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Diorama scene from Big Bone Lick State Park, displaying extinct North American mammals--mammoths and mastodon bones have been found in the region
Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Parks

During the Pleistocene age, which occurred during the last great Ice Age, enormous herds of herbivorous animals existed in the vicinity of what is today Big Bone Lick State Park. The area is recognized as the key to understanding the life of the Ice Age on the North American continent over 10,000 years ago. The mammoth and the mastodon were among the animals to visit the Lick. Ancestors of the sloth, bison and horse also frequented the area, which had vegetation and salty earth around the springs that the animals used to supplement their diet. The land was soft and marshy and many of the animals became mired in the bogs and died.

The area was widely known to the American Indians, such as the Delaware and Shawnee, who inhabited the Ohio Valley and relied on these centrally located springs for much of their salt and a large amount of their game. The Europeans learned of the existence of Big Bone Lick from these American Indians and the first European to visit this site was a French Canadian, de Longueil, in 1739. A map of Louisiana, dated 1744, marks the lick as the "place where they found the elephant bones in 1739." The first removal of fossil bones from the lick by American Indian trader Robert Smith was also recorded in 1744. In 1773, a survey party reported using the enormous ribs of the mammoth and mastodon for tent poles and the vertebrae as stools or seats. Explorers noted that the large bones lay scattered throughout the valley. The first map of Kentucky, prepared by John Filson in 1784, bore on the legend: "Big Bone Lick; Salt and Medical Spring. Large bones are found there."

Photo displays bones taken from archeological digs at Big Bone Lick in 1966
Photo from National Register collection, courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Public Information

Meriwether Lewis traveled to Big Bone Lick in October 1803 on his way west to join William Clark and the men assembling in Louisville for the Corps of Discovery. Lewis sent a box of specimens back to President Jefferson, along with an extremely detailed letter describing the finds of Goforth--the lengthiest surviving letter written by Lewis. President Jefferson devoted much time to the study of Big Bone Lick and believed that some of the large animals might still be living in the western regions of the country. In 1807, after the Corps of Discovery disbanded, Jefferson sent Clark to Big Bone Lick for the first organized vertebra paleontology expedition in the United States. Clark employed laborers and collected bones, enough, in three weeks' time, to ship three huge boxes to the President. Jefferson had a room in the White House for the display of the Big Bone collection. The collection was divided and various sections of it went to the National Institute of France in Paris, to Philadelphia and to Jefferson's personal collection, which was unfortunately ground into fertilizer by a careless servant. Between 1756 and 1812, while excavations were continuing, the salt industry developed in the area. The salt works required 500 or 600 gallons of water to make a bushel of salt. Two furnaces were created to speed the process of evaporating the water from the salt, but the operation proved too expensive to be profitable, and the business was halted in 1812. From 1831 to 1848, various paleontologists and geologists visited Big Bone Lick, and the lick was included in indexes of all the principle geological, paleontological and scientific journals in the United States, England, Germany, and France. Besides salt, the springs were known for their medicinal qualities and by 1821 Big Bone Lick was one of the most celebrated resorts in that part of the Ohio Valley. A large hotel was erected and named Clay House, in honor of Henry Clay, the famous statesmen from Lexington, Kentucky.

Big Bone Lick State Park is located at 3380 Beaver Rd. in Union, Kentucky. The park is located 22 miles southwest of Covington on State Hwy. 338, off Hwy. 42/127 and I-71/I-75. The park, including a 7.5 acre lake, is open dawn to dusk and is home to a buffalo herd. Camping is available year-round. The outdoor museum is generally open 9:00am to 5:00pm daily, except during the winter when it is only open weekends, or by calling the main office. There is a fee for admission. Please call 859-384-3522 for more information, or visit the park's website.

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