American elephants were cryptids reported historically from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Animals considered to be folk memories of prehistoric proboscideans appear in the stories of various Amerindian nations (in which the animals are always said to be long-vanished), and elephant sightings were also reported by early European settlers of the Americas. Sightings from later in the 19th Century are considered less reliable.
Animals reminiscent of elephants, but often formally identified as extant animals, appear in a number of Amerindian stories. Labrador's Naskapi people described the katcheetohuskw, a very large animal, identified with a picture of an elephant, which had "a big head and ears, big teeth, a very long nose with which it hit people, stiff rigid legs, and tracks in the snow that were deep and round". The Penobscot of Maine described giant monsters with long teeth, which slept by leaning against trees, and a giant extinct animal with an extra arm growing from its shoulder appears in Algonkian myth.
Stories such as these are typically identified as referring to animals like bears and moose, yet characteristics such as long teeth and noses, and the habit of sleeping resting against trees, are suggestive of elephants. The animals in these legends are always described as long-vanished, suggesting they represent a cultural memory of ice age or late-surviving mammoths, mastodons, or gomphotheres, and cannot be considered evidence for these animals' continued existence. According to Thomas Jefferson, however, at least one of the traditional animals alleged to be a mammoth or a mastodon, the "big buffalo," was believed by the Indians to still exist in the northern and western regions of America.
1567 or 1568
In 1567, a party of around one hundred sailors under privateer John Hawkins were marooned near Tampico in the Gulf of Mexico. Two dozen of the men, including a sailor named David Ingram, set off north, and eleven months later, Ingram and two others were picked up at the coast of Nova Scotia, some three thousand miles north of Tampico. Ingram himself was illiterate, so his story of the journey was written down, thirteen years later, by Sir Francis Walsingham. During his travels in North America, he claimed to have encountered:
According to a 1740 account, a party of Louisiana Indians travelling through an uninhabited region came upon "some Elephants that had perish'd in a marshy place". They were completely unfamiliar with the animals.
Explorer David Thompson (30 April 1770 – 10 February 1857) discovered the tracks of a large animal in the snow near the Athabasca River, Alberta, on 7 January 1811. He described the tracks as "four large, clawed toes 4 inches long, and the prints were 14 inches long by 8 inches wide". Local Indians and French Canadian trappers also relayed rumours about "mammoths" living in the hills, surviving on moss and other plants.
In 1817, it was reported in several U.S. newspapers that "living mammoths" had recently been seen near the Rocky Mountains.
According to a widespread report, a Colonel Cola F. Fowler of the Alaskan Fur and Commercial Company claimed to have "very clear evidence" that mammoths, or in later reiterations mastodons, still existed in the Alaskan interior. Fowler's interview was covered in the Decatur Daily Republican (29 March 1897), which gave The Portland Press (28 November 1896) as its source, but an earlier version of Fowler's interview appeared in the Pullman Herald (3 July 1891), and Hammerson Peters gives the Philadelphia Press (5 May 1889) as the earliest published version of the interview.
Fowler claimed that in Summer 1887, he was visiting a trading station at the headwaters of the Snake River, where he discovered in a cache of ivory collected by local Indians, two very large tusks on which he "discovered fresh blood traces and the remains of partly decomposed flesh". The local headman, To-lee-ti-ma, assured Fowler that the tusks camme from living animals, an old bull and a cow, killed less than three months prior about fifty miles from the station. The head of the hunting party told his story to Fowler:
The "bigteeth" was an animal more than 20' tall and 30' long, shaped like an elephant but with smaller ears, larger eyes, and a longer and more slender trunk, and "covered with long, coarse hair of a reddish dun color". Its tusks were yellowish white, and there were six of them, with an unusual arrangement: two were quite normal, 15' long and tapering to a sharp, inwardly-curving point. However, the animals also had four extra teeth, "placed like those of a boar, one on either side in each jaw; they were about four feet long and came to a sharp point".
Fowler also claimed that the Governor of Alaska, Alfred P. Swineford, had himself investigated the story, and "he [was] certain from a thorough sifting of native testimony that large herds of these monsters are to be found on the high plateaus in interior Alaska about the headwaters of the Snake River".
