Of all the many historians who strode the fields of Richland County taking measure of her past, the ones who faced the most complete and unlimited spectrum of possibilities were those who came first.
Today the land has been trodden under 200 years of living, and the old stories have been filtered through multiple generations of re-configuring; the relics of prehistory have been catalogued and categorized and designated into eras and ages of epochs.
If you pick up an old fossil today from out of the dirt, there is a very good chance that somebody can tell you exactly what it is you’re holding in your hand, based on 200 years of scientific experience.
But that was not the case in early Richland County. Back then, all of those books of science were still as yet unwritten. No one knew what they might find when they were digging the well.
It made for great adventure; and it threw open the doors of speculation as wide as all human imagination.
The promising land
Even when the land was still covered with dense forest, there was clear evidence of prior civilization in the Ohio wilderness: earthworks and odd mounds that were far older than any native Wyandot lore.
It was obvious that the New World had very old mysteries.
The early witnesses in Richland County certainly weren’t afraid to speculate as to what the mysterious ruins and relics in the old landscape might represent. Maybe these mound builders were the Lost Tribes of Israel, located at last.
There was a Baptist minister whose widely-reported theory posited that the great Serpent Mound in Ohio was a landmark intended to designate the site on Earth of the Garden of Eden. The serpent mound, he said, was built by the descendants of Adam and Eve as a monument to the misfortune of mankind.
Or perhaps, he posited, it was the Creator Himself who piled the dirt, for there was scriptural documentation that said, “His hand hath formed the crooked serpent.” (Job 26: 13)
Reading through the literature written at that time, and newspaper coverage of the Serpent Mound theory, it is remarkable how little skepticism anyone expressed to the idea that Eden was in Ohio. The simple fact was that no one knew one way or the other; the Bible didn’t stipulate that Eden was on the other side of the globe.
Any hypothesis was as valid as any other.
Hard science and soft logic
When they dug up a 10-foot stone man in upper state New York, there was clear Biblical documentation to indicate that he could well be an Old Testament character: Genesis states unequivocally, “There were giants in the Earth in those days.”
The huge “petrified man” came to be known as the Cardiff Giant, and he toured the country as a bona fide American wonder. In February 1870, he made an appearance in Mansfield that had the effect of stoking the flames of local archaeology. It is significant that the Ohio Archaeological Society originated in Richland County in 1875. Inquiring minds were eager to dig out the facts and fossils.
Ultimately the Cardiff Giant proved to be a hoax when the sculptor and hucksters were exposed, but the fact remains that American culture was ready and eager to embrace the limitless possibilities of what miraculous and monumental sort of life may have taken place in North America back in the dawn of time.
They were pulling giant bones out of the earth: bones of gargantuan size that had to have been from incredible creatures. What were those things…with monster ribs and mammoth tusks and teeth as big as your arm? No one knew—not for sure.
It was the awakening and institutionalization of American science, and the genesis of the age when Empirical Logic overtook tradition and superstition as the arbiter of truth. Within a brief generation came Scientific American Magazine, the Smithsonian Institution, and Darwin’s Origin of Species.
These same years were, simultaneously, the heyday and high-water mark of pseudoscience and outrageous conjecture.
So, someone dug up a giant jaw full of teeth outside Bellville. In that particular decade of the 1800s, the teeth were easy to identify; no longer a mystery: it was a mastodon. There were diagrams of them in books; there was one that had its bones wired together, standing up in Columbus.
It was a marvel, no doubt, but not a mystery.
The true mystery showed up a few years later, a few miles farther west of Bellville.
A road crew was digging ditches and they pulled up a skull that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It weighed a lot; was long and pointy; had weird horns coming out of its forehead.
Initial supposition said it was a dragon. The first news story said it had “a knotted brow of horns like Satan.”
All of the local scientists checked it over, and a crew of local archaeologists set to work immediately digging up the surrounding fencerow, looking for more bones. It was a breathlessly exciting dig: no one had ever excavated a dragon skeleton before; let alone Satan bones!
Sadly, there were no more bones under the ground. All they had was the mighty skull, so it was carefully packed and placed in a wagon and hauled down to Columbus where a team of experts could examine it.
Farmers were unearthing giant beavers, colossal sloths, immense elk and unbelievable megafauna of all kinds; this could be anything. The Richland archaeologists were hopeful.
The taxonomist experts took one look, opened one reference book for a quick double-check, and announced indisputably that the skull was not a dragon.
It was a giraffe.
The horns of our dilemma
It was a little deflating at first to the county historians; but no less a conundrum: why was it no one ever knew that giraffes had once roamed the Western Hemisphere? Perhaps a Richland village could lend its name to a whole new species of American taxonomy: Giraffa Bellvillium.
It took a while to figure this out, but gradually the story fell together. There were old advertisements still pasted in barns of Jefferson Township to prove that in the 1830s a circus and menagerie show passed through southern Richland County; played Bellville; moved on to Galion.
Apparently, their giraffe passed away during the journey. Giraffe meat was fed the lions; his head was discarded by the roadside where it was carefully fossilized for future archaeological enthusiasts.