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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.
American elephant

Ancient petroglyphs discovered in Utah, believed to depict mammoths (Public Domain).

Category Lazarus taxon
Proposed scientific names
Other names Big buffalo, kátcheetohúskw, nida, pa-snu-ta, stiff-legged bear, unkćeǵila, yah qua whee
Country reported Canada, United States
First reported 1589
Prominent investigators • Thomas Jefferson
• William Berryman Scott
• John Reed Swanton
• William Duncan Strong

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.[1]

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.[2] These cryptids are also known as stiff-legged bears, one translation of certain Amerindian names for them.[3] They have also occasionally been associated with the great naked bear.[4]

Attestations

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.[5] 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.[6][7][1]

There is also a rather amusing tradition among these barbarians of a great moose, next to which the others are like ants. They say it has legs so high that eight feet of snow do not hinder it. Its skin is proof against all sorts of weapons, and it has a sort of arm coming from its shoulder that it uses as we do ours. It never fails to have a large number of moose following it that make up its court and that render it all of the services it requires of them.

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.[8]

... in ancient times a herd of these tremendous animals came to the Big Bone Licks, and began an universal destruction of the bear, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals, which had been created for the use of the Indians ... the Great Man above, looking down and seeing this, was so enraged that he seized his lightning, descended on the earth, seated himself on a neighboring mountain, on a rock, of which his seat and the print of his feet are still to be seen, and hurled his bolts among them till the whole were slaughtered, except the big bull, who, presenting his forehead to the shafts, shook them off as they fell; but missing one at length, it wounded him in the side; whereon, springing round, he bounded over the Ohio, over the Wabash, the Illinois, and finally over the great lakes, where he is living at this day.

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.[8]

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.[9]

There was a tradition among the Indians of the existence of the mastodon; they were often seen; they fed on the boughs of a species of lime tree, and they did not lie down, but leaned against a tree to sleep.

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.[7]

When asked to describe Kátcheetohúskw, the [Naskapi] informants said he was very large, had a big head, large ears and teeth, and a long nose with which he hit people. His tracks in the snow were described in their stories as large and round. One Indian who had seen pictures of the modern elephant said he thought that Kátcheetohúskw was the elephant ... the older Indians question were unanimous in declaring that such had always been the description of the Kátcheetohúskw so far as they had any knowledge.

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.[7]

He saw what seemed to be hills without vegetation moving slowly about. Upon closer scrutiny he saw that these masses were really the backs of great animals with long teeth, animals so huge that when they lay down they could not get up. They drank for half a day at a time. Snowy Owl went on and after many adventures secured his wife. Then he returned to the place where the animals had their "yards." He cut certain trees upon which the monsters were accustomed to lean at night so that when they did so the trees would break. Thus the animals fell upon the sharp stumps and Snowy Owl shot them all.

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."[10] According to Scott, stories of elephant-like animals were told by the Iroquois, Wyandots, Tuscaroras, and others.[11] Indians of Massachussetts had a legend about walking "haystacks" which were once seen moving down the coast of Martha's Vineyard.[12] The Micmacs of Nova Scotia are also widely reported to have a mastodon tradition.[13][14][15]

Rocky Mountains

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.[16]

The Old Chief & others related that in the Woods of the Mountains there is a very large Animal, of abt the height of 3 fms & great bulk that never lies down, but in sleeping always leans against a large Tree to support his weight; they believe, they say, that he has no joints in the mid of his Legs, but they are not sure as they never killed any of them, & by this acct they are rarely or never seen–this is no doubt some Animal of their Nurses Fables, as they cannot say they ever saw the least remains of a dead one.

Thompson found more insistent mammoth stories in January 1811, near the Athabasca River in the Rockies.[16]

