Thomas Jefferson and Big Bone Lick

To understand President Thomas Jefferson’s interest in Big Bone Lick, you must first understand the history leading up to and beyond Jefferson’s quest for fossils from here…

The earliest European reports of the mastodon followed the 1705 discovery of a fist-sized tooth and bone fragmentsnear the village of Claverack in the Hudson River valley of Colonial New York. Accounts by two Puritan clergymen, Edward Taylor and Cotton Mather, popularized the discovery and attributed the remains to a race of giants destroyed during the Biblical Flood.

Giants were popular in the folklore of many cultures. Indeed, Edward Taylor invoked Native American legends of human giants in his account of the “Giant of Claverack.” They were also prominent in the two pillars of Western Civilization: the Classics of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the teachings of the Church. For instance, many ancient Romans and Hellenistic Greeks believed that gigantic Cyclops were the first inhabitants of Sicily. Accounts of giants can also be found in the works of Virgil, Pliny and Homer. Christian references to giants extended from its early years to well into the 18th century.

Enter the French

During the first half of the 1700s, most of North America was claimed by three European superpowers. Spain occupied Mexico and Florida while the Britain domains included the thirteen Atlantic colonies and the Hudson Bay Region. The French controlled Quebec and the Great Lakes and claimed the vast interior drainages of the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

In 1739, Baron Charles de Lougueuil commanded French troops and their Native American allies in a campaign against the Chickasaw in the Lower Mississippi Valley.Early in the campaign Lougueuil’s party stopped by a marsh near the Ohio River that was probably the site later known as Big Bone Lick. Several fossils were collected at the site, including a tusk, a femur (upper leg bone) and at least three molar teeth. Following the completion of the campaign in 1740, Lougueuil sent these fossils to the Cabinet du Roi (Royal Cabinet of Curiosities) in Paris.

The Ohio specimens at the Cabinet du Roi laid in relative obscurity until Jean-Etienne Geuttard published an article in 1756 on North American geology. In it he presented an illustration of one of the molars and puzzled over its identity: “From what animal is this?”

The first systematic examination of Lougueuil’s fossils was published in 1762 by Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton. Anatomical comparisons of the femur (upper rear leg bone) with that of an elephant and that of the Siberian mammoth led Daubenton to conclude that, although they differed in size, the three femurs were nearly identical in form. The reasonable conclusion, therefore, was that these three animals were all elephants. (At the time, Daubenton and most other naturalists  belived that all living elephants belonged to just one species. Many also suspected that the Siberian Mammoth was an elephant.

Examination of the tusk confirmed Daubenton’s identification of the Ohio animal as an elephant. The teeth, however, were another matter.

The massive molars of elephants (and mammoths) have flat grinding surfaces with numerous low ridges and relatively little enamel. In contrast, the molars of the “animal del Ohio” had multiple pairs of pronounced cone-shaped knobs covered with dense enamel. It was clear that these molars could not belong to an elephant. Instead, Daubenton attributed the molars to a giant form of hippopotamus, an animal with somewhat similar teeth. The teeth and bones were reportedly collected together by Native Americans in Lougueuil’s party, but Daubenton dismissed these accounts by “ignorant savages”. To him, these fossils clearly belonged to two different species.

The identification of these Ohio fossils satisfied Daubenton and his superior, George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. However, the presence of presumably tropical elephants and hippopotami so far north was puzzling. Similarly, the remains of the Siberian mammoth, which was also considered an elephant, were found even further north.

The typical explanation for this abnormal distribution was that their remains were transported north during the massive biblical flood. For Buffon, this explanation was insufficient. Instead, he concluded that if elephants were once found so far north, then these northern lands must have once been tropical. The existence of northern elephants ultimately led Buffon to develop a remarkable “Theory of the Earth”, the details of which were published in his Epoques de la Nature in 1778.


Enter the British

7yearwar.jpgBy the early 1750s, traders, surveyors and land speculators from the British colonies began extending into the Ohio River valley. Accounts of the remarkable bones and teeth from the Big Bone Lick soon made their way back to influential colonists, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The occasional fossil specimen also found its way back East. The incursion of British colonials into the Ohio Valley alarmed the French and led to the Seven Year War (1756-1763, also known as the French and Indian War). At the conclusion of the war, the French were driven from North America and British colonials returned to the Ohio in even greater numbers.

