Seeing the Elephant

Diaries and letters from the Gold Rush year of 1849 often include references to “the elephant” or to “seeing the elephant,” which refer not to a flesh-and-blood animal, but to an imaginary beast symbolizing the journey to California. Merrill Mattes’s Great Platte River Road (1969, 1979) explains the elephant as

the popular symbol of the Great Adventure, all the wonder and the glory and the shivering thrill of the plunge into the ocean of prairie and plains, and the brave assault upon mountains and deserts that were gigantic barriers to California gold. It was the poetic imagery of all the deadly perils that threatened a westering emigrant. Thus, on his first day out of St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1852, [emigrant] John Clark wrote, ‘All hands early up anxious to see the path that leads to the Elephant.’ In 1849 James D. Lyon, ten miles east of Fort Laramie, was defiant: ‘We are told that the Elephant is in waiting, ready to receive us. . . . if he shows fight or attempts to stop us on our progress to the golden land, we shall attack him with sword and spear.’

No one has quite nailed down the origin of this mythical figure, often more vivid in imagination than the real three-dimensional rattler or buffalo. This creature seldom appeared except on the fringes of danger, and then it was only a fleeting glimpse. During a cattle stampede, says Martha Morgan, ‘I think I saw the tracks of the big elephant.’ Excited about his first buffalo chase, David Staples ‘went out to get a nearer view of the elephant.’ This phantom appeared most often during violent storms. James Abbey felt a ‘brush of the elephant’s tail,’ while Niles Searls ‘had a peep at his proboscis.’ In a particularly vicious hail storm, writes Walter Pigman, ‘The boys concluded the elephant was somewhere in the neighborhood.’

Despairing after a long succession of stampedes and deaths by cholera, Joseph Wood exclaimed, ‘Now methinks I see the elephant with unclouded eyes!’ Of turnarounds–that is, emigrants who gave up and went back home–it was said that ‘they had seen enough of the elephant.’ Of one who turned back after having gone seven hundred miles, Francis Sawyer said, ‘He had seen the Elephant and eaten its ears.’ The joys and sorrows, the hazards and heartaches of the covered wagon emigrants were enough to populate a whole continent full of elephants.

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

The Woman on the White Horse

The Woman on the White Horse

The Silver Bugs of 1896

The Silver Bugs of 1896

Marker Monday: Japanese Balloon Bombs

Marker Monday: Japanese Balloon Bombs

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

Education Digital Learning Resources

Find games, lists, and more to enhance your history education curriculum.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

History Nebraska Services

Digital Resources

Find all of our digital resources, files, videos, and more, all in one easy-to-search page!

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.