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Big Bone Lick History

Established In July 2, 1960

Click here to download the park's printable history. Adobe PDF Document

Big Bone Lick is a unique state park by any standard. Here the prehistoric past is enshrined, containing the remains of some of America’s early animal inhabitants. Once covered with swamps, the land that makes up Big Bone Lick had a combination of minerals and water that animals found difficult to resist. For centuries great beasts of the Pleistocene era came to the swampy land in what is now known as northern Kentucky to feed. Animals that frequented Big Bone Lick included bison, both the ancient and modern variety, primitive horses, giant mammoths and mastodons, the enormous stag-moose, and the ground sloth.

Through the millenniums untold numbers of these great beasts came to Big Bone Lick. Carnivorous animals that fed off the flesh of these herbivores in turn followed them. Early man found a seemingly endless supply of food to hunt in and around these mineral and salt deposits. The lands at Big Bone Lick may have seemed inviting, but it had a deadly surprise in store for those animals that wandered onto the soft, unstable ground that made up the area. As they fed, many of the larger beasts began to sink into what the early pioneers to Kentucky called “jelly ground.” The bog-like soil could not support the weight of these enormous creatures and they sank helplessly into the quagmire beneath them.

American Indians, and later the settlers from the east coast marveled at the “big bones” that lay scattered about the lick. Word of these intriguing remains became part of Indian lore until in 1739 a French Canadian explorer and soldier, Charles LeMoyne, and second Baron DeLongueil discovered the site. In 1744 Robert Smith, an Indian trader visited the area and removed the first fossils from their swampy bed. Kentucky explorer John Findley noted the bones at the Lick in 1752, and Robert McAfee described Big Bone Lick in his 1773 journal.

According to McAfee, the area of Big Bone Lick covered about ten acres, completely bare of timber and greenery. The land containing the lick had been worn away to the depth of about three or four feet by countless animal hooves and tongues. A creek ran through the site, fed by two streams of salt water. McAfee and his surveying party found a great number of mammoth bones in and around the lick. Portions of backbones lay on top of the ground. Some of these bones served as seats for some of McAfee’s men. The long ribs served as tent poles. A tusk found protruding from a bank measured six feet. Huge teeth, had a grinding surface of seventy-five inches. He noted that on July 5, 1773, Captain Thomas Bullitt surveyed “a tract of very good land on Big Bone creek.” He met some Delaware Indians who told him that the “big bones just as he saw them now, had been there ever since his remembrance, as well as that of his oldest people.” Due to the salt found at Big Bone, pioneers constructed a crude fort at the site to protect those who came there to collect the precious commodity.

Big Bone Lick had a successful salt-making operation. Its proximity to the Ohio River made it ideal for the salt trade.  To make one bushel of salt took six hundred gallons of water from the salt springs. The water would be boiled down until only the salt remained. Entrepreneurs installed large, flat evaporating furnaces to create more salt quickly and efficiently. Nevertheless, by 1812, due to the discovery of other salt deposits in the Ohio Valley, the salt industry of Big Bone Lick came to a close.

The ancient bones found in Kentucky soon became the talk of the scientific world. Collectors wanted specimens to add to their collections of curiosities. In 1803 Dr. William Goforth, a Cincinnati physician, collected and shipped five tons of bone specimens to Pittsburg around 1804, intending to send them on to Philadelphia to be sold for use in scientific investigations.

Goforth’s collection remained in Pittsburgh until an Irish traveler named Thomas Ashe met the collector and offered to be his agent in selling the bones. For a percentage of the net proceeds, Ashe would do all of the work in finding appropriate buyers. After obtaining possession of the collection Ashe sent it to New Orleans where he was offered $7,000 for it. Instead he took the collection to England and sold it there for a large sum, keeping the money for himself. The Royal College of Surgeons, Dr. Blake of Dublin, and Professor Monroe of Edinburgh obtained portions of the Goforth collection.

In an 1807 letter to President Thomas Jefferson, Goforth gave a description of some of the fossils in his former collection. He described the head of what he thought to be a mammoth. Some of the teeth weighed as much as twelve pounds each. One jawbone nearly filled a flour barrel. He reported to Jefferson that he also had some thighbones “of a monstrous size.”

Impressed with the description of the finds at Big Bone Lick, Jefferson sent General William Clark with a party of ten men in 1807, to collect more fossils. When the bones arrived at the White house Jefferson and Dr. Gaspar Wistar studied them and divided the shipment into three collections. The president retained a small collection for his personal enjoyment; the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia received the second, and the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle of France obtained the third.

From time to time other collections of fossils from Big Bone appeared in various cities in America. New York City displayed one such collection. An account written by early American scientist, Benjamin Silliman of Yale told of seeing twenty-two tusks and one skull that weighed in excess of five thousand pounds. Academic interest in Big Bone continued to grow.

During the first half of the nineteenth century Big Bone Lick once again became the center of activity when the area became a health resort. The mineral laden waters that had drawn the animals to the site now drew people who wished to “take the waters” as a restorative for their health.  The rambling Clay Hotel built shortly after 1800 catered to these guests. Bathhouses lined the major creek at Big Bone. Bathers would modestly emerge from these shelters and enter the “healing” waters of the creek. As time went on other spas became more fashionable and by 1847 Big Bone Lick ceased to be a health attraction.

The long history of Big Bone Lick turned another chapter on August 25, 1953, when the Big Bone Lick Association, a local historical society dedicated to promoting the site, decided to adopt resolutions that urged the creation of a state park. The Association wanted a museum constructed to house some of the artifacts found at the Lick. The citizens of Boone County responded generously to the call for donations. School children raised over two thousand dollars and by 1958, nearly six thousand dollars had been donated to purchase land around the site. People from Boone and Kenton counties, the Covington-Kenton-Boone County Chamber of Commerce, and the Big Bone Lick Historical Society agreed to offer the land that had been acquired to the Parks Board of the Commonwealth of Kentucky for the development of a state park. On July 2, 1960, the Parks Board accepted the land.

Between 1960 and 1968, the state purchased additional land bringing the total amount of acreage to 250. The new park had a lake constructed to provide a water supply. In 1962 a systematic professional study of the Big Bone Lick site began under the direction of Dr. C. Bertrand Schultz, Director of the Museum and Regents Professor of Geology and Vertebrate Paleontology, University of Nebraska. Several research grants funded a five-year dig during the summer months beginning in 1962.

Big Bone Lick State Historic Site now has 813 acres with forty acres of picnic grounds and a 62-site campground with electricity, grills, water, rest rooms, showers, and a pool. A grocery store provides food and necessities. There are facilities for different types of sports, and the indoor-outdoor museum has collections of bones and a video presentation on the history of Big Bone Lick. On the grounds are life-size replicas of mastodons and bison. Other items of interest include the Salt Festival each October, where salt-making demonstrations are shown.

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