27 Facts About Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

You don’t have to be much of a trivia buff to know that the nation’s 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919), was responsible for putting a name to the teddy bear phenomenon after a newspaper cartoon depicted him refusing to shoot an injured bear on a hunting trip. ("Teddy's bear" became a buzz phrase.) But Roosevelt—who passed away on January 6, 1919—certainly had a much more storied life than influencing the stuffed animal industry. Here are some things you might not have known about the dedicated environmentalist who had a fondness for skinny-dipping, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

1. He went from wimp to warrior.

Born on October 27, 1858, Roosevelt—often called “Teedie” or “Teddy” by friends—was a frail kid, prone to illness, asthma, and lacking physical strength. Despite his modest build, he was an avid outdoors enthusiast, and sometimes carried his fascination with wildlife indoors by practicing taxidermy. At 14, his family went on a tour of Egypt, and he traveled with his somewhat macabre tools of the trade, including arsenic. As a teen, Roosevelt put his stuffed birds aside and decided to become aggressive in his physical routine, training in gymnastics and weightlifting. Later, he would practice both boxing and judo. The intense interest he showed in combat sports made him a fitness advocate for the rest of his life.

2. He was an odd man out at Harvard.

The enthusiastic and boisterous Roosevelt, who began attending Harvard in the fall of 1876, was unlike many of his more subdued peers. When he was in a fervent discussion, he’d strike his hand into his palm to make a point. When he saw a friend, he’d yell at him from across the grass. Despite his rough manners, Roosevelt still made plenty of friends through his athletic pursuits. And he did OK academically, too: At the time of his graduation, he was ranked 21 out of 161 students.

3. He could be extremely jealous.

While at Harvard, Roosevelt met his first wife, Alice Lee. After a courtship, the two got engaged with an eye on marriage after graduation. Despite Alice’s adoration, Roosevelt was said to be apoplectic when any man dared approach her. If a man got out of line, Roosevelt would threaten to challenge him to a duel. At one point, he even mailed away for a pair of French dueling pistols in case anyone wished to take him up on the offer.

4. He tried his hand at becoming a rancher.

Roosevelt was often at his most comfortable when he was surrounded by the tropes of the outdoors: cattle, horses, guns, and vast stretches of land. Traveling to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison, Roosevelt was intrigued by the idea of operating a cattle ranch there and soon went in business (with a $14,000 investment) with Sylvane Ferris, the brother of his hunting guide, and cattleman Bill Merrifield. That led to a second ranch, which he dubbed Elkhorn. While he enjoyed playing cowboy—complete with buckskin shirt and spurs—overgrazing and bad weather conspired to create financial losses. Roosevelt sold his interest in the ranches by 1898.

5. He was an accomplished author.

Drawing on his affection for the outdoors, Roosevelt spent considerable time before taking presidential office authoring books with titles like Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and a primer on the Western frontier, the four-volume Winning of the West. The writing was in some measure an escape for Roosevelt, who once retreated to his Dakota Territory ranch in 1884 after his wife, Alice, and his mother both died on the same day. (In his journal entry for that day, he wrote, "The light has gone out of my life.") Roosevelt continued writing for the rest of his life, relying on income from publishing rather than his public-office salaries to support himself.

6. He once chased down boat thieves.

In 1886, Roosevelt’s moored boat was stolen from his ranch and taken down the Little Missouri River. Calling it a matter of personal honor and feeling the need to pursue criminals in his role as a deputy sheriff, Roosevelt gave chase while accompanied by his two ranch hands. Trailing armed thieves was dangerous enough, but the frigid late winter weather had turned the river into an icy, treacherous path. Sensing he could be in for a prolonged ride, Roosevelt packed up flour, coffee, and a copy of Anna Karenina for downtime. After three days and braving freezing weather, the group crept up on the thieves on the river bank and apprehended all of them. Fearing that tying them up might cut off their circulation in the cold air, Roosevelt ordered the men to take their boots off. In cactus country, that was as good as a pair of handcuffs. Roosevelt spent the long ride back reading Anna Karenina.

7. He was a war hero.

Theodore Roosevelt in his Rough Riders uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Drawn to public service after dropping out of law school, Roosevelt became president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners in 1895 and assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy in 1897. After the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt insisted on serving and eventually became colonel of the First U.S. Volunteer Calvary. His “Rough Riders” were involved in skirmishes and Roosevelt himself was wounded by shrapnel while advancing on the San Juan River in Cuba. At the Battle of San Juan Hill, he led a charge with a skeleton crew of men, holding Spanish soldiers at bay and keeping position until they were relocated by superiors. Roosevelt’s leadership was hailed by many as an exemplar of courage, and reports of his bravery helped win him a seat as governor of New York upon his return.

