According to the Cheraw Time Line on the Chesterfield County SC Genealogical Society website, in 1837 “the first circus came to town. The elephants are too heavy and the giraffe too tall to cross the covered bridge so they must swim the river.” That would be the Pee Dee River.
One of my 3rd great-grandmothers, Margaret PEARSON GRIFFIN, likely witnessed this event. She was the only one of my 3rd great-grandparents who lived in one of the counties on either side of the Pee Dee River, and she was a wee girl of 4 in 1837. Other of my 3rd great-grandparents lived in nearby Richmond County, NC, but who knows if they even knew about the circus coming to town, let alone witnessed it.
Now I’ve been to the circus. You maybe have, too. Elephants, lions, trick bicycle and unicycle riders, fire eaters, clowns, and all the rest. The circuses of the mid-1800’s weren’t much different. According to The Ins and Outs of Circus Life by John H. Glenroy, circuses of the mid 1800’s had clowns, horseback riders, modern Samson and Hercules, trick riders, singers, acrobats, plate spinners, a tattooed man, vaulters, jugglers and minstrels of color (which seemed to be a fascination of circus goers in those days.)
Olympians of the Sawdust Circle, A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus by William L. Slout says the following animals were seen in circuses of that time period: leopards, lions, panthers, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Imagine the amazement and awe that people on both sides of the Pee Dee experienced upon seeing the circus arrive with exotic animals and curious performers.
More than one resource used for this quick study said that the first giraffe arrived in America in 1837, coming to New York.
This leads me to believe that perhaps the circus event in Cheraw happened a year or so later than 1837. I don’t doubt the event happened, though. By the way, the first elephant in America arrived in April 1796.
This Cheraw circus event is going on my Margaret Pearson Griffin’s personal time line. I don’t know much about her, but this tidbit helps to add some depth to the flat name-and-dates information that is currently her in my family history.
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