The wanna-be rich-quick gold prospectors who swarmed into California hoping— but failing— to find an easy fortune, boosted the folklore phrase “I’ve seen the elephant” into national usage during the heady California Gold Rush years, 1849 through the mid 1850s.
A metaphor unused and forgotten today, it once meant a willingness to risk all just to see and experience something extraordinary and dangerous; also, to acquire sudden maturity from lessons learned through the sufferings of adversity. This was exactly what happened to thousands of young men during the California Gold Rush . . . an adventure suffused with loss, hardship and disappointment. But why an elephant as a symbol of enlightenment?
In the early 19th century, hardly anyone in America had seen an elephant. The enormous beasts with long, flexible trunks and curved ivory tusks were major attractions at circuses, but those entertainments were few and far between in most areas of the United States.
The story goes that a farmer, his wagon filled with the totality of his annual produce crop, set out for the market in the next town, excitedly telling everyone at home that he was “going to see the elephant” because he knew a traveling circus was scheduled to arrive there. Sure thing, on his way to the marketplace the farmer met the circus coming into town from the opposite direction. At the sight of the behemoth sauntering toward them, the farmer’s frightened horse reared up, overturning his wagon and smashing all the saleable produce—and then the horse bolted.
The farmer walked all the way home, mulling over what had happened. On reaching his farm he had to tell his astounded family that all their hard labor that season was for nothing; the year’s harvest had been destroyed, and now they all were penniless through the coming long winter until a new crop could be produced the following year.
Still somewhat awe-stricken, he added “But I got to see the elephant.”