First Elephants Brought to the United States

first elephantThe first two elephants brought to the United States arrived separately. Both were newsworthy. One arrived in 1796; the other in 1804. What they had in common was the fact that they were destined for lives of travel so they could be shown to the public as curiosities.

At the turn of the 19th century, there were no zoos in America, and circuses, also new to the country, were not yet presenting elephants. The owners of the elephants each had to figure out how to feed, transport, and make money on these exotic animals. The first elephant was sold several times; the second elephant found a single owner who kept her for the remainder of her life, using her as the first exotic animal in his menagerie.

The Crowninshield Elephant

The first elephant to arrive in the United States was the Crowninshield elephant, so called because the captain of the ship, The America, was Jacob Crowninshield. The Crowninshield family operated a shipping business out of Salem, Massachusetts.

The first documentation of the Crowninshield elephant was on November 2, 1795, in Captain Crowninshield’s own journal: “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.”  [From An Account of the Private Armed Ship America of Salem, by B.B. Crowninshield.]

The America, left Calcutta on December 3, 1795. One of the officers on board was named Nathaniel Hathorne. (His son, altering the spelling of the family’s last name to Hawthorne, would go on to write books including The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter.) The shipboard Hathorne’s journal makes note of the elephant. During a replenishment stop at St. Helena Island, due west of the African country of Angola in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Hawthorne wrote: “greens for the elephant.” According to George G. Goodwin in Natural History magazine, Hathorne then wrote in capital letters: “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.” Some have interpreted this to mean that Hathorne was surprised to discover the elephant midway through the journey, but it is hard to believe that Hathorne wouldn’t have observed a large animal in cargo and that none of the men would have talked about it.

Elephant Arrives in Salem

first elephant
Salem Harbor, Crowninshield Wharf

After they docked in Salem, Captain Crowninshield sold the elephant. From there, historians trace the elephant’s whereabouts via newspaper advertising: On April 23, 1796, The Argus and Green Leaf Advertiser ran an ad that described the exhibition of an elephant in New York at the corner of Beaver and Broadway. Other ads put the elephant in Boston, Marblehead, and Beverly, Massachusetts. His appearance in Philadelphia was in the spring. This may have been after a trip south to avoid the colder weather in New England.

The elephant may have been returning south that following autumn, as we have documentation from President George Washington himself. George Washington always kept careful track of information, and in his Philadelphia Household Account Book (11/16/1796), he noted that he paid to see the elephant. (For a Short Time Only by Peter Benes.)

Old Bet Arrives in the U.S.

first elephant
Thought to be a drawing of Bet

Another elephant, eventually known as Old Bet, arrived in Boston harbor in 1804. Some have speculated that the Crowninshield elephant and Old Bet were one and the same. However, contemporary descriptions of the two elephants make it clear that the two differed substantially in size and appearance.

The second elephant’s future owner was destined to be Hachaliah Bailey (1774-1845), a farmer in Somers, New York. Bailey and other farmers saw that despite their hard work, farms were very dependent on the weather. Without other enterprises, it was difficult to change one’s lot in life. Hachaliah was a part owner of a Hudson River shipping sloop. He also became a partner in the Croton Turnpike Company, collecting tolls on what is now Route 100 in Westchester County.

Later, he owned the Red Bird Stagecoach line. His most lasting legacy is the Elephant Hotel. He bought land at the crossroads of Croton and Peekskill in 1807. In 1820, he began constructing what would become the Elephant Hotel. The tavern and inn opened in 1825. (Today the building still stands and is used as the Somers municipal building. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.)

Acquiring Bet

The story goes that Hachaliah Bailey took cattle to New York City, planning to sell the cattle at the slaughter yards located in lower Manhattan. Somers historian Terry Ariano, writing for The Westchester Historian (summer 2008) dates this particular trip as either 1805 or 1806.

Slaughterhouse business was often conducted at the Bull’s Head Tavern in lower Manhattan. It was near there that Bailey saw the elephant and decided to buy her. Some say that he intended to use the elephant as a beast of burden to help with farm work. Others think he always saw the possibility of exhibiting her.

