When Abraham Lincoln Turned Down the Chance to Fill America With Elephants

Getty Images
Getty Images

When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.

In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.

The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.

It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable creatures. “It has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests,” the king wrote, “after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are here on the continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit to the country.” Mongkut acknowledged that he hadn’t yet figured out how best to ship over some elephants, but that it sounded like a good idea to him.

In a master stroke of diplomacy, Lincoln’s administration disagreed. In Lincoln’s reply, which was penned by Secretary of State William Seward, he deftly informed Mongkut that his gifts belonged by rights to the American people and would be placed in the National Archives (where they remain to this day). As for the elephants, the administration deftly dodged the issue altogether.

"This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States,” wrote Lincoln via Seward. “Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”

By refusing the elephants, Lincoln’s government managed to honor the far-away king without taking on a complicated burden. It was a move that acknowledged not only the king’s respectful gesture, but gave him a much-needed nod. Mongkut realized that in order to survive, Siam would need to engage in trade with the West—and that kindness would go much further than the fear displayed by some of his closest neighbors.

There’s no telling what would have happened if the Lincoln administration had said yes to Mongkut’s gift. Perhaps to this day, the United States would be a place where herds of wild elephants roamed free.

History Vs. Podcast Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt vs. Bigfoot

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Erin McCarthy: Hello and welcome to a very special bonus episode of History Vs., a podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and today, we’re going to be exploring a tale Theodore Roosevelt wrote about in his book The Wilderness Hunter, a memoir of his time on the frontier, which was published in 1893. Many of the stories in the book are just what you’d expect from a big game hunter like TR, but there’s one unusual tale that stands out from the rest, one that Roosevelt called “a goblin story which rather impressed me.”

Here to tell us about what’s now known as The Bauman Incident is Mental Floss science editor Kat Long, who wrote a piece about the event for us.

Kat Long: A couple years ago I visited a small village on the central coast of British Columbia, where members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation have cultural stories about sasquatches, or buk’wis in the local language. They also shared with me a lot of stories about sasquatches and their personal encounters with them in their ancestral territory.

McCarthy: Is that why when I asked someone to write this story, you volunteered so quickly?

Long: Yes, it is.

McCarthy: What was the Bauman incident?

Long: The Bauman Incident supposedly occurred in the mountains of western Montana and northwestern Wyoming, which in the late 19th century was still the Montana Territory.

On one of TR’s hunting trips to the region, he met a grizzled old trapper named Bauman who told him a wild tale.

TR doesn’t mention Bauman’s first name, but it may have been Carl L. Bauman. According to a Montana Historical Society journal, this Carl L. Bauman was born in Germany in 1831. He moved west in the 1860s, and died in Montana in 1909. So that timeline and geographical detail fits with TR’s account, but we don’t have any proof that he was the one.

Bauman told TR how, as a young man, he and a friend went into the Montana forest to hunt beaver. And they set up their traps in a mountain pass that had been the scene of another trapper’s mysterious, gruesome death the year before.

So over a few days and nights, Bauman and his friend were tormented by a strange animal that destroyed their camp, and it howled with the cover of the trees, and watched them as they slept and all kinds of creepy activities. And in the morning, they found footprints indicating that the creature walked upright.

Finally, after a few days of this, they couldn’t take it anymore, and as they packed up to leave, Bauman had to walk a few miles away to gather up some beaver traps from a stream and when he returned to the campsite, he found his friend dead, with fang marks in his neck. The scariest part about it was that the beast had not devoured the flesh, but merely—and this is what TR wrote—“romped and gamboled round it in [an] uncouth, ferocious glee.”

McCarthy: What did they think was the culprit?

Long: TR writes in the beginning of the story that the culprit could have been “merely some abnormally wicked and cunning wild beast, but … no man can say.” He also suggests that Bauman thought it was “something either half human or half devil, some great goblin beast.” Bauman doesn’t tell TR what he thought it was, and TR never comes right out and says it, but he seems to imply that it was a sasquatch.

McCarthy: But he wouldn’t have called it sasquatch or Bigfoot, because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we weren’t using those words yet—sasquatch didn’t come around until the late 1920s, and Bigfoot until the late 1950s. So anyway—why do people think this incident involved a sasquatch? Was that something they believed in at that time?

