Dr. Graham and the Mastodon

Charles Willson Peale, "The Exhumation of the Mastodon," (1806-1808). Maryland Historical Society. Image from Wikimedia Commons

A little internet sleuthing has uncovered the role one of Columbia’s earliest medical students had in an important landmark in the history of American paleontology – the discovery of the most complete mastodon skeleton found up to that time.

James G. Graham (1749-1815) of Walkill, Ulster County, New York, attended the King’s College Faculty of Medicine (now Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons) in 1773-74. Our Graham Family Papers, purchased circa 1940, include the notes Graham took of the lectures given by professor of medicine Samuel Bard which are among the very few to survive from the two pre-revolutionary medical schools in the Thirteen Colonies.[1]  They show Bard covering a wide variety of diseases – smallpox, inflammation, measles, and “jayl fever,” to name just a few. The notes are an important record of how medicine was taught at King’s in the 1770s.

Graham never received a medical degree from King’s but nevertheless practiced medicine in his native Ulster County. No doubt he, like the majority of American physicians of the era, received most of his education through an apprenticeship with a practitioner. Graham seems to have been a notable figure in his community, serving as a militia colonel in the American Revolution and later being elected to both the New York State Assembly and Senate in the 1790s.

His small but crucial role in the history of paleontology occurred in 1800 when Graham wrote a letter to Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchell, a Columbia University medical school professor who was the editor of the Medical Repository, the first American medical journal.  In a time when there were practically no American scientific publications, the Medical Repository published articles in a wide range of disciplines.

Its subscribers, then, would not have been surprised to read Graham’s letter to Mitchell, dated September 10, 1800, recounting the extraordinary number of gigantic bones that farmers in New York’s Ulster and Orange Counties had been turning up in the area’s swamps.  Graham deduced from the many discoveries of these bones in such a small area that “they must have been very numerous in this part of the country.”  In an age when everyone believed that all existing animals had been created by God as recounted in Genesis, the extinction of such a large creature was puzzling. Graham mused that “why Providence should have destroyed an animal or species it once thought proper to create, is a matter of curious inquiry and difficult solution.” He ended by noting that he would send Mitchell a bone from one of these mysterious behemoths.

Graham’s letter in the April 1801 issue of the Medical Repository was read by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. Though best known today as one of the most significant American painters of the 18th and early 19th century, Peale was a man of many interests.  Since 1784 he had operated a natural history museum in Philadelphia, the first public museum in the United States.  Besides his ambition as a scientist, Peale was eager to boost the renown – and profitability – of his museum.  He resolved to go to New York to buy the existing bones and, if possible, find new ones.

After first stopping in New York City to visit his in-laws and obtain letters of introduction to Graham, Peale arrived in Newburgh in late June.  With Dr. Graham, he went a few miles west to the farm of John Masten who had previously discovered several mastodon bones in a bog on his property.  Peale, after cannily feigning disinterest in the remains, struck a bargain with Masten to purchase the bones for $200 and a gun in addition to paying another $100 for permission to excavate whatever other bones might still be buried on the farm.

Peale quickly returned to Philadelphia where he was loaned $500 by the American Philosophical Society to underwrite his excavation.  He returned to the Newburgh area in August.  In order to speed the search for remains in the watery morass, Peale designed and had constructed an ingenious water wheel powered by men walking inside it and attached to a chain of buckets which would drain the bog.

Here Peale found additional bones, including a second tusk, part of the sternum, and more vertebrae. Once the pit at Masten’s appeared to be played out, Graham brought Peale to two other nearby sites where an abundance of remains were discovered.

By October Peale had returned to Philadelphia where he spent three months assembling the skeleton.  Opened to the public on Christmas Day, 1801, the “mammoth” as Peale mistakenly called it[2], was a sensation.  Since visitors were charged an extra 50 cents to view it, it proved very profitable as well.

The mastodon would remain with the Peale Museum until its closure in the mid-19th century when it was sold. It’s now on display at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.

Peale was immensely proud of his role in the discovery of the mastodon.  He commemorated it in a painting The Exhumation of the Mastodon (1806-1808) now at the Maryland Historical Society.  In it, a crowd of Peale’s family and friends are seen clustered around the water wheel, while Peale himself holds a drawing of a mastodon bone.  One wonders, is Dr. Graham, Peale’s guide to this region of prehistoric bones, among the onlookers depicted?

A good account of Peale’s recovery of the mastodon bones and Graham’s role in it is Charles Coleman Sellers, “The Unearthing of the Mastodon” in American Heritage magazine, volume 30, number 5 (Aug/Sept 1979). 

Peale’s own account can be found in his October 11, 1801 letter to Thomas Jefferson, found online in the National Archives’ Founders Online site (accessed April 29, 2020): https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-35-02-0355

For Peale’s “Exhumation of the Mastodon,” this blog entry has drawn on Eleanor J. Harvey’s “Founding Landscape: Charles Willson Peale’s Exhumation of the Mastodon,” in American Art, volume 31, number 2 (Summer 2017)

In addition, the index to volume 2, part 1 of the Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family has numerous entries for James Graham; unfortunately, there appears to be no online access to this volume.

[1] Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library holds the medical school notes of John Augustus Graham – perhaps a relative – from 1772; and an admittedly cursory search of ArchiveGrid, the union catalog of US manuscript collections, shows Duke owns 2 volumes of 1771 chemistry notes taken by a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school.

[2] The distinction between mastodons and mammoths were not yet known at the time. Peale referred to his find as a mammoth but what he discovered was a mastodon.

Top: Charles Willson Peale, "The Exhumation of the Mastodon," (1806-1808). Maryland Historical Society. Image from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:C_W_Peale_-_The_Exhumation_of_the_Mastadon