During prehistoric times, the area of present-day Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, was frequented by large mammals that became trapped in the marshy waters. As early as the 1730s, curiosity-seekers had been exploring the area and marveling at the large fossils they found there, including those of the mastodon.
In 1797, after Thomas Jefferson became president of the American Philosophical Society, he and the other members of the "committee to collect information respecting the past and present state of this country" published a circular letter recommending specific topics of inquiry to Society members. First on the list was "to procure one or more entire skeletons of the Mammoth, so called, and of such other unknown animals as either have been, or hereafter may be discovered in America."1
Jefferson also instructed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to search for mastodons on their expedition. In Cincinnati, on his way west to meet Clark, Meriwether Lewis met Dr. William Goforth to examine some mastodon bones Goforth had found at Big Bone Lick. He wrote Jefferson about that encounter in a letter dated October 3, 1803.2 The expedition never found a mastodon, living or dead.
In 1807, to complete the American Philosophical Society directive, Jefferson sent William Clark to Big Bone Lick to obtain fossilized mastodon bones. By September, Clark had hired ten men to assist in the endeavor and sent three boxes filled with fossils to the President's House.3 The boxes arrived in March 1808 and Casper Wistar joined Jefferson to catalog their contents.
Primary Source References
1807 February 25. (Jefferson to Dr. Casper Wistar). "Capt Clarke (companion of Capt Lewis) who is now here agrees, as he passes through that country to stop at the lick, employ labourers, & superintend the search, at my expence, not that of the society, and to send me the specific bones wanted, without further trespassing on the deposit .... if therefore you will be so good as to send me a list of the bones wanting ... the business shall be effected without encroaching at all on the funds of the society ...."4
1807 December 19. (Jefferson to Dr. Casper Wistar). "I have lately recieved a letter from Genl. Clarke. he has employed ten labourers, several weeks at the Big-bone Lick, & has shipped the result, in 3. large boxes, down the Ohio, via New-Orleans for this place, where they are daily expected. he has sent 1. of the Mammoth, as he calls it ... 2. of what he calls the Elephant .... 3. of something of the Buffalo species .... there is a tusk & a femur which Genl. Clarke procured particularly at my request for a special kind of Cabinet I have at Monticello."5
1."Circular Letter: The Society Having Appointed a Committee to Collect Information Respecting the Past and Present State of This Country, the Committee during the Last Year Addressed the following Letter to Such Persons as Were Likely, in Their Opinion to Advance the Object of the Society," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 4 (1799): xxxvii.
2. Lewis to Jefferson, October 3, 1803, in PTJ, 41:463-68. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3.Evidently, another shipment of three boxes never made it to Washington. The ship made it to Havana, Cuba, but the ship was condemned as unseaworthy, and the contents lost. See Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 416.