“Seeing the elephant”, I’m told, is a purely American phrase which gained popularity in the early 19th century. Coincidentally, the first circuses reached these shores from Europe in the 1830’s and they invariably included exotic animals that no American had ever seen. They were HUGE – almost overwhelming – and they spawned a phrase that has been inextricably associated with the Westward Expansion Movement ever since – though it doesn’t appear that it started out that way.
Like the journey west, seeing a circus elephant was highly anticipated. Both a circus performance and moving an entire household across the continent began with excitement and high ideals. But elephants eventually became more commonplace, and on the six month trek across the plains, the excitement faded to routine and – in the case of many Oregon Trail migrants – turned into disappointment and hardship, even death.
Originally, the phrase had a more positive meaning: experiencing something larger than life, unique. The same was true of crossing the continent, trudging alongside a creaky, unstable farm wagon containing all your earthly possessions. But most pioneers who survived the journey and its many hardships came to admit that seeing the “elephant” once was enough!
As the century wore on, and more people saw that “elephant”, the phrase took on a more ironic connotation: Pioneers traveling an overland trail had seen the elephant when the hardships became too much to bear – and it was too late to turn back! Everybody who finished the trail had seen the elephant.
In the natural course of things, those people who did turn back were called “turnbackers”, adding yet another expression to the American lexicon. Turnbackers had all seen the elephant. That’s why they turned back.
Today the meaning of the phrase has broadened still more. According to Wikipedia, “When a man is disappointed in anything he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has seen the elephant.”
So as you might expect, elephants play an important role in our Vanishing Trails Expeditions – especially the Oregon Trail. We do try to take a more positive attitude, of course: seeing all there is to see. After all, our wheels are not likely to shrink in the arid plains air so that the iron rim goes flying off, necessitating an unscheduled stop to repair them, while our traveling companions keep plodding on across the prairie in the blazing sun and choking dust.
But we do visit many of the authentic Oregon Trail sites, learning as much as we can about them along the way. The very aridity which plagued the pioneers, is the same reason we can still see wagon ruts and signatures of 19th century sojourners carved in the rock. Chimney Rock has been chipped away by the prairie winds and souvenir hunters dating as far back as the first wagon trains – some things never change) but it’s still an iconic milestone on the trail that we can see and touch, along with dozens of others along the trail in Nebraska. It’s a unique opportunity to gain a better appreciation of what our forebears endured, why they went, and how the largest voluntary mass migration in the history of the world affected the development of our country.
It’s a great experience, and when we’re done, we will have seen the elephant! Won’t you join us on the trail this season?
Lewis & Clark Trail – July 15-30
Oregon Trail in Nebraska – August 13-18