About the SA Blog Network

History of Geology

History of Geology

What rocks tell and how we came to understand it
History of Geology Home

Thomas Jefferson’s Patriotic Monsters

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

In the late 18th century earth-sciences experienced a revolution. The principles of modern rock classification were introduced and sediments subdivided by the content of embedded fossils. Animals of the past apparently differed from modern ones in their abundance, diversity, shape and some organisms were completely unknown to contemporary scholars. This observations had at first an interesting implication. If these organisms are today unknown, are they surviving in remote regions of the globe and yet not discovered ?

Classic monsters similar to fossil beasts, like the sea serpents of America , were spotted and depicted in books for centuries, but European naturalists now considered such stories as “Yankee Humbug” and in 1812 eminent French zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) proclaimed that there was little hope to discover new species of large tetrapods.

…we hope that nobody thinks to search them for real, it would be like searching the animals of Daniel or the beasts of the apocalypse. Let us not even search for the mythical animals of the Persians, results of an even greater imagination.

In 1796 eminent president of the American Philosophical Society and naturalist Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) studied some fossil bones and a giant claw discovered during mining activities in a cave. March 10, 1797 he presented the preliminary results to the Philosophical Society under the title “A Memoir on the Discovery of Certain Bones of a Quadruped of the Clawed Kind in the Western Parts of Virginia” and concluded that these remains belong to a giant felid ” three times as large as the lion” which he named “Megalonyx” (the great claw).

Fig.1. Engraving of the bones and claw of Megalonyx, as published in a paper by Caspar Wistar “A description of the Bones deposited by the President, in the Museum of the Society, and represented in the annexed plates” (1799).  Jefferson’s Megalonyx paper, which had no illustrations of the bones, was published in the same volume. Jefferson later recognized that the bones and claw he had attributed to his large cat Megalonyx were comparable to these of another  animal, described in 1796 by Cuvier as Megatherium (image in public domain).

Jefferson believed that in nature no species could go extinct, so he concludes in his report:

In the present interior of our continent there is surely space and range enough for elephants and lions, if in that climate they could subsist; and for the mammoth and megalonyxes who may subsist there. Our entire ignorance of the immense country to the West and North-West, and of its contents, does not authorise us so say what is does not contain.

Jefferson based this conclusion not only on the bones but in part also on anecdotes of trappers (supposedly) terrorized by a large cat-like animal in the wilderness and the presumed depiction of lions in Indian rock paintings (possibly the American lion Panthera atrox ?).

However the most important argument for Jefferson was a theological one: if a species can become extinct in a perfect divine creation such a creation can’t possibly be so perfect at all. Also the continuous loss of species would inevitably lead to the end of this imperfect creation.

The movements of nature are in a never ending circle. The animal species which has once been put into a train of motion, is still probably moving in that train. For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another and another might be lost, till this whole system of things should be evanish by piece-meal; a conclusion not warranted by the local disappearance of one or two species of animals, and opposed by the thousands and thousands of instances of the renovating power constantly exercised by nature for the reproduction of all her subjects, animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Jefferson was also politically motivated to support the existence of large, ferocious and hidden animals in the future United States of America.

Eminent France naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) proposed a theory to explain the worldwide distribution of animal species: from environmental optimal centers species would spread all over the globe, however degenerating in areas with less favorable climate or environment – and according to Buffon the fauna of America was an perfect example of such a degenerated primordial European and African fauna.

This worldview not only offended a proud patriot like Jefferson on a  personal level, but also seriously compromised the U.S. foreign policy. The U.S.  needed the political and financial support of France during the Revolutionary Wars (1775-1783), Buffon was however popularizing the perception that “America is an excessively cold and humid continent where big animals cannot survive, domestic animals become scrawny, and men become stupid and lose their sexual vigor” (ROWLAND 2009).

In spring 1785 Jefferson published anonymous his “Notes on the State of Virginia“, where he discuss naturalistic and also political facts of this state. In various lists he compares the mammals of the new continent to the mammals of the old continent, concluding that the body mass and diversity of American animals was far superior then depicted by Buffon. He also reaffirmed his view on the impossibility of extinction:

The bones of the Mammoth which have been found in America, are as large as those found in the old world. It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?

Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken. To add to this, the traditionary testimony of the Indians, that this animal still exists in the northern and western parts of America, would be adding the light of a taper to that of the meridian sun. Those parts still remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed by us, or by others for us. He may as well exist there now, as he did formerly where we find his bones.