Native American groups formerly allied with the French became concerned about these renewed incursions. In 1765, British authorities sent William Croghan to the Ohio Valley in an effort to ease these concerns. During his travels he stopped at Big Bone Lick and collected a few specimens, but these were lost after his party was captured by an Illinois war party.

Croghan eventually secured his release and returned to the Ohio Valley in 1766 with a much larger party to trade with Native Americans and to re-supply a British garrison. This time they spent an entire day at Big Bone Lick and collected hundreds of pounds of bones and teeth. Upon his return, Croghan sent his specimens to Lord Shelburne, the British minister for the American colonies, and to Benjamin Franklin, who at the time was an influential Pennsylvania lobbyist living in London. Lord Shelburne received two tusks, several isolated molars and a lower jaw containing two molars. Franklin received four tusks, a vertebra and three molars.

Unlike the French collection, which was ensconced in the Cabinet du Roi, Croghan’s fossils were accessible to a number of London’s naturalists. Consequently, they elicited considerable discussion among members of the Royal Society. In late 1767 Peter Collinson, a physician in correspondence with several naturalists from France and the Colonies, reported to the Royal Society that the fossils apparently belonged to an unknown animal. It may have had tusks like the elephant, but its teeth were clearly different. Moreover, unlike the elephant, this Ohio animal lived far from the tropics. Collinson also concluded that, like the elephant, this animal lack the speed and agility to be a predator and thus would be restricted to feeding on plants.

The Royal Society was presented with another interpretation of Croghan’s fossils in early 1768. This time by William Hunter, a prestigious lecturer of anatomy and a physician who attended to the Queen. He compared the London fossils with the jaws and molars of a modern elephant as well as the illustrations from Daubenton’s 1762 publication. Hunter concluded that the creature, now dubbed the “American incognitum”, was distinct from the elephant, but that it may belong to the same species as the Siberian mammoth. The pronounced knobs on the teeth had convinced him that, unlike the elephant, this animal was carnivorous. Significantly, Hunter also concluded that the beast was probably extinct. Indeed, he told his audience that they should be grateful that such a monster no longer presented a threat to men.


Enter the Americans

revolutionary-war.jpgBritish naturalists lost direct access to American fossils following the start of the Revolutionary War and most Americans were understandably preoccupied with the conflict. However, interest in the giant animal known either as the “American incognitum” or the “Mammoth” increased during the waning months of the war and into the first decades of the new nation. By the turn of the century, many Americans had embraced the idea that the imposing animal represented by these fossils served as a foil to European perceptions of American inferiority.

Several factors contributed to the change in importance of the “Mammoth”. For instance, renewed expansion by American settlers into the Ohio River valley following the decline in British influence enhanced the fame of Big Bone Lick and the fossils therein. But rising interest may best be attributed to the activities of three men. The most famous is Thomas Jefferson, who’s role in this story was spurred by a request from the French Delegation in Philadelphia to know more about his country and fueled by the offense he took to an influential theory by the leading naturalist of his day. The second is Charles Willson Peale, a Philadelphia painter dedicated to celebrating the glories of the new nation. The third, ironically, wasn’t an American at all. In fact, he was a former enemy.

Christian Friedrich Michaelis was a German physician who had served with the British during the Revolutionary War. Michaelis was deeply interested in the “American incognitum” and familiar with the works of Daubenton, Collinson and Hunter. Following the British defeat at Yorktown (but before the formal cessation of hostilities in 1783) he befriended George Washington. The American general related a story of incognitum fossils recovered from a farm in the Hudson River Valley and assisted the German physician in finding more. The search in New York yielded nothing so Michaelis tried to visit Big Bone Lick, but he was frustrated in his attempt to reach the promising, but remote site. He then inquired about a collection of fossils owned by John Morgan, a physician living in Philadelphia.

