Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mastodons, Arrowheads, and Caves

I.

The exhumed mastodon housed at Smith’s Clove Museum Village has fascinated me from an early age. This collection of structures on the road to the Village of Monroe was one of the first museums I ever visited. I can remember not only stopping there but frequently driving by and seeing all that I could see from the back car seat on frequent trips to the family dentist in the downtown.

I also remember a field trip from Park Avenue Elementary School in 1971 or thereabouts when I first saw that reconstructed mastodon sporting what still looks like a shiny coat of amber-colored shellac, and I guess that was probably the first fossilized pre-historic remains I ever saw in person. Another school trip introduced me to the American Museum of Natural History’s “thunder lizards” which was a really big event among all my childhood memories.

That New York City field trip in retrospect had a killer itinerary with a stop at Battery Park, a ferry to Liberty Island, and assent of those narrow little steps inside Miss Liberty to her crown, which I may add was before the major renovations that took place for her one hundredth anniversary in the next decade. I think that we may have driven in the bus up to the Bronx to get a fleeting view of Grant’s Tomb as well. For those who were there, I might remind them that this was the trip that came to a conclusion with our classmate Kenny Filopowski missing the return ferry from Liberty Island back to Battery Park after being warned like all of us repeatedly to “stay with the group, and not wander off.” The principal, Mr Decatur, if memory serves me correctly, had to go back by ferry to get Kenny, and no one wished that upon anyone.

The fact that I still have the “How and Why” book entitled Dinosaurs that I bought that day attests to that trip's importance to me, but I better get back to the mastodons that I began this memory with. As many of you know, mastodons are buried all over Orange, Dutchess, Ulster and other nearby counties. A mastodon was unearthed by some homeowner recently around Newburgh, and as I recall there was quite a brouhaha over who legally owned this treasure, the State or the property owner. Newburgh was the site of the first full mastodon skeleton unearthed in America by none other than the American artist Charles Willson Peale, and there is a well-known painting by the artist of that event entitled Exhumation of the Mastodon (1805-08). This was one of several self-portraits which Peale did depicting that same mastodon as its subject matter; he was very proud of that discovery.

Seemingly, mastodons were being kicked up all the time around Orange County during my childhood, for there seemed to be frequent stories about fossilized limbs being unearthed in the Dispatch, the Advertiser, and the Times Herald Record during the 70s. These pre-history remains were unlike the countless hieratic rock deposits that have been both appreciated at times for their beauty and cursed for their impediments to agriculture and construction by many a local in the area. These "rocks" usually found a place next to another of their kind on a wall surrounding a farmer’s field, or simply left alone if they were too big to eventually be hidden by plant life; the Pulpit Rock on West Street Extension has always been my favorite because it just seems so out of place. These mastodon finds measured right up there on the sensational scale with the unearthing of some hoard of silver or gold coins, and the fact that I can name a few reconstructed examples in the area, including the one housed in the Science Building at OCCC in Middletown and the one mentioned above at Museum Village, evidence that there was often an effort to preserve, reconstruct, and display the whole ones when they were found.

Paradoxically, human remains haven’t always fared as well, especially when it came to the unearthing of Native American burial grounds. I remember in the sixth grade (circa 1974) one of my friends, who lived on South Street Extension in Warwick, claimed that he had witnessed, along with some other kids from the housing development, the unearthing of a circular grouping of skeletal remains where new construction had been underway. This would be about where the parsonage for the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is currently located. New foundations were being dug, and the bulldozer revealed these five or six skeletal masses that were seated with their backs hunched and their heads lowered to their knees. In the middle of the circle of bodies was a charred patch, which seemed to be the remains of a campfire. My friend and some others were told to “get out” by the workmen, and the remains were subsequently bulldozed under that afternoon.

