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Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 48, no. 3 (Summer 1999), p. 28

Seeing the Elephant

WHEN RESEARCHING THIS ISSUE OF HISTORIC Nantucket, we came across a curious entry in our database—"Gold Rush Stationery." There is no explanation of how this single page came to Nantucket, only a small note attached explaining that it was a front page. It is a remarkable piece because it captures the full story of the Gold Rush—from start to somber finish. But we wondered about the significance of the elephant in the center of the page. Knowing that there were no elephants in California, we searched for an explanation. Judith Downey, author of the article on page 25, found one. J. S. Holliday, in his first book on the Gold Rush, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, explains the significance:

Life on the trail discouraged some goldseekers. If they gave up and headed for home, they were said to have "seen the elephant." This special phrase, used by almost every Gold Rush diarist, had been a part of the American language before 1849; but it took on poignant meaning for the tens of thousands who experienced getting to California and then life in the mining camps. As the goldseekers' moods and expectations changed, so they used "the elephant" in different ways, but the essential idea remained dominant as revealed in the story from which the expression is presumed to have originated. By 1837 circus parades commonly included one or two elephants. The story goes that "a farmer who had heard of elephants, but had never seen one, longed to do so. When a circus complete with elephant came to a nearby town, he loaded his wagon with eggs and vegetables and started for the market there. En route he met the circus parade led by the elephant. The farmer was enchanted but his horses were terrified. They bucked, pitched, overturned the wagon, and ran away, scattering broken eggs and bruised vegetables over the countryside. 'I don't give a hang,' said the farmer.'I have seen the elephant.'"

As a universal expression of the Gold Rush, "seeing the elephant" symbolized the great adventure of going to California to dig a golden fortune. On the way "the elephant" revealed itself in many unexpected difficulties and dangers that beset the goldseekers, and "to see the elephant" became the expression for suffering a severe ordeal, facing one's worst expectations, overcoming the meanest realities; in a word, knowing the Truth.