As Bailey led the elephant to the sloop to transport her to Somers, he saw that Old Bet attracted a lot of attention. Once back in Somers, he offered viewings, charging 25 cents to see Old Bet. After the people of Somers saw her, he took her to other towns. They visited Putnam and Dutchess Counties, traveling at night so that people along the road would not get a “free look.”

Once he arrived at a new location, he rented a barn where he could keep Bet out of sight. Then he advertised that people should come to see her.

Exotic Animals Attract Attention

As a result of Hachaliah’s success, his neighbors realized the potential in exotic animals. Several of them purchased uncommon animals to show off—everything from a rhinoceros to camels, monkeys, and parrots. Somers soon became the center of the menagerie business.

People today associate elephants with circuses. (However, Ringling retired all its performing elephants in 2016 after public pressure.) In 1812, Old Bet is thought to have appeared with the equestrian performers in the Pépin & Breschard Circus. But a menagerie animal performing with a circus was unusual for the 19th century.

Circuses were considered risqué, making them more challenging to promote. Menageries could be advertised as educational, which indeed they were. With no television or movies and at a time when few people could travel, the menageries offered the public a rare opportunity to see and perhaps learn about animals from other lands.

Travels Continue

In 1816, Hachaliah Bailey and Bet visited Maine. They sailed up the Kennebec River to Augusta and Hallowell. After visits to Lewiston and New Gloucester, they proceeded to the town of Alfred, Maine.

Marker at site where Old Bet died; photo by Faertenmonkey, Wikicommons.

As they left Alfred, they were stopped by a local farmer named Daniel Davis. Davis shot and killed Bet. The stated reason for Davis’s anger was that he found it sinful for poor people to spend money to see an elephant. (Locals of the time describe Davis as a “miserable vagabond,” according to the book, For a Short Time Only.) He may have just been a troubled soul.

Later that year, Hachaliah Bailey displayed Bet’s remains in New York City, but he knew his income from Old Bet was at an end. He invested in other animals, including other elephants, and continued to tour a menagerie.

In 1821, Bailey sold Old Bet’s remains. The next record of her being on display is in the American Museum in New York City. While some report that P.T. Barnum made the purchase, he did not own the American Museum until 1841. Chances are good that a member of the Scudder family, who owned the American Museum at that time, purchased her remains. Barnum would have acquired them when he purchased the museum.

Keeping Bet’s Memory Alive

In 1825, Hachaliah Bailey’s Elephant Hotel was finished. Bailey erected a tall granite pole in front of the hotel with a wooden statue of Old Bet atop it. The location of the hotel was at the intersection of the Croton and Danbury turnpikes. This was an important stagecoach stop and offered a perfect resting place for travelers. The statue of Bet was a lovely commemoration of her. It would have also been a memorable attraction for travelers.

Bailey Moves On

In 1837, Bailey sold the hotel and bought land in Fairfax, Virginia. The spot there became known as Bailey’s Crossroads.

Some of Hachaliah’s family remained in Somers. In 1845, Bailey came back for a visit. While there, he was kicked by a horse and died.  The family buried him in Ivandell Cemetery near Somers. His inscription reads: “Enterprise, Perseverance, and Integrity.”

Note: James Bailey who became P.T. Barnum’s circus business partner in 1881 when the two men combined their circuses is not directly related to Hachaliah Bailey. James was an orphan who joined circus man Frederick Bailey—a very distant relative of the Baileys who lived in Somers. James took his mentor’s last name.

Old Bet Remembered

Even after P.T. Barnum was no longer living, the men who ran the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus understood the importance of promotion. In 1922, Dexter “Pap” Fellows, a business manager and press agent for the circus, latched on to an idea for promoting the circus during its New York run. Fellows heard about Old Bet, by now thought of as the “first” elephant in the U.S. (probably due to the Somers statue). Fellows decided to stage a wreath-laying ceremony. A Ringling Brothers elephant would present a wreath to decorate Old Bet’s statue/memorial.