8. He's still the youngest president in history.

Vice President Roosevelt became president in 1901 immediately following the assassination of sitting president William McKinley. At the age of 42, he was—and remains—the youngest president in the country’s history. (John F. Kennedy was 43 when he was sworn in; Bill Clinton was 46.)

9. He was a dedicated environmentalist.

A lover of the outdoors, Roosevelt made protecting the natural wonder of American territory a priority. Over his tenure in the White House, he reserved 200 million acres of land for national forests and wildlife refuges; previous presidents combined had only done a fifth of that. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth," he said in 1908. "But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.

"These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”

10. He knew how to charm the press.

More than any other president before him, Roosevelt knew how to enact effective change: Get the press and public opinion on his side. He created a press room at the White House and invited correspondents for informal chats while he got a shave; he was also prone to publicity stunts, like riding 98 miles on horseback and field-testing a new submarine vessel by diving to the bottom of Long Island Sound.

11. He had a beef with beef.

Food safety was not of paramount concern to lawmakers in the early part of the 20th century. (As an example of their suspect methodology, the U.S. government once solicited volunteers to ingest one common food additive, formaldehyde, to see if there were any adverse effects.) Roosevelt was firm in his mission to make sure American beef products were safe to consume, dispatching investigators to meat-packing plants and collecting horror stories of dirty preparation areas and putrid meat. Despite intense objection from the meat industry, Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act into law in 1906.

12. He helped save football.

In the early 1900s, football was perhaps even more dangerous than it is today, with only loose regulations requiring protective equipment guarding players from serious injury. Roughly 45 players died from 1900 to 1905 from a variety of ailments as a result of collisions, from broken necks to broken backs. With public tide turning against the game, Roosevelt summoned representatives from Yale, Harvard, and other schools in 1905 to discuss new measures that would improve its safety profile. His concern helped usher in new rules—while the sport wasn’t and isn’t “safe,” it did largely turn around its alarming mortality rate.

13. He practically kept a zoo while in office.

Roosevelt’s White House was no place for anyone skittish over animals. In addition to the numerous dogs, rabbits, and horses, the president also kept snakes, flying squirrels, chickens, bears, a lion, a zebra, and what he described as a “friendly and affectionate” rat.

14. Boxing blinded him in one eye.

Roosevelt’s fondness for combat sports didn’t leave him when he was elected to the highest office in the land. In 1905, when he was almost 50, Roosevelt was sparring in a boxing match with a partner when he was struck with a right to his left eye. The blow left him with a detached retina and led to significant vision issues. In his autobiography, he described the punch as leaving him “dim” in that eye. Fortunately, Roosevelt had other physical pursuits to keep him busy, including the tennis courts he had installed in 1902, although he never allowed himself to be photographed while wearing his sporty racket outfit.

15. He burned his presidential portrait.

Not known as a vain man, Roosevelt was still disappointed in his official presidential portrait. Artist Théobald Chartran, Roosevelt claimed, had made him look like a “mewing cat.” Even his children teased him about it. After being displayed in Chartran’s home country of France, the painting returned to the White House, where Roosevelt burned it as one of his final acts in office.

16. He was the first president to leave the country during his term.

Roosevelt, who had petitioned for the construction of the Panama Canal for years, couldn’t resist an opportunity to see the site for himself when plans were finally underway. In 1906, he visited Panama and in doing so became the first president to travel outside the U.S. while holding office. The workers let him operate a steam shovel.

17. He hated being called "Teddy."

Still life of a 'Teddy' Bear sitting with its tag describing the origin of the toy and US president Theodore Roosevelt circa the 1950s.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Despite giving his blessing for stuffed-animal makers to refer to their bears as “Teddys,” Roosevelt—whose childhood nickname was "Teedie"—was no fan of the nickname. Reportedly, it reminded him of his late first wife, Alice, who used the term when addressing him; Roosevelt hardly ever spoke of her following her untimely death in 1884. (He married second wife Edith Carow in 1886.) He liked being called “Colonel Roosevelt” in his later years. While on safari, his African escorts called him “Bwana Tumbo,” or “Mr. Unusually Large Belly.”

18. He went skinny-dipping with the French ambassador.

Virtually all of our presidents have retained their modesty, but Roosevelt was never bashful about abandoning his clothes for a quick, naked dip in the water. While walking near the Potomac River in 1903, the president and the Chief of the Division of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot, jumped in for a swim, leaving their clothes behind. The French ambassador was with them, though he elected to keep his gloves on because “we might meet ladies!”

