April 13, 1796 - This was the day that the elephant made its first appearance in America. An old ship's logbook tells the tale as seen through the eyes of Nathaniel Hathorne. He was the father of the famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne (who added the "w" to his name).
Long before his son wrote The Scarlet Letter, the elder Nathaniel Hathorne was an officer on a ship bound from Calcutta to New York. As the ship left port Hathorne wrote this entry in the log:
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. ELEPHANT ON BOARD.
The ship's captain, Jacob Crowninshield wrote to his brothers about his plans for the elephant:
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.
Crowninshield sailed into New York and sold the elephant for an impressive $10,000. The unusual animal wound up in Hachaliah Bailey's circus and it toured the country extensively as his star attraction.
Twenty years later, an old circus elephant known as "Old Bet" died from a gunshot fired by a deranged farmer. Legend has it this was the same elephant that was the first of its species to walk on American soil.
To pay homage to his pioneering pachyderm, Bailey built a monument to Old Bet outside his Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York.