Elephant is the first ever to come to America

The first elephant in America

A summary of the travels of the elephant can be traced through newspaper reports and public notices. The first account of the elephant in the U.S. appeared in The Argus and Green Leaf Advertiser, which on April 23, 1796, advertised the elephant’s exhibition in New York at the corner of Beaver Street and Broadway.

On April 3, 1793, John Bill Ricketts, an English equestrian rider, introduced America to the circus in Philadelphia. Ricketts’ circus featured horses, acrobats, a rope walker, and a clown — but it didn’t have an elephant. As of that date, no elephant had ever stepped foot on U.S. soil.

John Bill Ricketts, first circus

John Bill Ricketts brought the first modern circus to the U.S. He has been identified as the subject of this unfinished portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Exactly three years later, on April 12, 1796, Captain Jacob Crowninshield arrived in New York Harbor on a trading ship called the America. On board was a two-year-old female elephant the captain had purchased in India for $450. She was the first elephant to ever come to America.

Captain Jacob Crowninshield

Captain Jacob Crowninshield

Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1808) was a ship captain and a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson offered him the position of U.S. Secretary of the Navy, but due to health issues, he never filled this position.

Jacob Crowninshield came from a family of shippers that ran the firm of George Crowninshield and Sons of Salem, Massachusetts. Jacob was one of five brothers, all in command of ships in trade with India. One brother, Benjamin Williams Crowninshield, was U.S. Secretary of the Navy under Presidents James Madison and James Monroe.

Details of Captain Crowninshield’s pachyderm purchase come from a pile of letters and sea journals kept in an old chest of his father, John C. Crowninshield (nee Johannes Caspar Richter von Kronenschieldt). Writing to his brothers from India on November 2, 1795, Jacob wrote:

“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.”

Privateer America warship War of 1812

Originally built as a ship for East India trade, the America served as a swift commerce destroyer during the War of 1812. Armed with 20 guns and 150 crew members, the privateer completed five cruises during the war, capturing 27 British vessels and valuable cargo.


Officer Nathaniel Hawthorne

Details of the historic voyage come from the ship’s logbook pages written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an officer on the ship, and yes, the father of the famous American novelist, who was born eight years after this event.

According to the logbook, the America set sail from Calcutta for New York on December 3, 1795. Two months later, from Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, Hawthorne wrote, “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 this entry and written in large letters: “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sr. ship captain

This is a drawing of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sr., son of Daniel and Rachel Hawthorne.
(photo: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem)

The last page in Hawthorne’s logbook records the sighting of Long Island at 7:00 p.m. on April 11. From the times and distances, it is estimated that the elephant arrived in New York on April 13, 1796.

The elephant was exhibited in New York at the corner of Beaver Street and Broadway beginning April 23, 1796. A clipping from a New York paper dated April 1796 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.”

Sometime during that exhibition, a Welshman named Owen offered to buy the elephant for $10,000. From there, it seems the elephant went on tour for about a dozen years, primarily in New England, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. The elephant even made an appearance at the 1796 Harvard Commencement exercises.

Nathaniel Hawthorne documented the elephant's journey from India to New York in his logbook. Notice the large "Elephant on board."

Nathaniel Hawtorne documented the elephant’s journey from India to New York in his logbook. Notice the large “Elephant on board” toward the bottom.

According to reports, the price of admission to see the elephant ranged from a quarter to fifty cents. One must wonder if this could be the origin of the clapping game and jump rope rhyme, “Miss Mary Mack”:

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back.
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For fifty cents, cents, cents
To see the elephant, elephant, elephant
Climb up the fence, fence, fence.

The Elephant Lived on Beer

Cheers Elephant, a psychedelic pop rock quartet from Philadelphia, based the name of their band on the story of the elephant. They even wrote a song called Captain Crowninshield, which they recorded on their album, “Man Is Nature.”

Cheers Elephant, a psychedelic pop rock quartet from Philadelphia, based the name of their band on the story of the elephant. They even wrote a song called Captain Crowninshield, which they recorded on their album, “Man Is Nature.”

As the story goes, the America was reportedly understaffed and under-stocked. Halfway through their trip, Crowninshield and his crew ran out of clean drinking water and were forced to give the elephant a dark ale, or porter, which is a heavy liquor made with browned malt.

Other stories report that Crowninshield charged his New York spectators 25 cents to watch the elephant uncork and drink the dark beer. According to Robert W.G. Vail, librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, the elephant uncorked the bottles with her trunk and would consume 30 bottles of porter a day.

The last recorded exhibition of the elephant is was in York, Pennsylvania, on July 25 and 25, 1818.