strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Did George Give Aid and Comfort to the Enemy?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 20, 2012

In 1782, General George Washington sent a dozen men with wagons and tools north from West Point.  What was their mission?

1.  Collect dinosaur fossils.

2.  Build a bridge over the Fish Kill River.

3.  Dig up mastodon bones.

4.  Capture, hang, and bury the traitor Benedict Arnold.

And the answer is:

In the eighteenth-century, when natural history was the most exciting thing in the scientific world, it was common for even the busiest and most powerful men and women to take time to collect a new species, or to reach across enemy lines in joint pursuit of some precious fossil.

The American Revolution had already begun in 1775, for instance, when Benjamin Franklin instructed American warships not to interfere with Capt. James Cook as he was returning on HMS Resolution from his second voyage of discovery around the world.

And the war had not quite ended in 1782, when General George Washington lent a dozen men with wagons and tools to help an enemy officer excavate a mastodon in the Hudson River Valley.

It started two years earlier, after a ditch-digger turned up  teeth of the creature than known as the “incognitum” or “mammoth” in New Windsor, N.Y.   Gen. Washington made the 10-mile trip from the Continental Army’s winter encampment  at West Point.  He noted that these new finds matched a tooth in his private collection at home retrieved from Big Bone Lick in Kentucky.  Then in 1782, as negotiations to end the war proceeded, Gen. Washington lent a dozen men with wagons and tools to help an enemy officer, Dr. Christian Friedrich Michaelis, physician-general to the Hessian mercenaries employed by the British, in an unsuccessful attempt to excavate the rest of the bones.

The British would later extend the same courtesy to their French enemies.   When a ship fell into their hands carrying the natural history collection of an expedition by LaPérouse, Sir Joseph Banks declared, I have never heard of any declaration of war between the philosophers of England and the philosophers of France.  These French collections must go to the French museum, not the British.”

And how did the French behave, in turn?  Well, read chapter five in The Species Seekers where I talk about how the French anatomist Georges Cuvier got the specimens he used in describing–and naming–the mastodon.


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