... we are now entering the defiles of the Rocky Mountains by the Athabasca River ... strange to say, here is a strong belief that the haunt of the Mammoth is about this defile... I questioned several, none could positively say they had seen him, but their belief I found firm and not to be shaken.... All I could say did not shake their belief in his existence... Report from old times had made the head branches of this River, and the Mountains in the vicinity the abode of one, or more, very large animals, to which I never appeared to give credence; for these reports appeared to arise from that fondness for the marvellous so common to mankind ... the Hunters there pointed out to me a low Mountain apparently close to us, and said that on the top of that eminence, there was a Lake of several miles ...that these animals fed there, they were sure from the great quantity of moss torn up...the hunters all agreed this animal was not carnivorous, but fed on moss, and vegetables. Yet they all agree that not one of them had ever seen the animal; I told them I thought curiosity alone ought to have prompted them to get a sight of one of them; they replied, that they were curious enough to see them, but at a distance, the search forthem, might bring them so near that they could not get away; I had known these men for years, and could always depend on their word, they had no interest to deceive themselves, or other persons. The circumstantial evidence of the existence of this animal is sufficient, but notwithstanding the many months the Hunters have traversed this extent of country in all directions, and this animal having never been seen, there is no direct evidence of it's existence. Yet when I think of all I have seen and heard, if put on my oath, I could neither assert, nor deny, it's existence; for many hundreds of miles of the Rocky Mountains are yet unknown, and through the defiles by which we pass, distant one hundred and twenty miles from each other, we hasten our march as much as possible.

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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19]

Some of the Upper Crees, a tribe who inhabit the country in the vicinity of the Athabasca river, have a curious tradition with respect to animals which they state formerly frequented the mountains. They allege that these animals were of frightful magnitude, being from two to three hundred feet in length, and high in proportion; that they formerly lived in the plains, a great distance to the eastward; from which they were gradually driven by the Indians to the Rocky Mountains; that they destroyed all smaller animals; and if their agility was equal to their size, would have also destroyed all the natives, &c. One man has asserted that his grandfather told him he saw one of those animals in a mountain pass, where he was hunting, and that on hearing its roar, which he compared to loud thunder, the sight almost left his eyes, and his heart became as small as an infant's.

Other regions

The Chitimacha of Louisiana had a tradition of a long-nosed animal sometimes identified as a mastodon,[7] 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.[20]

A long time ago a being with a long nose came out of the ocean and began to kill people. It would root up trees with its nose to get at persons who sought refuge in the branches, and people lived on scaffolds to get away from it. It made its home in a piece of woods near Charenton, and when guns were introduced the people went into this wood to kill the monster, but could not find it. When the elephant was seen it was thought to be the same creature, and was consequently called Neka-cí ckamí, 'Long-nosed spirit'.

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.[8]

A Mr. Stanley, taken prisoner by the Indians near the mouth of the Tanissee, relates that, after being transferred through several tribes, from one to another, he was at length carried over the mountains West of the Missouri to a river which runs westwardly; that these bones abounded there; and that the natives described to him the animal to which they belonged as still existing in the Northern parts of their country; from which description he judged it to be an elephant.

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.[21] Unkćeǵila is sometimes cited as a Lakota name for the "mastodon".[22] Richard Muirhead is also aware of historical elephant accounts from the Great Plains region.[23] 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.[24]

Sightings

~1500s

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.[25]

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.[21]

The Ponca also allegedly saw a "live elephant" in the region of what is now Valentine,[26] near a place called Twin Buttes.[21] According to different accounts, the elephant was seen either by a small waterfall or a large spring,[26] or by a cave.[21] 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.[3]

1567–1568

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.

This Expedition did alsoe see in those Countryes a Monstruous Beaste twyse as bigge as a Horse and in every proportyon like unto a Horse bothe in mayne, hoofe, heare and neighinge, savinge yt was small towardes the hinder partes like a greyhounde; these Beastes haue twoe teethe or hornes of a foote longe growinge streight furthe of there nostrelles; they are natural Enimyes to the horse.

Before 1740

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.[11] 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.[27][23]

Tis also advised from Louisiana, that the Natives advancing into some uninhabited Countries found some Elephants that had perish'd in a marshy place; which had given rise to a question whether this country does not border upon Asia the rather because the Natives say, they never saw nor heard that there were any Animal of that kind in that Country.

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.[28]

Many years before the discovery of the elephant in the bayou called Carancro an Atakapas savage had informed a man who is at present in my service in the capacity of cow-herd that the ancestors of his nation transmitted to their descendants that a beast of enormous size had perished either in this bayou or in one of the two water courses a short distance from it without their being able to indicate the true place, the antiquity of the event having without doubt made them forget it. The fact has realized this tradition.