Long: Tales of “hairy giants” or “wild men” of the forest were already circulating around the Pacific Northwest and indigenous peoples of the region had legends including sasquatch-like characters. So they also shared tales of seeing and interacting with the actual sasquatches with the white trappers they met, and then the white trappers and hunters picked up the tale and retold the stories.

McCarthy: What’s the differences between what’s in this account and what’s in the account of indigenous peoples’ encounters with the sasquatch?

Long: The Kitasoo say sasquatches are shy and generally stay out of people’s way, and they are definitely not known as bloodthirsty murderers. But they do, however, scream really loudly in this really high-pitched freaky sound, and they also really stink, and TR mentioned those two characteristics in his account of the Bauman Incident as well.

McCarthy: What are some of the encounters that the Kitasoo told you about with sasquatch?

Long: I remember one story that was told to me by one of the leaders in the community that they were out overnight on a beach gathering clams, because it was the time of year when the tide was out and they could dig them up out of the beach really easily. So they’d been doing this all night and they were sort of gathered around the beach. Some of the members of the group heard this crazy scream coming out of the woods. They looked over to the elder of the group and the elder wasn’t doing anything, he didn’t seem alarmed at all, so they were like “OK, we’ll just continue doing our thing,” but they kept hearing this scream just out of the woods. And it is very quiet up there, I mean, it would have been shocking. And so [they] kind of gathered closer and closer to the boat they had all come in on. The elder said “Why aren’t you out gathering clams? What’s going on?” and all of a sudden, this piercing, super loud scream just came out of the woods, and he suddenly looked incredibly shocked and started banging the anchor on the boat trying to scare whatever it was away, and everybody jumped on the boat and motored away as fast as they could.

So in that story, we see the sasquatch screaming. They didn’t see him—it really stayed out of sight—but it was kind of like, the sasquatch might have been a little curious about what they were doing and was trying to get their attention, but then they just got the hell out of there.

McCarthy: They were like “we don’t see you, and based on that noise, we don’t want to see you.”

Long: Yeah.

McCarthy: How often are they having encounters like this? I mean, are they common?

Long: A lot of people in the village have had them, but they don’t happen every day or anything like that. They may happen, to each person, maybe a few times in their life.

McCarthy: And what do they say to Western science’s belief that sasquatch isn’t real?

Long: They understand that a lot of people don’t think that they’re real, or they don’t believe them when they say they’ve seen them with their own eyes, and their response to that is “well, you know, we don’t need some Western scientist telling me whether they exist or not. I’ve seen them,” or, “Elders in our community have seen them and I believe what they say,” or, “Our stories over generations and generations all talk about them, so how can they not exist?”

McCarthy: And one thing that I thought was really interesting about your piece is that I think you went back to one of the elders, and you asked him, right, and he said, “Just because we haven’t found a skeleton or bones or anything doesn’t mean anything—I’ve never found a bear skeleton in the woods either.”

Long: Exactly.

McCarthy: Which is a pretty good point.

Long: Yeah. Yeah. It really makes you think. We know a lot about what’s out in the forest, but there’s a lot that we don’t know, and so … we’ll just kind of have to leave that where it is.

McCarthy: So TR was a pretty practical dude, and he was not really given to flights of fancy. So how did he explain what happened here?

Long: TR wrote that Bauman was of German ancestry, and must have heard “all kinds of ghost and goblin lore, so that many fearsome superstitions were latent in his mind.”

He also said that Bauman had heard tales from the Native American medicine men of “snow-walkers … spectres, and the formless evil beings that haunt the forest depths.”

TR says that Bauman “must have believed what he said, for he could hardly repress a shudder at certain points of the tale.”

McCarthy: Have any scientists thought about what the animal actually was?

Long: I don’t think any real scientists have looked into this because from a scientific investigation point of view, there aren’t many specific clues to go on, and no physical evidence that could be tested for, like, sasquatch DNA or they don’t have any material to test for stable isotopes, which can show where an animal has been or what it’s eaten, or that kind of thing.

