The Crowninshield Elephant
By Gloria Winter
The Clarksburg Historical Society, Inc.
One evening in the year 1811, the town of Clarksburg had three notable visitors at the same time, a famous architect, a famous comet, and the first elephant in the United States.
The Architect was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the first professional architects in the United States. Hired by Thomas Jefferson, he was the official architect of the Nation’s Capital and designer of many other important public buildings throughout the country.
Traveling north on the Great Road, which is now known as Route 355, Latrobe planned to spend the night in Clarksburg at Scholl’s Tavern, formerly known as Dowden’s Ordinary. At this particular time the Great Comet of 1811 was visible throughout much of the country. This comet was remarkably large and was especially visible in the fall of that year.
Nearing his destination, Latrobe had a clear view of the comet streaking over Clarksburg. He also saw a crowd of people in front of Scholl’s Tavern and was extremely surprised when he found the crowd was gathered around an actual elephant. As you or I might be compelled to take a photograph in order to commemorate an amazing spectacle, Latrobe got out ink, brush, and paper to make a watercolor sketch of the scene.
The elephant in Latrobe’s sketch was known as The Crowninshield Elephant, so called because it was purchased by Jacob Crowninshield, captain of the ship, The America. In 1795, while in Bengal, Crowninshield purchased a two-year-old, female elephant for the price of $450 with the intent to sell her for a profit in America. The long voyage to America apparently had little or no ill effect on the young elephant as it was reported that she arrived in America in good health on April 13, 1796. During the voyage, however, it was stated the elephant developed a fondness for alcoholic beverages when the crew ran out of water, not realizing how much was needed for an elephant. She learned to take a bottle in her trunk, pop off the cork, and consume the drink in one swift motion.
Jacob Crowninshield did indeed make a good investment for he sold the elephant for $10,000 to a man named Owen. With his partners, Owen exhibited the elephant in cities and in towns up and down the eastern seaboard. They traveled by night so as not to attract attention then exhibited the elephant during the day charging 25 to 50 cents to anyone who wanted to see her. She would perform tricks including the one she learned on her voyage to America, that of opening and drinking a bottle of beer. In George Washington’s Philadelphia Household Account of 1796, he noted that he paid 50 cents to see an elephant.
In 1804, another elephant named Old Bet was brought to the United States and was exhibited by Hackaliah Bailey in much the same way as The Crowninshield Elephant was exhibited. These two elephants are frequently confused with each other and in some accounts were said to be the same elephant. They were, however, quite different in size and appearance. In 1816, Old Bet was shot and killed by Daniel Davis while on exhibit in Maine. It was said at the time that Davis was suffering from mental illness and declared it was sinful for poor people to spend money to see an elephant.
It is not known how long The Crowninshield Elephant lived. The last recorded exhibition of this elephant was in York in July of 1818.
If you go to Dowden’s Ordinary Park in Clarksburg at the corner of Stringtown Road and Rte. 355, you will see a small sculpture of an elephant, commemorating her visit to Clarksburg.