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A Palouse Prehistoric Find

This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.

By Hayley Noble, Executive Director

Mastodon tooth discovered by William Taylor. Part of the LCHS LC Keeling Collection.

Recently I was researching in the Latah County Historical Society collection and came across a photo of a fossil. Labeled mastodon tooth on the back, I set off to find out more. The collection that the photo belonged to was donated by Alma Lauder Keeling. Keeling’s grandfather, William Taylor, was one of Moscow’s early homesteaders. William and Pricilla Taylor homesteaded south of Moscow in 1871, near what is now the Palouse Ice Rink close to the intersection of Highway 95 and Palouse River Drive. The house stood until 1975, when next to the Latah Nursing Home, it was demolished. Keeling spent countless hours in that house; many of which are detailed in The Un-Covered Wagon: A Glimpse of Pioneer Days in Moscow. Those memories, plus much of the family’s history is recounted in the book. Chapter twelve is dedicated to that fossil and became part of the family’s lore passed down through generations.

William and Priscilla Taylor on their homestead near Moscow. LCHS Photo: Taylor.01.

Keeling starts off by remembering that the fossil sat in her mother’s curio cabinet, and it wasn’t until her mother’s death that Keeling investigated further. She recalled that her father took it to the University of Idaho to find out more and came away with the knowledge that the fossil was a mastodon tooth. Wanting to verify, Keeling also sought the expertise of the University’s zoological department. With the confirmation that she did indeed have a mastodon tooth, Keeling saw other teeth just like hers in the professor’s office.

The story of its discovery links back to her grandfather’s homestead. The story that Keeling’s mother relayed is that on the Taylor land, there was a mineral spring that supplied water, which settlers would come from miles around to fill their jugs. One day in 1875, William decided to dig the spring out wider to allow for more access. As he dug, his shovel hit something hard. He kept digging and to his surprise, it was not a rock, but a fossil he discovered. Since then, the fossil was kept as a souvenir from the spring and passed to Keeling’s mother, Minnie.

Alma Lauder Keeling. LCHS Photo: Keeling.A.05.

You might be wondering what a mastodon is, as I was. It is in fact, a smaller type of mammoth, including tusks, and were believed to have hair, similar to wooly mammoths. Both mastodon and mammoth fossils have been excavated in Idaho and the larger Palouse region, suggesting that these ice age creatures called the region home for thousands of years. Mastodons are thought to have gone extinct ten to eleven thousand years ago, making them slightly younger than their mammoth cousins.

Not long after Taylor’s find, the Coplen family in Whitman County, Washington near Hangman Creek made a similar discovery in 1876. Along part of their homestead, bogs plagued cattle, so Alonzo Coplen began probing the marsh. He hit something hard with a long pole and hooked the item, bringing forth a large vertebra out of the water. Other bones emerged, and Ben Coplen decided to drain part of the bog to see what else they could find. Ben and the four other Coplens then proceeded to dig arrowheads, human remains, and many mammoth bones out of the bog soil. The brothers wanted to share their precious finds with others and planned a tour throughout Washington to exhibit the bones. After seeing the fossils, brothers William and Thomas Donahoe followed suit to see what they could pull out of the spring on their homestead along Pine Creek near the Coplens. They too found mammoth bones in the spring water.

One of the most famous mammoth excavation sites in Idaho is not too far from the Palouse. In 1994, Tolo Lake near Grangeville was drained as part of a wildlife improvement project. Workers received a surprise when they stumbled onto large fossils as they dug into the dry lake. Paleontologists determined that the group had discovered the remains of conceivably eight Columbia Mammoths and three ancient bison. The fossils were transported to the Idaho State University for further study and the lake was refilled.

“Mastodon” painted by Heinrich Harder.

Washington and Idaho continue to be significant places to find pre-historic sites important to our understanding of extinct species and early human relatives. Had William Taylor kept digging, who knows what else he would have recovered. His mastodon tooth inspired his granddaughter to learn more about the pre-historic creatures that roamed the Palouse and nearly 150 years later, a photo of that same tooth spurred me to learn the story and delve into the rich pre-history of our treasured land.

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