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Big Bone Lick Timeline

Compiled by Don Clare

Charles Le Moyne, the second Baron de Longueuil, while commanding a French Canadian military expedition out of Canada against the Chickasaw Indians in the Mississippi River Valley ( who were hostile to the French and interfering with the communications between the French occupied Louisiana and Canada), is credited with the ‘discovery’ of Big Bone Lick by a white European.

The Englishman, Robert Smith, a British Indian trader living on the Big Miami River visits Big Bone in related to Christopher Gist in 1751. Jacques Nicolas Bellin’s map is published in Paris, which includes one of the first, if not the first, references to the French discovery of Big Bone Lick.

Pierre Joseph Celeron leads another expedition out of Canada and down the Ohio River, but does not make it as far as Big Bone Lick, turning around at the mouth of the Big Miami River.

Georges Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, the distinguished leading naturalist of the 18 century, publishes his first volume of “Historie naturelle”. The number of volumes in this series would eventually reach 36 during his lifetime, and another eight would be completed and published posthumously after his death in 1788. It was Buffon who proposed and championed the theory of degeneracy in North American mammals.

Colonel Christopher Gist visits Big Bone Lick while employed as a land surveyor and scout for the Ohio Land Company. He records in his journal that he obtained two large teeth from 2 men employed by Robert Smith who were returning from Big Bone Lick.

The backwoods Indian trader, John Findley, visits Big Bone Lick on a trading expedition with the Ohio Indians.

Mary Draper Ingles initiates her daring escape from her Shawnee Indian captors who brought her there on a salt making expedition from their Scioto River village, after taking her captive in July of that year during a raid on the frontier settlement of Draper Meadows in Virginia.

Lewis Evans publishes his ‘A General Map of the Middle English Colonies in America’ which is the first English map to note Big Bone Lick with the words “Elephant Bones found here”.

The French and Indian War (also called the Seven-Years War in Europe) ends with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

Colonel George Croghan makes the first considerable collection of fossilized bones from Big Bone Lick during one of his extensive western territory explorations. Less than a week later, on his return, he and his men are captured and plundered by Indians near the mouth of the Wabash and he narrowly escapes death. His collection of bones is completely lost.

A year later, Captain Harry Gordon, a young army engineer and his associate geographer, Ensign Thomas Hutchins, accompanies Colonel George Croghan on another expedition down the Ohio, and makes a comprehensive collection of bones and teeth, some of which are sent to Lord Shelbourne and Benjamin Franklin in London, England to study.

Peter Collinson of London reports to the Royal Society of London on the fossils which George Croghan and Harry Gordon sent to Lord Shelbourne and Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin writes a letter from London to George Croghan discussing the “elephant’s tusks and grinders” which Croghan sent from Big Bone Lick. Franklin later presents these specimens to the Royal Society of London.

William Hunter presents to the Royal Society of London his observations on the mastodon fossils from Big Bone Lick sent to Lord Shelbourne and Dr. Franklin.

The first official survey of the land encompassing Big Bone Lick is made by John Floyd, deputy surveyor of Fincastle County, Virginia, under Colonel William Preston. This survey is recorded in 1774 as having been made for Colonel William Christian who was awarded land patents in Kentucky County, Virginia for his military service during the French and Indian War. Christian’s wife is Annie Henry, a sister of Patrick Henry.

On a mid-summer surveying trip down the Ohio River, Captain Thomas Bullitt and Hancock Taylor, along with their surveying crew of the brothers James, George, and Robert McAfee and James McCoun and Samuel Adams spend some time at Big Bone Lick and record what they see, reportedly using rib bones for tent poles and vertebrae for camp seats.

Another pioneer surveyor, James Douglass, visits the Lick in the fall of the year and records the fact that a large number of bones of huge animals are scattered about the place.

Thomas Hanson reports the same findings in his journal when he visits Big Bone with the surveyors John Floyd and James Douglas, who survey another 2000 acres for William Christian who already owns 1000 acres at the salt springs. William Christian is also an acquaintance and colleague of Thomas Jefferson. In 1785, Colonel Christian moves his family to land holdings he owns near Sturgis Station in the Beargrass region (present Jefferson County)... He is killed by Indians one year later.


Nicholas Cresswell describes what he sees and collects at Big Bone Lick in his travel journals of 1744-1777.