McCarthy: Besides the walking on two feet thing, it almost sounds like it could be a mountain lion—people say that a cougar screaming sounds like “a woman screaming for her life.” TR himself once said that “No man could well listen to a stranger and wilder sound.”

Long: What I was thinking is that maybe a cougar was attacking a bear that was walking upright, which would cover all the bases.

McCarthy: Yes, that was definitely it. That was definitely, definitely it. Well, I guess this is just one of those mysteries that we are never going to solve.

Thanks to Kat Long for joining us, and thanks for listening to this special bonus episode of History Vs. We’ll be back with another bonus episode in a few weeks.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

Subscribe to History Vs. Apple Podcasts here.

45 Amazing Facts About All 44 American Presidents

iStock.com/traveler1116
iStock.com/traveler1116

In March 1789, the U.S. Constitution was officially enacted and the office of the President of the United States was established. The following month, General George Washington was sworn in as the first Commander-in-Chief and since then, 44 men have held the job (one in two non-consecutive terms, which is why we have 45 presidencies total). Below is an interesting tidbit about each person who has held the highest office in the land.

1. George Washington

George Washington with his family.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Not only is George Washington the father of the country, he's technically the highest-ranking member of the nation's military. On July 4, 1976, the country's bicentennial, a joint resolution was passed to posthumously promote Washington to the title of General of the Armies of the United States, ensuring that no other member of the military could ever outrank him. This effectively makes George Washington the United States's only six-star general. 

2. John Adams

John Adams
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

John Adams signed a congressional act creating the United States Marine Band in 1798, which is now the oldest active professional musical organization in the U.S. Known as the President's Own, they played at the first ever New Year's celebration at the president’s house and, later, at Thomas Jefferson's inauguration.

3. Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson.
iStock.com/traveler1116

Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library when the Library of Congress was burned by the British during the War of 1812. He sold them 6487 books from his own collection, the largest in America at the time.

4. James Madison

James Madison
National Archive, Newsmakers

James and Dolley Madison were crazy for ice cream. They had an ice house built on the grounds of their Montpelier estate so that they could enjoy ice cream and cold drinks all summer long, and they were known to serve bowls of oyster ice cream at official government functions.

5. James Monroe

James Monroe
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth, attended Napoleon's coronation at Notre Dame Cathedral in 1804 while he was serving as the American ambassador in the U.K.

6. John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams
Henry Guttmann, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Quincy Adams enjoyed skinny-dipping. He was known to take 5 a.m. plunges in the Potomac River as part of his morning exercise routine.

7. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Andrew Jackson despised banks and made it his mission to defund the Second Bank of the United States (he succeeded). So, it seems particularly ironic that his portrait has graced the $20 since 1929.

8. Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Born in New York in 1782, Martin Van Buren was the first president to have been born after the American Revolution, technically making him the first American-born president. (The seven before him were all born in the American colonies.)

9. William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Harrison kept a goat as his pet, but never bothered to name him. (He called him Billy goat.) He also had a beloved cow he called Sukey.

10. John Tyler

John Tyler
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

John Tyler loved music and had considered becoming a concert violinist before deciding to follow his father's advice and study law. Often, he would play music for guests at the White House and in his later years he devoted himself to perfecting his skill at violin and fiddle. In 2004, when he was sculpted in bronze as part of a presidents' memorial in South Dakota, the artists included his violin in his statue.

11. James K. Polk

James Polk
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When he was 17, James Polk needed surgery to have some kidney stones removed. He had some brandy to numb the pain but was awake for the entire procedure—anesthesia wouldn't be invented for another 30-some years.

12. Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor and his horse, Old Whitey.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Zachary Taylor was a war hero whose beloved horse, Old Whitey, was nearly as popular as he was—numerous times while the steed was grazing on the White House lawn, visitors would approach him to pluck a hair from his tail for a souvenir.

13. Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

A voracious reader, Millard Fillmore was known to keep a dictionary on him in order to improve his vocabulary.

14. Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce
National Archive, Newsmakers

Franklin Pierce had a number of nicknames, including "Handsome Frank," but likely the most embarrassing was "Fainting Frank." As a brigadier general in the Mexican-American war, he sustained a groin and knee injury during a battle in 1847 when he was thrown against the pommel of his horse. He only briefly passed out from the pain, but the nickname stuck around for life.

