Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday, and maybe the best gift he ever received


The 13th of April is my cousin Ione’s birthday.

It is also the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, who was born April 13th, 1743 in Goochland County, Virginia.

The thoughts of birthdays and gifts brings to mind one of the more interesting stories about Zebulon Pike, my 4th great uncle.

When he was just a Captain, exploring the southwest in the first decade of the 19th century  (Mexico territory at the time), he accidentally wandered into Spanish territory, and was arrested and sent to Sante Fe, then Chihuahua.

After he was released, while returning to the United States, he bought a pair of Grizzly bear cubs, and shipped them as a gift to President Thomas Jefferson along with other items.

In a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Zebulon Pike date Nov 6th, 1807, Jefferson sent his thanks for the bear cubs.

I beg leave to return you my thanks for the Bow and arrows you were so kind as to send me, as also for the two Grisly bears which I have since received & now have here in good health

Thomas Jefferson letter to Zebulon Pike

Jefferson, realizing that he could not properly raise the bears at the White House (although they lived there for 2 months), first sent them to his daughter, and then sent them to Charles Wilson Peale at his museum in Baltimore.

In an interesting twist, Peale painted the most famous portrait of Zebulon Pike just a year later in June 1808. It was this painting that completely changed Peale’s painting style, using color techniques he learned from his son Rembrandt, who had just returned from Paris.

Unfortunately for the bears, as they grew they became troublesome (imagine the most formidable apex predator on the continent becoming troublesome when caged. Who would have guessed?). One eventually broke out of its cage, and was subsequently shot in the basement kitchen of Peale’s home. The other bear was also killed shortly thereafter. The two bears were dressed and mounted by a taxidermist, and became a permanent part of The Peale Museum collection.

Certainly a strange gift.

Zebulon Pike was my 4th great uncle.


3 Responses to “Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday, and maybe the best gift he ever received”

  1. Very interesting, indeed! Thanks, Jer.

  2. 2 Vicki

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting!

  3. 3 mildred breon

    Interesting. I sent this to a friend of mine. She lives in Canada and is doing research on her family tree.

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