Killing the Last Mammoth


An illustration of the mammoth that accompanied Tukeman's story. From the McClure's Magazine.

In October of 1899 McClure's Magazine ran a rather curious article by Henry Tukeman. Called "The Killing of the Mammoth" it began with a letter penned by a recently-deceased chap named Horace Conradi which released Tukeman from his promise to keep the slaughter of what may have been the last living mammoth a secret. Tukeman could finally tell his story.

Tukeman's story began in the untamed wilds of Alaska in 1890. There was little in the way of creature comforts, but Tukeman decided to stay the winter in Fort Yukon. One day during his stay he was showing some pictures of African animals he had hunted to an Inuit named "Joe" who, when Tukeman turned to a picture of an elephant, became very excited. Joe already knew of such a creature. He had seen one himself, up there in Alaska!

Joe's run in with the beast had occurred many years before while he was out hunting with his son. They were looking for beaver and other game when they had come across a huge animal, the Tee-Kai-Koa, bathing in a lake. It was a living woolly mammoth. Joe's son shot it but did not kill the behemoth, and afraid of what such a great beast might do when wounded the two Inuits rushed back home.

Tukeman was in awe of Joe's story. Could there still be mammoths alive in Alaska? If there were they presented a unique (and lucrative) opportunity. The only problem was that the harsh winter kept him in camp, but during the cold days he made plans to go to the spot Joe spoke of with a young Inuit named Paul when the weather got warmer. When the following summer melted the ice and snow they were on their way.

The trip was arduous but Paul and Tukeman soon found signs they were on the right track. They found a cave "paved" with the numerous remains of mammoths. Surely there would living ones nearby, and the bones provided Tukeman the chance to test the strength of the firearms he had brought for the hunt. His bullets punched right through vertebrae and skull bones: bringing down the mammoth might be easier than he thought.

On August 29th the hunters finally found their prey, yet they did not immediately try to gun it down. Joe had said that the mammoth he say followed the smoke from the gun his son had fired. Perhaps, Tukeman reasoned, mammoths were attracted to the smoke so that they could stomp out any forest fires before they really got going. To test this idea he and Paul spent nearly a month and a half creating a trap, a fire pit that would no doubt draw the mammoth. When it arrived it would be occupied with putting out the fire while the hunters fired from perches built high in the trees.

The mammoth did not disappoint. When the trap was set in the autumn the mammoth was drawn by the smoke and tried to stamp it out. Everything was going as planned.


An illustration of the mammoth that accompanied Tukeman's story. From the McClure's Magazine.

Paul and Tukeman did not waste their chance. They fired, over and over again, until blood oozed out of scores of bullet wounds in the animal's flesh. It was clearly suffering under the weight of its injuries, blood trickling from its mouth and trunk, but still it did not fall. Even a head shot failed to bring it down immediately, but after a few more moments it fell slumped forward to the ground and collapsed. The Tee-Kai-Koa was dead.

Paul and Tukeman skinned their prize and collected its bones, but by that time winter was setting in. They would not be able to leave until the following spring. Tukeman had hoped that the remains would be purchased by a great museum in Europe or America but Conradi, the man who put a gag order on Tukeman until 1899, offered a much larger sum than Tukeman could otherwise hope for. The plan was for Tukeman to stay silent while Conradi presented the mammoth as a discovery he had made himself.

It was a fantastic tale. Tukeman had not only seen a living mammoth but had brought it back for study. As he affirmed several times in his piece the skeleton was now in the hands of the Smithsonian where it could be appreciated by some of the nation's finest scientists. If only Tukeman's story were true!

Tukeman's story was written as a work of fiction. Tales of living mammoths had popped up in newspapers here and there and Tukeman's story was an imaginative extension of what so many reports hinted at. It had not been intended to deceive readers, but the "mammoth mania" soon deluged the magazine and the Smithsonian with letters concerning Tukeman's story. As printed in a a subsequent article meant to set readers straight on mammoths (reprinted in the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution) a McClure's editor wrote;

Ever since the appearance of that number of the magazine the authorities of the Smithsonian Institution, in which the author [F.A. Lucas] had located the remains of the beast of his fancy, have been beset with visitors to see the stuffed mammoth, and our daily mail, as well as that of the Smithsonian Institution, has been filled with inquiries for more information and for requests to settle wagers as to whether it was a true story or not.

There was a grain of truth in Tukeman's story, though. Some Inuits were indeed familiar with what living mammoths might have looked like. This is not because there really was some long lost Valley of the Mammoths, but rather because of more mundane events that happened over a decade before Tukeman wrote his story. It had all started with a few science books.


The Ward reconstruction of the mammoth, the one Townsend based his sketch off of. From the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.