The Declaration of Independence is written by Thomas Jefferson and approved and adopted by the Continental Congress, severing all dependence on and ties with England. Yet the international science community continues to collaborate on the identification of Big Bone Lick fossil bones.


Thomas Hutchins’ map is published in London. He includes on it the location of Big Bone Lick which he visited with Captain Harry Gordon in 1766 by designating it simply “Big Bone”.

Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia, delivers a military grant to Big Bone Lick and surrounds to Colonel Christian, based on Floyd’s 1000 acre survey of 1772.


Colonel Christian sells his 1000 acre grant, which includes Big Bone Lick, to David Ross. This transaction marks the first sale of the land encompassing Big Bone Lick ever recorded.

In a letter to his friend James Steptoe, Thomas Jefferson expresses his excitement after receiving the former’s letter “wherein you give me hopes of being able to procure for me some of the big bones…”.


John Filson writes the first description of Big Bone Lick to appear in an American book with his “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke” Filson also publishes “This Map of Kentucky, etc.”, which marks the location of Big Bone with “the large bones are found here.”

The only book to be written by Thomas Jefferson is published in English for public consumption. As a response to a set of standard queries sent out in 1780 to various American dignitaries by Francois de Barbe, the Secretary of the French Legation to America, Jefferson begins writing his responses in 1781. In 1784 he has 200 copies privately printed in France for his friends. After a very inaccurate translation of the book is pirated and printed in the French language without his permission, he finally authorizes the publication of a revised and corrected American version. In his book he refutes Buffon’s North American Degeneracy theory, specifically citing fossilized evidence from Big Bone Lick.


Kentucky becomes the fifteenth state in the Union on June first

Captain Gilbert Imlay publishes his “Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America” in London. In this publication he discusses the possible origin of the bones and identifies Big Bone as “Great Bone Lick”.


General William Henry Harrison (another future U.S. president) makes a massive collection of bones from Big Bone Lick, filling a total of 13 hogsheads, all of which are lost when the boat transporting them capsizes and sinks on the Ohio River just below Pittsburgh.

A fine collection of bones comes into the possession of Thomas Jefferson from a collection made by the French General Colland. As a token of his esteem, Jefferson sends a portion of these to Georges Cuvier, the noted French anatomist and paleontologist, who published on them in Paris.


Thomas Jefferson becomes the country’s third President.

David Ross, current owner of Big Bone Lick, denies to the public permission to further dig on his land. Captain Meriwether Lewis, on his way down the Ohio River to meet up with William Clark at the Falls of the Ohio (present Louisville) in preparation for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, is instructed by Thomas Jefferson to stop in Cincinnati to visit Dr. William Goforth. Lewis spends a week in Cincinnati and accompanies Dr. Goforth on an overland visit (previously arranged by Jefferson with Ross) to Big Bone Lick while his crew continues down river to the mouth of Big Bone Creek. Lewis writes a 9 page letter to Jefferson reporting his observations .Bones collected by Lewis and shipped to Jefferson are lost in Natchez when the boat transporting them sinks.


Dr. William Goforth, a Cincinnati physician who limited his medical practice for the sake of the rapidly growing popular science of American paleontology, excavates and collects extensively comprehensive samples of Pleistocene mammal fossils from Big Bone Lick. He is ultimately hoodwinked and swindled by the celebrated English traveler and writer, Thomas Ashe, in 1806, who agreed to act as Goforth’s agent in Europe to deliver and sell the specimens to the men and institutes of science. Some of these made their way to the Royal Academy of Surgeons in London and some made their way to Professor Monroe of Edinburgh and Dr. Blake of Dublin. Ashe pocketed the proceeds and Goforth received nothing.

Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton publishes his ‘ Miscellaneous Facts and Observations’ in The Philadelphia Med. And Phys. Journal, describing fossil bones at Big Bone.


At the urging of President Jefferson, Dr. Caspar Wistar, Secretary of the American Philosophical Society, writes a letter to Dr. William Goforth of Cincinnati inquiring about the fossils he has in his possession and the availability of others remaining at Big Bone Lick

President Jefferson writes to David Ross, owner of Big Bone Lick and a personal friend, and secures permission to dig for specimens needed to complete the collection of the American Philosophical Society as well as his own personal collection. He then recruits Captain William Clark, recently returned from his monumental expedition to the west and the Pacific Ocean and back, to head a fossil recovery expedition to Big Bone Lick. Captain Clark, accompanied by his famous older brother General George Rogers Clark, who knew the area well from his prior military career and expeditions, more than adequately fulfills Jefferson’s charge, procuring over 300 specimens, most of which are still accounted for in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Monticello.

