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Journey of the Highgate Mastodon


In the spring of 1890, William Regcraft found some bones while digging a ditch near Highgate, Ontario. A merchant named William Hillhouse bought the bones, and he and his uncle bought the right to continue excavating. What they found was almost an entire skeleton of an Ice-Age mastodon, a relative of the modern elephant.

Once cleaned, strengthened and assembled, they offered R.A. Essery $50 to take the mastodon out on tour. Essery headed toward Winnipeg, putting up posters that read, “A Monster Unearthed! Do not fail to see the Highgate Mastodon!”

But soon after, Essery died somewhere out west, and Hillhouse lost track of his find. Then he received a handbill from his niece in Neche, ND, revealing it was now being displayed by a Mr. Thompson and Mr. Glover.

The bones then wound up in storage at the Bibb Broom Corn Co. in Minneapolis. After some time, the company sold them to Harry Dickinson, a Great Northern Railroad fireman. Harry shipped them to his father’s home in Barnesville, MN, and they exhibited the mastodon for the next several years.

Around 1898, a Buxton physician, James Grassick, saw the show and bought the mastodon for $10. In 1902, he loaned the bones to UND for display. A week later, the Grand Forks Herald published an article about it, and three days later, UND received a letter from William Hillhouse claiming rightful ownership. Grassick quickly sold the bones to UND for $100, and when attorneys came after him, he told them he no longer owned them.

It was 49 years before the mastodon surfaced again. UND history professor Elwyn Robinson wrote to the State Historical Society to say a mastodon had been discovered in an attic on campus, and it was shipped to the Historical Society and placed in storage.

Early in 1991, plans were being made for a permanent exhibit at the North Dakota Heritage Center titled The First People: North Dakota Prehistory. Committee members were wishing they had a nice reconstructed megafauna, like an ancient bison or mammoth for the display.

Collections curator Mark Halvorson asked if a mastodon would do, at which point the chief archaeologist started laughing, saying, “Will a mastodon do? Yeah, that’d be nice!”

Halvorson replied, “OK, I’ll pull our mastodon.”

Paleontologist John Hoganson said, “You have a mastodon!?”

Halvorsen said, “(Yeah, out) beside the ‘61 Lincoln Continental in the warehouse.”

It had been more than a quarter century since a mastodon had been reconstructed anywhere in the world. It now proudly stands near the entrance of the North Dakota Heritage Center Museum.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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