Monday, August 30, 2021

Our Mammoth Tusk

by Erin Doane, Curator

Visitors love the mammoth tusk we have on display here at the Chemung County Historical Society. Multiple people have told me it’s the one thing they remember from a visit to the museum when they were kids. But how did it get here?

Mammoth tusk on display at CCHS, August 2021

Both mammoths and mastodons roamed the prehistoric Chemung Valley. Mastodons lived all around the world. They first appeared in the early Miocene (23 million to 2.6 million years ago) and continued to live in various evolutionary forms through the Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). Mammoths lived on every continent except for South America and Australia. Fossil remains found in North America date from the Pleistocene and the very early Holocene (11,700 years ago to the present). Both mammoths and mastodons share an ancient ancestor with modern elephants. While mammoths were about the same size of elephants, mastodons were shorter and more heavily built.

Mammoth (left) and mastodon (right) from Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the years, mammoth and mastodon tusks, teeth, and other remains have been found through our area. In 1933, a mammoth tooth was found in Elmira; in 1940, a mastodon skeleton including tusks was found in Big Flats; and in 1999, two mastodons and parts of a mammoth were found in Millport. Early Native Americans in the valley were said to have found a tusk near the river bank and named it “Chemung” which has been translated as “place of the big horn.”

In 1778, Judge Caleb Baker and two other men discovered a tusk sticking out of the water of the Chemung River near the narrows west of Chemung Village. In order the preserve the artifact and keep it from splitting, Judge Baker took it to a local blacksmith to have it banded in iron. Unfortunately, when the judge returned to pick up the tusk, he found that the blacksmith had sold it to a peddler who had taken it off to New England.

In the 1950s, when members of the Chemung County Historical Society were in the process of creating their first independent museum (they had been tenants of the Steele Library before that), they decided they wanted to include a mammoth tusk in their new displays. The Historical Society board made attempts to track down Judge Baker’s tusk but came up empty-handed after contacting the American Museum of Philadelphia, the Stockbridge Massachusetts Library Association, the Springfield Museum of Natural History, Williams College, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York State Museum, the Canadian Department of Resources and Development in Ottawa, and the British Museum (in hope that when the British lost control of North American territories the tusk might have been removed to London).

Since finding Judge Baker’s original tusk proved impossible, the board turned to having a model made for display. They contacted the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to inquire if they could create such a model. In response, the folks at the Natural History Museum offered an actual mammoth tusk from their collection that had been found in Alaska. All the Historical Society board had to do was pay for the tusk’s preservation treatment, which totaled $9 ($3 an hour for three hours’ labor), and the tusk was theirs. The board readily agreed and a member of the Natural History Museum and his wife loaded the tusk into their station wagon and drove it up to Elmira.

In my imagination, our mammoth tusk was brought to Elmira
in something like this 1950 Willys station wagon.

The mammoth tusk went on display in the Chemung County’s Historical Society’s new museum on William Street and then came over here to 415 East Water Street in the 1980s when CCHS moved into the old Chemung Canal Bank building. Today, you can still come and visit the ~11,000-year-old artifact prominently display in our Bank Gallery.


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