It was the Clark expedition to Big Bone Lick which also produced human cultural artifacts in conjunction with the Pleistocene megafauna remains, which could have linked PaleoIndian man to be contemporaneous with the huge beasts, had the data been reported on and recorded. Three Clovis spear points traced to the Clark dig, currently in possession of the Cincinnati Museum Center, would have been the type specimens for this particular spear point and to this day could have been known as the Big Bone Lick point instead of Clovis point .Several extant letters written by William Clark are dated October 1807, Big Bone Lick, Kentucky.


The bones arrive at the White House from the Clarks and are laid out on the floor of the unfinished East Wing. President Jefferson writes to Dr. Caspar Wistar of Philadelphia to come join him in Washington and “satisfy your curiosity” in examining these newly acquired specimens.

Zadoc Cramer publishes an account of Big Bone Lick as it appears in the early 19th century in his Ohio River guide publication, ‘The Navigator’. He describes the salt making business carried on by the current proprietor, Mr. Colquohoun.


Richer salt deposits elsewhere in the Ohio Valley rings the death knell for commercial salt making at Big Bone Lick. Georges Cuvier publishes ‘Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles’ in Paris in which he discusses various notes on Big Bone Lick, its discovery, its fossil resources, and Jefferson’s donation of bones to the Institute of France.

The first medicinal springs and resort is established at Big Bone Springs and named the Clay House, after the fiery Kentucky statesman. “From 1815 to 1830 Big Bone was one of the best known health resorts and medicinal springs west of the Alleghenies, equipped with a fine hotel, a long row of bath houses and a large open pavilion.”(A.M. Yealey, 1951)


1816 (or 1817)
John D. Clifford of Lexington, Kentucky visits Big Bone and excavates a substantial number of specimens for his own personal collection. Upon his death, these fossils make their way to a Cincinnati museum until they are purchased by John Price Wetherill in 1829 and forwarded to the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia.

An extensive collection is made at Big Bone for the Western Museum Society of Cincinnati.


Constantine S. Rafinesque, the odd and eccentric professor of natural history at Transylvania University in Lexington, makes a trip to Big Bone to collect specimens, but is denied permission by the owner of the property who thought that digging would deplete the water in his springs.

William Cooper, a member of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York, of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Zoological Society of London accompanied by Mr. I. Cozzens, comes to Big Bone and collects “everything that seemed likely to add to our store of information concerning the place.” He publishes his findings in The Monthly American Journal of Geology in 1831, entitled “Notices of Big Bone Lick”.


A local resident, Captain Benjamin Finnell makes a large collection of bones from Big Bone and assigns them to a Mr. Graves who sells them to a number of museums in the U.S. and England. This encourages other collectors to do the same and establishes Big Bone Lick as the one-stop-shopping place for Pleistocene fossils in North America.

Benjamin Silliman, a distinguished Yale College scientist and professor, comments on the collection of mastodon bones from Big Bone in the American Journal of Science. Others who publish articles in 1831 on Big Bone paleontology include William Cooper, J.A.Smith, J.E.DeKay and Rafinesque.


1841 and 1842
Sir Charles Lyell, the noted English geologist, visits Big Bone Lick during his American travels and describes it in his published journals of 1845.

Joseph Leidy, one of the foremost American scientists of the 19th century, begins a series of descriptions of the Pleistocene remains found at Big Bone. David Dale Owen, Kentucky’s renowned state geologist visits \Big Bone.


Joseph Leidy writes the first description of Bison Antiquus which was made from studying a skull and horncore collected by William Clark for Thomas Jefferson from Big Bone Lick.

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, born and raised in Newport, Kentucky, and destined to become Dean of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, comes to Big Bone to see that “these licks …be worked to their very bottom in search of possible contents.”


A second hotel is constructed at Big Bone Lick. It does not meet with much success and eventually just crumbles away, like so many of the fossil bones.

Big Bone Methodist Church is built and organized. As was the custom, a social order lodge shared the expense of the construction and upkeep and occupied the upper floor, with a separate stairway.


Reuben Gold Thwaites, the renowned historian of frontier and border history, visits Big Bone Lick on his journey down the Ohio River in a small skiff. He records his journey in his book “Afloat on the Ohio” (published in 1897) and describes Big Bone.