15. James Buchanan

James Buchanan
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Though James Buchanan was engaged once in his late twenties, she broke it off. He became the only president who was a lifelong bachelor.

16. Abraham Lincoln

portrait of Abraham Lincoln
iStock.com/ilbusca

Before Abraham Lincoln found his "look" with his famous beard, he was known for his fairly unkempt appearance. One reporter referred to his "thatch of wild republican hair" with his "irregular flocks of thick hair carelessly brushed" across his face.

17. Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In his day, Andrew Johnson was known as the best dressed president. Growing up, his mother sent him to apprentice with a tailor, and he frequently made his own clothes and suits.

18. Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant
Spencer Arnold, Getty Images

In an attempt to unite the North and South, Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a national holiday in 1870.

19. Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes
National Archive, Newsmakers

The first Siamese cat to arrive in America was sent as a gift to Hayes and his wife, Lucy, by the American consul in Bangkok. Siam the cat landed at the White House in 1879 after traveling by ship to Hong Kong then San Francisco, and then by train to Washington, D.C.

20. James A. Garfield

James A Garfield
National Archive, Newsmakers

As a child, James Garfield dreamed of being a sailor. He read a number of nautical novels which fueled his imagination, but a teenage job towing barges was as close to a seafaring life as he saw.

21. Chester A. Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Chester A. Arthur oversaw a massive renovation of the White House and its private chambers. Arthur hired Louis C. Tiffany—Tiffany and Co.'s first design director and the man most known for his work with stained glass—to do all of the redesign. To help cover some of the costs, Arthur had 24 wagon-loads of old furniture, drapes, and other household items (some of which dated back to the Adams administration) sold at auction.

22. Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland circa 1885.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was born Stephen Grover Cleveland, but dropped Stephen before he entered into politics. He was affectionately called "Uncle Jumbo" by his younger relatives because he was nearly 6 feet tall and weighed about 270 pounds.

23. Benjamin Harrison

Portrait of Benjamin Harrison.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Benjamin Harrison had a tight-knit family and loved to amuse and dote on his grandchildren. He put up the first recorded White House Christmas tree in 1889, and was known to put on the Santa suit for entertainment.

24. Grover Cleveland

Portrait of Grover Cleveland
iStock

Grover Cleveland was also the first (and only) U.S. President to serve non-consecutive terms, so he makes this list twice. Between terms, he moved back to New York City, worked at a law firm, and his wife gave birth to their famous first daughter, Baby Ruth.

25. William McKinley

Portrait of William McKinley
National Archive, Newsmakers/Getty

William McKinley had a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot named Washington Post who served in an official capacity as a White House greeter. The bird also knew the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy"—the president would whistle the first few notes, and then Washington Post would finish the rest.

26. Theodore Roosevelt

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt
Hulton Archive, Getty

For his official White House portrait, Theodore Roosevelt chose the famed French portraiture artist Theobald Chartran, who had earlier done a portrait of the First Lady Edith Roosevelt. "It was difficult to get the president to sit still," The New York Times reported Chartran said before the painting was unveiled and displayed in France in 1903. "I never had a more restless or more charming sitter." Roosevelt, however, hated the painting, and after hiding it in a dark hall of the White House for years, he eventually burned it.

27. William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

In 1910, William Taft became the first president to attend baseball's opening day and throw the ceremonial first pitch, a tradition that has been honored by nearly every president since (sans Carter and Trump, thus far).

28. Woodrow Wilson

portrait of Woodrow Wilson
Tony Essex/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Woodrow Wilson is among many U.S. Presidents known for their love of golf. Wilson enjoyed daily rounds to stay in shape and relax, particularly during World War I, when he even used black golf balls so he could play through the winter.

29. Warren G. Harding

Portrait of Warren G. Harding
Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers

Warren G. Harding loved playing poker and held weekly games at the White House. Rumor has it he even bet, and lost, an entire set of official White House china.

30. Calvin Coolidge

portrait of Calvin Coolidge
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Though three presidents (Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe) have died on the 4th of July, Calvin Coolidge is the only president to have been born on that date.

