[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read”]

“Mammoth,” from Youth’s Companion; or An Historical Dictionary
by Ezra Sampson (1813)

This entertaining collection of bits on history, geography, and natural history was compiled from a number of sources—some cryptically identified—and was intended for readers of a variety of ages:

“Any readers of this book who can find little or nothing in it but what they knew as well before, are respectfully informed that it is not meant for them, but for people whose advantages have been fewer, or whose knowledge is less extensive. It is designed more particularly as a Companion for Youth; yet so as not to be a useless companion for mature age. Much in a small compass, has been my aim; and as I have generally named the authors to whom I am indebted, so the reader will know to whose writings he may have recourse for a more enlarged view of some of the subjects which are here given in compendium.” (p. [iii])

Thus we have paragraphs on William Herschel and cannabis, harmonic duels and diving bells. And the mammoth—not the first time this prehistoric beast was described in an American work for children.

There was a lot of confusion about the mammoth and the mastodon at the time this paragraph was written. Huge bones had been found for centuries in what is now Kentucky, and Charles Willson Peale had cobbled together an almost-complete skeleton; but whether or not the beast was carnivorous and what an elephant was doing on the North American continent puzzled naturalists and museum owners alike. An excellent exploration of the history of discoveries at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, is Stanley Hedeen’s Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008). Paul Semonin has published a detailed discussion of how naturalists struggled to understand the mastodon in American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Sampson’s collection was first published in 1807, in Hudson, New York. My copy is of the second edition, “with sundry emendations, retrenchments and enlargements.”

“Mammoth,” from Youth’s Companion; or An Historical Dictionary, by Ezra Sampson. (Albany: Websters and Skinners, 1813; p. 229)

MAMMOTH, an animal of an extraordinary size. The name Mammoth is said to have been first given to this animal in Russia; and that it is a corruption from Memoth, a word derived from the Arabic; its fossil bones have been found in Siberia, and in several parts of the United States of America, particularly on the Ohio, and in the state of New-York towards the lakes; some being found lying on the surface of the earth, and some a little below it. Naturalists are not agreed respecting the genus of this animal. According to Dr. Miller, Mr. Peale of Philadelphia, proprietor of the Museum of that city, in the year 1781, succeeded in obtaining two complete skeletons of the Mammoth dug out of marl pits, in the state of New-York; and from inspection of these skeletons it appears they are the remains of elephants. On the other hand, it is stated in Mr. Jefferson’s Notes, that the skeleton of the mammoth bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant; that the grinders are five times as large, are square, and the grinding surface sudded with four or five rows of blunt points, whereas those of the elephant are broad and thin, and their grinding surface flat: that the natives describe this animal as still existing in the northern and western parts of their country, and affirm him to be carnivorious. [sic] It is not easy to conceive how the bones of elephants should be scattered over the cold regions of Siberia, and in North America, unless their carcases [sic] were wafted thither by the general deluge; since these animals are natives of the hot climates of Asia and Africa, and if even there were no seas or mountains to prevent their excursions, would hardly wander a vast distance into frozen regions where they cannot live in winter without a warm shelter.

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