W.D. Funkhouser, professor of Zoology at the University of Kentucky, publishes “Wild Life in Kentucky” in which he discusses prehistoric animals found at Big Bone Lick.


William S. Webb, professor of Physics at the University of Kentucky, and W.D. Funkhouser publish “Ancient Life in Kentucky” which covers the varied prehistoric Pleistocene mammals found at Big Bone Lick.

The Articles of Incorporation of The Big Bone Lick Association are signed on June 10, 1935 by the founders and states the objectives of the organization. The objectives were not met and the association passed away.


Willard Rouse Jillson, former State Geologist of Kentucky, publishes “Big Bone Lick...An Outline of Its History Geology and Paleontology”. The book was designated ‘Big Bone Lick Association Publications: No.1’, but it was their only publication. To this day, it remains the premier authoritative history and annotated bibliography of Big Bone Lick.

The Boone County Historical Society is organized.


A paper on Big Bone Lick is read to the Boone County Historical Society by A.M. Yealey.

The August 21 meeting of The Boone County Historical Society is devoted to discussions about Big Bone Lick and the possibilities of establishing a park there. In December, a meeting is held for the purpose of organizing a Big Bone Lick Historical Association and it is accomplished.


On December 12, the Association purchases 16.66 acres and deeds the parcel over to the acting Commissioner of Conservation for the purpose of establishing a state park.

In December, the Department of Parks announces plans to develop picnic areas, a shelter, and roads and parking areas


Big Bone Lick Historical Association purchases another parcel of land and deeds it to the Commonwealth. Boone County also deeds over a two acre parcel known as the County Ground.

The Big Bone Lick Historical Association partners with the State to purchase a 28.3 acre parcel and another 118 acre parcel, to bring the total land holdings for the park to 175 acres.

Dr. C. Bertrand Schultz, Director of the State Museum at the University of Nebraska and Mr. Lloyd Tanner, also of Nebraska, begin to direct a scientific investigation at Big Bone Lick, which will occur each summer season for the next five years.


During the 1964 season, about 112,000 people visit Big Bone Lick State Park, mostly to view the monumental dig.

The University of Nebraska completes it fifth and final season of excavations.


An expansion and development program is inaugurated for the park.

Approximately 80 acres of Big Bone Lick State Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


A Master Plan for Big Bone Lick State Park is completed by a Landscape Architect and Engineering firm.

A Phase One Archaeological Reconnaissance of Big Bone Lick State Park is conducted by the Kentucky Heritage Commission


Going by Jillson’s 1729 date for Longueuil’s discovery of Big Bone Lick, the year passes without any mention or recognition of a 250th anniversary.

Archaeological testing is conducted by Kenneth Tankersly, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, by opening a series of test trenches.


An archaeological investigation is conducted by the University of Kentucky to study prehistoric human occupation at Big Bone Lick.

The formation of a citizen-driven support group is attempted by an interested local individual, but fails miserably, due to lack of interest and participation. The project, known as ‘Big Bones Come Home’, is geared to locate as many specimens from Big Bone as possible from all over the world, and invite them back to Kentucky on either a permanent or loan basis. This idea of a local support organization would eventually develop and manifest itself as Friends of Big Bone. Going by the more generally accepted 1739 date of Longueuil’s discovery of Big Bone Lick, the year passes without any mention or recognition of a 250th anniversary.


The 1990 General Assembly appropriates $60,000 for the Parks Department to conduct a museum master plan study. The plan is completed in late 1993 and outlines exhibits, themes, and concepts for a $4 million museum, “should funds ever become available”.

Big Bone Lick Interpretive Plan is prepared by a consultant architect firm and exhibit designer team to produce a master plan to set goals for future development of the museum and outdoor interpretive facilities. An addition is added to the existing 1960 gift shop to serve as an exhibits gallery and museum.


A General Conservation Assessment is conducted at the Park, under a grant from the Institute of Museum Services Conservation Assessment Program, consisting of an on-site general assessment of the collections and facilities of Big Bone Lick State Park.

Big Bone Lick is considered as a possible potential site for the Paleo-Indian National Historic Landmark Theme Study, conducted through the National Park Service, the National Historic Landmarks Archaeology Committee, and State and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices.

Research and work for the National Register Archaeological District nomination is completed and submitted.


