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A quadruped of the tribe of pachyderms, of two living species, Elephas Indicus and E. Africanus, characterized by a proboscis or trunk, and two large ivory tusks, proceeding from the extremity of the upper jaw, and curving upwards. They are among the largest quadrupeds now existing. — Webster, 1882

The Noah’s ark was the most wonderful thing that Laura had ever seen. They all knelt down and squealed and laughed over it. There were zebras and elephants and tigers and horses; all kinds of animals, just as if the picture had come out of the paper-covered Bible at home. – On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 22, “Town Party”

The elephants mentioned in On the Banks of Plum Creek are part of Willie Oleson’s Noah’s ark toy. Laura Ingalls could have learned about elephants from reading about them in Pa’s big green animal book, The Polar and Tropical Worlds, by George Hartwig. Click HERE to read the book in its entirety. Ten pages in Hartwig’s book are devoted to elephants. Here are some highlights:


Among the animals belonging to the Tropical World there are none more distinctive than the great Pachydermati, the Elephant, the Rhinocerous, and the Hippopotamus. To these huge beasts, the largest that walk the earth, we propose to devote a chapter; supplementing it with a few pages concerning the Giraffe, the Camel, and a few other animals of large size, exclusively tropical. First and foremost we will speak of the Elephant:

A tamed elephant, as we see him in menageries, compelled to go through his round of tricks for the amusement of everybody who will pay the required quarter of a dollar, is apparently a stupid beast. He seems a very mountain of flesh, covered with a loose and ill-fitting skin. His great, clumsy legs look like those of a gouty alderman; he writhes his huge trunk about with an air of hopeless imbecility; all his energies seem to be concentrated upon the feat of conveying to his mouth the apples and nuts held out to him by gaping urchins. A very different animal is the same elephant in his native haunts. There he is the keenest wariest, and most cunning of beasts. The little sharp eye is alight with intelligence; the ponderous ears are alive to the faintest sound; the long swaying trunk, merely as an organ of smell, has an acuteness unmatched by the keenest dog that ever tracked game. he has, moreover, a courage, and when irritated, a ferocity, surpassed by no other animal; so that one needs to be a bold and wary hunter who assails him in his native haunts…

…The use of the elephant’s tusks… [is] frequently described as warding off the attacks of the tiger and rhinocerous, often securing the victory in one blow, which transfixes the assailant to the earth… No doubt they may prove of great assistance in digging up roots, but that they are far from indispensable, is proved by their being but rarely seen in the females, and by their almost constant absence in the Ceylon elephant, where they are generally found reduced to mere stunted processes.

Elephants live in herds, usually consisting of from ten to twenty individuals, and each herd is a family, not brought together by accident or attachment, but owning a common lineage and relationship. In the forest several herds will browse in close contiguity, and in their expeditious in search of water they may form a body of possibly one or two hundred, but on the slightest disturbance, each distinct herd hastens to re-form within its own particular circle, and to take measures on its own behalf for retreat or defense…

The elephant inhabits both Asia and Africa, but each of these two parts of the world has its peculiar species. The African elephant is distinguished by the lozenge-shaped prominences of ivory and enamel on the surfaces of his grinders, which in the Indian elephant are narrow, transverse bars of uniform breadth; his skull has a more rounded form, and is deficient in the double lateral bump conspicuous in the former; and he has only fifty four vertebrae, while the Indian has sixty-one. On the other hand, he possesses twenty-one ribs, while the latter has only nineteen. his tusks are also much larger, and his body is of much greater bulk, as the female attains the stature of the full-grown Indian male. The ear is at least three times the size, being not seldom above four feet long, and broad, so that D. Livingstone mentions having seen a negro, who under cover of one of these prodigious flaps effectually screened himself from the rain. All these differences of character appeared so great to M. Cuvier as to induce him to consider the African elephant as a particular genus. [Much of the rest of the chapter tells about the hunting elephants.] — George Hartwig, The Polar and Tropical Worlds (Springfield, Massachusetts: Bill Nichols & Co., 1872), 712-722.

Below is a poem from a Fifth Reader published during the time of On the Banks of Plum Creek. In the poem, blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Since the viewpoints differ, the story is often used to show that reality may be viewed differently depending on one’s perspective. Countless versions of this story exist.


elephant (BPC 22), see also Noah’s ark toy
     nose and ears like an elephant’s (TLW 26) – big!