Big Bone Lick, Kentucky

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Large pre-historic animals journeyed to Big Bone Lick, Kentucky because of its combination of marshy swamp water and important nutrients found in the mineral rich soil. The soft ground could not sustain a large animal's weight and it would sink and become trapped. Over time, many fossils were found, and one of these animals was the Mastodon (mammoth). Explorers have been coming to the area as early as the 1730s. Jefferson heard about these discoveries and for him, these discoveries there and elsewhere proved in his mind that he would see a live Mastodon one day, or at least see the fossils.

In 1799, when Jefferson was president of the American Philosophical Society, he wrote a circular on what the society should research. One priority was to procure a Mastodon skeleton from Big Bone Lick.[1]


Lewis and Clark

Jefferson instructed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to search for Mastodons on their expedition. In Cincinnati on his way west to meet Clark, Meriwether Lewis met Dr. William Goforth to look at some Mastedon bones Dr. Goforth found at Big Bone Lick. He wrote Jefferson about that encounter in a letter dated October 3, 1803.[2] The expedition never found a Mastedon, so Jefferson turned to Big Bone Lick.

In 1807 to complete the Society's directive, Jefferson sent William Clark to Big Bone Lick to find some of these Mastodon bones and send one back. By September, Clark hired ten men and ended up sending three boxes filled with fossils to the President's House.[3] The boxes arrived in March 1808 and Casper Wistar joined Jefferson and began to catalog its findings.

Primary Source References[4]

1807 February 25. (Jefferson to Dr. Casper Wistar). "Captain Clarke (companion to Captain Lewis) who is now here, agrees, as he passes through that country, to stop at the Lick, employ laborers, and superintend the search at my expense [sic], not that of the society, and to send me the specific bones wanted, without further trespassing on the deposit..If, therefor, you will be so good as to send me a list of the bones wanting...the business shall be effected without encroaching at all on the funds of the society..."[5]

1807 December 19. (Jefferson to Dr. Casper Wistar). "I have lately received a letter from General Clarke. He has employed ten laborers several weeks, at the Big-bone Lick, and has shipped the result, in three large boxes, down the Ohio, via New Orleans, for this place, where they are daily expected. He has sent, 1st, of the Mammoth, as he calls it...2d, of what he calls the Elephant...3d, of something of the Buffalo species...There is a tusk and a femur which General Clarke procured particularly at my request, for a special kind of cabinet I have at Monticello..."[6]


  1. Henry Phillips, Early Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society...from the Manuscript Minutes of its Meetings from 1744 to 1838 (Philadelphia : McCalla & Stavely, 1884), 258.
  2. Donald Jackson, ed. Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:126-130.
  3. Evidently, another shipment of three boxes never made it to Washington. The ship made it to Havana, Cuba, but the ship was condemned as unseaworthy, and the contents lost. See, Bedini, Statesman of Science, 416.
  4. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.
  5. L&B, 11:159.
  6. Ibid, 11:403.

Further Sources