By Iris Sasson
The Band of hunters moved carefully through the forest. They were clothed in animal skins, and carried wooden spears with stone arrowheads lashed to the ends. As the glaciers had retreated, their ancestors had followed the caribou into this land of lakes and trees. Wildlife was abundant, and the tribe, eventually to be known as Lenape, settled into area caves and made this rich land their home.
Today they were clearly excited. One of them had found the tracks of the yakewi, the mastodont, the largest creature in the area, and they knew it was not far away.
Soon they could hear the rustling and cracking as it fed on the bushes and the lower branches of the trees nearby. They ran up as close as they dared, and hurled their spears at the huge, elephant-like mammal. The stone tips pierced its skin. The mastodont trumpeted in alarm and began to run. The band of
hunters followed, hoping the creature would fall from loss of blood. It would provide food for the entire settlement.
The frenzied animal ran to the nearest body of water to ease its pain in the cold. As it lumbered into the wide pond, its feet became enmired in the soft clay at the bottom, and the band of hunters arrived at water’s edge to see the screeching mastodont sink from their view. Disappointed, they turned to seek other prey.
Ten thousand years later, in June 1901, the New York State Paleontologist hired Uriah Kronk of Monroe, New York to supervise a dig at Willow pond on Spring Street. A number of mastodont bones were found.
Ten thousand years ago, a large part of what is now Orange County lay below water. The glaciers, as they melted and retreated at the end of the Ice Age, left huge lakes and marshy areas in their wake. Most of the black-dirt farmland was under water. Present-day lakes and ponds were larger than they are now, and usually surrounded by bogs.
Primitive tribes of men hunted the animals that roamed the woods and the bogs. We know that humans lived in this area ten thousand years ago because artifacts, the remains of their tools and utensils, have been found near their cave dwelling-places and dated. The descendents of these people were the Lenni-Lenape tribes, and their language preserved the native word yakewi for mastodont. The largest of the animals these paleo-men hunted were the mastodonts. The name means "nipple-tooth," and their uniquely shaped teeth were made for crushing and chewing not merely leaves and grasses, but small branches and bushes.
The final "t" has often been left out, and many of us know these animals as mastodons, but paleontologists prefer the name mastodont, which maintains the Latin root for "tooth."
Although mastodont bones are very rare, more have been found in New York State than in any other area of the world, and more have been found in Orange County than in any other area of New York State. As the Ice Age was ending, the clay-bottomed lakes and marshes of the area provided the ideal preservation medium. Regular soil allows organic matter to disintegrate and rot, but clay is so dense and heavy that no oxygen is available. Bones of animals enveloped in clay were preserved. The mastodont bones that were found in Orange County were all discovered in the clay layer under the marshes and the black dirt farms. The black dirt, in turn, was created from the vegetation that decomposed in the swamps as they dried into arable land.
Excavation of Mastondont Bones in the Mill Pond -1937
Mastodont bones have been found in more than forty locations in Orange County. The earliest recorded find was in Montgomery in 1780. It is recorded that someone brought a mastodont tooth to General George Washington’s headquarters and laid it on the table. Picture the expression of astonishment on their faces! No one knew what kind of animal would have a tooth that huge or that peculiar shape.
Four skeletons have been found in the town of Monroe, and one in nearby Blooming Grove. In 1888, mastodont bones were found in Willow Pond by Martin Konnight. In 1901, Uriah Kronk of Monroe, as supervisor of a dig under the auspices of the New York State Paleontologist, hired laborers who found several bones in Willow Pond on the site of the present Smith Clove Park. In 1925, Roscoe Smith and the Museum of Natural History supervised excavation of teeth, a partial tusk and skull.
These were found while workers were excavating for the dam above the present Orange and Rockland lakes in the town of Blooming Grove. In 1936/7, Roscoe Smith supervised the excavation of a mastodont skeleton from the Monroe millpond, opposite Knight Street. In 1952, mastodont remains were found in Harriman, near the present Monroe-Woodbury Fitness Center. This dig, too, was organized by Roscoe Smith, with the cooperation of the Museum of Natural History. The specimen, the most complete in the State of New York, was eventually mounted and displayed at the Museum Village (also founded by Roscoe Smith), where it can be seen today.
Bones and teeth from mastodont remains have been shipped from here to museums and universities all over the world. Of all the mastodont remains found in Orange County, only two and a quarter remain here today. One is at the Museum Village of Smith’s Clove, and the other, originally found at Sugar Loaf, is on display at the Bio-Med Building of Orange County Community College. The quarter specimen is at the Trailside Museum at Bear Mountain.
The lakes and ponds which distinguish our area and the fertile black dirt worked by today’s farmers are what is left of the ancient land on which prehistoric man hunted the yakewi, and the mammoth and the mastadont roamed. Who knows how many more mastadont skeletons lie buried in the clay under the waters or the marshes of Monroe?
Mastondont Skeleton on display in Museum Village.