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The Founding Monsters comic book was created as a science-friendly graphical storytelling framework that tells the story of the Founding Fathers and their obsession with prehistoric megafauna, especially mastodons and giant ground sloths. Founding Monsters combines sequential art (e.g. comic book style) with historical and scientific data. The first mastodon (Mammut americanum) fossils were found in New York in the early 18th century. Later in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was sent fossils from what is now West Virginia for what were eventually identified as bones from a giant ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni). The founding fathers, including not only Jefferson, but also Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, saw these and other isolated bones discovered in Kentucky, New York, and Virginia as critical to countering a notion that simply being in the Americas physically affected its inhabitants—animals, plants, and people—causing them to degenerate relative to their Old World counterparts. Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington all owned the fossils of Ice Age megafauna. Some of Jefferson’s mastodon and giant ground sloth fossils were collected by William Clark from Big Bone Lick at Jefferson’s request and these are preserved at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. While the fate of Washington’s mastodon fossils is unclear, a mastodon molar belonging to Franklin was found in property he owned in Philadelphia. However, even as more mastodon and giant ground sloth fossils were uncovered, they were not seen as a compelling counterpoint to the notion of American degeneracy—a complete or at least nearly complete skeleton was needed. In 1799, bones from a mastodon skeleton were discovered on a farm in Orange County, New York that elicited great interest from Jefferson and his compatriots, including Charles Willson Peale, a famous painter and owner of the first public museum in the U.S. In 1801, Peale traveled to New York to purchase the mastodon bones found two years earlier and the right to excavate more bones. As part of America’s first scientific excavation, he developed an ingenious pumping system consisting of a human-powered wooden wheel to remove water from his excavation areas, famously portrayed in his 1806 to 1808 painting Exhumation of the Mastodon. Peale recovered enough bones to reconstruct two mastodons, one of which was one of the first reconstructed fossil animals and displayed it in his museum in Philadelphia beginning on Christmas Eve in 1801.


American Incognitum, American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Willson Peale, Comte Buffon, Founding Fathers, George Washington, Mammoth Fossils, Mastodon Fossils, Moose Carcass, Theory of American Degeneracy, Thomas Jefferson, Mastodon, Mammoth, Fossils


Paleontology | United States History

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© 2021 Maggie Colangelo and Bernard K. Means


"This comic book was supported by a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship for Maggie Colangelo during the summer of 2020. The underlying research into the fossils by Dr. Means was supported by a VCU Humanities Research Center travel grant in March 2020 and a VCU seed grant in 2018 and 2019. Independence National Historical Park, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the Maryland Center for History and Culture made available the fossils that belong to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Willson Peale that were 3D scanned for the research by Dr. Means." (from Acknowledgements, p. 19)

Founding Monsters