If the country's official mascot is an eagle, then its unofficial mascot is the elephant. While the eagle soars above the head of the nation from a dispassionate distance, the elephant stands with his feet on the ground with simplest of wretches and the most powerful of men. The first elephant arrived aboard ship barely twenty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He toured the former colonies on foot from Maine to Georgia, appearing in front of a barn or a tavern, hidden by a canvas curtain, where people flocked to see him, paying the admission fee in cash, rum, or potatoes.
Then they went home and told their friends and neighbors, I have seen the elephant. Since then, the elephant has become an unparalleled symbol in the American imagination and a giant figure in our popular culture. As the number of elephants grew in the early 1800s, they ventured onto the frontier, and traveled to every state, territory, and possession in the Union. They worked clearing the land by pulling stumps, laid ties for new railroads, and hauled cargo in shipyards.
In 1849, an elephant crossed the Rockies in search of gold in California. The elephant became a symbol of the horrors of the battlefield during The Civil War, and the emancipation of slaves became Lincoln's elephant. Just when excitement over the elephant began to wane, P.T. Barnum started to include them in his traveling caravans toward the turn of the century. Soon, elephants were performing Shakespeare and playing baseball, winning over the American public with their imposing yet gentle manner. In 1884, the famous Jumbo, whose name lives on in our daily lexicon, saved the Brooklyn Bridge from collapse.
Elephants resumed their place in our culture, from Thomas Edison's famous electrocution of poor Topsy to the CIA's LSD-dropping Tusko in the 1960s, from D.C.'s political animals to Hollywood's giant stars.
In Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America, Ronald B. Tobias, a natural historian and filmmaker, has written the first and only comprehensive history of the elephant in America. He traces the elephant from its first steps on our shores to its indelible footprint on our national culture, capturing our imagination and paralleling our own joy and suffering. Interspersed throughout this lively and fascinating chronicle are dozens of illustrations, posters, and news articles from the eighteenth century through the present, underlining the strength of elephant as an enduring symbol of the American experience.
Ronald B. Tobias is a Professor of Science and Natural History Filmmaking, in the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University. He was a producer for the Discovery Channel for fifteen years and has produced, written, and directed over 30 films, many of which have appeared on PBS, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the Travel Channel. He has seven Grand Prix and Gold Medals (Japan, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Netherlands, and the United States) for his film work, including the Prix Leonardo (Italy) and a New York Times Critic's Best Pick. He was also a finalist for Best Documentary of the Year at the New York Film Festival. Tobias is a National Fellow at the Explorers Club.