In 1885 C.H. Townsend was aboard the Corwin when it stopped at Cape Prince of Wales, the easternmost portion of the American side of the Bering Strait. While docked there a group of Inuits came by carrying mammoth tusks and bones. The Inuits often carved ornaments, soup ladles, and other objects out of the fossil ivory and they brought these particular specimens for barter.


The crew asked whether the bones and tusks had come from live or dead animals. The Inuit replied that the remains had not come from living animals. They were nearly as perplexed about fossils as some of the crew, though. Had the sailors ever seen such bones? Townsend, a naturalist, had. He recognized the bones for what they were and pulled out a few illustrations of complete mammoth skeletons like the one on display in St. Petersburg, Russia.


The St. Petersburg mammoth. Townsend showed a figure similar to this to the Inuits who came aboard to Corwin. From the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.


The skeletons were impressive by themselves but the Inuit wanted to know what the animal had looked like when alive. Townsend penned a sketch based upon Ward's life reconstruction which was kept by the Inuits, and the illustration of the St. Petersburg mammoth was copied in meticulous detail on the deck of the ship. As Townsend hypothesized in a later report these drawings may have been reproduced over and over again so that people who had never seen any kind of living elephant would still be familiar with what one might look like. When reporters later came into contact with people who had seen these images surely they would have been stunned; how could the Inuit know what a mammoth looked like unless they had seen one?


This seemed plausible enough explanation for the living mammoth legends, and it was adopted by paleontologist Frederic Lucas and naturalist G.F. Kunz. Townsend, in his efforts to spread scientific understanding, had accidentally given journalists fuel to write sensationalist stories. Indeed, Tukeman's story only built on reports of living mammoths that had already appeared in newspapers all over the country. It was not designed as a hoax but since it built on what had already appeared in a "reliable" reporting it did not seem that outlandish.

Townsend's hypothesis for the origin of the hoax is certainly plausible but it is difficult to know for sure if it is correct. There was seemingly nothing from keeping his sketch from sparking the imaginations of Inuits and (later) reporters, but in later summaries the details of the newspaper reports of living mammoths were ignored. This is unfortunate as the nature of these reports might provide clues as to how the myth of living mammoths was transmitted. It is possible that some Inuits had seen an exceptionally-preserved mammoth with some soft tissue intact or that oral traditions played some role, as well. Without being able to tie the proliferation of stories about living mammoths with drawings it is difficult to know if Towsend was right. A little more digging will be needed to get to the bottom of this one.

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So mammoths are...attracted to fires so they can...stamp it out before it gets bigger. Really. Luring GINO with truckloads of makeral was more convincing.

"how could the Inuit know what a mammoth looked like unless they had seen one?"

Frozen remains of mammoths have been found in Siberia. It's not such a stretch of the imagination that some might have turned up in the Canadian Arctic too. That would certainly make an impression on the Inuit. The last known mammoths survived until 1700 BC on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Siberia. Oral traditions could have spread that was as well.

Thanks for reminding me, Romeo. That particular question was rhetorical, but I did have something in the conclusion that accidentally got lopped off about frozen carcasses and oral traditions. The timing of the event hints that Townsend's drawings may have had a role, but without seeing the first newspaper stories it is difficult to know how the late 19th century living mammoth myth spread.

There may be some controversy about the origin of Inuit accounts of the mammoth, but I think the the mystery of the origin of the following joke has been solved:

Why do ducks have flat feet?
From stamping out forest fires.

Why do elephants have flat feet?
From stamping out flaming ducks.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 27 Apr 2009 #permalink

I've never read Tukeman's story (just a summary of it), but I read the Smithsonian article in the 1901 Report just last week. I guess you beat me to this one.

Townsend's story is a good example of the danger of cultural contamination. From the 1880s to the 1930s there were a number of scholarly articles written attempting to prove that Native Americans still had knowledge of Quaternary megafauna. Some legends seemed to imply such knowledge. The problem is that all of the legends came from people who could have acquired information from Europeans and added it to their legends.

Westerners have a bad habit of looking at hunter, fisher and gatherer cultures as being frozen in time - unchanging copies of the past. The same bad habit led - and still leads - many into believing that legends were static and unchanging. Recognizing that "primitive" cultures change in without following the same path of state building and technological progress has been a hard lesson for anthropologists to learn. Primitive people move around, adapt to new ecologies, climate change, and local disasters. They interact with other cultures and borrow beliefs as well as tools from each other.

It's easy for an interesting detail like a trunk to be picked up and passed across the continent to be applied to various giant spirits. Until explorers on the Ohio River told the locals that mastodons were elephant-like creatures, the locals reconstructed the bones into giant buffalo (the tusks were horns). When they were told about elephants, they had no problem adopting details from the Europeans and making them their own.

