In the late 18th and early 19th century, Northern Kentucky was a hotbed of fossil discovery. Big Bone Lick State Historic Site is now located where many of those fossils were found, and is named for the salt springs and mineral deposits that attracted ancient animals to the area.
“Big Bone Lick Historic Site is known as being the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology as this area is where the first organized digging of fossils with a backbone was initiated,” says park interpreter Amelia Hulth. “That was initiated at the direction of Thomas Jefferson and executed by William Clark and George Rogers Clark.”
According to Hulth, the predominant fossil remains that have been found at the site are: American mastodon; Columbian mammoth; Harlan’s ground sloth; Jefferson’s ground sloth; woodland musk ox; ancient bison; giant stag moose; and complex-tooth horse.
Paul Simpson, Bison Program Coordinator, explains that originally it was believed that the fossils came from animals that came to the then-swampy area and got stuck in the marsh. But now evidence suggests that animals hunting along the creek banks were the main reason so many bones were left behind.
“George Rogers Clark, in 1781 during the Revolutionary War on the campaign to the Ohio Valley, sent a large mammoth tooth back to [Thomas] Jefferson,” says Simpson. “Jefferson, upon examining it…it really piqued his interest.”
Jefferson wasn’t entirely convinced that these species were extinct.
“When he sends Lewis and Clark down, he lists on their orders to attempt to find remains of animals rare and extinct,” says John Moorman, Associate Guide at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. “In 1818, he’s still writing about it. He doesn’t really believe that these things are gone, but you can tell he was kind of starting to shift his mind.”
William Clark and his team did uncover a wealth of fossils in the area. Unfortunately, many of them were lost long ago. Moorman explains that the easiest route to ship the fossils was down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, and then from New Orleans by sea to Washington, D.C. One of the ships carrying the fossils stopped in Cuba where it was deemed unseaworthy. The crates of fossils it carried were never retrieved.
Nevertheless, the fossils that remain at Monticello are considered to be an important part of Jefferson’s legacy.
“I think the bones really speak to Jefferson’s intense goal to make a [case for] American exceptionalism,” says Emilie Johnson, Assistant Curator at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. “Jefferson is looking at natural history and America’s resources as the counterbalance to Europe’s long political and cultural history…Where Europe has thousands of years of buildings and ruins and temples, America has new species, grand species, really important things that help us learn about the natural world.”