near the Ohio, the principal deposit being at a spot still called Big Bone Lick, in Boone County, three or four miles from the river.6

On George Croghan’s western trip in 1765 he picked up two six-foot tusks and several other fossil bones at Big Bone Lick, but when he and his party were attacked by Indians a few days later and the survivors were taken captive, Croghan understandably lost his paleontological trophies.7 He returned to the region in June 1766, however, accompanied by Captain Harry Gordon of the British Army and George Morgan of the Philadelphia firm of Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan. The party revisited Big Bone Lick and Croghan and Morgan each collected a number of bones, which they succeeded in taking back with them to the East Coast.8

When Croghan reached New York by sea via New Orleans and Pensacola early in January 1767, he decided to send his collection of fossils to England as gifts, partly to Lord Shelburne, secretary of state, and partly to his old friend Benjamin Franklin, and he probably wrote both men of his intention on January 16.9 In February, while the fossils were still in New York, not yet packed for shipment, an unidentified “G.W.” saw them and, as he later reported, “several Gentlemen, who had [had] the Opportunity of seeing Ivory Tusks in Africa, and elsewhere, pronounced these, Elephant’s Teeth.”1

Franklin wrote to Croghan, Aug. 5, 1767, thanking him for the gift and commenting on it.2 He, like others, was puzzled at the discovery of what certainly seemed to resemble the tusks of African and Asiatic elephants in a region where the climate was much too cold for those animals to live. The finding of similar tusks in Siberia, added to this discovery near the Ohio River, led Franklin to suggest that at some earlier time the earth had “been in another position, and the climates differently placed from what they are at present.”

Franklin’s friend, Peter Collinson, delivered a paper at the Royal Society, Nov. 26, 1767, when the Croghan fossils were first exhibited.3 He was similarly puzzled by the problem of the North American climate, though he had a ready explanation for the very similar tusks and teeth found in Siberia. Pointing out the geographic configuration of Asia, which he identified as the native country of elephants, he suggested that at the time of the Deluge, “these great floating bodies, the carcasses of drowned elephants,” were driven to the northward “by the violent action of the winds and waves” and when the waters subsided they were “deposited where they are now found.” Collinson was also puzzled by the fact that while everyone agreed that the tusks were those of elephants, the molars or grinding teeth found with them, on the contrary, were not those of elephants, and indeed had “no resemblance to the molares, or grinding teeth, of any great animal yet known.” A little later Collinson reported that he had compared these teeth with others in a warehouse and concluded that they belonged, together with the tusks, to “another species of elephant, not yet known; or else that they are the remains of some vast animal” with tusks like an elephant, but “with large grinders peculiar to that species, being different in size and shape from any other animal yet known.” This animal, he felt sure, was not carnivorous (as Franklin had told Croghan he thought it was), but was “Wholly confined to vegetable food,” and “seemed designed for the biting and breaking off the branches of trees and shrubs for its sustenance.”4

The anatomist William Hunter made a thorough study of the Croghan collection and another in the Tower of London and reported his findings to the Royal Society, Feb. 25, 1768.5 He concluded that the American remains did not come from elephants but from a different species, which he called for convenience “the American incognitum.” In this conclusion he, like Collinson, was correct; but, unlike Collinson, he erred in believing that the American animal was carnivorous. In stating this opinion he closed his paper, almost casually, with an expression of thankfulness for a thought that must be called truly revolutionary: that this animal’s “whole generation is probably extinct.” The idea that any species ever became extinct was revolutionary at this time, for it seemed impossible to believe that an all-powerful and all-wise Creator (or, if one preferred, “the economy of Nature”) would produce any species unable somehow to cope with its environment.6 Not until the end of the eighteenth century did the hypothesis become generally acceptable that particular species had in fact become extinct.

As to the identity of the animal whose fossil remains Croghan sent to Shelburne and Franklin, many years passed before the French naturalist Georges L.C.F.D. Cuvier established in a series of papers between 1796 and 1806 that fossil remains of elephant-like animals found at scattered locations in different continents did, in fact, represent several distinguishable forms of extinct creatures. To the animal represented by Croghan’s gifts of 1767 and to other allied forms Cuvier gave the vernacular name mastodontes, that has survived in both colloquial and technical form as Mastodon, distinguishing this animal from the Mammoth found in both Siberia and America. As the eminent American paleontologist, George Gaylord Simpson, has pointed out, however, the technically correct generic name for the American mastodon is Mammut, and “the legally correct and historic name” for the Croghan animal is Mammut americanum.7

A List of the Teeth and Bones sent over by George Croghan, Esquire, February 7, 1767, from Philadelphia.8

To Lord Shelburne.