This story has stayed with me, and a few years ago I related it to Jack Webster of Pine Island over hours of conversation at a wedding party. Jack and his father before him ran a feed business in the area, and the barn housing both the business and a large collection of Native American artifacts, tools, and other material culture accrued by his father and him had recently perished in a fire (2004). Mr. Webster is quite knowledgeable of local history, including the Native Americans who once had a very large settlement right where the housing development went up on South Street Extension (many are undoubtedly familiar with the New Deal era historical marker at the beginning of South Street Extension, across from what was the Jug-a-Milk and Larry II’s and that documents the meeting of the "Chouckhass" with settlers and the subsequent Waywayanda Land Patent of the early 18th century (my 1846/7 copy of Samuel W. Eager's An Outline History of Orange County... identifies the "Rapingonick, Wawastanaw, Moghupuck, Comelawaw, Nanawitt, Ariwimack, Rumbout, Clauses...Chingapaw, Oshasquemonus, and Quilapaw" in addition to the "Chouckhass" as local inhabitants and the signers of the "Minisink Patent" (18)) Mr. Webster said that what I described was very likely true; that such a burial was not unprecedented in that place and in that manner.

I visited a number of sites that were commonly known as places where local tribes had once frequented, including the overhang at Awosting; that came as a result of seeing a photo of it in the green wrappered Warwick Valley Historical Society publications of either 1933 or 1950. I believe it was in there ? (my grandmother had copies of these, and I went through them frequently, but haven't seen them in 30 years). Another site was known to me through the reminiscences of my father and many uncles, and it was known as the "Seven Rooms Cave." I am not sure that there has been verification that this natural wonder had once been inhabited by Native Americans. One story claimed that there were diamonds to be found in the dark, deep, and very wet recesses of that cave. That was obviously childhood myth which inspired many a trespasser, but I was intrigued by the stories and sought it out for myself in the fall of 1977. I walked up past the hospital to the end of the village sidewalk by the Sanford Farm and made my way across the field to the right with only an inclination of where it was. I eventually found it.

Although I was all of a hundred pounds back then it was a tight squeeze in one of the rock openings. I crawled until my whole body was a few feet in; it was extremely cramped in there. I imagined that water had deposited a lot of sediment in there since the 40s and 50s when my father and uncles would have crawled in there. I had my 1930s Ansco Shur-Shot Jr. with me, a box camera that I could still get film for at Akins, and these are the resulting photos from that day. In recent years, I've heard that the cave has been sealed with mortar to keep tresspassers like myself out. I realize the safety concerns, and, of course, the resulting litigation that puts a damper on so much old-fashioned fun and adventure, but it seems permanently sealing such a thing is yet another instance of erasing history just like the bulldozer did on South Street Extension.

Sometimes that same friend, with the story about the Indian burial site, and I would walk to the end of his housing development into the woods and pick up Black Rock Creek. Rainbow trout could be had in the deep rocky pools of that water. On several occasions we followed the creek and beyond behind Ochs’ Orchard, Rudy’s Farm, coming out eventually to the top of my Grandmother Miller’s farm on Rt. 94. We carried some rainbow trout he had caught (I wasn’t so lucky that day) to her house where she cleaned and cooked them for us with butter. I would like to think that they were the best fish that I ever tasted. Those fields of her farm, which now lay fallow, would produce some arrowheads, if you spent the time looking for them especially after a rain. Although I caught no rainbow trout that day, I did walk away with an almost perfect arrowhead in my pocket that I have treasured since then, for it has become associated in my mind with those ghostly Native Americans bent over that fire pit in Warwick before it was Warwick.

Although I didn’t witness the unearthing of the Indians, I was witness to the unearthing of yet another mastodon in one of the many trenches of Pine Island’s black dirt right around this time. I remember the unearthing of a mastodon “leg bone” while on a family drive, and this seemingly happened over in the Little York area, not far behind the red and white house that my father referred to as the old Ochs House next to a house his family rented in the 1940s with a pig pen in the back. He claimed a big pig his father kept almost gored him there, and I thought about that every time we passed. I can still recall sticking my head out of the back window of my father’s 66’ Pontiac Grand Prix, on that rare occasion when I dared stray from the center of the back bench seat where I religiously concealed a slice I had made with my pocket knife in the upholstery for months, or, at least, until I let the cat out of the bag the day he sold it at a loss for 75 dollars. We slowed upon seeing a crowd of people at one of those water filled irrigation ditches before a large piece of machinery commonly known as a “ditch digger.”

