The Mammoths of Latah

Mar 7, 2024 | Stories

In the Spring of 1876 a Discovery was Made

In the Spring of 1876, heavy rains worsened the swampy conditions of the bog-like environment of the Eastern Washington Territory of Latah, approximately 20 miles southeast of Spokane. Latah resident, Benjamin Coplen, spent the afternoon surveying his homestead after the stormy weather. While submerging a stick into the bog to find the depth of the marsh, he hit something quite large. To the Coplen families shock, several large animal remains were found and removed from the waters. The bones were much too large to be identified as any animals currently in the area. The Coplens drained the bog and over 120 bones were discovered, three jaw bones, six tusks, dozens of vertebrae and rib bones- all belonging to four different mammoths.

The Columbia Mammoth in Latah

By Charles Robert Knight – Osborn, H. F. (1942). Percy, M. R., ed. Proboscidea: A monograph of the discovery, evolution, migration and extinction of the mastodonts and elephants of the world 2. New York: J. Pierpont Morgan Fund. Frontispiece and [1], Public Domain

It was soon discovered that the bones belonged to the Columbia mammoth or the North American elephant, a species closely related to woolly mammoths and looked relatively similar to today’s Asian or African elephants. The mammoth species of the Columbia Basin roamed the area during the late-Pleistocene age, occurring 2,000,000-10,000 years ago and is recorded as the last Ice Age. It is estimated that the bones were 10,000 to 50,000 years old and all in pristine preserved condition.

In accounts in newspapers across the state of Washington, recordings of weight and size of the bones were provided to Washington residents. Individual teeth weighing 10 lbs. each, a pelvic bone weighing 135 lbs., and a tusk weighing 145 lbs. Benjamin Coplen decided to take his discovery to Colfax, WA to showcase the findings and traveled to other areas such as Walla Walla and Dayton, WA. Eventually the mammoth remains were put onboard a steamship and traveled the length of the Columbia River, making stops to show the public the remains in various cities in Oregon.

Moved to Displays in Chicago Museums

The mammoth remains were purchased by the Chicago Academy of Science for $350, in 1881, approximately five years after they were discovered by Benjamin Coplen. The mammoth bones were displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair at Washington State’s display. Twenty years later in 1914, the mammoth remains were sold to the Chicago Field Museum for $500, where they are currently on display.

What happened to the Mammoths?

Mystery surrounds the reason why the Columbia Mammoth became extinct. Anthropologists believe the extinction of the mammoths may be due to climate change or the introduction of new diseases. The mammoths of Latah continue to inform the public about the Ice Age and the impressive species that roamed North America during this time.

Researched by Austin Seward
Written by Sarah Davis