As the details were worked out, Old John, a tuskless male elephant, was chosen for the promotional stunt. Old John had been in several circuses before becoming part of Ringling in 1896 when Ringling Brothers acquired the Adam Forepaugh Circus. Old John was known as the “boxing elephant” and was named after pugilist John L. Sullivan. He wore a boxing glove on his trunk and regularly knocked out his trainer.

The Promotional Tour

Dexter Fellows

Dexter Fellows wrote a book on his work with the circus. Readers must keep in mind that Fellows was a press agent, but it does provide some idea of how the trip worked out.

For the trip from the old Madison Square Garden to Somers, Old John wore a banner promoting the circus and the destination. Fellows also arranged for special leather boots to be made for John to wear on the 50-mile journey. (John did not much care for the blue boots, according to contemporary reports.)

John was to walk up Fifth Avenue where, for the sake of the news photographers, he turned and bowed to Patience and Fortitude, the two stone lions that guard the New York Public Library. From there, he was bound for the Bronx, where there was a nice barn to stay in.

Reports on his other stops vary. He definitely stayed at the Agricultural Building at the White Plains fairground. He eventually turned toward Somers.

Elephant Nears Somers

Old John at Bet’s Statue

On April 11, 1922, a youngster acted as town crier and ran through Somers shouting that the elephant was near. Many people were indeed excited. Even if they had seen an elephant before, Old John was the first who had ever come to town. The New York Times reported:

“After a triumphal circle of the [Somers] City Square, the veteran was led to Wesley’s garage. … Old John lost no time in consuming a bale of hay, topped off with twenty buckets of water. He then settled down for a good night’s rest, parked between a motor truck and an automobile.” (The New York Times, April 12, 1922.)

The next day dawned, and The New York Times reporter writes of Old John being readied for the ceremony at the Brady Farm just outside Somers. Either the above story about the garage was inaccurate, or they moved Old John to the farm the next morning so that he could bathe and be fed again.

The Ceremony

In that day, Somers had a population of about 300 people. The reporter writes that there were about 300 cars and 2000 people along the route from the Brady Farm to the inn where Bet’s statue awaited its wreath.

Dexter Fellows arranged for a well-labeled circus truck to be visible along the route. (Later, the truck would convey Old John back to New York…John’s work was done.)

The Parade

Dexter Fellows (1871-1937) (spelled Fellowes in the NYT) led the parade. He had a cornet and invited some locals to join him to create a band. When the cornet “didn’t work very well,” Fellows led the parade using the cornet as a bandleader’s baton.

They arrived at the hotel with the elephant statue in front, and the group paused. Fellows walked over to Old John and gave a command. Old John let out a wondrous trumpeting sound and started for the inn. It took a little coaxing to slow him down and bring him back to the monument where he was to lay the wreath.

The crowd grew quiet, speeches were made, and the wreath was placed at teh bottom of the pole. Then Fellows goofed up: “I see this once modest hamlet has grown to be a city of thousands of happy people—I see the influence of the Grand Old Party of which I am also an unworthy member, and I take pleasure in saluting you in this stronghold of Republicanism. Three cheers for the Grand Old Party.”

But that was as far as he got. An uproar from the crowd let Fellows know that it had been a very long time since the residents of Somers voted a Republican into office.

When the crowd calmed down, the event concluded with the singing of “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…” (Auld Lang Syne).

On to the Tavern!

Afterward, one would presume that everyone, except the youngsters and Old John, went off to the tavern to raise a glass to Old Bet, Old John, and most of all to Ringling Brothers for what was a generally successful multi-day circus promotion.

For the purpose of accuracy, we’ll hope that someone at the tavern knew that the Crowninshield elephant had preceded Old Bet to the U.S., and that this whole event was just a bit of circus fun and flim-flammery.


Thank you to circus historian and author David Carlyon for providing some background on the beginnings of menageries and circuses. Carlyon is author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of (2001).

To read more stories of circus, see P.T. Barnum’s Early Career or Mabel Stark: First Woman Tiger Trainer.

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