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The First Indian Immigrants to the US: A Living Elephant

The First Indian Immigrants to the US: The first two immigrants from India to the United States had fortunes in their trunks!

The lucrative Indo-American trade began about 1790 and fortunes were being made on both shores. Captain Jacob Crowninshield of Massachusetts made a few trips to India on his family-owned ship “The America”.It was on one such voyage that he saw an elephant for the first time. In those days no American zoo had an elephant and the first sight of the mammoth creature must have left him in awe.

The Living Elephant Show advertisement in a local daily
The Living Elephant Show advertisement in a local daily

The incident also tickled the business acumen of Jacob. With the idea of making a profit by having an elephant on a ticketed public display he bought one. On November 2, 1795, Captain Crowninshield’s journal read: “We take home a fine young elephant two years old, at $450.00. It is almost as large as a very large ox, and I dare say we shall get it home safe, if so it will bring at least $5000.We shall at first be obliged to keep it in the southern states until it becomes hardened to the climate.” America sailed from Calcutta with its live cargo on December 3, 1795.

A Colonial Demise in the Decolonial Era

One of the officers on board was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father who thought it fit to write on the side of the ship “Elephant on Board”.Hawthorne’s journal also records thatthere was a replenishment stop at St. Helena Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to get “greens for the elephant.”
His son went on to write “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Scarlet Letter”.

Bailey and Barnum poster
Bailey and Barnum poster

The news of the arrival of the ship on April 13, 1796, in Salem made headlines. A New York publication wrote: “The Ship America, Captain Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, Massachusetts, Commander and owner, has brought home an elephant from Bengal in perfect health. It is the first ever seen in America and is a great curiosity. It is a female of two years. America’s first pachyderm was aptly christened ‘The Crowninshield Elephant’ after its owner.

The name stuck though Jacob sold the elephant immediately on docking for $10000.

The “Elephant on Display” shows began and thereafter it toured the eastern US. Large crowds paid to see the animal. The Argus and Green Leaf Advertiser ran a notice on 23 April 1776 of an elephant on display in New York. Later advertisements go to prove its presence in Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia. Even President George Washington paid to see the elephant on the 16th of November 1796 as evidenced by his Philadelphia Household Account Book. There are no records nor details on what happened to the first elephant in the US.

The Elephant Hotel now a Town Hall
The Elephant Hotel now a Town Hall

In 1804, another elephant arrived in Boston.
The owner was a farmer Hachaliah Bailey of Somers, New York.The success of a farm those days was dependent on the weather which often brought in no revenue.Many thus had other businesses as a fallback. Bailey was invested in a ship and a toll collection company.

It was a trip to New York in 1805 while taking cattle to be sold that he saw the elephant on sale.Whether he made this decision to buy her at $1000 for farm work or for display is not clear. He decided to call her Old Bet.

Once when he was back in Somers he saw that Old Bet attracted a lot of attention and he promptly put her on show. It was 25 cents for those willing to see old Bet. With the good revenue coming in from putting her on display, Bailey visited the towns of Putnam and the neighbouring counties.He travelled at night so that people would not have the privilege of a “free look.”! He kept his star out of sight in a barn till it was time for the public viewing.

John Sullivan, the elephant, in Somers 1922 garlanding the statue of Old Bet
John Sullivan, the elephant, in Somers 1922 garlanding the statue of Old Bet

The success of such a business encouraged him to start the menagerie business and soon rhinoceros, monkeys parrots, camels and all animals that were uncommon were put on show.It also included four chariots, a trained dog, a horse and some pigs and was the start of Bailey’s Circus that later mentored Barnum. Within a few years, this circus had become famous.

Hachaliha Bailey
Hachaliah Bailey

Old Bet toured with Bailey in different parts of America for many years. In 1816, Hachaliah Bailey toured up the Kennebec River stopping at many ports of call on the route and finally proceeded to the town of Alfred, Maine.

On July 24, 1816, when Old Bet was 20 years old, Daniel Davis shot and killed it in front of Bailey. Davis was a “miserable vagabond” who confesse that he did as he felt people should not spend money to see the performance of an animal and that it was sinful.

After Old Bet’s death, Bailey returned to Somers.In 1821, Bailey sold Old Bet’s remains to the American Museum in new York City.In 1825 he started building the Elephant Hotel.On completion of the building in 1825,Bailey erected a tall granite pole in front of the hotel with a wooden statue of Old Bet atop it.

The Crowninshield Elephant gets loaded
The Crowninshield Elephant gets loaded

On 9 April 1922, a circus elephant christened John Sullivan started its 53 mile walk from New York to the Elephant Hotel in Somers. Four days later, it gave a befitting tribute by garlanding the monument to Old Bet.

The hotel is now the Town Hall but the elephant’s memorial is still there.

The statue of Old Bet in a way commemorates the first Indian immigrants to the United States! The only Indian immigrants, whose carry-on trunks made fortunes!!!

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