Grizzly Bears Once Lived in the White House

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iStock

The history of the White House is full of weird pets, from John Quincy Adams’s alligator to Calvin Coolidge’s menagerie (which included both a wallaby and a pygmy hippopotamus). But one of the odder tales occurred in 1807, when Thomas Jefferson received an adorable gift of animals that soon went dangerously awry.

Jefferson’s gift came from Captain Zebulon Pike, an intrepid explorer who made it his mission to head into formerly uncharted Western territory. Pike undertook two ambitious military reconnaissance expeditions, one to discover the source of the Mississippi River, and the other focused on the Red and Arkansas Rivers.

He wasn’t the first person to head west to map the as-yet-unfamiliar territory: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had been sent on the first American western expedition by the Army just a few years earlier. But instead of heading up to the Pacific Northwest, Pike headed southwest in April 1806. He made it as far as Colorado—giving Pikes Peak its name—before apparently getting lost and wandering into what was then the Spanish territory of New Mexico (the degree to which he was really lost, as opposed to trying to gather military information on the Spanish, has been debated by historians). He was detained by the Spaniards, but released unharmed after a year.


Pike’s expedition was no sightseeing trip [PDF]: Its real purpose was to lay the foundation for an American empire that stretched from coast to coast. And what better way to thank the president for that lofty commission than to share a little gift of appreciation? In October 1807, Pike sent along a pair of young “Grisly Bears (mail & femail) which I bought from the dividing ridges of the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans,” along with a letter that said that the natives considered them “the most ferocious Animals of the continent.”

The bear cubs were cute curiosities, but they weren’t exactly safe. In a time before modern zoos, nobody really knew how to care for them properly—or exactly how large they’d grow. For a while, the president put his increasingly treacherous gift in a cage near the north entrance to the White House. His political enemies called the enclosure the president’s “bear-garden,” a term used to refer to a place ruled by grisly uproar, much like the Elizabethan bear-baiting spots that spawned the term.

But the president didn't want to keep the cubs for long. In a letter to his granddaughter, he wrote that the bears “are too dangerous and troublesome to keep.” Jefferson had a backup plan: Charles Willson Peale. A noted American painter, Peale opened a museum in 1782 that started out as a portrait gallery but soon became a cabinet of curiosities. Peale even invented a new way of displaying animals in an early version of the diorama, showing off animal specimens in front of painted backgrounds.

Peale had already had a bad run-in with a grizzly bear that he tried to display in 1804. Yet he couldn’t exactly turn down the president’s request that he take on the “perfectly gentle” animals [PDF]. The bears took up residence at the museum, but alas: According to a historian at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, they, too, outgrew their cages and were shot after one of them threatened a member of the Peale family. Their mounted skins were later put on display in the museum.

The tale of Jefferson’s cute gift gone awry is a reminder that poorly-thought-out presents aren’t always appreciated—and that back in that heady age of American empire, almost nothing seemed impossible.

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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The Arlington National Cemetery Just Opened Its Time Capsule from 1915—See What’s Inside

That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
Arlington National Cemetery, YouTube

In the decades following the Civil War, thousands of people assembled in Arlington National Cemetery’s James R. Tanner Amphitheater to honor the fallen soldiers each May on Decoration Day (which we now call Memorial Day). By the early 20th century, the event had grown so popular that Congress agreed to build a new, larger arena in its place: the Memorial Amphitheater.

When President Woodrow Wilson laid the cornerstone on October 13, 1915, it contained a copper box with documents and mementos that captured the spirit of the era. Though the contents weren’t kept a secret, you can now actually see them for yourself—on May 15, 2020, Arlington National Cemetery celebrated the centennial of the amphitheater’s dedication ceremony by opening the time capsule and displaying them in a virtual exhibit.

Inside the box was one of each coin used in 1915; uncirculated stamps bearing images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; an autographed photo of Wilson; a Bible signed by amphitheater architect Thomas Hastings; the dedication ceremony program; directories of both Congress and Washington D.C. residents; Civil War veterans’ pamphlets; four issues of local newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Washington Times; copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; an American flag; and a map of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s blueprints for building the city.

As Smithsonian.com reports, a few of those documents became outdated soon after being sealed in the box. The 1915 version of the Constitution had 17 amendments, but two new ones had been passed by the end of 1920: the 18th, prohibiting alcohol, and the 19th, giving women the right to vote. The American flag, on the other hand, was already inaccurate when it went into the time capsule. Though Arizona and New Mexico had both been annexed in 1912, bringing the state total to 48, the flag only included 46 stars.

Some of the items were wrapped in red tape, a seemingly insignificant detail that Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero found especially exciting.

“All of the records in the National Archives, when they were moved into that building, were carefully protected with wrappings that were held together with this red tape,” he said in a statement. “This is where the saying comes (from) about cutting through the red tape. It is actually—literally—the red tape.”

For the last few decades, the copper box shared its hollow cornerstone abode with another, less official time capsule: A Peter Pan-brand peanut butter jar, stuffed with business cards and other notes. The box had been relocated to the National Archives while the amphitheater underwent repairs in 1974, and the workers snuck the jar into the hollow when replacing it during the 1990s.

“It was sort of a rush job,” conservator Caitlin Smith told The Washington Post. “But you can understand the impulse to add your name to history.”

You can learn more about the history of the Memorial Amphitheater and discover more about the exhibit here.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]