Did Paul Revere know that polar bears existed?
November 5, 2010 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Did Paul Revere know what a polar bear was?

So my toddler daughter heard "Paul Revere" as "polar bear" and it got me thinking-- would Colonial Americans be aware of the existence of polar bears or animals like that? Polar bears live in North America, but in remote regions where few English or French speaking people would have encountered them. I have no idea how much 18th century average people would know about distant fauna.

I realize that wealthy naturalists like Thomas Jefferson would have known about their existence, but would simpler people have been aware of the existence of polar bears or, say, llamas (which are also animals from the Americas but very distant)?

How about 17th century colonials? Would John Winthrop recognize a polar bear?
posted by Mayor Curley to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Possibly. There is mention of a polar bear in this book of 1773, and in this book of 1771.
posted by exogenous at 6:44 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


How could he not when one is on every soda can in the area? It's a little later than the period you're talking about, but I'd highly recommend The Age of Wonder for a discussion of exploration and scientific discovery during the Enlightenment. suchatreat got it for me last Xmas and it was the highlight of my gifts.
posted by yerfatma at 6:45 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of New Englanders would have known about Polar Bears especially those on the coast who mixed with fishermen / seafarers. The Hudson Bay company was trading from the 1670 onwards. If you want to get into it this book would probably help. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841
posted by adamvasco at 6:49 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


According to the timeline in this publication from arctic.gov, Vitus Bering of Bering Strait fame was leading expeditions to the arctic in the 1700s. And Henry Hudson in the 1600s. So it seems very possible that he would have read about their exploits. I think adventure travel literature was pretty popular in that era. For example, Moby Dick is part of a tradition of books describing adventures in far-off lands.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:55 AM on November 5, 2010


Moby-Dick also includes a brief passage on why polar bears are terrifying. It was written 75 years or so after the Revolution, but I think it invites the possibility that people on the East Coast would have heard about them from other travelers (including whalers, whose industry had been rapidly expanding in the years leading up to the Revolution).
posted by synecdoche at 7:10 AM on November 5, 2010


According to: Paul Revere and the World He Lived in By Esther Forbes, talking about Clarke's Wharf, where he lived for a while:

'Wonders' were often displayed upon the wharves: a 'sapient dog,' a polar bear, a doll dressed in the latest London fashion: even perhaps a pirate's head 'in a pickle.'
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:26 AM on November 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


According to various crappy "it's a fact!" web sites (for example), a polar bear was exhibited in Boston in 1733.
posted by pracowity at 7:30 AM on November 5, 2010


Polar bears live in North America, but in remote regions where few English or French speaking people would have encountered them.

They also live in Norway and Russia see: Ice Bear or White Bear... and feature in Norwegian folk tales

So, I'd guess Paul Revere might have heard of a white bear...
posted by ennui.bz at 7:34 AM on November 5, 2010


Most definitely, as adamvasco says, due to maritime trade. In general, there was an abundance of information and curiosity about the known world in the Colonial era. There are a lot of mentions on the web that the first polar bear was exhibited in Boston in 1733; there's no reason to disbelieve that they were known of and seen in the Colonial era, since there were frequent appearances of other "exotic" animals as tourings shows in taverns - in Portsmouth, a camel and a lion are mentioned and we still have the handbills for the events. This book describes explorer Jacques Cartier charting the New World in the 1540s and bringing reports of polar bears (which they ate) to France.
posted by Miko at 7:59 AM on November 5, 2010


I got curious about the "sapient dog" mentioned upthread, and found this in a 1951 issue of the Theater Annual:

According to the Beginnings of American Theater, by John Lovell Jr., by 1789, displayed in Boston was, among other wonders,

a "Sapient dog" who could distinguish colors, do arithmetic, discharge loaded cannon,
jump through a hoop, and tell the hidden card in a pack and you could look your fill upon him, for 25 cents.


Heh, my dog is almost that wonderful.
posted by General Tonic at 8:48 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Polar bears not only live in the Artic ocean. They also live along the entire coast of Hudson's Bay, and even well south of there, extending quite a ways into Quebec and Ontario.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:03 AM on November 5, 2010


There are a lot of fantastic answers here! I'm really impressed and I learned something today. Thanks everyone!
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:04 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


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