The machine had kicked up this big bone, and everyone stood around starring at it speculating on what it was to and when it had been deposited there. I recall someone identifying it as a "dinosaur bone," and explaining that this area of fertile dirt had once been a great “pine” forest where these dinosaurs had often gotten stuck body-deep in a sea of pitch. I am not sure about all that now, for my guess is that these mastodons were caught in a glacial flow in the Ice Age and were eventually left behind like all the fertile soil that is still so striking. After the repeated passes of a disc harrow that soil looks as black as coal and as fine as coffee grounds. Whatever became of the bone, or whether there were others uncovered later that day I never knew, but the idea of mastodons roaming around Pine Island in the past initiated much daydreaming.

Scientists tell us that the mastodon lived in the last periods, the Holocene and Pleistocene, of the Ice Age dating as far back as 1.75 million years ago to as recently as tens of thousands of years ago, so Museum Village’s, Charles Willson Peale’s, and my mastodon were the last examples of a period of such giants that extended the onset date of life in North America back some 250 million years. These were the first Americans, and that one I saw so many years ago was among the first Warwickians, or Pine Islanders (Ivanov 300, 305).

II.

Along with these early memories, I have come to think of the mastodon itself as inseparably linked with this nation’s task of constructing its own unique identity after gradually shedding the skin of its colonial antecedents in the post-revolutionary era. Charles Willson Peale’s exhumation of that fossilized beast in Newburgh, NY at the beginning of the nineteenth century was a benchmark in the ever evolving revelation of nature’s wonders and beauty. It was America’s wilderness beauty and the surviving remnants of an idealized primordial past that lent much to this nation’s early art and subsequently the formulation of an American cultural identity in the nineteenth century.

America’s Northeast was the setting for much of this art which immortalized “ancient” forests, that were more accurately second or third growth by this point in time, and evidenced a nostalgia for Native Americans, whose presence and unique cultures had largely disappeared from this particular region for more northern and western destinations. Beyond the trees, mountains, streams, and waterfalls often peopled by idealized American Indians in these paintings that began to appear in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, decades earlier depictions of America’s sometimes mysterious landscape sometimes included, as in the case of Peale’s Exhumation, that which lay just under the surface, the prehistoric, the “giants” and “monsters” that could seemingly only exist in the still unfathomable largeness of this edenic America.

In the eighteenth century, colonial Americans were seeking to distinguish themselves as not only first-rate draftsmen but artists with something uniquely American to share with the rest of the world. The first steps towards the eventual realization of an American school of painting came with artists like John Durand who like others of his ilk experienced the often disheartening realities of an art career in Colonial America, but remained steadfast in their loyalty to it. Durand aspired to paint “subjects of antient [sic] and modern history” because that is what the market demanded in the mother country. He was also aware that the “universal and accurate knowledge” required for this was largely inaccessible to him, an under-educated colonial living in a provincial capitol, and that “his humble attempts” would only ever bring him “cheap rates” and mediocre art. It was even more likely that potential patrons for the internationally desired paintings of “antient and modern history” would have been few even in cities like Boston and Philadelphia; such subjects continued to be regarded by most fellow colonials as “superfluous ornament.” In addition, few examples were either produced or owned to nurture such a market among potential patrons.

In contrast, history painting was seen by many artists as an ideal, a civic necessity giving “more lively and perfect ideas of the things represented, than could be received from written accounts of them. It was also believed that such imagery would serve to spark connections with other events in the public consciousness. The historical artist would, according to Durand, serve a didactic role through their “silent lessons” [The New York Journal 7 Apr1768] (McCoubrey 8-9).

