Peter Feinman: Bring Back the Mastodons!


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Peale's Exhuming the MammothIt is time for New York State to boldly go where no state has gone before and go back to the future to resurrect the now extinct mastodon. The effort to bring the mammoth back from extinction recently was the cover article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Russia and Japan are working to create mammoths. New York should not be left behind in the de-extinction race. I hereby challenge Governor Cuomo to launch a new “Manhattan Project” so we are the first to bring the paleolithic era to life through the creation of Mastodon Park, our own Ice Age animal, the mastodon.

Mastodons have had a long and valued place in New York State history. The story of mastodons and New York history begins in 1705 in Claverack, Columbia County. A Dutch tenant farmer picked up a five-pound tooth that had rolled down a hill and landed at his feet. Being the sensible sort, he naturally traded the tooth to a politician for a glass of rum. The tooth thereupon made its way up the political food chain until it arrived in London. The unknown species or “incognitum” delivered a profound and disturbing message to believers and non-believers alike on both sides of the Atlantic. According to the King James Version of the Bible: “There were giants in the earth in those days”(Gen. 6:4).

Mastodon remains were later found in 1780 in Orange County. George Washington viewed them while encamped in Newburgh. Washington subsequently obtained a mastodon tooth. There also were stories of sightings in the interior. By 1801, there were more mastodon discoveries, and then one was found near Newburgh on the farm of John Masten. Charles Wilson Peale led the excavations, which he portrayed in his painting “Exhuming the Mammoth,” completed years later and not entirely accurately.

The mastodon was reconstructed at Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, still a cultural capital of America. Due to the painting and the museum (in a time before Barnum), mastodons became one of the crazes that periodically ripples through human society. Although they later were eclipsed by the even bigger dinosaurs, New York’s mastodons left their mark on the American culture. Now we had concrete proof, or at least fossilized proof, that giant animals had walked America and there was no need to feel the American environment produced inferior species to those of Europe.

But there was a problem. Whatever the animal named “mastodon” in 1806 was, it was extinct. It no longer roamed the land. That meant it had not been saved in Noah’s ark even though all the creatures of the earth were supposed to have been preserved. The idea that God had not created a perfect world since animals could become extinct was a shocking one but the evidence from New York and then elsewhere was clear.

Now New York has the opportunity and duty to rectify the oversight and restore the animal kingdom to the way it was before the deluge. How much more of a tourist attraction would New York be with real live flesh-and-blood mastodons? The potential of Mastodon Park is enormous. Just consider the spectacle of mastodons on parade up Broadway in New York City. The TV rights alone would pay for New York’s pension, health care and education for years to come. Mastodon Madness would generate more revenue than March Madness.

So if you want to boost New York State tourism, forget about casinos, forget about shopping at Woodbury Commons, forget about the historic sites and stories that define the state. Instead heed the call of a time long long ago and take the state on a bold leap where no state has gone before back to the future and BRING BACK THE MASTODON!

Illustration: Peale’s “Exhuming the Mammoth”.

13 thoughts on “Peter Feinman: Bring Back the Mastodons!

  1. Peter Evans

    Peter – Mastodons and elephants have a long standing place in the New York State April Fools Day traditions.
    My long extinct grandmother in law could always get everyone searching for them on April 1st of any given year. No matter how well you were prepared to resist, she’d get you searching just when you least expected it. Always great fun, so you are absolutely correct, we need to invest in the future of fun and sanity by bringing back the Mastodon. You’ve got my vote.

    Peter

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Good seeing you at the APNYS conference recently. But besides your vote how about a seven-figure contribution to get the ball rolling. Perhaps we should start the lobbying effort with the Republicans since elephants are closer to mastodons than donkeys are.

      Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Since there are giants in the new Noah movie and they and the Cardiff giant both derive their image from Genesis 6:4, to some extent he has never really left us. I will have to pay him a visit the next time I am at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown.

      Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      As an historian, I am obligated to stick to times when human beings existed and contrary to the Flintstones, people and dinosaurs did not roam the earth together. I think DINOs like the X-Men are a product of the human contamination of the earth and not genuinely from ancient times. I am sticking with the mastodons. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  2. Howard C. Ohlhous

    There is a Mastodon in the Cohoes Public Library. This is the first life-size restoration of an American mastodon (mammut Americanus) in the world. It was constructed at the New York State Museum in 1922 by Noah T. Clarke and Charles P. Heidenrich. For over half a century, millions of visitors saw this mastodon and the accompanying exhibits in the State Museum.

    This restoration was based partly on the skeleton discovered September 1866 in a pot hole at the base of the Cohes Falls on the Mohawk River. Fifty feet of muck and peat covered the bones, which rested on a bed of clay and broken shale above a layer of water-worn pebbles and gravel.

    http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=40818

    Reply
  3. Lori

    At museum village in Monroe ny there is one of three of the most complete specimens of the mastodon in the world! It is really an amazing exhibit!

    Reply
  4. Brian Altonen

    Yes. I say bring back the mastodon.

    I say place one at the western end of the Hamilton Fish Bridge to drive under as you enter Orange County, and at the western end at the New York-Pennsylvania Border as you make you way onto the NY section of 84.

    Make sure that Newburgh and Coldenham are the recommended stops, because that is where this entire legend made its way to center stage in our local history, according to the Late political leader of Town of Montgomery, Joseph Devine, in his treatise–The Mastodons of New York, at http://home.roadrunner.com/~montghistory/The%20Mastodons%20of%20Orange%20County%20042809.pdf.

    Plans for a Mastodon Museum in this vicinity have been around for eons (not quite as long as the Mammoth probably lived here though). The only small relic that remains about this local history is a NY Historical Marker sign placed on Rt 17K by the state of NY. [see http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CQV_Mastodon_Dig_1800 or http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=49822

    This unfortunate history of former belongings of the Hudson Valley is very symbolic of how much of our heritage gets lost or misplaced and then forgotten. When the remains of the best example of a Mastodon were unearthed up by Charles Willson Peale, on Captain Joseph Barber’s land in Montgomery in September 1801, these remains made their way first to local viewing sites and then museums, and from there to France and finally Hessisches Landemuseum, Darmstadt, Germany, where the most famous skeleton of “Mastodon Giganteus” (which they called it back in 1852) rests for its remaining years.

    Fortunately, the little town of Coldenham (just east of Newburgh) later left us with additional proof when the Warren Mastodon remains were unearthed in 1845 (Warren’s 1852 book on this–http://books.google.com/books?id=5zNYAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=warren+mastodon&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hiZAU6hoquawBM69gIgJ&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=warren%20mastodon&f=false ; see also https://archive.org/details/mastodongiganteu00warr). They rest in the American Museum of Natural History overlooking Central Park (http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/fossil-halls/paul-and-irma-milstein-hall-of-advanced-mammals/warren-mastodon).

    For more on the history of this Hudson Valley creature, see http://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/themes/mastodon.html.

    For more this important part of the local history, go to: http://home.roadrunner.com/~montghistory/ .

    Signed,

    Brian Altonen, President of the Coldengham Preservation & Historical Society, (meets monthly at 232 Ward St, Mongomery, NY 12549) and the Wallkill River School of Art.

    Reply

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