Two of the largest tusks, or teeth, one whole and entire, above six feet long, the thickness of common elephants teeth of that length.

Several very large forked or pronged teeth; a jaw-bone, with two of them in it.

To Doctor Franklin.

Four great tusks, of different sizes.

One broken in halves, near six feet long.

One much decayed, the center looks like chalk, or lime.

A part was cut off from one of these teeth, that has all the appearance of fine white ivory.

A joint of the vertebrae.

Three of the large pronged teeth; one has four rows of fangs.

Besides the above, Captain Owry,9 an Officer who served in the country during the last war, now living at Hammersmith, hath a small tusk, as if of a calf elephant, the surface of a fine shining chestnut colour, and a recent look; and a great pronged tooth, larger than any of the above, which were also brought from the same licking place.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

6 The most useful general article is George Gaylord Simpson, “The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America,” APS Proc., LXXXVI (1942–43), 130–88, esp. pp. 135–51. Also very helpful is Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., “A Box of Old Bones: A Note on the Identification of the Mastodon, 1766–1806,” ibid., xciii (1949), 169–77. The present headnote is based to a large extent on these two papers. Simpson’s paper includes an extended bibliography on his subject.

7 Entries in Croghan’s journal under date of May 31 and June 8, 1765, Alvord and Carter, eds., The New Régime, 1765–1767, pp. 28, 30. For the Indian attack and Croghan’s capture, see above, XII, 399–400.

8 Entry in Gordon’s journal under date of July 8, 1766, The New Régime, p. 293.

9 Bell’s article, mentioned above, cites (p. 170, n. 4) the letter to Shelburne in William L. Clements Library; the letter to BF has not been found, and Croghan does not mention the matter in his letter of January 27.

1 Part of a much longer letter by “G.W.” in Pa. Chron., Nov. 2–9, 1767. In the issue of October 19–26 “G.W.” had reported this collection of bones and had published an extract from what was probably Croghan’s journal, wherein the bones were described: “Some of the Tusks we carried away, were above a Fathom in Length, and Two Hundred Pounds Weight—The Grinders and lesser Teeth seemed a good deal petrified.” “G.W.” then invited remarks by correspondents, asking particularly for comments on the disappearance of these animals from all areas of North and South America known to Europeans. In the issue of October 26–November 2 a writer signing himself “S” asked for further particulars, and “G.W.” complied with the reports quoted above in which he mentioned seeing the bones in New York himself. He expressed his hope that the finding of elephant bones, which argued the migration of such animals from Asia to North America, might “throw some Light on the Practicableness of finding out a N.W. Passage by Land, to that Quarter of the Globe, so ardently wished for.”

2 See below, pp. 221–2.

3 Phil. Trans, LVII, Pt. 1 (1768), 464–6. Collinson dated his paper Nov. 4, 1767.

4Ibid., pp. 468–9. BF later came to agree with Collinson that the animals probably were not carnivorous. Accompanying Collinson’s second paper are two large plates giving both side and top views of one of these teeth, presented to the Earl of Bute. Some other naturalists who examined the teeth had concluded that they came from a hippopotamus; the difficulty then was to explain why the same deposit should contain tusks of elephants and teeth of hippopotamuses in close association.

5Phil. Trans., LVIII (1769), 34–45.

6For example: “Such is the oeconomy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; or her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.” Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (London, J. Stockdale, 1787), p. 83. This was the first regularly published English edition brought out with Jefferson’s authorization.

7APS Proc., LXXXVI, 150 n. As a sort of sequel it should be added here that George Morgan gave the fossils he brought back from Big Bone Lick on the 1766 expedition to his brother, Dr. John Morgan. Charles Willson Peale was commissioned to make drawings of them, and the many visitors who came to his studio to see them inspired Peale later to found his American Museum. In 1788 Dr. Morgan sold the bones to a Dutch anatomist, Petrus Camper, and the remnants of the collection are now in the mineral cabinet of the University of Groningen. Their history is related in the article by Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., cited in the first footnote to this headnote.

8If this list was drawn up, as seems likely, by Peter Collinson to accompany his first paper for the Royal Society, the date assigned is probably that of the bill of lading for the shipment from New York. Mention of Philadelphia here may perhaps be explained by the circumstance that Collinson and other Englishmen knew that was Croghan’s place of residence.

9For Captain Lewis Ourry, a quartermaster and commissary officer who had served with Bouquet in Pennsylvania and was a friend of the Franklins, see above, VII, 62–3 n; XII, 298 n. He had returned to England in the summer of 1765.

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