More on Mastodon Tooth

Back to the ancient mastodon tooth recovered nearly 150 years ago in a Colrain “muck bed” two miles up the hill from my upper Greenfield Meadows home and discussed in my last column. New information worth sharing has since come to light.

To me, a retired newspaperman, it made sense all along that Elias Bardwell’s December 2, 1871 discovery of this 1.5-pound proboscidean molar on his East Colrain Road farm would have made the local newspaper. Yet I couldn’t connect online despite several name-, topic-, and site-specific keyword searches. At that point, I decided it wasn’t worth a chase to tedious library microfilm.

Well, as it turned out, I didn’t need microfilm. Reporter editor Mike Jackson came to the rescue. The young man’s innate curiosity and laudable perseverance struck online gold in cumbersome, unindexed Greenfield Gazette and Courier archives. Jackson knew of a multi-newspaper online archive to search and, sure enough, found precisely what he was looking for: the fresh Colrain tooth tale.

I cannot overstate what a luxury it is to submit copy to such an engaged, diligent editor. Never in more than 40 years in the newspaper business have I worked for such a man – an editor most interested in the story, not kowtowing to some advertiser or protecting a town official or editorial opinion with bogus claims of poor taste, inappropriateness or reporting bias. Haughty, rigid newspaper editors at small-town dailies are a dime a dozen, Jackson a rare exception.

So, yes, there it was, buried in this obscure yet very useful online newspaper repository, including the Gazette and Courier – a four-page weekly broadsheet covering Franklin County in the 19th century. On Page 2 of the Greenfield paper’s December 11, 1871 issue, a little blurb about Bardwell’s discovery headlined “Big Tooth” looks more like a contemporary classified ad for cord wood than a news story. Though brief and speculative, the report provides key, previously elusive information about Bardwell’s find – contextual stuff like the precise date (December 2, 1871), why he was digging (to fertilize cropland with organic marsh muck), and what exactly was meant by “muck bed” (swamp) in 19th century vernacular.

Most interesting is the rapid sequence of published reports citing Bardwell’s find, then expert intervention. First, the December 11 newspaper story understandably misidentifies the tooth as “three united teeth that must have belonged to a species of animals long since extinct.” Can we really expect an 1871 local newspaper to know anything about mastodon teeth? Unlikely. A quick trip through the eBay market of mastodon teeth clearly illustrates how someone who knew nothing about Columbian mastodons could believe a single, six-peaked tooth was three. Plus, the Gazette and Courier report admits uncertainty by closing with the suggestion that the peculiar, large molar be “sent somewhere for scientific inspection” and, presumably, positive identification.

Someone at the paper likely recommended tooth inspection by Amherst College professor Dr. Edward Hitchcock Jr., an expert with deep Deerfield roots. He’d likely know what he was viewing. Hitchcock was a scholar of Ice Age beasts and would have been the contemporaneous authority on Connecticut Valley prehistory, paleontology, and geology.

It didn’t take long for a Hitchcock assessment – less than a month, in fact, in a time before motor vehicles, when a winter trip between Colrain and Amherst could be a daunting task. We know it all happened fast because the Gazette and Courier published a follow-up less than a month later, on January 8, 1872, under a small, bold “Coleraine” headline. This brief account corrects the record with Hitchcock’s identification as not three but one tooth – “a grinder” from the mouth of a “veritable mastodon.”

Just four days later, on January 12, 1872, Hitchcock wrote a letter reporting Bardwell’s discovery to the editors of the American Journal of Science: Scientific Intelligence, Geology and Natural Science, documenting the tooth for posterity in a respected national periodical.

That 1872 Journal of Science reference is what alerted Amherst archaeologist Stuart Fiedel and South Deerfield sidekick Bud Driver to the Colrain tooth, perhaps only a tiny piece of the ancient mastodon remains at the site. Because the Bardwell tooth seems now to have disappeared or, at the least, lost its site association, the men would like to find associated skeletal remains from which to get a radiocarbon date. The date would allow them to plug the Colrain find into a sparse western Massachusetts database that includes two other sites, one in South Egremont, the other Northborough.

Though there are undoubtedly other Western Mass swamps that contain mastodon remains, they have not been and probably never will be found. The small fraternity of scientific sleuths currently trying to solve North American mastodon puzzles is slim indeed, though seemingly gaining a little steam recently, this Colrain probe a local example.

The East Colrain beaver-pond wetland bordering the southern meadow facing the old Elias Bardwell farmstead snugly fits the profile of sites where mastodon remains have most often been uncovered over the years, often by farmers digging swamps into ponds. Because mastodons drank an incredible amount of water daily, they gravitated to springs not only for water but also for the plant foods growing in wet areas during the late Pleistocene.

Such wet, mucky sites were thus advantageous to predators like dire wolves, saber-tooth cats and, yes, even Paleo hunters trying to mire and kill their large, dangerous prey without being injured or killed. What remains buried some 13,000 years later, preserved in lime-rich marl (clay), are bones, ivory tusks, teeth, and perhaps even human remains and/or artifacts linking them to Clovis or even pre-Clovis human hunters.

The digging of ponds is relatively easy these days with mechanical equipment such as backhoes. However, 19th-century farmers who relied on hand shovels and elbow grease and horse- or ox-drawn contraptions didn’t shy away from opening up a pond for livestock or, more likely, filling their carts with organic swamp muck, with which they fertilized agricultural fields.

Such fertilization was common and necessary in hilltowns like Colrain, where topsoil was thin and railroad depots distant, increasing the cost of imported fertilizers like guano, shipped from South America and lugged to the countryside by rail. Hilltown farmers relied on homegrown fertilizers, including organic swamp muck, manure, and compost waste, such as apple pomace from the cider mill, which could be spread over fields.

If you read between the lines of the January 8, 1872 Gazette and Courier piece about the mastodon tooth, it’s likely that Bardwell was filling an oxcart with swamp muck the day he found the tooth. Why? Because the story closes by encouraging local farmers to “keep their eyes open to such things, now that they are doing so much with” swamp-muck fertilizer.

How important and widespread was the mucking of farm fields? Howard S. Russell, author of A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England, cites “one farmer applying 5,000 oxcart loads of swamp mud to 25 acres in the course of 15 years.” Do the math. That computes to 320 loads per year, more than a load a day excluding Sundays.

Although December may seem a little late for such an 1871 Colrain chore, the richest, blackest, organic muck of inner swamps never freezes solid and would have been accessible to Bardwell, who could have stayed atop the frozen outer margins without breaking through.

So, there you have it: a new twist that better identifies the location of Bardwell’s hilltown tooth discovery. Now, with the site narrowed down, it could be easier for researchers to go there and take core samples, or comb the wetland with probing rods to find bones of the beast whose massive molar surfaced in the East Colrain “muck bed.”

Yes, the tooth could have been transported downstream by a freshet or the break of a beaver dam along upper Workman Brook, the spring sources of which are less than a half-mile above the meadow and beaver-pond basin visible from the old Bardwell house. In the upper Pleistocene when mastodons roamed, that beaver meadow would likely have been a pond.

Stay tuned. This is a developing story awaiting spring exploration.

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