John Morgan received the collection from his brother, who had accompanied William Croghan during the 1766 visit to Big Bone Lick. However, he wasn’t particularly interested in the collection and it languished in relative obscurity for many years. In 1782 Michaelis tried to buy the collection but Morgan balked. He did, however, allow Michaelis to hire Charles Willson Peale, a leading Philadelphia painter, to illustrate the specimens. Peale moved the specimens to his studio and while the fossils were there, they were marveled at by several of Peale’s associates. Michaelis would return to Europe with his illustrations  while Peale and many of countrymen were inspired to learn more about this animal.

Jefferson’s Notes

Thomas Jefferson started writing what would become his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781 in response to a list of queries by the French delegation in Philadelphia concerning the American states they were assisting. This work soon evolved into a substantial book that would encompass detailed discourses on a number of topics concerning Virginia and the United States. Jefferson published a limited and private edition in 1785 and a larger, public edition in 1787, but many of his ideas found their way into American discourse well before people had a chance to read his book .

Perhaps the most influential pre-publication element of Jefferson’s Notes was his spirited rebuttal to Buffon concerning the Frenchman’s theory of American Degeneracy. Buffon’s theory, elaborated upon in 1761, stated that the animals of the New World, including the United States lacked the size, vigor and variety of their Old World counterparts. This inferiority, which Buffon attributed primarily to a humid and cold climate, extended to Native Americans, to livestock imported from Europe and -according to some of Buffon’s disciples- to transplanted Europeans as well. It’s not surprising that Americans took offense.

The centerpiece of Jefferson’s rebuttal was a set of lists comparing the size and variety of American and European animals. Significantly, the animal at the top of Jefferson’s list was the mastodon, then known variously as the “Mammoth”, “American incognitum” and “animal de l’Ohio”. Although he acknowledged that this animal might be extinct, Jefferson suspected that it still roamed the vast wilderness of North America. Whether living or not, it was clear to Jefferson and his contemporaries that this giant was “the largest of all terrestrial beings”. Consequently, Jefferson regarded the “Mammoth” as perhaps one of the most compelling arguments against Buffon’s theory of American Degeneracy:

“But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings. It should have sufficed to have rescued the earth it inhabited, and the atmosphere it breathed, from the imputation of impotence in the conception and nourishment of animal life on a large scale: to have stifled, in its birth, the opinion of a writer [Buffon], the most learned too of all others in the science of animal history, that in the new world, that nature is less active, less energetic on one side of the globe than she is on the other.”

Jefferson also disputed Buffon’s and Daubenton’s contention that the fossils recovered from Big Bone Lick belonged to the elephant and a giant hippopotamus. Rather, he agreed with Collinson and Hunter that the fossils represented a single animal similar to, but distinct from the elephant. Like the British naturalists, Jefferson was struck by the exclusive occurrence of this animal and the Siberian mammoth in the northern latitudes, and he also suspected that the Siberian mammoth and the American “Mammoth” were the same species. In contrast, the elephant was found only in the tropics. To Jefferson, this giant of the North discredited Buffon’s contention that cold climates led to degeneracy.

Jefferson believed that the “Mammoth” was probably a carnivore. This opinion, introduced by William Hunter in 1766 and shared by many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, was based in part on the jagged biting surfaces of the animal’s molars. It was also influenced by reports of the shattered bones of presumed prey at Big Bone Lick and by Native American legends popularized by Jefferson in his book. The image of a giant hunter rampaging through the wilderness fueled the imagination of many Americans offended by the Theory of Degeneracy and envious of Europe’s cultural legacy. Europeans could point to the ruins of Classical Greece and Rome. America lacked Europe’s antiquities, but the citizens of the new nation could boast of their natural wonders and the massive bones and teeth of the “Mammoth”.

The Search Heats Up

Interest in the “Mammoth” (American mastodon) increased dramatically following the Revolutionary War. Accounts of fossil finds from Big Bone Lick and the Hudson River Valley find their way into popular publications, as do excerpts and paraphrases of Jefferson’s use of the “Mammoth” in his rebuttal to Buffon’s theory of American Degeneracy. Meanwhile, presentations on fossils become regular events at learned societies in Boston, New York and Philadelphia  and  Charles Willson Peale opens his American Museum to the public.

