Seeing the Elephant

“To read the diaries of the Gold Rush, one might suppose that elephants flourished [on the Plains] in 1849, but the emigrants weren’t talking about wooly mammoths or genuine circus-type elephants. The were talking about one particular elephant, the Elephant, an imaginary beast of fearsome dimensions which, according to Niles Searls, was ‘but another name for going to California.’ But it was more than that. It was the popular symbol of the Great Adventure, all the wonder and the glory and the shivering thrill of the plunge into the ocean of the prairie and plains, and the brave assault upon mountains and deserts that were gigantic barriers to California gold. It was the poetic imagry of all the deadly perils that threatened a westering emigrant.”