Today in 1845, awestruck visitors gathered at Gilman’s Saloon in Hartford to view the skeleton of an extinct great American mastodon recently unearthed at a marl pit near Newburgh, New York. At a time before the discovery of the great dinosaurs, when ideas about the world’s origins conflicted with deeply held theological views of earth’s creation, the twenty-nine foot long, twelve foot high, nearly complete skeleton of a massive elephant-like creature with ten foot tusks raised profound, thought-provoking questions about the early history of America and the possibility of an animal-inhabited world that pre-dated human existence. The existence of such animals potentially refuted a Biblical account in the second chapter of Genesis implying that the creation of Adam and Eve preceded the creation of animals. (Ironically, it indirectly – though incompletely – supported the account in the first chapter of Genesis that said Adam was made on the sixth day of creation, after the animals.)
“We can hardly believe,” the Hartford Courant wrote, “that a race of animals has inhabited this country, each one as large as three or four Elephants, but here is the proof before our eyes.” They urged everyone “to embrace the opportunity of seeing this great curiosity.”
Lecturing on the exhibit a week earlier in New Haven, Yale professor Benjamin Silliman stated he was “inclined to the belief that these animals existed before the creation of man.” However, he also said he was not confident in this belief.
The Warren Mastodon, as it came to be known after being purchased by Harvard Professor John Warren, who built a special museum for its display in Boston, was the first complete American mastodon skeleton found in the United States, and remains one of the most complete mastodon skeletons anywhere.
It was displayed in Boston until 1906, when Hartford-born financier J. Pierpont Morgan purchased the Warren mastodon for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it can still be seen. The Biblical debate its discovery brought into focus also continues, Today In Connecticut History.
“The Warren Mastodon,” American Museum Journal
John C Warren, The Mastodon Giganteus of North America
Brian Switek, “Talking Crap About Mastodons,” Scientific American
Richard Conniff, “Mammoths and Mastodons: All American Monsters“, Smithsonian Magazine