Weaving through four centuries of religious, political, and scientific debate, the tale of the Mastodon in New York State is a rich and important chapter of our history. It can viewed through an environmental science lens as a window to the Pleistocene era; taught as a case study in the history of archaeological practice; or evaluated as an agent in the fracturing of natural philosophy in dozens of scientific disciplines.
With this in mind, one might wonder how something that sparked such serious inquiry at one time has been relegated to a few roadside historic markers and dusty museum exhibits today. In Orange County, however, we are lucky to have the tale of the Mastodon firmly incorporated in the fabric of our local identity.
I've hesitated to discuss this fascinating topic since it is expansive enough to warrant more than one article, but several recent developments have prompted me to begin sharing it now.
The Mastodon remains a popular subject in our local schools. Ms. Gilson's fourth grade class wrote letters to County officials asking us to celebrate "Mastodon Day" at Willow Avenue School in Cornwall on Thursday, October 13. At the event, County Executive Steve Neuhaus and Town Supervisor Richard Randazzo spoke to the children about why preserving the legacy of the Mastodon is an important to Orange County's citizens and I contributed details about Charles Willson Peale's famous 1801 archaeological expedition. At the end of our presentation one student asked us why the Mastodon is not on our County seal!
But it's not just students who can enjoy a Mastodon history lesson: On Friday, October 28, the series finale of the Tavern Trail will take place at Ward's Bridge Inn in Montgomery, where we will present a program regarding the Mastodons excavated by Charles Willson Peale and illuminate the implications that these discoveries had for the scientific community throughout the western world. The Tavern Trail series provides patrons with a chance to learn about local history in a relaxing and social atmosphere. Stop by for a networking opportunity or just to have a good time.
Finally, students, faculty, staff and visitors to SUNY Orange in Newburgh have been enjoying an exhibit featuring a plaster cast of the Warren Mastodon skull and tusk since September. We hope that this new display, located on the second floor of the campus, will bring more awareness to the significance of the Mastodon and compliment the sister exhibit of "Sugar" the Mastodon at the Middletown campus. Every few days I replenish the flyers at the new exhibit and I can't help but notice that students' genuine enthusiasm and curiosity regarding the relic.
Where can you visit Mastodons from Orange County?
The skeleton of the "Warren" Mastodon is at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City & the plaster cast at SUNY Orange Newburgh
The original Warren Mastodon skeleton is currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It was discovered in 1845 in Coldenham, Town of Montgomery and it has been known to be the most complete skeleton of the American Mastodon species ever recovered worldwide. The skeleton has all of its bones - with the exception of a few toes - and it has both massive tusks intact.
The Warren Mastodon was discovered on the farm of Nathaniel Brewster on Rt. 17K while workers were digging in a bog for peat fuel. They pealed back the soil at the bottom of the bog to cut into 2 feet of peat, then a 1-foot layer of red moss. Beneath the moss they found shell marl and mud where the Mastodon was still articulated upright, with its head tilted towards the sky. It had drowned gasping for air more 11,000 years ago.
The bones were purchased from the Brewster family for $10,000. The buyer, Dr. John Collins Warren, a renowned surgeon and Harvard professor, brought the skeleton to Boston where he displayed it until 1925. Dr. Warren wrote, "Language is insufficient to give an idea of the grandeur of this skeleton as a whole. Standing as it does in the midst of those of various large animals - the horse, the cow, others, and towering above them, its massive limbs make them sink into insignificance."
In 2011, the cast of the Warren Mastodon was donated to Orange County for public display by local citizen donors. But it's not just this plaster cast that is available for the public to view. Here in Orange County, there are two exhibits with full skeletons.
The skeletons of the Harriman and Sugar Loaf Mastodons are on display in Orange County, "Harry" is at Museum Village in Monroe & "Sugar" is at SUNY Orange Middletown campus.
One well-known Mastodon is named "Harry" and was discovered in 1952 on Rt. 17M in Harriman. At the time, Roscoe Smith had recently opened his historical collections to the public at Museum Village in Monroe, so he organized an effort to exhume the bones for display. Smith enlisted the help of Dr. Edwin Harris Colbert, curator of the American Museum of Natural History's Paleontology department, and together they excavated the site.
There's also the famous "Sugar" Mastodon which originated in Sugar Loaf, between Chester and Warwick. It was discovered in 1972 by a black dirt farmer during the spring planting of lettuce and celery. The Mastodon was excavated by the Orange County Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association and donated to SUNY Orange where it has been on display in the Biotech building on the Middletown campus since 1976.
Natural History museums throughout the world have collected specimens.
Mastodons from Orange County can be seen in other places as well. The famous "Peale" Mastodon, excavated by Charles Willson Peale in 1801, is now in Damstadt, Germany after many years with P.T. Barnum. The "Marsh Skeleton," discovered in Otisville, is currently at the Peabody Museum in Yale University due to the speedy actions of Professor Othniel Marsh to retrieve it before Professor Waterhouse Hawkins of Princeton could arrive. And at the New York State Museum in Albany, there's a display of the Temple Hill or "McMillin" Mastodon as it is sometimes known, bearing the name of the donor who paid for the excavation. A partial find known as the "Balmville Skull" has ended up at the Bear Mountain Zoo and countless bones have been discovered and sold as souvenirs to private collectors throughout the world.
Now that we've covered the "what" and "where" of the New York Mastodons, I hope to follow-up in future newsletters with more of my research regarding the philosophical debates and patriotic urgency that surrounded each of these discoveries in their time.
"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."