|This article is about elephants reported from the contiguous U.S. and southern Canada. Reports from the North American Arctic are considered under woolly mammoth.|
The American elephant was a cryptid reported historically from the United States and Canada, mainly from New England, the Great Lakes region, and the Rocky Mountains. Animals resembling elephants were mentioned in the stories of a variety of Amerindian groups, particularly in the east, although the animals were usually said to have vanished at some point in the past. Living elephants were occasionally reported from, or rumoured to exist in, the American interior from the 16th to early 19th Centuries, although more questionable reports of woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) in Alaska and northwest Canada continued into the 20th Century.
Of the four or five proboscideans known to have existed in North America during the Late Pleistocene, historical reports of elephants were associated with the most famous; the American mastodon (Mammut americanum) and the mammoths. These cryptids are also known as stiff-legged bears, one translation of certain Amerindian names for them. They have also occasionally been associated with the great naked bear.
New England and the Great Lakes
Travelling through North America in the early 18th Century, the French Jesuit Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix (1682 – 1761) heard stories from the Algonquian people of an enormous "moose" with a fifth arm coming out of its shoulder. Charlevoix regarded this as unbelievable, but some later commentators have suggested the "moose" may have been an elephant, its "fifth leg" explained as a trunk.
The future American president Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) had an interest in a number of animals which would now be called cryptids, including the American lion, Megalonyx, and mastodons. In his work Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson recorded an account of a now-famous Indian legend of a "big buffalo," previously recorded in 1748 by a French officer named Fabri, which he believed could refer to the mastodon.
This legend is told by a variety of Amerindian groups in the New England region, who called the animal the "great buffalo," "big quis-quis," "father of oxen," and "great elk". Another version of the legend was later published by the showman Albert Koch. Jefferson cautiously believed that the mastodon could survive somewhere in the unexplored interior of America.
Benjamin F. Stickney (1775 – 1852), an Indian Agent who worked northwest of the Ohio, told geologist William H. Mather before 1843 of an Indian tradition which he believed referred to the mastodon.
In 1934, the anthropologist William Duncan Strong provoked discussions of American elephant traditions from Quebec and Labrador with an article in the American Anthropologist. Strong was interested in the subject because several Naskapi informants had described a vanished animal, the kátcheetohúskw, to him as a sort of elephant.
Strong also quoted a legend communicated to him by fellow anthropologist Frank G. Speck, collected from the Penobscot Indians of Maine. The myth featured a Penobscot culture hero named Snowy Owl, who was said to have killed large, long-toothed animals.
Archaeologist David Boyle referred to "somewhat vague" traditions among the Ojibwa and Iroquois of "a large animal that once ranged the forest ... so strong was it that it was able to crush trees that stood in its path." According to Scott, stories of elephant-like animals were told by the Iroquois, Wyandots, Tuscaroras, and others. Indians of Massachussetts had a legend about walking "haystacks" which were once seen moving down the coast of Martha's Vineyard. The Micmacs of Nova Scotia are also widely reported to have a mastodon tradition.
The fur trader and surveyor David Thompson (1770 – 1857) famously collected rumours of mammoths in the Rocky Mountains, although the memoir in which he mentioned this was not published until long after his death, in 1916. Thompson first heard rumours of mammoths on 28 September 1807.
Thompson found more insistent mammoth stories in January 1811, near the Athabasca River in the Rockies.
Shortly after Thompson recorded these rumours, but long before his work was published, various American newspapers reported that mammoths had recently been seen in the vicinity of the Rockies. Reports of sightings of large unknown animals in the Rockies were also reported the following year, in the Edinburgh magazine The Scots Magazine, based on the reports of fur traders.
The Irish explorer Ross Cox (1793 – 1853), who worked for several trading companies in northwestern America, also collected stories of a very large animal from the Athabasca River region of the Rockies, which he published in 1831. The animal, which was said to have been driven into the mountains from the Great Plains by the Indians, was described to Cox as recently extinct, with a recorded sighting having occurred around two generations previously.