Thanks, John. I was hoping you would chime in! I actually just stumbled across this one last night. I was looking for old hoaxes or myths and just kept pulling at the thread. Thank you for your wonderful comment, too!

What a fascinating story. And I have to say that as a fiction writer myself I'm tickled that this story could have the impact it did, even though it perpetuated a myth.

That was fantastic! Thanks, Brian. "Terminal Freeze" Part 2, maybe?

DID the last mammoths survive until the 1700s? So near and yet so far.

I have also read that the Inuit make a cats-cradle version of a mammoth, which was interpreted as long-term cultural memory.

It does make a good story, but the idea of mammoths as natures fire fighters does stretch the point a bit, though maybe the use of the trunk as a fire hose was an aspect that could have been developed.

I have do have some problems with the cultural contamination explanantion for north American natives knowing about mammoths. While I can see how individual natives may have learned of the existence of mammoths/mastodons in this way, I think it is a big stretch to imply this became common knowledge across wide areas of North America. The line seems to be that since this is a possible explanation, it will be treated as the explanantion. Unless it can be demonstrated that such diffusion of information did occur, then this is just supposition. I certainly think that apparent knowledge of mammoths/mastodons across a wide area of North America, spanning a number of cultures and a significant number of individuals is intriguing and could do with an explanation, and dismissing it all as due to cultural contamination because there are a few cases where Europeans had shared that information does not strike me as particuarly convincing.

That is not to say I believe that mammoths survived in North America within the last few centuries, we would need substantial evidence to warrant that conclusion. Though I gather there is more postive evidence for the survival of mastodons in central America within the last 2,500 years.

They made it till about 1700 BC. They were also somewhat dwarfed from being on an island. There was another population on the Pribilof Islands that survived till 2700 BC. In both cases it had to be hunters arriving that did them in, though, ironically, the hunters were probably looking for walruses.

And, if I might indulge in a little self promotion, I have a post following up on Laelaps'.

Corax; Part of Townsend's hypothesis is that the Inuit had big annual meetings where these images could have been disseminated or copied. It still requires confirmation, but there at least seemed to be the potential for the mammoth meme to spread.

John; I saw it this morning. Thank you for the links and the follow up! I simply cannot wait to read your book (if I could I would hold off reading anything about mammoths until it hit the shelves).

My one caveat is that it doesn't seem *that* unlikely that a folk memory of some of the big megafauna could be preserved over 10-11 thousand years, especially since the date they last appear in fossils probably isn't their *actual* extinction date. (I doubt many tiger fossils are getting formed anymore.)

Even if they are fictional, it seems incorrect to call the natives in Tukeman's story 'Inuit'. That part of Alaska is populated by other native peoples:

My one caveat is that it doesn't seem *that* unlikely that a folk memory of some of the big megafauna could be preserved over 10-11 thousand years

Depending on which natives we are talking about, some of their ancestors arrived in North America much later than that. They might retain stories of Siberian mammoths, but I think it gets a bit difficult to construct a plausible scenario for that.

You're right; the natives around the Fort Yukon and Porcupine River area are Gwich'in Athabaskans. The natives that Townsend met were Inupiaq Eskimo. Technically, Inuit only refers to the Canadian Eskimos. I'm not sure if it's still current, but when I left Alaska twenty years ago, Alaskan Eskimos were okay with being called Eskimo (but don't call them Indians). The Athabaskans were okay with Indian or Native American (but don't call them Eskimos). Athabaskans are part of the Dene language group which also includes the Navajo and Apache. The two largest groups of Alaskan Eskimo are the Inupiaq (in the North) and Yupik (in the West). The Eskimoan languages divide into two groups, Inupiaq is part of the same group with Inuit while Yupik and a few smaller Alaskan languages form the other group. A friend of mine who is a librarian for the Anchorages school district recently told me they have been developing teaching resources in Inupiaq and Yupik.

The trend hen I left was to call the Inupiaq and Yupik by their own names and not lump them together with the Inuit. The movement of the outside press and academic world to follow the Canadians in using Inuit as a replacement for Eskimo is something that happened in the years since I left, so I'm not really sure what to do with Inuit. I still say Eskimo.

Don't stop reading. I still need to finish writing it and then try to sell it with no academic or journalistic affiliation to loan me credibility. This could take a while.

Thanks for the correction, John. I was thinking that a cat's cradle pattern for mammoths would be much more likely to survive from 1885 than from 1700 (or 1700 B.C.). It's interesting how we casually accept island dwarfing and island gigantism except when it comes to H. floresiensis. Then it's a big deal to be rationalized away.

I've read your articles about the invasion of the Roman empire and the mammoth bones. Neat!