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.[29] "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".[30]

1811

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.[16]

Continuing on our journey in the afternoon we came on the track of a large animal... I measured it; four large toes each of four inches in length to each a short claw; the ball of the foot sunk three inches lower than the toes, the hinder part of the foot did not mark well, the length fourteen inches, by eight inches in breadth, walking from north to south, and having passed about six hours. We were in no humour to follow him; the Men and Indians would have it to be a young Mammoth and I held it to be the track of a large old grizzled Bear; yet the shortness of the nails, the ball of the foot, and its great size were not that of a Bear, otherwise that of a very large old Bear, his claws worn away; this the Indians would not allow... As the snow was about six inches in depth the track was well defined, and we could see it for a full one hundred yards from us... We did not attempt to follow it, we had no time for it, and the Hunters, eager as they are to follow and shoot every animal made no attempt to follow this beast, for what could the balls of our fowling guns do against such an animal ... the sight of the track of that large beast staggered me, and I often thought of it, yet never could bring myself to believe such an animal existed, but thought it might be the track of some monster Bear.

Before 1818

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.[18]

The first party came suddenly upon the animal in a deep and formerly unvisited recess, and were so alarmed at its prodigious size, (exceeding that of the largest elephant,) and at its unknown aspect, that they immediately retreated in great consternation to the encampment from which they had been dispatched.

After the sighting was first reported, a second party of traders was sent out to the same region, where enormous cloven tracks were discovered.[18] 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.

Theories

The American mastodon (Mammut americanum) painted by Zdeněk Burian.

The Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) was common on the ice age plains of what are now the United States (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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.[1] 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".[1]

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.[citation needed] 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".[31] The surgeon John Collins Warren (1778 – 1856) also believed that the tradition referred to the giant bison,[32] and others have suggested that several different supposed elephant stories could refer to giant bison and moose.[33] Some anthropologists identify the tusked, long-snouted animals as pigs, which were introduced by Europeans.[34]

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Shuker, Karl P. N. (2016) Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616463908
  2. Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
  4. Arment, Chad (2004) Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1930585157
  5. Charlevoix, Pierre François Xavier de (1744) Journal d'un Voyage Fait par Ordre du Roi dans l'Amerique Septentrionale
  6. Morgan, Lewis H. (1904) League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Strong, William Duncan "North American Traditions Suggesting a Knowledge of the Mammoth," American Anthropologist, No. 36 (1934)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Jefferson, Thomas (1785) Notes on the State of Virginia
  9. Mather, William H. (1843) Natural History of New York, Vol. 4
  10. Boyle, David "Stone Pipes," Annual Archaeological Report (1906)
  11. 11.0 11.1 Scott, William Berryman "American Elephant Myths," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1887)
  12. Beck, Horace P. "The Animal That Cannot Lie Down," Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 9 (September 1949)
  13. Dawson, John William (1889) Handbook of Geology for the Use of Canadian Students
  14. Piers, Harry "Mastodon Remains in Nova Scotia," Proceedings and Transactions of the Nova Scotia Institute of Science, No. 13 (1910)
  15. Pritchard, Evan T. (2001) No Word for Time: The Way of the Algonquin People
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Thompson, David & Tyrrell, Joseph Burr (1916) David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812
  17. Anon. "Living Mammoths," The Evening Post (17 December 1817)
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Anon. "Report of the Existence of Unknown Animal of Vast Size Among the Rocky Mountains of North America," The Scots Magazine (1 June 1818)
  19. 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
  20. Swanton, John Reed (1911) Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Howard, James H. & Le Claire, Peter "The Ponca Tribe," Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, No. 195 (1965)
  22. Piling, James Constantine (1887) Bibliography of the Siouan Languages
  23. 23.0 23.1 Muirhead, Richard (6 February 2017) Muirhead's Mysteries: Two Strange American Cryptids forteanzoology.blogspot.com [Accessed 4 June 2021]
  24. Chateaubriand, François-René de (1827) Voyage en Amérique
  25. Mason, Ronald J. (2006) Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions
  26. 26.0 26.1 Howard, James H. "Known Village Sites of the Ponca," Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 15, No. 48 (May 1970)
  27. Anon. The American Weekly Mercury (4 December 1740)
  28. Swanton, John Reed (1911) Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico
  29. Duralde, Martin & Dunbar, William "Abstract of a Communication from Mr. Martin Duralde," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 6 (1809)
  30. Cuvier, Georges (1813) Théorie de la Terre
  31. MacVeagh, Lincoln (1924) The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell 1774–1777
  32. Warren, John Collins (1852) Description of a Skeleton of the Mastodon Giganteus of North America
  33. "The Mastodon in America and the Mount Builders," The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4 (July 1887)
  34. Speck, Frank G. (1950) Midwinter Rites of the Cayuga Long House
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