Historic Putnam County & the Birth of the American Circus

The Putnam County Historian’s Office, in partnership with Southeast Museum, recently debuted “Historic Putnam County & the Birth of the American Circus”, a virtual exhibit hosted and narrated by Putnam County’s well-known journalist and skilled storyteller, Eric Gross.  This lesson in local history can be found on the County’s YouTube channel as part of the virtual events to celebrate Path Through History Weekend at Home, October 10-12, 2020, a semi-annual event through New York State Tourism.

The video tells the story of circus evolution from the early days of “Old Bet”, the elephant rented out by Nathan Howes of Southeast, New York, to development of menageries, and Seth B. Howes’ inclusion of acrobats and clowns, eventually all performing in a ring, under the big top.  In the 19th Century, many people from Putnam County were part of it – from menagerie shareholders, to side show barkers, slack wire walkers and blacksmiths and carriage makers alike – local Putnam County citizens were part of the birth of the American Circus.

“We are pleased to be part of a program that helps tell the story of the people and places that shaped American history,” says Jennifer Cassidy of the Historian’s Office about the Path Through History opportunity. “The birth of the American Circus has deep roots in Putnam County, and although our 21st century perception of circuses throughout history differs from earlier days, we must remember that people in the 19th century were seeing these wonders for the first time…long before radio, television, the internet and social media.”

Images and documents to help interpret the story of the early circus came from a variety of sources including the Putnam County Historian’s Collection, the archives of the Southeast Museum, Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the Library of Congress and New York Public Library.

Path Through History Weekends showcase New York State’s fascinating history. Although this weekend is different based on restrictions due to COVID-19, it still includes virtual events beyond Putnam County including museums, historic sites, and cultural institutions.  For more information visit www.iloveny.com.


  • An early 20th Century circus wagon parading through Main Street, Brewster, NY (from HC548 Linda & Jim White Collection)
  • A portrait of Seth B. Howes, renowned circus magnate and Southeast resident (from the Historian’s Office Photograph Collection)
  • Examples of early Howes Circus advertisements and posters from the 19th Century