The Crowninshield Elephant

The surprising story of Old Bet, the first elephant ever to be brought to America

OLD BET in Boston, 1797. Visitors were advised not to go near her with valuable papers, because she had destroyed many of them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his introductory note to The Scarlet Letter, wrote: “Here on the granite steps of the Custom House in Salem, Massachusetts, you may greet the sea-flushed ship master just in port with his vessel’s papers under his arm in a tarnished tin box.” When he wrote this he may have been thinking of his own ancestors, who for over a hundred years had braved the salt spray and gales on ships that sailed the high seas to India and the Orient to bring back precious perfumes, spices, silks, tea, ivory, and other rare products.

From the pages of one of these old logbooks, as well as from sea captains’ letters that have lain forgotten for more than a century and a half in the archives of the Essex Institute, comes an interesting story that was front-page news in its day. This story definitely fixes the date when the first living elephant set foot on American soil. It was on April 13, 1796, and the port was New York. It is the story of an enterprising sea captain who had something of the spirit of the great P. T. Barnum beneath his rugged exterior.


The logbook, now faded and stained with brine, was written in the handwriting of one Nathaniel Hathorne, the father of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author, who later added the “w” to the family name. He must have been an officer on board the Private Armed Ship America.

The captain of the ship America, was Jacob Crowninshield, who came from a family of shippers that ran the firm of George Crowninshield and Sons of Salem. There were five brothers, all in command of ships in trade with India about this time.

The America set sail from Calcutta for New York on December 3, 1795. Nothing of interest appears in Nathaniel Hathorne’s Logbook until Wednesday, February 17, 1796, at St. Helena. “This day begins with moderate breezes . . . latter part employed in landing 23 sacks of coffee . . . took on board several pumpkins and cabbages, some fresh fish for ship’s use, and greens for the elephant.” Below is written in large letters “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.” On February 24, the America stopped at the island of Ascension, where the men got several turtles and saw a large sea lion. The last page in the Log records the sighting of Long Island at 7:00 p.m. on April 11. From the times and distances, it can be estimated that the elephant must have been landed in New York on April 13, 1796.

THE STATUE OF OLD BET erected by Hackaliah Bailey of Barnum and Bailey fame. It still stands atop its column near the Elephant Hotel at Somers, New York.

The voyage had been a remarkably calm one. Except for a few squalls, no storms were recorded. The next important information we have concerning the elephant seems to be a clipping from a New York paper dated April, 1796. It reads: “The Ship America, Captain Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, Massachusetts, Commander and owner, has brought home an elephant from Bengal in perfect health. It is the first ever seen in America and is a great curiosity. It is a female, two years old.”

From a pile of letters, sea journals, and charts that have lain securely ensconced in an old sea chest of John C. Crowninshield for well over a century, we can learn something of the human side of the venture. Jacob Crowninshield writing in India to his brothers John and George in command of the Belisarius on the way to India on November 2, 1795, says: “We take home a fine young elephant two years old, at $450.00. It is almost as large as a very large ox, and I dare say we shall get it home safe, if so it will bring at least $5000.00. We shall at first be obliged to keep it in the southern states until it becomes hardened to the climate.

“I suppose you will laugh at this scheme, but I do not mind that, will turn elephant driver. We have plenty of water at the Cape and St. Helena. This was my plan. Ben did not come into it, so if it succeeds, I ought to have the whole credit and honor too; of course you know it will be a great thing to carry the first elephant to America.”

The fact that the America was the ship that brought the first elephant to the United States is corroborated in “An Account of the Private Armed Ship America of Salem by B. B. Crowninshield,” also in the Historical Collection of the Essex Institute. This record states that the ship arrived from Calcutta at New York in April, 1797, and mentions that the animal sold for $10,000. He had the facts right except that the year should have been 1796.

Various writers on early American events fail to agree on the date of the landing of the first elephant in America. They put it all the way from 1776 to 1833. Much of the confusion seems to be due to the fact that there have been many ships named America. The one that carried the elephant was a French vessel bought for Elias Hasket Derby at the Isle of France by Jacob Crowninshield in 1794. She was insured in March, 1795, and was taken over by Jacob and Benjamen Crowninshield, who immediately sailed for Calcutta. She returned to New York April 13, 1796, and was sold in the early summer.

A summary of the travels of the elephant can be traced through newspaper reports and public notices. The first account [is] in The Argus and Green Leaf Advertiser, which on April 23, 1796, and in many succeeding issues advertised the first elephant as being on exhibition in New York at the corner of Beaver Street and Broadway. The next record is from a handbill dated August 18, 1797, advertising the exhibition of the elephant at Boston. On September 5, 1797, the Salem Gazette states that, “The elephant will leave town in two days and go to Marblehead for three days.” On September 12, the Gazette carried this announcement: “The elephant will be exhibited in Beverly at the new house opposite Captain Goodridge’s.”

The elephant appears to have been taken south about this time for the winter, and according to harbor reports was brought north to Philadelphia in April, 1798. (This entry evidently misled a writer in the Chicago Inter-Ocean in October, 1895, who claimed this date for the arrival of the first elephant in America.) Mr. E. Savage, one of America’s earliest showmen, exhibited the elephant in Boston on June 25, 1804, and on July 3 it was again in Salem and on view at the Sun Tavern.

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