What a triumph would be the display of a living Mammoth or Megalonyx at the White House? So in 1803 Jefferson organized the famous Lewis and Clark expedition; apart political important tasks, like the geographical exploration of Louisiana and the search for a navigable passage to the Pacific, this expedition could also dig for fossils and eventually search for the supposed unknown large tetrapods native to North America. Unfortunately such beasts were never caught alive


ROWLAND, S.M. (2009): Thomas Jefferson, extinction, and the evolving view of Earth history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In ROSENBERG, G.D., ed., The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Geological Society of America Memoir 203: 225-246

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 6 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. SJCrum 6:46 pm 05/15/2014

    Darn, that silk worm thing was reeeeally fun. For the information, the reason male silk worms make their silky webs is because their despicably ornery selves are using them to capture a female. Duh-uh! So, that is why the male dorks make them in far more quantity.
    So, why do you think the females make them at all? To catch a totally unromantic dork of a male? NOPE.
    By the way, if the also clueless ones, which are likely males also, finally have a group of clueless male silkworms living temporarily on their own and therefore making a gold mine in the silkworm world of silk, the end result is no more females to catch for the purpose of having lusciously yummy sex with the, DUH-UH!, females who just ain’t there no more. Thus, males who just ain’t gonna’ make anymore webs also.
    So, they think they can do it all without the lusciously yummy females, huh? YEAAAAHH RIIIIIIIIIIGHT! Well, that ain’t exactly the first time a totally clueless idiotic male thing has ever occurred in the entire universe.

    Link to this
  2. 2. SJCrum 6:59 pm 05/15/2014

    Duh-uh to me, I forgot to tell you why the female silk worm makes her smaller web.
    That is because females have more of the feelings in them to make a home and life for both of them. And, because of this natural intelligence of what is truly essential in life, the female silk worm makes her smaller version for the purpose of teaching the male what his totally, other-wise dorky self wouldn’t be able to figure out on his own. NO KIDDING.
    So, in the world of totally-out-of-this-world of total success in the silk worm trade of silk, if they get rid of the female worms the clueless dork males will just sit there looking like the totally clueless jerks they are. As in, “Duh, what’s a web?” And, a female who isn’t there anymore would also say, sarcastically, “Who woulda’ guessed?”
    My gosh, talk about a baby boom in the silk industry.

    Link to this
  3. 3. SJCrum 7:24 pm 05/15/2014

    As for why the Mexican skeleton had a different type of skull than native Americans, it isn’t from a Siberian connection at all, and is something else.
    For the history that was involved, the area of Central America that was involved in the was related to the extremely hot heat event that killed the dinosaurs. Everyone that survived during that time, and in that extremely bad area, fled northward to escape all of the heat. When the heat dissipated finally after forty continuous days, some came back, but far more stayed in the north to avoid such a thing again.
    And, people didn’t come across the land bridge from Siberia, but instead road on the moving masses of the future Americas. And, even these were as far north and south as they could get to survive.
    As for the difference in the young female’s skull and other native Americans, that occurred because she had an ancestor that was far younger than a fully developed female, and her skeletal structure wasn’t increased to its totally mature size.
    And therefore, the genetic pattern that was passed on to offspring had a smaller skull. Also other smaller body parts as well.

    Link to this
  4. 4. SJCrum 7:47 pm 05/15/2014

    As far as carbon monoxide in elephant seals being too high, the basic situation with CO2, carbon monoxide, is that the red blood cells that normally transport oxygen from the lungs to all body locations where cell growth is occurring, if a carbon monoxide molecule is bonded to the carry part of the blood cell, that totally prevents an oxygen atom to bond all alone. So, heavy smokers have far less pure oxygen and lots of the carbon mix instead.
    As for the elephant seals, they intake oxygen in the same way through their lungs, and if there is too much carbon monoxide in the air, they have that problem also.
    So, the real issue is why do they have too much of the wrong air to breathe? Actually, it is not from the air, but another source instead. So, duh-uh to me again.
    Oooookay, this time we will see if I get it anywhere near to being right. Yeah, riiight.
    So, the furry huge beasts breathe in the good oxygen, which should be totally plentiful in the wild great outdoors. Duh-uh to me again because of that OBVIOUS fact.
    So, the critters get it from, … tada! …., gaseous clams, right? nope. Okay, what, extremely enlightened angel-like female? She says, no, she isn’t looking it up in a book about any critters at all. Okay, so the CO gas comes from right where you would think it comes from. She is being extremely ornery right now, and because I don’t have the foggiest idea at all of where that might be.
    The gas comes from their itty bitty tummies. She said that, not me.
    Okay, they eat something that causes that, huh? YEP. Fish? Nope. Something with carbon in it, right? Nope.
    Something that has CO in it? Yep. Okay, since I was running out of time, she finally clued me in. They eat fish that is dead and then has decaying gas in it.
    So, that is the science involved. They actually breathe the belching gas that comes from their stomachs.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Postman1 10:16 pm 05/15/2014

    SJCrum, seriously, guy, check your meds.

    Link to this
  6. 6. SJCrum 4:18 pm 05/16/2014

    Postman1 – You truly do not understand science fact that is factually above world-class physics and other areas of science, huh? I’ll tell you what. You get any of the greatest science minds in the ENTIRE WORLD, and then see if they can keep up with me as far as TRUTHFULLY CORRECT world class science, AND in any science type you, or anyone else, can think of. Try to do better than voodoo.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article