Two significant excavations at Big Bone Lick occur during this period. An excursion to the site in 1786 by Samuel Parsons yielded about 400 pounds of bones, including a femur, jaws with teeth and isolated molars. Knowledge of Parsons’ expedition was largely limited to his circle of New England associates until his account was published by the Boston-based American Academy of Arts and Science in 1793.

In 1795, William Henry Harrison conducted what was probably the most ambitious excavation at Big Bone Lick to date. Harrison, then the governor of the Northwest Territories, retrieved enough fossils to fill 13 large wooden containers. Unfortunately, these were lost when his flatboat capsized in the Ohio River enroute to Pittsburgh.

The interest in fossils was especially keen at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the oldest and most prestigious learned society in the country. Reports on fossils from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia and the Carolinas were regularly features at the society’s meetings, but two particularly significant presentations occurred in the final years of the 18 th century. In March of 1797, Thomas Jefferson presented his fossils of “Megalonyx” or “giant claw” to the Society. This exciting new discovery, believed to be the partial remains of a giant tiger, prompted many members to consider the possibility of a second monster roaming the American wilderness.

Later, member George Turner presented the Society with an eyewitness account of Big Bone Lick and a detailed discourse of the current state of knowledge concerning the “Mammoth”. Turner agreed with Jefferson that the “Mammoth” was not the elephant, but rather an unknown animal. He also agreed in that this animal was a carnivore. Indeed, Turner inferred that this animal had tremendous leaping ability and large claws. On the other hand, he differed from Jefferson on two significant points. First, he declared that comparisons of their teeth demonstrated that the American “Mammoth” was not the same species as the Siberian Mammoth. Second, he was convinced that both the Siberian Mammoth the American “Mammoth” were extinct.

Perhaps the most significant element of George Turner’s talk was his call for the American Philosophical Society to find a complete skeleton. In response, Thomas Jefferson, the new president of the Philosophical Society, appointed a committee to generate a printed appeal for archaeological and natural antiquities. The letter stressed the need to find a complete skeleton of the “Mammoth” and designated Big Bone Lick as the most promising site. The appeal was published in 1799.


Peale’s “Mammoth”

Although Big Bone Lick was widely regarded as the most promising site to exhume the complete skeleton of the “Mammoth” (American Mastodon) , this achievement would finally occur in the Hudson River valley. Scattered “Mammoth” fossils had been recovered in the area for nearly a century, most notably the 1705 discovery of the “Giant of Claverack” and the excavations by Robert Annan in 1780.

In 1799, workmen digging in a marl pit on John Masten’s farm uncovered a massive femur. A frenzy of digging ensued as neighbors descended upon the site and soon a considerable assemblage of bones laid on the floor of Masten’s granary. Interest in these unusual bones soon diminished until the next year when local clergy and physicians -alerted of their importance by the American Philosophical Society’s appeal sent news of the discovery to associates New York City and ultimately to Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson.

Despite being embroiled in the most serious electoral challenge of the new republic,Jefferson sent an emissary to procure the bones. However, Masten and the local townspeople balked.

Charles Willson Peale traveled to Masten’s farm in 1801, obstensibly to draw the fossils, but he soon bought the bones on the granary floor and the secured the right to excavate for others. Peale returned to Philadelphia to obtain the support of the American Philosophical Society and Jefferson. Later that year he was back at Masten’s farm leading an ambitious excavation, which, unfortunately, yielded little new material. Following leads at other local sites, Peale’s team ultimately exhumed a nearly complete second skeleton at Millspaw’s Bog.

Triumphant, Peale and his skeletons returned to Philadelphia. He spent the next three months reconstructing the animal under the supervision of Caspar Wistar, the leading anatomist of the country; those bones that were not recovered were substituted with either wood or paper mache. The completed first skeleton generated a sensation in its debut at the American Philosophical Society in late December of 1801 and was a rousing success when it was displayed to the public soon thereafter. “Mammoth” fever swept the country.