The Chitimacha of Louisiana had a tradition of a long-nosed animal sometimes identified as a mastodon, and which the Chitimacha themselves identified with elephants introduced by Europeans. The animal was said to have come out of the sea, but it subsequently took up residence in a forest near what is now Charenton. This supposedly occurred at around the time Europeans arrived in the New World: when the Chitimacha acquired firearms, they immediately sought out the monster, but it had disappeared.
As well as legends, Thomas Jefferson recorded a rumour that elephants were still to be found somewhere west of the Missouri River, on the authority of a certain Stanley who had been captured by Indians near the Tennessee River.
According to the anthropologist James H. Howard (1925 – 1982), stories of "hairy elephants" were commonly told by Amerindians of the Midwest, and he had personally collected such stories from Omaha, Ponca, Dakota, and Winnebago informants. Unkćeǵila is sometimes cited as a Lakota name for the "mastodon". Richard Muirhead is also aware of historical elephant accounts from the Great Plains region. The writer François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) heard during his 1791 trip through America that "mammoths" had been seen by hunters somewhere west of the Mississippi River.
Oral traditions of the Ponca people of Nebraska make mention of elephants, alleged by tribal historian Peter Le Claire to be hairy, encountered alive and dead when the Ponca first arrived at the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska, in the Great Plains region. Although the exact timing of the Ponca's migration to the region, and their first appearance as a distinct group, is debated, this is believed to have occurred between the 15th and 18th Centuries, possibly post-dating European arrival in the New World.
Le Claire's narrative of Ponca history was received from the elderly Chief John Bull, who insisted that "the Ponca is very strict with the history. Anyone making a mistake is corrected by groups of old men." According to Le Claire, the Ponca would go out on annual bison hunts east, before circling back to the Niobrara River. During one of these early hunts, while travelling from Santee to the Niobrara, a hunting party came across a dead Pa-snu-tah, identified as an "elephant" or a "hairy elephant," as well as a living water panther.
The Ponca also allegedly saw a "live elephant" in the region of what is now Valentine, near a place called Twin Buttes. According to different accounts, the elephant was seen either by a small waterfall or a large spring, or by a cave. In both accounts, the fact that the elephant was alive is stressed. The name pa-snu-ta is also applied by the Ponca to a cannibal giant.
During John Hawkins' (1532 – 1595) 1567 expedition to Spanish Mexico, a party of around one hundred sailors were marooned near Tampico, in what is now Mexico. A year later, three of the men, including one David Ingram, were rescued on the coast of Nova Scotia, in what is now Canada; Ingram's account of their trek north was written down thirteen years later by third parties. How much of his story is true is hotly debated, but he claimed to have seen two animals which some have interpreted as mammoths or mastodons.
Ingram claimed to have seen "boath eliphantes and uunces," the latter term meaning large cats, in America. He further alleged that some Amerindians fashioned trumpets out of "eliphantes' teethe". Ingram also described a gigantic tusked animal, distinct from the elephants, which some have identified as a mastodon.
The city of Carencro in Louisana, which takes its name from the carrion crow (buzzard), is said to have been named by the Atakapa Indians after a mastodon died in a nearby bayou or creek, attracting thousands of buzzards. It is not clear when this is supposed to have occurred, but the first possible reference appeared in The American Weekly Mercury on 4 December 1740.
According to a letter written by Martin Duralde, a commandant of Opelousas who recorded much information on the Amerindian peoples of Louisiana, the mastodon story had been passed down over the generations, and had occurred distantly enough for the Atakapa informants to have forgotten where exactly the mastodon died. The remains of a mastodon had supposedly been discovered in the bayou, where they had been seen by Duralde, after the mastodon story had spread.
Duralde later wrote a more detailed letter describing the discovery of the remains, which was published in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1809, but he only briefly alluded to the Atakapa legend. According to Duralde, the bones had been discovered shortly after 1760. "Father of palaeontology" Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) also discovered more mastodon remains near Carencro during his tour of the United States in 1804. Cuvier referred to the discovery and the mastodon tradition as "curious and interesting".
During his 1811 travels in the Rocky Mountains, David Thompson discovered, on 7 January, a very large footprint in the snow, which his followers insisted was a mammoth track. Thompson himself, however, believed it could have been the track of a very large, old bear, its claws worn down by age.
