strange behaviors

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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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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