This edited chapter from Lee Alan Dugatkin's book Behind the Crimson Curtain: The Rise and Fall of Peale’s Museum is also the topic of a This View of Life Podcast episode. Listen: Spotify - Google - Apple - Stitcher

Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, arguably the first true museum in the United States, opened its doors in 1786. It was an Enlightenment temple of sorts and a gem of the new republic. In time, it would grow exponentially, eventually taking residence in Independence Hall, one floor above where the Declaration of Independence was signed and right below where (what we now call) the Liberty Bell rang each day.

By the early 1800s, Peale’s museum housed 100,000 plus natural history, ethnographic, mineralogical, and mechanical items, often exhibited under portraits of Washington, Franklin, Paine, Lafayette, and more, many painted by Peale himself. Lectures and live experiments in chemistry and electricity were soon added on, sometimes accompanied by music. There was also a small menagerie behind the museum with red doves, eagles, baboons, mongooses, and hyenas for the interested museum visitor. Annual attendance in the early years is estimated to have been as high as 12,000.

Thomas Jefferson knew well there was no place quite like his good friend Peale’s Philadelphia Museum. In 1807, when President Jefferson was looking for the perfect spot to send his fifteen-year-old grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, for the finest Enlightenment education available, he turned to Peale and asked if the young man could board with him and have his educational curriculum guided by all that Peale had to offer. What better place to have his grandson, Jefferson, than living in Peale’s museum. It was not without cause, after all, that after visiting the museum once, the Comte de Volney proclaimed it, “the temple of God. Nothing but truth and reason.”

The museum had many missions, but for Peale, the most important was for it “to be beneficial, curious or entertaining to the citizens of the new world.” He thought such a place should ultimately become a national museum. But that was not to be. Some six decades after it opened, Peale’s museum was gobbled up P.T. Barnum.

Though Peale’s Philadelphia Museum closed its doors a good decade before On The Origin of Species hit the stands and changed everything, the goings-on at and around the museum are worth the modern evolutionary biologist taking note of. For one thing, Peale’s museum was the first in the world to organize its exhibits using the Linnean system. Peale devoured Linnaeus’s works: when advertising his museum, he rarely failed to inform the reader that it was organized along Linnaean principles. He was in awe of the famed Swedish naturalist: “Linnaeus stands before me shrouded in splendor,” Peale wrote in a document called Natural History and the Museum. “That great and good man was beloved and honored by all civilized natures; he opened the book of nature to a wondering world.” So enamored was Peale with Linnaeus, that though he usually named his sons after artists—Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, and Raphaelle—one he named Charles Linnaeus Peale (usually called Linn).

The Philadelphia Museum was pre-Darwinian, but it was not pre-Lamarckian. Peale’s connection to Lamarck came about because Charles had collaborated with Palisot de Beauvois, a Frenchman who was visiting the United States, on a scientific catalog for the museum. When de Beauvois was back in Paris, Peale used him as a conduit to let the people at The Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle know that he was interested in an exchange of natural history material. Soon a reply came from the two most powerful men at the museum, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a disciple of Buffon’s who was now director, and his colleague Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Professor, Secretary of Administration for the museum, and a scientist who made major contributions to the field of comparative anatomy. “We are pleased to seize an opportunity which can afford us some communication with a naturalist of your merit,” Peale read in their reply. “We shall send you with pleasure and care a collection of the European productions in exchange for the American (productions) which your love for the science of nature impels you to collect, be so kind as to correspond with us on this subject.” Lamarck and Saint-Hilaire told Peale they would be delighted to receive mammoth fossils, an opossum, a bear, roe-buck, weasel, bat, and beaver specimens, adding that “as to great animals ... we would be satisfied with the skins but for God’s sake leave to the skin the skull and bones of the feet.”1

Delighted at this turn of events, he wrote back. Peale told his new colleagues he would be sending them many samples from his museum, including a live opossum, black snake, raccoon, hawk and bald-headed eagle, and a copy of his son Titian’s Drawings of American Insects. “In short,” Peale told his new colleagues, “I will send specimens of every kind of animal of this country which I can procure in duplicate … so that I hope to be able to afford you ample matter for researches into natural history and a comparative view of the production of the New and Old World.”2 True, Peale never talked with Lamarck about his ideas on transformation and evolution nor with Saint-Hilaire about his thoughts on comparative anatomy per se, but this set the museum on the world stage and is evidence that Peale was working with the very best scientists.