Through their influence on fellow expatriate artists in far away London, John Stuart Copley and West sought to make “the role of artist, colonial or otherwise, a position in society higher than that usually assigned to a mere craftsman....” Former saddler, Charles Willson Peale, was among the first to return to America from West’s tutelage abroad with a new found approach to the esteemed genre of portrait painting. He uniquely sought to expand the pictorial record of the portrait to include more than mere likeness. He provided a view of how colonials behaved and what things they surrounded themselves in life with, and this was a departure from the tradition of merely including props with a subject. This succeeded at making American portraiture more uniquely candid. It also contributed to the beginning of a path that American artists would take to distinguish their art from antededents, for the key to this was to focus on particularly American subject matter.

As something equivalent to a later day Da Vinci, Charles Willson Peale was scientist, inventor, author, and educator realizing a variety of subjects in a variety of art media, including miniatures, portraits, genre paintings, and landscapes. He and his large family of artists together produced a body of work that could fill his unrivaled Philadelphia museum, which he founded and filled with preserved flora and fauna specimens and artifacts. Peale and his family’s body of work provide us with the closest things to snapshots of eighteenth-century American life.

Like his contemporary John Trumbull, Peale had fought in the American Revolution. It was his artistic output from this time that evidences his early realization that artists like himself could serve the new Republic in many capacities. These experiences included painting “... battle flags for volunteer companies” and creating “effigies of “traitors” for noisy political parades, “transparencies” for public displays ( and my guess is that these were translucent banners that could be easily viewed at night with the aide of torches), designs for nationalistic publications, and celebratory arches broadcasting revolutionary ideology through the use of classical symbolism. He also created a number of head and full-length portraits of Washington on ivory, canvas, and a mezzotint print that are familiar to Americans today, given their frequent reproduction on things like postage stamps and the like ( Tighe 55).

Although Peale will forever be remembered for his portraits of America’s first citizen and those responsible for founding this nation, it is his own self-portrait amidst numerous others in the Exhumation of the Mastodon (1805-08) that illustrates his inclination towards both discovering and making available evidence of a landscape uniquely American. Before Peale carried out his real dig of the real Mastodon near Newburgh, New York pictured in this painting, there were many legends about “a race of giants warring to the death with immense monsters.” These popular eighteenth century explanations for bones uncovered in spring plowings or struck upon while digging the trenches and wells to claim land that had essentially remained untouched since Ice Age glacial retreat. As president of the American Philosophical Society, Thomas Jefferson himself had prioritized unlocking the truth of these bones that promised to make critics of America like the French Count de Buffon, who theorized that “the American climate supported only weak and degenerative forms of life,” eat crow.

The Peale discovery was a coup; exhuming the entire skeleton of one of these titans in post- colonial America was unprecedented, but the painting of it is even more important. Here we see what later artists like Thomas Cole would focus their whole careers on, the unique American landscape and all that it contains. Contacting Jefferson, “America’s first organized scientific expedition,” led by Peale, was immediately supplied with army tents, navy pumps, and funds and support from the Philosophical Society. A water removal wheel of Peale’s own ingenious design is showcased in this historical painting that depicts not only the challenge of ground water for this son of the Age of Enlightenment, but an impending “Catskill Mountain storm” that poses a further challenge to him in this nation of sublime nature.

The depiction of this imagery set a precedence whereby New York’s Catskill Mountains became one of several birthplaces of a newly chronicled American history by artists. Those familiar with the Hudson River School painters, including Jasper Cropsey, whose studio once stood on Warwick’s Moe Mountain, focused particularly on northeastern destinations in places like the Catskills, Adirondacks, and White Mountains up until mid-century to largely be replaced by a subject matter in western destinations. Peale’s Exhumation was the rare depiction of American legend being transformed into truth through its recording in the painted canvas rather than, as was witnessed in the antebellum era, with the work of artist Thomas Cole and author Washington Irving through the written word, among others, truth being subverted to appealing legend. The painting of the mastodon also promised a greater status for Peale’s museum that he anticipated would one day parallel the museums of Europe as a “national institution,” but Peale’s collection didn’t survive long enough to become part of that later reality. The painting survives evidencing not only America’s early propensity towards the ingenious and the pursuit of knowledge, but towards self- promotion through the means of unique landscape (Adams 58-9).