Groundbreaking ceremonies for the Big Bone Lick Discovery Trail take place on December 17, 1998.

Ribbon cutting ceremony for the official opening of the new Discovery Trail at Big Bone Lick State Park takes place August 30, 1999.


The Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws of Friends of Big Bone, Inc. are filed with the Secretary of State of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, John Y. Brown III on July 12, 1999.

The very first organizational meeting for Friends of Big Bone is held February 22 at the Ellis Extension Service building in Burlington. A large turnout and a slate of knowledgeable speakers make the meeting an enthusiastic and promising success.


Boone County Fiscal Court provides $8,600 in funding to the Friends of Big Bone for a project to “identify, locate, gather, review, evaluate, and summarize” as much scientific literature concerning Big Bone Lick that is currently extant. The project will also identify additional needed research in order to determine what actually occurred geologically, stratigraphically, biologically, hydrologically, climatically, and culturally. Completion of the project is planned for late 2003 or early 2004.

Boone County Fiscal Court creates the Big Bone Valley Task Force for the purpose of discussing and planning the future of the Big Bone Valley, including Big Bone Lick State Park and its recognition as a National Heritage Site as well as a World Heritage Site and the strategies to achieve this status.

Friends of Big Bone announce its re-organizational general meeting and election of a new Board of Directors and Officers to take place Oct 3rd.

Friends of Big Bone receives its tax exempt status as a Section 501(c) (3) organization from the Internal Revenue Service on January 16th.

All 512 acres of Big Bone Lick State Park is designated by the Department of Interior as a National Register Archaeological District, increasing its former number of 4 sites located on 80 acres to include 22 different archaeological sites on 512 acres. This designation is the result of a project funded by a Certified Local Government grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council and matched by the Boone County Fiscal Court to the Boone Count Historic Preservation Review Board

The National Park Service honors Big Bone Lick by designating it an official Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Site. There are only four such designated sites east of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.


A meeting discussing the potential for World Heritage Site (funded by UNESCO) status of Big Bone Lick is held at Northern Kentucky University with representatives from the Office of the Governor, Kentucky State Parks, Boone County Fiscal Court, Friends of Big Bone, Cincinnati Museum Center, Northern Kentucky University, and various distinguished members of the scientific community.

A commemorative National Geodetic Survey Marker which resembles the Thomas Jefferson Peace Medal is installed at Big Bone Lick State Park by the NGS. These markers are being placed at certain points of historic interest along the National Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail to commemorate the Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial. Big Bone Lick was designated by the National Park Service in October 2002 as one of only four such Eastern Legacy Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail sites east of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The other three eastern sites are Locust Grove and the Falls of the Ohio both in Louisville, and Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Friends of Big Bone plays a major organizational role as it partners with Big Bone Lick State Park, Kentucky State Parks, Big Bone Boat Landing, Kentucky Primitives, and The Ohio River Chapter of the National Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation to host and sponsor a four day, split venue, Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial Commemoration event at Big Bone Boat Landing and Big Bone Lick State Park, October 3rd through 6th. A Kentucky Historical Society Highway Marker Program bronze marker #2124, sponsored and donated by Friends of Big Bone, Ohio River Chapter-Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, National Park Service, and Kentucky Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission was installed and dedicated to mark the 250th anniversary of Meriwether Lewis’ visit to Big Bone Lick on his trip down the Ohio River to meet up with William Clark for their unprecedented exploration of the West, out to the Pacific Ocean and back. In 1807, William Clark would be sent back to Big Bone at President Jefferson’s request to procure another collection of bones, making it clear that the Lewis and Clark Expedition actually both began and ended at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky.

Dedication of the newly completed Phase I portion of the Big Bone Lick Museum Project takes place November 18th. Phase One consists of administrative offices, welcome center and gift shop. No new funding is appropriated for the second phase.


On July 16th and 17th , Friends of Big Bone, in partnership with Big Bone Lick State Park, Boone County Historic Preservation Review Board, Split Rock Conservation Park, Gray & Pape, Inc., and the descendants of Mary Draper Ingles sponsors and hosts the Mary Draper Ingles Family Reunion in honor of the 250th anniversary of the bold and daring escape of Mary Ingles from her Shawnee Indian captors at Big Bone Lick, where she was taken on a salt making expedition shortly after her July 1755 abduction during a raid on the Draper’s Meadow settlement.