With the central role that paleontology would come to play in evolutionary biology, it is remarkable that most evolutionary biologists are unaware that Peale and his museum organized the first true paleontology expedition in the United States.

In September of 1800, Peale read a pair of letters, reprinted in the Medical Repository Journal. They described a trove of what were called mammoth bones (they were actually mastodon bones, but for decades Peale referred to them as mammoth bones, and so I will here as well) found in a marl pit on John Masten’s land, a few miles west of Newburgh, New York. All the bones were laid out on the floor of Masten’s granary. Newspapers were soon running tantalizing headlines like Bones of a Mammoth or some other Wonderful Animal, regaling readers about “a monster so vastly disproportionate to every creature; as to induce a momentary suspension of every animal faculty but admiration and wonder … a fearful figure—his head extended to the summit of an ordinary tree, he could seize his prey if sheltered among its branches.”3

In the Medical Repository Journal letters Peale read “there were now prospects of procuring the whole of the skeleton … nothing but want of exertions, or means to defray expense, will hinder the whole of them from being procured.” Who better than he, Peale reasoned, to procure and piece together the mammoth for the first time ever? It would be an over-the-top specimen, that would enlighten museum visitors and also serve to generate ticket sales for the museum’s coffers.

On the morning of June 5, 1801, Peale boarded a stagecoach from Philadelphia to New York City to examine what was and wasn’t at Masten’s farm, what was and was not for sale, and how feasible future digs would be. When he got there, before him, on the granary floor of the Masten farm, Peale cast his eyes on the parts of the head, neck, legs of a mammoth. Excited at what sat before him, he went to scouting sites at the Masten farm for future digs. The pits there had been dug by Masten to gather marl, a lime-rich calcium carbonate clay that was used as a fertilizer. Marlstone also happens to be especially conducive to the process of fossilization, not that Masten knew that or would have cared had he known. Many of the pits Peale found were twelve feet deep and full of water, and Peale wrote his friend President Jefferson of the “Herculean task to explore the bottom where the remainder of the bones are supposed to lay.”4

In late July Peale found himself again on a stagecoach en route to Masten’s farm for a full-fledged paleontological expedition, this time accompanied by his son Rembrandt and James Woodhouse, a chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He worked with a carpenter on building a device for emptying the marl pits from sketches that Peale drew and together they constructed a giant wheel, 20 feet in diameter, supported by a pyramidal truss system. The wheel had a pulley system with 1.5-gallon buckets connected by chains to siphon the pits and was powered by the efforts of three people, who walked inside the wheel. The wheel walkers were paid about $1.00 per day plus a measure of grog. Other workers Peale hired emptied the buckets into the trough and gathered bones in the pit when such were uncovered.

Soon mammoth bones were being raised from the pit They dug up a leg bone, foot bones, a tusk, a partial sternum, and parts of grinders (teeth). When it seemed that not much would come from Masten’s pit Peale moved the operation eleven miles west, and slightly north to the farm of a Captain Barber, where a few mammoth ribs had been found in marl pits there a few years earlier. The first hit at Barber’s was a toe bone. Eventually, Peale’s crew dug up forty-three-foot bones, ten tail bones, numerous vertebrae, a scapular (shoulder) bone, and then a matching tusk to that found earlier at Masten’s farm. Soon diminishing returns led Peale to explore a third marl pit, eight miles due west, on the farm of Peter Millspaw, who had recently dug up a few bones of his own. There he found a skull top that would help fill in some holes on the facial structure. Then when they were about to call it quits, a worker called Rembrandt over when he came upon something that felt like a large bone. Exploration of the area uncovered a humerus, scapula and then the much sought after lower jaw that would finish the skull. “The woods echoed with repeated huzzas, Gracious God, what a jaw!” wrote Rembrandt in A Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth, a Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal, Whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America. “How many animals have been crushed between it!’ was the exclamation of all, a fresh supply of grog went round, and the hearty fellows, covered with mud, continued the search.”5

Once back in his museum, Peale realized he had enough bones to construct not one, but two, mammoth skeletons, “filling up the deficiencies in each by artificial imitations from the other, and from counterparts in themselves.” As for skeptics, Rembrandt made it clear this was no speculative folly: “nothing is imaginary, and what we do not unquestionably know, we leave deficient; which happens in only two instances, the summit of the head and the end of the tail.”6 The reconstruction was near perfect, though later the Peales realized that they should have gone with their first instinct, and placed the tusks pointing up, rather than down.

