Science and Nature

A Vermont Moose Visits Paris in 1787

In 1784, a Vermont moose went to Paris to settle an argument between a French natural historian and Thomas Jefferson.

The historian, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count Buffon, attacked the character of the new American nation. He believed in the theory of degeneration, and he boosted it in Histoire Naturelle, a 44-volume exploration of the natural world.

Scientific Racism

Degeneration held that all natural elements began in one location (presumably Europe), where they existed in their purest form. As people, plants and animals spread out to other parts of the world, they degenerated into inferior versions of their species.

The theory, of course, provides one of many examples of scientific racism throughout history.

It held that Europeans were superior to their counterparts in other parts of the world. As humans moved farther from their European roots, living conditions and traditions, they degenerated. The same held true for animals.

moose

Inset: Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800.

Leclerc's theory played well with the European aristocracy since it described Americans, with democratic ideals, as inferior beings. And he didn't stop there. He castigated American Indians as physically weak people with small genitals and a limited drive to procreate.

Jefferson Pushes Back

Thomas Jefferson, American minister to France and himself an avid student of natural history, confronted LeClerc over his theories.

Indians, Jefferson noted, were as fertile as any people when afforded healthy surroundings.

LeClerc also held the lack of facial hair on many Indians was a sign of inferiority. Jefferson retorted that it was actually a product of Indian grooming traditions, which held that hair was unmanly. They plucked it. LeClerc agreed to correct his research in future editions.

Next Jefferson tried to challenge LeClerc on his assertions that European deer were much larger than their American counterparts. He told LeClerc of deer and elk with large antlers, to say nothing of the moose. Jefferson claimed the American moose were so tall a a European reindeer could walk underneath one without touching the moose's stomach.

To prove his point, Jefferson shipped from his home an enormous set of deer antlers. And LeClerc said he would stand corrected if Jefferson could prove his point about the moose.

The Vermont Moose

To defend the moose's honor, Jefferson badgered New Hampshire Gov. John Sullivan, as he knew moose abounded in Northern New England. He asked Sullivan to procure the bones and hide of a moose and ship them to France.

In 1786, Jefferson continued pressing Sullivan on the matter. In a letter he wrote:

"The readiness with which you undertook to endeavor to get for me the skin, the skeleton, and the horns of the Moose, the Caribou, . . . and the Elk, emboldens me to renew my application to you for those objects, which would be an acquisition here, more precious than you can imagine.

"Whatever expense you incur in procuring or sending these things, I will immediately repay either here or in Boston as you please."

After years of Jefferson's pestering, Sullivan finally rounded up a team of hunters who went moose chasing. They got their specimen, most likely in the town of Brookfield, Vt. The dead moose then began a long journey to France, via Durham and Portsmouth, N.H. where it was packed, along with an assortment of other animal specimens, and shipped to France.

An Expensive Trip

Sullivan didn't show his dismay with the request, but he did note the trouble to get the moose. When submitting his bill to Jefferson, he said, "from motives of friendship for you I only Charge for the expenses I have paid in Cash without any thing for my own Trouble which has been very considerable."

All in all, shipping the moose cost over 46 pounds. The bill included:

  • Paid to Capt. Robert Colburn for the Skeleton of a moose and Transporting to Durham.
  • moose horns and expence of procuring them.
  • a pair of Elks horns & expence of procuring.
  • a pair of Deers horns & expence of procuring.
  • pair of Caribous Horns & expense of procuring.
  • expense of cleansing the Skeleton from flesh and salting and tending the same to prevent putrefaction.
  • Expense of Dressing the Skins to preserve it with the hair on, free from worms & with expense of Alum brick Dust & Tobacco.
  • a Tanner for fleshing the Skins.
  • Expense of a Box and putting up the skeleton.
  • expense of sending the Box to Portsmouth.
  • horns of the Spike horned Buck.
  • Expense of 3 times sending to Effingham Connecticut River and the province of Main, to procure the skeleton
  • Truckage and Storage paid at Durham and Portsmouth

Though the moose skin and skeleton arrived somewhat worse for wear, they did persuade LeClerc he was incorrect in his assessment of the size of American moose. He promised to correct the error in a future edition of his work. He died, however, before he could publish.

Thanks to Jefferson, Buffon and the Moose by Keith Stewart Thomson in American Scientist; Antlers for Jefferson, New England Quarterly. This story about the Vermont moose that went to Paris was updated in 2019. 

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