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.