Charles Willson Peale’s son, Rembrandt, accompanied the second skeleton on a tour of Europe. The stopover exhibition in New York City proved extremely successful, but the reception in London was mixed. While the exhibit was popular with many in London’s “polite society”, the high admission fee excluded many potential visitors. After an initial success, attendance declined. Moreover, some British naturalists insisted that the skeleton was actually that of an elephant. In an effort to differentiate the “Mammoth” from the elephant and to renew interest in the exhibit, Rembrandt Peale substantially revised the exhibit’s pamphlet. The stories of the exhumation and reconstruction were expanded and a detailed description of the bones and teeth was added; these descriptions would later prove vital to scientists working elsewhere in Europe. The pamphlet also revealed Peale’s changing interpretation of the animal.

As the exhibit languished in London, Rembrandt Peal hoped that his fortunes would improve when he sailed for Paris. He knew that the renowned French anatomist Georges Cuvier was very interested in the “Mammoth” and he had hoped to sell the skeleton to the National Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, the British declaration of war against Napoleon precluded the trip to France and prompted the return of Rembrandt Peale and his “Mammoth” to  Philadelphia.

Fossils in the White House

During the first years of the 19th century, most interest in the “Mammoth” (mastodon) was understandably directed toward Charles Wilson Peale’s specimen in Philadelphia. But in July of 1803, Peale informed President Jefferson of a sizable new discovery of bones at Big Bone Lick by a Cincinnati physician, William Goforth. Later that year, Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to visit Goforth on his way to joining William Clark and the Corps of Discovery. Lewis reviewed the collection and sent a report to Jefferson. He also sent the president a tusk and a molar belonging to the “mammoth” and a molar belonging to an “elephant” (actually a woolly mammoth), but these were lost when the boat carrying them sank in the Lower Mississippi River.

Goforth hoped to sell his collection, which now amounted to ten crates weighing several tons, to either  Charles Willson Peale, the American Philosophical Society or someone in Europe. However, the agent he hired for the sale, Thomas Ashe, made off with the bones and took them to England where he put them on display. Ashe later sold the collection and absconded with the money. An inventory of the collection indicated that it contained a well-preserved skull, a crucial element missing from Peale’s “Mammoth” in Philadelphia.

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson renewed his effort to obtain “Mammoth” fossils from Big Bone Lick by enlisting William Clark, who had recently returned from the Far West. Unfortunately, collectors had been removing fossils from Big Bone Lick for decades. In a September 20 correspondence to Jefferson, Clark pessimistically commented: “This Lick has been pillaged so frequently that but few valuable bones are to be found entire.”

The Clark-Jefferson Expedition, which was personally financed by Jefferson, would employ ten laborers and spend several weeks at the site. A scattering of bones, teeth and fragments could be found at the surface and at depth, but no intact or partially intact skeletons were discovered. Moreover, many of the more fragile bones the team exhumed would crumble upon exposure to the air. Considerable effort in securing two parts of the skeleton missing in Peale’s “Mammoth”: the top of the head and front feet. Clark had some success with the feet, but not the head. For example, Clark lamented in his second (November 10) correspondence to Jefferson:

“I regret very much the loss of this head, it is impossible to save those that are taken out of the water, and it is in the water or Mires the Most entire bones are found.”

Nonetheless, Clark’s party persisted and by the end of their stay had collected several hundred specimens. The majority, including teeth, upper and lower jaws, tusk fragments, a rib fragment, limb bones and foot bones, were from the “Mammoth” (American mastodon). Most of the remaining fossils belonged to what Clark identified as the “Eliphant” (woolly mammoth). Several other species, identified as a “sheep or goat species”, a horse, a “Moose Deer” or “Elk”, and a “Buffalow Cow,” were also collected.

Fearing a mishap like those that afflicted so many of the earlier attempts to recover fossils from Big Bone Lick, William Clark divided the fossils into two parts. One part was sent immediately to Jefferson in Washington. The second was stored at his brother’s (George Rogers Clark) residence in Clarksville, Indiana. As it turns out, the first part would make it to Jefferson without incident. Unfortunately, the part stored in Clarksville would later be lost when the ship carrying it to Washington via New Orleans was impounded in Havana.

