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Our Rich History: American Paleontology began at Big Bone with discovery of prehistoric bones

"Exhumation of the Mastodon," 1806, by Charles Willson Peale, father of Rembrandt Peale.

“Exhumation of the Mastodon,” 1806, by Charles Willson Peale, father of Rembrandt Peale.

by Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

“the large bones are found here”
-description written by John Filson to identify Big Bone Lick on his 1784 map

American Paleontology, it could be argued, began at Big Bone Lick in 1744. Indian trader, Robert Smith, delivered the first prehistoric bones from the site to the Ohio Company after scouting the area.

Big Bone Lick was no secret among the native inhabitants of the Ohio Valley. Local tribes, such as the Shawnee and Delaware, had come to this centrally-located lick for years to boil salt and to hunt the game that would congregate. Large herds of buffalo used to visit the lick in numbers so large that the path they left caused George Croghan to write in 1765 that it was; “…spacious enough for two wagons to go abreast, and leading straight into the lick.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1800  portrait by Rembrandt Peale.  Jefferson had an immense interest in Big Bone

Thomas Jefferson, 1800 portrait by Rembrandt Peale. Jefferson had an immense interest in Big Bone

Pleistocene-age remains of mammoths, mastodons, and sloths virtually littered the grounds surrounding the lick. Native Americans had their own story on how this came to be. The Delaware told a story to Thomas Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, that the great beast took over the area and destroyed those animals which God had made for use by the Indians. In a rage, God destroyed the great beasts there with the exception of one that escaped to the West. The local tribes also knew of the therapeutic values of the sulfuric- and salt-laden water that boiled up.

The first European to document his visit there appears to a French Canadian officer, Charles Lemoyne de Longueil, in 1729. Later, in 1744, Jaques Bellin drew his map of Louisiana and marked the lick as “the place where they found the elephant bones in 1729.” Although the Ohio Valley was the contested claim of France until the end of the Seven Years War, by the mid-1700s, England and her colonials began to penetrate the area in search of furs, wealth, and trade. Mary Ingles made her famed escape from the Shawnee while camped at the lick. Accounts exist of men camping in the area and using the massive rib bones as tent poles.

The aforementioned Robert Smith led Christopher Gist to Big Bone Lick in 1751, where he took two large teeth back for the Ohio Company. Big Bone Lick begins to show up on maps by 1784. John Filson, in his 1784 map of Kentucky, calls it the “Salt and Medicinal Spring.” He also notes, “the large bones are found here.”

Merriwether Lewis, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Merriwether Lewis, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson was the first statesman to request excavation of Big Bone Lick, and arguably, the most zealous. In 1797, Jefferson received a small collection of bones from the lick. This was the beginning of state-sponsored collecting of the fossils of Big Bone Lick. Although Jefferson had known of Big Bone Lick for many years, the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase by Lewis and Clark gave him a government representative to act on his behalf. As Meriwether Lewis was making his way west to begin what we now call the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he stopped at Cincinnati and met with a local doctor, William Goforth, who had done extensive study of the site. Lewis sent Jefferson a small sample of bones, including a tusk.

Unfortunately, the boat carrying the artifacts sunk near Natchez, Mississippi in 1804.

Jefferson never got this shipment, but compelled William Clark to return to Big Bone Lick after the return from his expedition in 1807.

William Clark, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

William Clark, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The subsequent 1807 expedition to Big Bone Lick was a success and resulted in a complete room at the White House devoted to laying out the bones. Jefferson would spend his down time “recharging his batteries” by looking over the ancient bones with Dr. Caspar Wistar of the American Philosophical Society. Many of the fossils collected for Jefferson found their way to his residence at Monticello. Others were given as a gift to France and now reside in the Natural History Museum in Paris.

In the period stretching from 1831 through 1848, many digs and research expeditions took place at Big Bone Lick. It became listed in major scientific journals of the time. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s persistence for obtaining fossils from Big Bone Lick, it was able to grow to international prominence as a paleontological site. It is arguably the site where American vertebrate paleontology began.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum.

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