April 13 – First Elephant Arrives in the U.S.!

Posted on April 13, 2014

It's amazing to think how lucky we are, these days, to not only see so many sights from all over the world via TV and movies and the internet, but also to actually be able to visit far-away places—getting there quite quickly in an airplane—and even to see creatures from everywhere RIGHT WHERE WE LIVE!

There is a large, excellent zoo less than an hour's drive from me, and I have been able to enjoy seeing koalas and giraffes, chimpanzees and elephants since I was a baby—and I'm pretty old! But you surely realize that some people live very far away from the nearest zoo and have never been able to go to one...and of course most people who lived long, long ago never got to see exotic animals, either!

This is a picture of the ship
that brought the first
elephant to the U.S.
Imagine the excitement of the people of New York way back on this date in 1796, when they heard that an Indian elephant had arrived by ship from Calcutta, India. I wonder how many people had already seen pictures of elephants? Perhaps some had seen elephant-head trophies? Some may have never seen pictures or trophies, but had just heard about pachyderms' huge size and odd trunks. I wonder how many had never even heard of elephants before?

At any rate, soon after its arrival the Indian elephant was placed on display on a street corner in New York City. The captain who had invested his own money to bring the two-year-old elephant to the U.S.—a man named Captain Jacob Crowninshield—made a wise investment, it turns out. He spent $450 on purchasing the creature and getting it to the U.S., and he very soon sold it for a whopping $10,000!

According to newspaper stories and advertisements, the elephant was so new, so exciting, that people spent money to see just it, alone. No circus, no zoo, no tricks, even—just one elephant standing around on exhibit! People in some towns spent 50 cents per person to see the elephant—and in other towns they only had to cough up 25 cents to see the elephant. The elephant seems to have toured the east coast of the new nation for years and years—maybe until a July exhibition in 1818.

I got to wondering how the elephant got from town to town back then. There were no railroad tracks criss-crossing the country! I read that another early elephant (Old Bet) was led from one town to the next on foot during the night. Why during the night? Of course, the owner didn't want people to be able to see the elephant for free!

Weirdly enough, America's first elephant was apparently never given a name. Well, perhaps the elephant's handlers called it something, but we have no record of the name. In articles and ads it was just called “the elephant.” It was sometimes referred to as “he,” and other times as “she.” The best info seems to be that the elephant was female.
This is a record by the rock band "Cheers
Elephant," who were inspired by America's
first elephant. They included a song called
"Captain Crowninshield"!

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