31. Herbert Hoover

portrait of Herbert Hoover
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

After he left office, Herbert Hoover wrote a number of books, including The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, the first biography of a president written by another president.

32. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, taken at the time of their engagement, circa 1903.
Portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, taken at the time of their engagement, circa 1903.
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Franklin married Eleanor Roosevelt in 1905, they chose the date March 17 because President Theodore Roosevelt would be in New York City for the St. Patrick's Day parade, and he'd agreed to walk Eleanor, his niece, down the aisle. FDR and TR were fifth cousins.

33. Harry S. Truman

Harry Truman takes the oath of office in 1945; standing beside him are his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret.
Harry Truman takes the oath of office in 1945; standing beside him are his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret.
Central Press/Getty Images

Though Harry Truman met his wife, Bess, in the fifth grade and they were high school sweethearts, they didn't marry until they were in their mid-thirties.

34. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower in front of a WWII map.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even though Ike's military career spanned both world wars and made him one of only nine men who have ever attained the rank of five-star general, he never once saw active combat.

35. John F. Kennedy

JFK during a campaign.
Keystone/Getty Images

JFK lived off of his family's considerable trusts, so he donated all of his congressional and presidential salaries to charities like the United Negro College Fund and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.

36. Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson behind a podium.
Keystone/Getty Images

Lyndon Johnson had two beagles named Him and Her. The dogs became national celebrities after being frequently photographed with the president; they were heavily featured in a 1964 Life magazine profile that stated, "Not many dogs have been privileged to shoo birds off the White House lawn, get underfoot at a Cabinet meeting, or mingle with dignitaries at a state ball."

37. Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon playing the piano.
National Archive/Newsmakers

Nixon's mother encouraged him to play piano at an early age and he went on to learn violin, clarinet, saxophone, and accordion. In 1961, he even performed a song he wrote on The Jack Paar Program.

38. Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford in 1934.
Michigan University/Getty Images

Ford attended the University of Michigan, where he was a star football player. The team won national titles in both 1932 and '33 (Ford's sophomore and junior years). After graduation, he turned down offers to play with both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers; instead, he took a coaching job at Yale University because he also wanted to attend their law school.

39. Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jimmy Carter was known for his frugality, and he went so far as to sell the presidential yacht while he was in office. The USS Sequoia had been in use since the Hoover administration, but by 1977, it cost $800,000 a year in upkeep and staffing. Carter sold it for $236,000.

40. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan in 1965.
Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images

Ronald Reagan's last acting role was also his first go as a villain. The film, 1964's The Killers, was based on an Ernest Hemingway story and was intended to be one of the first made-for-television movies. The network, however deemed it too violent for TV, so it was released in theaters instead.

41. George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara Bush in November 1978.
George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara Bush in November 1978.
Dirck Halstead/Liaison

George and his wife, Barbara, met as teenagers in 1941 and were married just over two years later. They died within months of each other in 2018, and their 73-year marriage was the longest of any first couple. (The second-longest presidential marriage was that of John and Abigail Adams at 54 years. Adams was the only other president whose son also held the job.)

42. Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton does a crossword puzzle
Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Bill Clinton enjoys crossword puzzles so much he once wrote the clues for a New York Times puzzle in 2017.

43. George W. Bush

George W. Bush goes jogging with an injured army veteran.
President George W. Bush jogs with Army Staff Sergeant Christian Bagge, who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq, at the White House in 2006.
Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool, Getty Images

In 1993—two years before he became the governor of Texas—George W. Bush ran the Houston marathon, finishing with a time of 3:44:52. He is the only president to have ever run a marathon.

44. Barack Obama

Obama playing basketball with his staff.
President Barack Obama plays basketball with cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House court in 2009.
Pete Souza, The White House via Getty Images

Barack Obama's love of basketball was well-documented during his presidency, but according to one of his high school teammates, he earned the nickname "Barry O'Bomber" because of all the tough shots he was known to take (and miss).

45. Donald Trump

Donald Trump with a book.
Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Of the many commercial products that Donald Trump has put his name on, the Tour de Trump—a bike race meant to be the American answer to the Tour de France—might be the oddest. It was called that for its first two years (1989-'90) before being renamed the Tour de DuPont for its final six years as an event.

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