One skeleton, nearly twelve feet tall at the shoulder, nine feet tall at the hip, and nineteen and a half feet from tusk to tail, was ready to be displayed at the museum in late December 1801. Peale decided to have a celebrity preview to generate excitement before the exhibit opened to the public, and inviting members of the American Philosophical Society to a Christmas Eve dinner for the unveiling, and placing that invitation in plain view in The Aurora newspaper.

The mammoth room was opened to the public on Christmas day.

Peale advertised the new exhibit in many newspapers, but it was in “Skeleton of the Mammoth,” the most extraordinary broadside the museum ever produced, that he captured just how important a display this was: “Of this animal, it is said the following is a tradition, as delivered in the very terms of a Shawnee Indian: ‘Ten thousand moons ago, when naught but gloomy forests covered this land of the sleeping sun, long before the pale man … a race of animals were in being, huge as the frowning precipice, cruel as the bloody panther, swift as the descending eagle and terrible as the Angel of Night. The pines crashed beneath their feet; and the lake shrunk when they slaked their thirst.’” The legend, the broadside suggested, was for all intents and purposes, true, and while “numerous have been the attempts of scientific characters of all nations to procure a satisfactory collection of bones,” Peale wrote, he had at last “accomplished this great object.” This spectacular beast the broadside made clear, was at the waiting at the museum every day and every evening except Sunday. If that was not enough to whet the appetite of a public hungry for rational entertainment, Peale had one of his team distribute the broadside throughout the city while on horseback wearing “feathered dress” and preceded by a trumpeter.

Word spread quickly. “In another century the proofs of the existence of such an animal as the mammoth would have been totally lost,” The Aurora wrote. “The skeptical part of mankind would have then called in question even the truth … Thanks to the indefatigable exertions of Mr. Peale, who at an expense of 2000 dollars has, as it were, embodied the truth, brought to light, that which had lain in obscurity for ten thousand moons, and would have puzzled the naturalist for ten thousand to come.”7 All over the country the public was going mammoth mad. Soon there was talk of mammoth squashes, mammoth radishes, mammoth peaches, and mammoth loaves of bread.

Engravings of the skeleton were hung on the walls of the room housing the mammoth, and shortly thereafter had an information packet of sorts, Rembrandt’s A Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth, displayed in 92 gilded frames, was placed on those same walls. Though Rembrandt did not rule out humans as the cause, he thought it more likely “they must have been destroyed by some sudden and powerful cause; and nothing appears more probable than one of those deluges, or sudden irruptions of the sea which have left their traces (such as shells, corals, etc.) in every part of the globe.” Whatever the exact cause, Rembrandt felt “forced to submit to concurring facts … (the) bones exist: the animals do not.”

Peale had been gestating the idea of an international tour of the second mammoth he had reconstructed as a statement that the museum was a major player on the world stage. Along with his sons, Rembrandt and Rubens, that mammoth toured London and Reading England but never drew the crowds like those of its doppelganger that remained at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia.


For more on Peale’s museum, see Dr. Dugatkin’s 2020 book, Behind the Crimson Curtain: The Rise and Fall of Peale's Museum (Butler Books).


[1] Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to C.W. Peale, January 30, 1796.

[2] C.W. Peale to Saint-Hilaire, April 30, 1797.

[3] Mercantile Advertiser, October 14, 1800.

[4] C.W. Peale to Jefferson, June 29, 1801

[5] Rembrandt Peale. 1803. A Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth: a Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal, Whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America. Printed by E. Lawrence. This was originally published a year earlier as Account of the Skelton of the Mammoth: A Non-descript Carnivourous Animal of Immense Size Found in America. Printed by E. Lawrence.

[6] Rembrandt Peale, 1802.

[7] Aurora, January 9, 1802.