According to an article first published in the Juneau Free Press (subsequently republished in the Grey River Argus in 1888 and the Winnipeg Daily Free Press in 1893), the Alaskan Stikine Indians claimed to have regularly seen animals "which, from the descriptions given, must have been mastodons". One Indian allegedly followed a series of large tracks until he came across an animal "as large as a post trader's store, with great, shining, yellowish white tusks, and a mouth large enough to swallow a man with one gulp". According to the the report, other hunters claimed to have seen these animals feeding along the river.
~1920s or ~1940s
Frank Graves was told in 1948 or 1930 that two men claimed, some years previously, to have been chased into a cave by a "mastodon" in Canada's Nahanni Valley. This "mastodon" had "enormous spirally curved tusks and very long dark hair". A Dene informant familiar with the Nahanni Valley also claimed that in the valley there lived an animal larger than all others, with a long nose.
Five uncontested species of proboscidean are currently known from Late Pleistocene North America: the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), the Pacific mastodon (Mastodon pacificus), the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), and a gomphothere (Cuvieronius sp.). Of these, stories of American elephants are frequently thought to refer to a mastodon species. Unlike the grazing mammoths of the steppes and grasslands, mastodons are thought to have been forest and swamp-dwellers, which fed mainly on leaves and aquatic plants.
Some contemporary authorities were inclined to accept Fowler's story as genuine, including a writer to the journal Science Gossip who suggested that "there seems a very good chance that we may yet see a living mammoth in the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park, and that we may have the pleasure of feeding it with buns". The multiple tusks described are unusual, however, leading Ed Ferrell to speculate in Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon (1996) that the animals more closely resembled Eubelodon, a North American gomphothere which disappears from the fossil record during the Late Miocene. An alternative suggestion is that the four extra tusks were in fact molars.
Karl Shuker questions the validity of many of the 19th Century reports, and asks why a trunk was not mentioned on Ingram's beast. Shuker's conclusion is that "there is currently no convincing evidence the suggest the modern-day survival of any proboscideans in the New World".
In October 1899, a short story called The Killing of the Mammoth was published in McClure's Magazine, written from the point of view of a hunter named Tukeman, who hunts down and kills "the last mammoth". Although labelled as fiction, a large number of people took the story as real, and wrote letters to the Smithsonian and to McClure's on the subject, leading the magazine to publish a statement affirming that the story was a work of fiction.
Notes and references
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2016) Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616463908
- Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
- Weatherly, David (2020) Monsters of the Last Frontier: Cryptids & Legends of Alaska, Leprechaun Press, ISBN 978-1945950155
- Lankford, George E. "Pleistocene Animals in Folk Memory," Journal of American Folklore 93 (1980)
- Jefferson, Thomas (1785) Notes on the State of Virginia
- Ranking, John "Remarks on Some Quadrupeds Supposed by Naturalists to be Extinct," Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature, and the Arts (July-December 1827)
- Arber, Edward (1909) An English Garner: Ingatherings From Our History and Literature
- Muirhead, Richard CRYPTOZOOLOGY ONLINE: Still on the Track: MUIRHEAD`S MYSTERIES: Two Strange American Cryptids forteanzoology.blogspot.com [Accessed 1 August 2020]
- "Living Mammoths," The Evening Post (17 December 1817)
- Anon. "Do Mastodons Still Exist? — Good Evidence That at Least One Specimen Still Lives," Decatur Daily Republican (29 March 1897)
- Peters, Hammerson (2018) Legends of the Nahanni Valley, PublishDrive, ISBN 978-0993955860
- Anon. "Mammoths in Alaska: Valuable Discovery Made by the Alaska Fur Company," Pullman Herald (3 July 1891)
- Coleman, Loren 1888: Mastodon Sightings cryptozoonews.com [Accessed 1 August 2020]
- Anon. "Mastodons Still Living," Winnipeg Daily Free Press (28 March 1893)
- Anon. "A Live Mastodon: The Latest Wonder of the Alaska Fauna," Grey River Argus (17 February 1888)
- Graves, Frank "Valley Without a Head," Ivan Terence Sanderson Papers; online at diglib.amphilsoc.org [Accessed 1 August 2020]
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- "Beach Combing" The Last Live Mammoth Sighted in Alaska? strangehistory.net [Accessed 1 August 2020]
- The Great Mammoth Hoax (1899) hoaxes.org [Accessed 8 June 2019]
- Besse, Nancy L. "The Great Mammoth Hoax," Alaska Journal 10 (4) (1980)