First elephant in America

European literature and art spoke about the strange beast of the East long before most had a chance to see one. A drawing of King Henry III’s elephant from the 13th century survives to this day. So does another drawing, by High Renaissance painter Raphael, for Pope Leo X. More recently, one Nathaniel Hathorne (father of the famous writer), an officer on board the Private Armed Ship America, wrote in his logbook of a wondrous item of cargo he was carrying: in large letters, expressing his awe: ELEPHANT ON BOARD. That was the prelude to the animal’s first arrival to North America.

On this day, April 13, in 1796, Captain Jacob Crowninshield, member of one of Salem’s elite families, and future member of Congress who would go on to serve as Secretary of the Navy, returned to New York with his elephant on board.

The elephant was bought in Calcutta, India, for $10,000 — a princely sum in those days. Chartering the ship and insurance for the long trip could not have been cheap, either, but Crowninshield knew with a little showmanship he could easily recoup the costs. In a very P.T. Barnum fashion, he created a handbill advertising the creature: “In size he surpasses all other terrestrial creatures; and by his intelligence, he makes as near an approach to man, as matter can approach spirit … The Elephant having destroyed many papers of consequence, it is recommended to visitors not come near him with such papers.”