Western encounters with the eastern elephant commenced with the display of its military might in the ancient era and intensified after the Crusades. Before the eighteenth century, Europeans had few opportunities to see an elephant, but they had been exposed to elephants in lore and legend and script and print for years. They could read (or hear) about King Henry III’s elephant in the thirteenth century, Pope Leo X’s elephant in the sixteenth century, and the natural histories and travel narratives of the early modern era contained ample references and images to elephants, ever the symbol of the exotic east. So by the time we get to the later eighteenth century, there was certainly enough curiosity and demand to justify the effort and expense of bringing elephants to urban areas on both sides of the Atlantic where they could be seen (in the flesh) and touched.
The man who brought the first elephant to America on April 13, 1796 (215 years ago today!) was Captain Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1805), future member of Congress and Secretary of the Navy appointee and a member of one of Salem’s most dynamic and upwardly mobile families. Within a century of their arrival in the America at the end of the seventeenth century, the German Kronenschiedt family had transformed themselves into the thoroughly American Crowninshield shipping dynasty, and they were on the verge of transforming their economic power into political and cultural influence in the new nation. Jacob was one of five Crowninshield brothers who maintained the family shipping business in the Federal era, bringing valuable international goods such as tea and pepper back to Salem. A Crowninshield ship, the Minerva, was the first Salem vessel to circumnavigate the globe in 1802. Though the Crowninshield Wharf no longer stands, three prominent Salem buildings still testify to the family’s wealth and influence in Salem’s golden era: the family’s first Salem homestead, the Crowninshield-Bentley House (1727-30) on Essex Street, the Crowninshield-Devereaux House (1806, designed by Samuel McIntire) on Salem Common, and the present day Brookhouse Home for Aged Women on Derby Street (1810-12).
By all accounts, Jacob Crowninshield looked upon the elephant as an investment, and it was a good one. After docking in New York City with the young (2 or 3 years depending on the source; she certainly grew considerably after her arrival in America) Indian elephant which had purportedly cost him $450, he sold her to a Philadelphia man named Owen for $10,000. Owen and his partners put the nameless elephant on tour, and you can follow her progress up and down the eastern seaboard through the newspapers. The first notice below is from a newspaper in Aurora, New York, while the illustrated broadside (from the Peabody Essex Museum, but available in digital form at Salem State’s Landmarks of American History website: Becoming American: Trade, Culture and Reform in Salem, Massachusetts, 1801-1861) indicates that the elephant was on display in Boston (and later Salem) in the late summer of 1797, 18 months after its arrival in America. And after Crowninshield’s elephant, a succession of elephants (Old Bet, Little Bet, Columbus) went on tour until about 1820, after which the Asian elephant was viewed as decidedly less exotic.
P.S. If you want to hear another version of the story of Crowninshield’s elephant, you can download “Captain Crowninshield” from the Philadelphia band Cheers Elephant’s cd Man is Nature.