Clark Returns to Big Bone


By: Don Clare

The famous Lewis and Clark Expedition was over! On September 23rd of 1806, the national heroes (unbeknownst to them), returned to St. Louis. After two years of national concern, worry, despair and false assumption of a botched endeavor, the Corps of Discovery returned home to the eastern U.S. alive and well!

Instant National Heroes….Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark (actually only officially commissioned a lieutenant by the U.S.Army), largely given up for lost or dead by the general public, triumphantly returned. They were shocked to hear that they were given up for dead! They had been planning on sending back reports of their progress to the government all along, but their resources for getting any information back east proved lacking and the national dissemination of news and current events, other than word of mouth, at that time left a lot to be desired. Sure, they had some precarious moments and predicaments, but in their estimation, everything went as planned; mission accomplished!

After about a six week respite and a series of public appearances, celebrations and fancy socials and dinners in their honor in St. Louis, they made their way back to Louisville, home place of the Clark family since their relocation from Albemarle County, Virginia (where they were neighbors of Thomas Jefferson). There they enjoyed a period of R&R, attending to affairs of both public and personal business, before the two explorers, in early 1807, took separate and different paths and eventually made their way to Washington City (District of Columbia) where they met up again for an official debriefing with the President.

Most early biographers and historians of the Lewis and Clark Expedition had depicted Lewis as the intellectual, analytical, scientific, and authoritative member of the partnership, while William Clark was considered an equal in command, but the subordinate cartographer, geographer, disciplinarian, housekeeper, secretary, and ambassador to the various Native American groups encountered. His was the practical and utilitarian role from all outward appearances. This contrasting interpretation and treatment of the two explorers is generally attributed to Reuben Gold Thwaites, the author/historian and premiere researcher of the frontier history and western expansion of this young country. His interest was the early pioneer and frontiersman of the wilderness territory on the fringes of known civilization, which was now quickly becoming populated, settled and civilized. To him, William Clark represented the last of a dying breed, the buckskin-clad trailblazer. So he portrayed him in this manner to contrast him to the Eastern, gentrified, political figure which was quickly claiming the forefront. (Steffan, pp.43, 44)

After all, Meriwether Lewis was tutored and instructed by the leading naturalists, biologists, chemists, physicians, historians, mathematicians and physicists in this country, not to mention the ever constant tutelage of President Jefferson himself. Lewis served as Jefferson’s private secretary and consequently lived and dined with him years before the outset of the mission.

But let’s remember, William Clark’s background was one of military exploration and conquest, leadership, organization, direction and service to the Commander-In-Chief. Born and raised in Virginia, a close neighbor and acquaintance of Jefferson, William Clark was essentially a product of the Enlightenment influence in Virginia. His military experience was honed during his service during the Indian Wars, under the leadership of General Anthony Wayne. As a young, impressionable youth, he idolized his older brothers, all military leaders and fighting soldiers. General George Rogers Clark particularly intrigued young William and he emulated “The General’s” very persona and attributes. Despite his less formal education (all his siblings received a classical Virginia education) since his family relocated in wilderness Kentucky, William Clark was highly self-educated in the classics and sciences. As a matter of fact, his grammar and spelling were his only obvious deficits. He, too, was a man of the Enlightenment, but without all the polish. A highly skilled woodsman, hunter, explorer and pioneer, he was well rounded and balanced, not your typical gentry.

Jefferson knew what Clark was! He knew his background. He knew his capabilities. He knew his leadership abilities and he knew his penchant for science and natural history. That is why he had big plans for William now. He knew that he was the only person qualified and knowledgeable enough to address the importance and significance of the Pleistocene material strewn about the salt licks of Big Bone Lick, Kentucky. So he asked him to proceed to Big Bone Lick, Kentucky to oversee an organized recovery expedition for the prehistoric fragments and fossils known to be available at that site. The President had a specific ‘wish list’ for Clark to fill.

