Like most old sayings, this one probably originated from several different stories, but my favorite is the story of an early 1800s farmer who heard a circus with elephants was coming to town. He’d always wanted to see an elephant, so he loaded up his grain in his wagon and drove to town. On the way, he encountered the circus train. His mules saw the elephants, went ballistic, bolted and upset the wagon, spilling his grain all over the road. When asked if he regretted coming to see the circus, the farmer said he didn’t care, for he’d “seen the elephant.”
The saying came to mean seeing or doing something exotic. It could describe the experience of gold seekers who went west during the Gold Rush hoping to hit pay dirt or the young trailhands going from Texas to the wild Kansas cowtowns. If they happened to meet trouble, hardship or failure when they got there, they didn’t regret it, for they’d “seen the elephant.”
The expression was also popular during the Civil War. Soldiers used it to describe having experienced combat. When one had been in a battle, he could tell those he encountered who had not as yet been under fire that he’d “seen the elephant”.
Thanks to True magazine for letting me repeat this great story!