19. His oldest daughter tried his patience.

The eldest of Roosevelt’s children—and the only one with his first wife, Alice— Alice Roosevelt was 17 when her father took office and quickly became infamous for a series of public indiscretions. She was fond of smoking cigarettes on the roof of the White House after her father told her she couldn’t smoke indoors; she walked around with a boa constrictor on her neck. Alice’s carefree attitude made her a celebrity in her own right, with one color—“Alice blue”—named after her. Active in Washington until her death at age 96, Alice was known as “the other Washington monument.”

20. He scared Dr. Seuss.

As a boy, Theodor Geisel, who would later be known as Dr. Seuss, sold war bonds in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. As sales leaders in their Boy Scout troop, Geisel and his fellow Scouts were honored in 1918 by a visiting Roosevelt. Unfortunately, Roosevelt had only nine medals for 10 boys. Arriving in front of Geisel empty-handed, he tried to make a joke of it by saying, "What's this boy doing here?" Geisel was so stricken by the booming Roosevelt's accusation that he later declared the incident instilled in him a fear of large crowds.

21. He drank coffee by the gallon.

Perhaps not literally—but close. According to his family, Roosevelt's coffee cup was akin to a "bathtub," and he sweetened each cup with seven lumps of sugar. He was such a fan of the beverage that Maxwell House once put his face on some of their print ads.

22. He was a voracious—if curious—reader.

Roosevelt was said to have devoured a book a day, reading through texts with such speed it didn’t seem possible he could retain much information—but he did, firing off answers to anything he was quizzed on. He also read magazines but maintained an odd habit: After reading each page, he would rip it out and toss it to the floor.

23. He ran for a third term.

After winning re-election in 1904, Roosevelt told his supports that would be the end for him. In 1908, he supported Republican William Howard Taft. Taft won, but by 1912, their relationship had soured. Historians have long debated the specifics of the split; theories include Taft failing to keep his campaign promises, Taft being more rigid in the law than Roosevelt would have liked (especially in attempting to break up U.S. Steel, which Roosevelt had assured wouldn’t happen), Taft’s firing of Pinchot, or just differing views on how the government should respond to a nation rapidly becoming more urbanized and industrial. Whatever the reason, Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912 on the new Progressive ticket. Republican support was split between Roosevelt and Taft, allowing Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency. Despite the loss, Roosevelt’s attempt at a three-peat was among the most successful third-party campaigns in history.

24. He was the first former president to fly in an airplane.

Heeding another call to adventure, in 1910 Roosevelt became the first current or former president to board a plane. The opportunity came at the invitation of aviator Arch Hoxsey, who invited Roosevelt to climb on board his plane in St. Louis, Missouri. A crowd of 10,000 people watched, with some expecting the beloved public figure to meet a bad end in the suspect-looking craft. After a three-minute, 20-second flight, Roosevelt was beaming. “I envy you your professional conquest of space,” he told Hoxsey.

25. He gave a speech immediately after being shot.

Roosevelt's speech pages showing where the bullet passed through.
Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Roosevelt’s reputation as a “bull moose,” his term to describe anyone made of sturdy stuff, was never on better display than October 14, 1912, when the former president was giving a speech in Milwaukee and announced he had just been shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. A shocked crowd looked on as Roosevelt revealed a bloody shirt and a stack of prepared remarks with a bullet hole in them (above; you can see both the papers and the shirt at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City). Roosevelt spoke for 90 minutes before allowing his aides to take him to a hospital. The bullet had lodged itself near his ribs and would remain there for the rest of his life.

26. A trip to the Amazon almost killed him.

An incurable adventurer, Roosevelt set his sights on an Amazon river in 1913, declaring it his "last chance to a boy." Plotting his course on the largely-uncharted and inherently dangerous "River of Doubt," Roosevelt's notoriously sturdy constitution was challenged like never before. Several people in his party were struck down by tropical illness and half of the pack animals traveling with them died of exhaustion; food became scarce. Roosevelt himself grew ill with fever and reportedly was prepared to be left to die. After two months, they were able to return to civilization.

27. He met Houdini.

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt pose for a picture.
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Sailing on the SS Imperator in 1914, Roosevelt was captivated by the ship’s booked entertainment: famed illusionist Harry Houdini. After a “séance” in which the magician correctly surmised Roosevelt had been in Brazil recently, an astounded Roosevelt asked if Houdini was really practiced in the dark arts. He played coy, but the truth was that Houdini knew Roosevelt would be on board and asked associates for information about his recent exploits.

Richard Nixon Had a Speech Prepared In the Event That Apollo 11's Mission Failed

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Richard Nixon Foundation via Getty Images

In July 1969, the world watched as the crew of Apollo 11 successfully entered lunar orbit, landed, then blasted off and returned to Earth. At each step of the way there were dangers and NASA had backup plans in case something went terribly wrong—though there wasn't much NASA could do from 384,403 kilometers away. In 1999, William Safire discussed the speech he wrote for President Richard Nixon just in case the mission failed. From Safire's article:

The most dangerous part of the trip was not landing the little module on the moon, but in launching it back up to the mother ship. If that failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would have to "close down communications" and, as the world agonized, let the doomed astronauts starve to death or commit suicide.

Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and Peter Flanigan told me to plan for that tragic contingency. On July 18, 1969, I recommended that "in event of moon disaster . . . the President should telephone each of the widows-to-be" and after NASA cut off contact "a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to 'the deepest of the deep,' concluding with the Lord's Prayer." A draft Presidential speech was included.

Here's a scan of the speech:

And here's the text:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

This story has been updated for 2019.

How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession With Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal ended up being a motivating force throughout much of his life. Even during the Revolutionary War, and even when he ran for the highest office in the land, he had mastodons on the mind. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy beasts still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he was determined to find them—or, at the very least, enlist a couple of intrepid explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to do the hunting on his behalf.

The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and headed into the great unknown of the Louisiana Purchase in search of an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the two-and-a-half-year round trip—mapping the geography of the region and logging hundreds of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—but the directive to look for mastodons is a little-known footnote to their famous expedition.

At the start of their trip, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Although he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at least not in any of the written correspondence on record—the two explorers were all too familiar with Jefferson’s mammoth ambition. “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it,” author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Volume 2.

Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his mastodon obsession was fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who thought America’s animals and people were puny. Jefferson’s bone-collecting hobby quickly evolved into a mission to assert America’s dominance in the Western world and prove that it was "a land full of big and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove your country is home to a 12,000-pound monster.

A Rivalry Forms

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

François-Hubert Drouais, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various points in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, a number of mastodon bones.

Though his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” published in the 1760s, postulated that the people and animals of America were small and weak because the climate (he assumed, without much evidence) was too cold and wet to encourage growth.

Jefferson was furious. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon's beliefs about the mastodon. Buffon suggested that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, but because Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements didn't match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a different animal entirely. (Although they’re distinct species, woolly mammoths and mastodons were lumped into the same category at the time, and were called one of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)

“The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled back his argument a bit, adding, “But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”

He didn’t just believe that mastodons had existed at one point in time, though—he believed they were still out there somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson's era to assume that bones were evidence of a still-living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the concept of extinction wasn’t widely accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the idea that God’s creations couldn't be destroyed.

For his part, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural order, and that removing a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the whole system into disarray. Taking the tone of a philosopher, he once questioned, “It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?”

This position may have been partly fueled by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon would be the most satisfying way to stick it to Buffon and say, “I told you so.” (In the meantime, though, he had to settle for a dead moose, which he sent overseas to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to prove that large animals did, in fact, exist in America.)

The Hunt Continues

A painting of The Exhumation of the Mastadon

This 1806 painting by Charles Willson Peale, titled The Exhumation of the Mastadon, shows mastodon bones being excavated from a water-filled pit.

Charles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and asked him to fetch some mastodon teeth from a nearby "mastodon boneyard" in northern Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. “Were it possible to get a tooth of each kind, that is to say a foretooth, grinder, &c, it would particularly oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark politely explained that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to procure a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from travelers who had managed to visit the frontier.

However, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark's reply until six months later in August 1782 (because of, you know, the Revolutionary War). Although the war technically didn't end until the following year, peace talks between the two sides were nearing a conclusion, and everybody knew it. With an end to the conflict in sight, Jefferson doubled down on his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to me the most desireable object in Natural History, and there is no expence of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely.”

Later, while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the expedition was called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to look for mastodons along the way. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Under the head of Animal history, that of the Mammoth is particularly recommended to your enquiries.”

Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he was still thinking about mastodons. His preoccupations were so widely known that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “mammoth infidel” in reference to his unusual hobby and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Magazine of American History recalled, “When Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to some bones of the mammoth which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”

Once president, Jefferson used his office to further the field of paleontology. Not long after he was elected, he loaned one of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-filled pit. It ultimately became the first fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in America.

Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon during their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. After their return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second assignment to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three big boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who got to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.

Still, something wasn’t quite right, and Jefferson may have known it even then. By 1809, the animal in question had been identified and given the name mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature seems not to have provided other food sufficient for him," he wrote, "and the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse."

Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate

Thomas Jefferson
National Archive/Newsmakers

The fact that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had gone extinct long ago. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”

Although he was unsuccessful in his quest to find a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature he believed to be a lion were later revealed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “great claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.

Nowadays, the ground sloth fossils—and several other items that formed the "cabinet of curiosities" Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are part of The Academy of Natural Science collection at Drexel University. Considering that Jefferson is sometimes called "the founder of North American paleontology,” it would appear he got his revenge against Buffon after all.

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