And Clark delivered! As a matter of fact, there were enough duplicate specimens for Jefferson to send a collection to the Cabinet of Natural History at Paris. In a letter to Monsieur De La Cepede dated Washington, July 14, 1808, Jefferson writes that “if my recollection does not deceive me, the collection of the remains of the animal incognitum of the Ohio (sometimes called mammoth)…is not very copious.” He goes on to explain “I have ately availed myself of an opportunity of collecting some of those remains. General Clarke (the companion of Governor Lewis in his expedition to the Pacific Ocean) being, on a late journey, to pass by the Big-bone Lick of the Ohio, was kind enough to undertake to employ for me a number of laborers, and to direct their operations in digging for these bones at this important deposit of them.”(Lipscomb&Bergh, Vol. XII, pp.83, 84). Jefferson had already crated and sent the Pleistocene specimens which he hand picked for the Institute of Paris along with some other specimens of curiosity obtained by Lewis and Clark on their western expedition. It is interesting to note that fourteen months later, on September 10, 1809 in a letter written from Monticello to William Clark, Jefferson follows up with some exciting news concerning Clark’s contribution of bones from Big Bone to international science. “Of those you had formerly sent me, I reserved a very few for myself; I got Dr. Wistar [one of America’s leading physicians and anatomists who would succeed Jefferson as president of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia] to select from the rest every piece which could be interesting to the Philosophical Society, and sent the residue to the National Institute of France. These have enabled them to decide that the animal was neither a mammoth nor an elephant, but of a distinct kind, to which they have given the name of Mastodont, from the protuberance of its teeth.”(Lipscomb&Bergh, Vol.XII, pp. 309,310). In other words, it was the specimens collected at Big Bone Lick by William Clark in 1807 that led to the identification of the American Incognitum (suggested reading: American Monster; Paul Semonin; 2000) as a distinct Ice Age mammal in its own right, a new species called Mammut americanum, or the American mastodon! The name comes from the two ancient Homeric Greek words, mastos (meaning breast or nipple) and odont (meaning tooth). The herbivorous browser mastodon had mound like protuberances on the surface of it molars which allowed the animal to eat small limbs and branches of trees and denser woody foliage. In contrast, the molars of the herbivorous grazer mammoth had a flat, smooth surface to accommodate the strictly grass eater’s diet.‘

William Clark was recognized by Jefferson to be a true natural scientist. He understood the scientific method and the tenets of natural science. He had witnessed and absorbed the comprehensive natural science of the Louisiana Territory and he understood the importance and impact of its ramifications on this young autonomous country which suddenly more than doubled in size because of a fluke change in the military priorities and strategies of one Napoleon Bonaparte.

The acquisition of the Louisiana Territory actually occurred before the outset of the Corps of Discovery’s trek to the western starting point for the exploration. Owning the territory now indeed made it diplomatically more proper, but they were going to do it anyway, regardless. Control of the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans was paramount to the growth and success of the trade of the yeoman farmers and settlers of the current western frontier. Thanks to a fierce slave uprising and revolution in San Domingue (Haiti), Napoleon abandoned his plans for French domination of North America and the Louisiana Territory in order to concentrate his power and military forces there, at a devastating financial and human loss. The island, consisting of about 32,000 French ruling class, 28,000 free black middle class and over 500,000 African slaves, was one of France’s richest colonies. In short order, it would become only the second independent country in the New World (after the United States). It was the only one ever to result from an organized slave revolt by defeating a major military power.

We credit Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase, but in reality, the deal was struck before he even knew about it. And it certainly wasn’t the result of superior foreign policy and negotiations on the part of the U.S. ambassadors. It was all due to the whim and snap decision of this most powerful world dictator of the time. It was simply his turn to move on that giant world-power chessboard.

All of the Corps of Discovery’s major objectives were met, except one. Lewis and Clark could not establish an all water route across the northwest to the Pacific shore. The Spanish knew that one did not exist, because they had already looked. So they readily granted permission to Jefferson to send his explorers across their Louisiana Territory. But by the time the Corps of Discovery was ready to embark, France gained possession from Spain. Now what? With Spain controlling the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans, the U.S. was assured unobstructed navigation rights to the Mississippi River and free trade in New Orleans. But with France controlling the Louisiana Territory, there would be no such guarantee. France would have completely restricted use of the river and port to choke off the British and their fur trade, also choking off the commerce of the U.S. producers. But now unobstructed travel down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the port of New Orleans was assured for the residents of the United States. Control of North American trade and commerce was now in the hands of the U.S., provided they could put a stop to the successful and long established British and Indian fur trade along and above the Missouri River.


* Both letters and the list are in the Library of Congress, Jefferson Papers. Reprinted from:

Rice, Howard C., Jr. Jefferson’s Gift Of Fossils To The Museum Of Natural History In Paris. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 95, Number 6, December, 1951. pp 600-604.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.