Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by gift to the University of Virginia; by loan to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1949
Accession Number: 1949-1
Historical Notes: The most likely source for the moose antlers now at Monticello is either William Whipple or John Sullivan, both residents of New England from whom Jefferson requested moose antlers, bones, and skins. Jefferson became interested in the possibility that the American moose might be a species distinct from the European moose while he was writing Notes on the State of Virginia.
In the winter of 1783-1784, when Jefferson was revising Notes, he sent queries about the moose to Sullivan and Whipple. Eager to refute the comte de Buffon's assertions about the inferiority of American species, Jefferson wanted the answers to such questions as:
Is not the Caribou and the Black Moose one and the same Animal? ... Has it a Sollid or Cloven Hoof? ... Do their feet make a loud ratling as they run? ... Do they sweat when hard run or only drip at the tongue?1
Whipple passed the survey on to three men better acquainted with the moose, and Jefferson received four replies.2
At the same time that Jefferson sent the survey, he apparently requested a specimen of the moose. Sullivan wrote to him in June 1784:
I have procured from the head of the province of Main a Large pair of Mooses horns and a pr. of the [caribou], together with a pair of our Largest Deers horns .... This will Demonstrate the great difference between these animals.3
No record survives indicating whether Jefferson received the horns.
In 1786, Jefferson met Buffon in Paris and, among other topics, they discussed the American moose. Jefferson renewed his request for "the skin, the skeleton, and the horns of the Moose, the Caribou, and the Orignal or Elk" to both Sullivan and Whipple, adding that they would be "an acquisition here, more precious than you can imagine."4 Sullivan succeeded in procuring a moose from Vermont, dressing it to Jefferson's specifications and, with great difficulty, shipped the moose — skeleton and all — to France.5
The moose, along with horns from the caribou, elk, deer, spiked horned buck, and roebuck, arrived in late September 1787. Jefferson presented them to Buffon on October 1, with a copy of Notes and a letter describing the species. "I really suspect," Jefferson wrote,
you will find that the Moose, the Round horned elk, and the American deer are species not existing in Europe. The Moose is perhaps of a new class. I wish these spoils, Sir, may have the merit of adding any thing new to the treasures of nature ....6
Jefferson hoped that Buffon would mount the moose and place it on display in the King's Cabinet, but it is not known if it was exhibited there.7 Although Jefferson's efforts helped to disprove Buffon's theory of the degeneracy of animals in America and dismiss the notion that the moose was the same as a Lapland deer, Buffon did not live to correct his errors.8 As Jefferson related to Daniel Webster many years later, Buffon "promised in his next volume, to set those things right also; but he died directly afterwards."9
1. "John McDuffee to John Sullivan, with Answers to Queries concerning the Moose," March 5, 1784, enclosed in John Sullivan to Jefferson, March 12, 1784, in PTJ, 7:23. Transcription available at Founders Online.
2. For query replies, see Whipple to Jefferson, March 15, 1784, in ibid., 7:28-30 (transcription available at Founders Online); Sullivan to Jefferson, March 12, in ibid., 21-24 (transcription available at Founders Online); Sullivan to Jefferson, June 22, 1784, in ibid., 317-20 (transcription available at Founders Online).
3. Sullivan to Jefferson, June 22, 1784, in ibid., 7:317-20. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Jefferson to Whipple, January 7, 1786, in ibid., 9:161 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Sullivan, January 7, 1786, in ibid., 9:160 (transcription available at Founders Online).
5. Sullivan to Jefferson, April 16, 1787, in ibid., 11:295-97 (transcription available at Founders Online); April 26, 1787, in ibid., 11:320-21 (transcription available at Founders Online); May 9, 1787, in ibid., 11:359 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Sullivan, October 5, 1787, in ibid., 12:208 (transcription available at Founders Online). For a summary of Sullivan's efforts, see Anna Clark Jones, "Antlers for Jefferson,"The New England Quarterly vol. 12, no. 2 (1939): 333-48.
6. Jefferson to Comte de Buffon, Paris, October 1, 1787, in PTJ, 12:194-95. Transcription available at Founders Online.
7. Jefferson to Sullivan, October 5, 1787, in ibid., 12:208-09. Transcription available at Founders Online.
8. Jefferson to John Rutledge, Jr., September 9, 1788, in ibid., 13:593-94. Transcription available at Founders Online.