In 1818, a man identifying himself only as "P." wrote to The Scots Magazine reporting rumours of a very large animal in the Rockies, based on a sighting made in a remote valley by some fur traders whom P. had interviewed. The animal was compared to an elephant in size, but its appearance was not described.
After the sighting was first reported, a second party of traders was sent out to the same region, where enormous cloven tracks were discovered. The report prompted a retired servant of the Hudson's Bay Company to publish an account of a sighting he had made in northern Canada in 1803.
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. Karl Shuker questions the validity of many of the 19th Century reports, and concludes that "there is currently no convincing evidence to suggest the modern-day survival of any proboscideans in the New World".
It is thought that some Indian legends of gigantic animals may be observational myths, based on discoveries of fossilised bones of Pleistocene megafauna rather than traditional knowledge of the living animals. Some 19th Century authorities argued that the story of the big buffalo was not based on mastodon bones at all, but on the bones of the giant bison (Bison latifrons). It was suggested that the Indians may have recognised these fossils as bison remains, and assumed that the larger bones of less familiar animals represented the same being. The diarist Nicholas Cresswell (1750 – 1804) had previously been told by local Indians that the remains in Big Bone Lick belonged to "White Buffaloes that killed themselves by drinking salt water". The surgeon John Collins Warren (1778 – 1856) also believed that the tradition referred to the giant bison, and others have suggested that several different supposed elephant stories could refer to giant bison and moose. Some anthropologists identify the tusked, long-snouted animals as pigs, which were introduced by Europeans.
Notes and references
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2016) Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616463908
- Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
- Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
- Arment, Chad (2004) Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1930585157
- Charlevoix, Pierre François Xavier de (1744) Journal d'un Voyage Fait par Ordre du Roi dans l'Amerique Septentrionale
- Morgan, Lewis H. (1904) League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois
- Strong, William Duncan "North American Traditions Suggesting a Knowledge of the Mammoth," American Anthropologist, No. 36 (1934)
- Jefferson, Thomas (1785) Notes on the State of Virginia
- Mather, William H. (1843) Natural History of New York, Vol. 4
- Boyle, David "Stone Pipes," Annual Archaeological Report (1906)
- Scott, William Berryman "American Elephant Myths," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1887)
- Beck, Horace P. "The Animal That Cannot Lie Down," Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 9 (September 1949)
- Dawson, John William (1889) Handbook of Geology for the Use of Canadian Students
- Piers, Harry "Mastodon Remains in Nova Scotia," Proceedings and Transactions of the Nova Scotia Institute of Science, No. 13 (1910)
- Pritchard, Evan T. (2001) No Word for Time: The Way of the Algonquin People
- Thompson, David & Tyrrell, Joseph Burr (1916) David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812
- Anon. "Living Mammoths," The Evening Post (17 December 1817)
- Anon. "Report of the Existence of Unknown Animal of Vast Size Among the Rocky Mountains of North America," The Scots Magazine (1 June 1818)
- Cox, Ross (1831) The Columbia River; or, Scenes and Adventures During a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains, Vol. 2
- Swanton, John Reed (1911) Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico
- Howard, James H. & Le Claire, Peter "The Ponca Tribe," Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, No. 195 (1965)
- Piling, James Constantine (1887) Bibliography of the Siouan Languages
- Muirhead, Richard (6 February 2017) Muirhead's Mysteries: Two Strange American Cryptids forteanzoology.blogspot.com [Accessed 4 June 2021]
- Chateaubriand, François-René de (1827) Voyage en Amérique
- Mason, Ronald J. (2006) Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions
- Howard, James H. "Known Village Sites of the Ponca," Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 15, No. 48 (May 1970)
- Anon. The American Weekly Mercury (4 December 1740)
- Swanton, John Reed (1911) Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico
- Duralde, Martin & Dunbar, William "Abstract of a Communication from Mr. Martin Duralde," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 6 (1809)
- Cuvier, Georges (1813) Théorie de la Terre
- MacVeagh, Lincoln (1924) The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell 1774–1777
- Warren, John Collins (1852) Description of a Skeleton of the Mastodon Giganteus of North America
- "The Mastodon in America and the Mount Builders," The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4 (July 1887)
- Speck, Frank G. (1950) Midwinter Rites of the Cayuga Long House