Though we’ve made several trips to Kentucky to research Lewis & Clark matters, we haven’t yet had the chance to visit Big Bone Lick. Meriwether Lewis makes his first visit there in our upcoming novel, The Fairest Portion of the Globe.
Big Bone Lick is the site of an ancient salt lick and sulphur spring that, back in Pleistocene times, attracted animals to come partake of the salt. Many of these Ice Age creatures, notably mammoths, masotodons, and sloths, became mired in the swamp and died. The unique conditions at the lick preserved the bones. It’s unknown what the Indians thought about this site other than as a good place to find buffalo hanging around the salt licks. But we do know that the first white explorers of Kentucky, coming along in the 1730s and ’40s, were enthralled. They recognized the value of the site for science and sent small collections of bones to leading American scientists, including Benjamin Franklin.
The remoteness of the site and bloody wars with England and the Indians prevented much early excavation at Big Bone Lick. Nonetheless, the lick became the subject of an in-depth correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and George Rogers Clark. Clark was more than the “Hannibal of the West” who saved Kentucky and the Northwest for the Americans. He was also a talented self-educated natural scientist–and William Clark’s revered big brother.
The first systematic attempt to dig at Big Bone came in 1796, at the end of the Indian wars for the Ohio territory. A young Army captain named William Henry Harrison was sent to Big Bone Lick and gathered some 31 hogsheads of fossils for shipment back to the East. Unfortunately, the riverboat on which Harrison dispatched the bones to Pittsburgh sank.
By 1803, Jefferson was president, and he asked Meriwether Lewis to stop and explore Big Bone Lick on his way down the Ohio River to begin the westward Expedition. Though much of the documentation has been lost, it is known that Lewis undertook a dig and sent bones back East. Once again, though, they were lost when the boat sank near Natchez, Mississippi.
It fell to William Clark to conduct the first really successful dig at Big Bone Lick in 1807, shortly after the return of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. President Jefferson funded the dig out of his own pocket, allowing Clark and Cincinnati physician Willliam Goforth to hire at least eight men and spend some weeks at the site. We know from Clark’s letters that George Rogers Clark came along (“Bro. George got drunk,” Clark notes wearily at one point), and it seems certain that Clark’s slave York was also on hand. Clark assembled a wonderful collection of over 300 bones and teeth. It’s known that Jefferson spread them out on a floor in one room of the Executive Mansion to study. Jefferson’s fossil collection resides today at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA.
From what I gather, Big Bone Lick remains understudied even today. Besides Clark’s dig, the only other major digs came in the 1860s and a century later in the 1960s. I’d love to go see the birthplace of American paleontology, another milestone of learning and achievement in which Lewis and Clark had a hand.
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