Jefferson was delighted with Clark’s effort. In response to Clark’s November 10, 1807 report, which included a detailed inventory of the first shipment, the president wrote Clark on December 19:

“The collection you have made is so considerable that it has suggested an idea I had not before. I see that after taking out for the Philosophical society [American Philosophical Society] everything they shall desire there will remain such a collection of duplicates, as will be a grateful offering from me to the National institute of France for whom I am bound to do something.”

The first -and only successful- shipment from Clark arrived at the White House in March of 1808. Jefferson had these fossils spread out in a large otherwise unused room that later would become known as the East Room. By late June, Jefferson was joined by Caspar Wistar, a prominent Philadelphian physician and the foremost anatomist of the United States. Together they divided the fossils into three groups. The first went to the American Philosophical Society. This group would later be transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and become known as the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection. The second group would be sent to the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle (the Natural History Museum in Paris). It would arrive in September of 1808. The third -and smallest- part would become part of Jefferson’s personal collection at Monticello.

Meanwhile, in Europe…

While Americans had direct access to new mastodon fossils, several European naturalists were puzzling over the fossil remains of the “animal de l’Ohio” or “Mammoth”. The paucity of specimens and their unfamiliarity led to considerable differences in interpretation. The identity of this unknown animal was far from resolved.

Christian Freiderich Michaelis, who tried repeatedly to obtain fossils while he was in America, returned to Göttingen (Germany) with some fossil illustrations by Charles Willison Peale. In a 1789 publication, Michaelis rejected Daubenton’s contention that the Ohio fossils represented an elephant and a gigantic hippopotamus. Instead, he agreed with Hunter and Collison in that these fossils represented a single, unknown animal that was not extinct. Unlike Hunter, Michaelis concluded that its teeth were not those of a carnivore.

Michaelis also added a new, confounding element to the debate on the unknown animal. Using Peale’s drawing of an upper jaw fragment, he concluded that the animal lacked the tusks and trunk of the elephant. This unusual interpretation was apparently the result of mistaking front and back on the illustration. Unlike most mammals, the space between the two rows of molars in the mastodon is narrower in the back than in the front. The end that he thought was the front simply left too little room for tusks and no room for a trunk. Unfortunately, Michaelis’ interpretation was supported by Petrus Camper, a noted Dutch anatomist and an authority on fossil elephants.

Confusion and debate about this perplexing animal persisted until the issue was effectively resolved by the French anatomist Georges Cuvier. He tackled the subject in his first scholarly paper, Memoire sur les especes d’elephans tant vivantes que fossils, (Memoir on the Species of Elephants, Both Living and Fossil). In his 1796 paper, Cuvier convincingly demonstrates that the “animal de l’Ohio” was different from the Siberian mammoth and that both of these extinct species were distinct from modern elephants. Moreover, he demonstrates that there are two species of living elephants (Indian and African) rather than the commonly accepted single  species.

Cuvier returned to the subject of the “animal de l’Ohio” in 1806 with his Sur le grande mastodonte, (About the Great Mastodon). Incorporating information from a variety of sources, including Rembrandt Peale’s recent Disquisition on the Mammoth (1803) as well as older publications by Louis Daubenton, Peter Collinson, William Hunter and Petrus Camper , the French anatomist presents a detailed description of the animal and names it Mastodon giganteum . Cuvier named the animal after its distinctive teeth with their pronounced conical knobs (mastos = breast, odon = tooth). The “Mammoth”, “American incognitum” or “animal de l’Ohio” is now known as the American mastodon. Although Curvier was the first to adequately describe this animal, two other naturalists had already given it scientific names. In accordance with the rules of Biological Nomenclature, these earlier names take priority and the mastodon is now recognized as Mammut americanum.

Cuvier’s 1806 paper on the mastodon was published before fossils from the Clark-Jefferson expedition to Big Bone Lick reached Paris in. Jefferson’s fossils were also not included in the 1812 publication Reserches sur les ossemens fossils de quadrupèdes which was primarily a compilation of earlier publications. However, the Jefferson fossils were incorporated in subsequent editions of Reserches sur les osemens fossils and many of the specimens were illustrated.