One interesting story not many people know about the origins of paleontology involves the Founding Fathers of the United States, particularly Thomas Jefferson. The story seems to have become somewhat more well-known, however, as I’ve recently come across several children’s books about this moment in history.
While browsing social media recently, I discovered a comic book called Founding Monsters that explores this subject in comic book form. Noting my interest in it, author Dr. Bernard Means offered to send me a copy, which I gladly accepted. Coauthored with and illustrated by Maggie Colangelo, it primarily tells the story of the search for the American Mastodon. Somewhat uniquely, while Jefferson of course necessarily plays a big part, the authors place much of their attention on the part Charles Wilson Peale played, who often gets overshadowed in other retellings of this story. The illustrations are entertaining and bring a sense of levity to the story that keeps it energetic and entertaining throughout. Characters often react in exaggerated ways that no doubt reflects how they felt in their heads, restrained in real life only by their sense of polite society.
Incensed by the Count de Buffon’s dismissal of America’s natural history as indicative of a “degenerate” continent, Jefferson and other scientifically-inclined Founding Fathers endeavored to prove him wrong by showing off impressive fauna unique to the New World (though James Madison evidently got a little lost in the weeds by comparing the measurements of weasel species between the two continents). While a hunting party failed to present Jefferson with a moose in presentable condition, fossils that had made their way to Jefferson seemed more promising. He struck up a partnership with Charles Peale, who did most of the fieldwork and fossil preparation as Jefferson had his hands full with more… historical matters.
Peale proved a careful and dedicated preparator, devising a man-powered water wheel to drain the excavation pit when it flooded, and meticulously reconstructing the bones which he displayed in on of America’s first museums. In an interesting parallel to the famous Crystal Palace Iguanodon dinner (still decades away at this point), Peale even held a dinner party beneath the mastodon’s massive ribcage, which I had personally never heard about before reading this book.
I must commend the authors for making sure to shine an appropriate spotlight on the contributions of enslaved people who were otherwise denied the opportunity for further involvement. In the opening scenes, we see anonymous Africans helping to correctly identify some mystery teeth as belonging to something more like an elephant than a humanoid giant.
When we later move to Peale’s workshop, the contribution of their slave Moses Williams is noted as well. He helped to sculpt replacement bones which could not be located in the original digsite, as well as with assembly of the finished mount. As revealed in a supplemental packet, he managed to earn enough money drawing silhouette portraits at Peale’s museum that he was able to buy a house for himself and his wife, though we don’t find out if he eventually attained his freedom or not.
Speaking of which, the Founding Monsters Tales packet includes extra details not included in the main Founding Monsters comic book. Here readers can learn about the differences between mammoths and mastodons (which were not fully sussed out at this point in history, meaning historical documents often refer to Jefferson & Peale’s mastodon as a “mammoth”), as well as Jefferson’s curious instructions to Lewis & Clark as they set off on their expedition. In addition to mistaking the bones of the ground sloth Megalonyx for an elephant-sized lion, Jefferson also developed the curious belief that God would never let an entire species go extinct, and thus that living mastodons & Megalonyx must lie in wait for Lewis & Clark to discover somewhere out in the unexplored West. None were of course ever found, but it must have been a romantic notion while it lasted.
Founding Monsters makes for an entertaining read, especially for anyone who has not heard about this curious little corner of American history. I imagine it would make a great addition to curricula covering the early days of the United States. While I personally received a physical copy, the main book as well as the Founding Monsters Tales supplement are available to download for free from their webpage, so there’s no reason not to check them out!