Peale’s Museum eventually passed to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway in New York by the mid-nineteenth century. Barnum’s museum holdings began with the “acquisition of the New York Museum of Rubens Peale...and eventually absorbing even a large part of the elder Peale’s celebrated collections, which... [he] bought at [a] sheriff’s sale in Philadelphia and divided with Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum” (Saxon 92-3). These collections were destroyed in fires that gutted Barnum’s American Museum of New York City’s Broadway in 1865 and 1868.

Shortly before Peale’s Exhumation, Thomas Jefferson had instructed explorers Lewis and Clarke to bring back further evidence of the mastodon’s existence in the nether regions of the continent where he believed that they may have migrated to and might even still exist, for he had collected fragments of a mastodon skeleton himself. Such was the understanding of the prehistoric even among one of America’s most educated. The Corps of Discovery complied with bones and much more by the time Peale completed this picture, but no living “monsters” were ever found. Like the Northeast for the antebellum artist and author, the Great West took on any guise that might occur to their imagination.

Even as late as the 1870s, P.T. Barnum was successfully able to play upon both the long-held fear of what may or did once exist in America’s hinterlands and the perception that its landscape was not only unique but some contained the fantastical. This was evidenced by the perceived plausibility of the onetime existence of the Cardiff Giant, which in actuality was only a boulder in convincingly human shape that was unearthed by a farmer in upstate New York. Barnum sold tickets to the “fine prehistoric relic” in situ. This “giant” was a prime, rip-roaring humbug at a time when the great western frontier was still shrouded in mystery and perceived as dangerous.

Many years later, Peale, still proud of his acquisition, chose to portray himself next to the now assembled mastodon central to his museum’s collection in The Artist in His Museum (1822). A showman of the first order long before P.T. Barnum; the mastodon is largely obscured by a curtain in the portrait as not to reveal all that one could potentially see at his museum, if you were to pay the 25 cents for admission. Warwick was once a free, open air museum for me, but there are far fewer open fields, and many more homes, to prohibit finding arrowheads or signs of the first inhabitants, stricter enforcement of trespassing and mortaring up of the seemingly unsafe are obvious obstacles to having some of these experiences today. On a positive note, you can still see the mastodon at Museum Village for a nominal fee and no doubt another leg bone will pop up on the black dirt or thereabouts to witness. There are still many things that have remained the same, and these allow us to time travel to what may have been in our hometown of Warwick.

References

Adams, William Howard. Jefferson's Monticello. New York: Abbeville Press, 1983.

Eager. Samuel W. An Outline History of Orange County...Newburgh: S.T. Callahan, 1846/7.

Ivanov, Martin, Stanislava Hrdlickova, and Ruzena Gregorova. The Complete Encyclopedia of Fossils. The Netherlands: Hackberry Press, 2002.

McCoubrey, John W. Sources & Documents in the History of Art Series: American Art 1700-1960. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1965.

Tighe, Mary Ann and Elizabeth E. Lang. Art America. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1977.

4 comments:

  1. One summer I was doing some research at the New York State Historical Society in Cooperstown, NY, and I wandered over to the Farmer's Museum where they currently had a reconstruction of P.T. Barnum's "Cardiff Giant" in situ. They had dug a hole and placed the human-looking boulder in it. There was a period corrct tent over the whole thing. You had to purchase a ticket to go in the tent and view the thing. It was a great exhibit because it recreated the experience that Upstate New Yorkers and travellers would have had in the 1870s so faithfully. It did look like some fossil of a human giant.

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  2. Nice blog. My compliments. I crawled through the Seven Room caves in the early 60s and remember it quite well.

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  3. Kathy Raskopf HadleySeptember 1, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    Robert - I remember that trip to NYC and the Statue of Liberty - I have photos some place. AND you are right about Kenny being left behind. I tell that story everytime we go to NYC and my kids are probably really sick of hearing it :-) Thanks for bringing back a great memory for me.

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  4. I enjoyed reading your recollections and stories. Thank you for sharing.

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