A Note on a Mistaken Date for the

Discovery of Big Bone Lick


James Duvall, M. A.

      Willard Rouse Jillson is the foremost historian of Big Bone Lick. He was the Kentucky State Geologist for many years, and was instrumental in founding the Kentucky Parks System. He was particularly interested in Big Bone Lick, and wrote the classic book on the subject in 1936. He wrote of the discovery of the Lick:

  More than two hundred years ago — in 1729 to be exact — an intrepid French Canadian soldier and explorer, then commanding at Fort Niagara, Captain Charles Lemoyne de Longueil, descended the Ohio River from the eastern Great Lakes and discovered Big Bone Lick in Northern Kentucky. His was the military entourage that accompanied and protected the famous French engineer, M. Chaussegros de Lery, whose compass surveys at this time gave basis for the first reconnaissance charting of the meandering course of the Ohio River. Though records do not so state, we may assume without fear of error that he was taken to this locality by the Indian guides who accompanied him, for this lick in southwestern Boone County was widely known among the aboriginal tribes that inhabited the Ohio Valley.
[Jillson,Big Bone Lick, (Louisville: Standard Printing, 1936) p. 3.] [See Jillson's references here.]

      Jillson is absolutely clear in regard to the date 1729, but most of the secondary works have the wrong date for this event. The original material, however, is very clear as we shall see. The best evidence we have is from the works of Jacques Nicolas Bellin. This is particularly true of his map, which is the best source we have for the date of the discovery of Big Bone Lick. He also published a commentary on the map a few years later:    Remarques sur le Carte de l'Amerique Septentrionale, (Paris, 1755).

      The title of the map is Carte de la Louisiane cours du Mississipi (sic) et pais voisins, published in 1744. It was probably published in Paris, France, as that city is designated as the prime meridian. This map can be enlarged to show detail:

Map of 1744

On this map along the Ohio River in the area of Northern Kentucky appears the words:    "Endroit -- ou` on a` trouve' des os d'Elephant en 1729".    Here is a detailed view of how this looks on the map:

The Best Evidence of the 1729 Date

This reads, literally:   "Place — where one found the bones of Elephant in 1729". The date 1729 is absolutely clear. There is no reason to think the map maker or printer were in error. Jillson notes that the citation was taken from the notes of M. Joseph Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, the surveyor who made the first record of Charles Lemoyne de Longueil's discovery of Big Bone Lick, which took place in 1729. [Jillson includes this section of the original map, given above, with a note. This is on the plate facing page 90.]

      It is from Collins History of Kentucky, [Frankfort, 1812; Reprint, 1971, Forward, p. i -ii.] that the error got its widest circulation. Collins does use this incorrect date wherever he got it, Jillson suggests [Lewis Collins, revised and enlarged by Richard Collins, History of Kentucky, 1874, 1882; reprint, 1976, I, 15, states this in the "Annals", and it is repeated in II, 53.]   This date was given also by Draper and repeated by many others till at last it seems to have gained universal currency.

     Sometimes we find writers who are aware of both dates, for example, in the discussion of Big Bone Lick by Jennifer Warner, which is the best comprehensive work on Boone County history to date; but the conflict is not resolved. Here is how she handles this matter:

In 1729 or 1739 (sources differ), a French engineer named M. Chasegros de Lery headed an expedition to make compass surveys of the Ohio River. Jacques Nicholas Bellin, the French cartographer exhibited his map of Louisiana in Paris in 1744. Chasegros's discovery was noted as "the place where they found the elephant bones in 1739 (sic)." [Warner, From Mastodons to the Millennium, (Burlington: Boone County Bicentennial Books, 1998), p. 18.]

This, as we have seen is a misreading of the map, but the mistaken date is on the plaques and other information presented at the park. It is an error none-the-less. Jillson says concerning Collins in his bibliography (p. 129): "Many historical and descriptive notes on Big Bone Lick and its fossils. M. de Longueil cited as discoverer of this lick in 1739. This is an error; M. de Longueil's discovery of Big Bone Lick was made in 1729." [Jillson, p. 128, item 26.]       It is interesting that in a later book Jillson reversed his position and, without explicitly stating that he was wrong in the earlier book, states that the 1739 date is actually the correct one. In his monograph The Extinct Vertebrata of the Pleistocene in Kentucky [Frankfort:    Roberts Printing, 1968, p. 23, 29.] he says that on the map the date was altered,"perhaps unconsciously", to the earlier date. He does not, however, give any evidence to show that this was so, or why. He states in his bibliography concerning Bellin's map:    "The discovery date, unfortunately, is inscribed in error on this map as 1729. It should have been 1739 as long continued and very competent research has amply proved during the last 30 years." We think Jillson must have been right in one or the other of these books, but if he was right in the second, then he is certianly wrong on another point on which he is quite dogmatic about: That is on Longueil being the discoverer of the Lick. One simply cannot have it both ways.

      The 1739 date, if it is accepted, creates a problem, for if it is the correct date then M. de Longueil and his party were not the first Europeans to discover the Lick, nor even the first to collect bones there. According to information compiled by Lyman Draper, some Canadians visited Big Bone Lick in 1735. He states: "It is related that some of the Canadians on their way to the Illinois country in 1735, destined to go thence early the ensuing year against the Chickasaws, found 'near the Fine River or Ohio, the skeletons of seven elephants.'" [Lyman C. Draper, The Life of Daniel Boone, ed. T. Belue (Mechanicsburg, Penn.: Stackpole, 1998), p. 46, on p. 84 he cites Bossu's Travels, I, 179 and French's Louisiana, II, 83. (Note:    Draper stopped working on the MS of this book in 1856)] If these are the first "discoverers" then we need to give them the proper credit, instead of a person who came with a party four years later.

Note: Another historian who has the earlier date is Archibald Henderson, Ph.D., The Conquest of the Old Southwest: The Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers into Virginia, The Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky 1740-1790, (1920; rpt. Spartanburg, S.C., Reprint Co., 1974), chapt. 8:

     Before the coming of Walker and Gist in 1750 and 1751 respectively, the region now called Kentucky had, as far as we know, been twice visited by the French, once in 1729 when Chaussegros de Lery and his party visited the Big Bone Lick, and again in the summer of 1749 when the Baron de Longueuil with four hundred and fifty-two Frenchmen and Indians, going to join Bienville in an expedition against "the Cherickees and other Indians lying at the back of Carolina and Georgia," doubtless encamped on the Kentucky shore of the Ohio. Kentucky was also traversed by John Peter Salling with his three adventurous companions in their journey through the Middle West in 1742. But all these early visits, including the memorable expeditions of Walker and Gist, were so little known to the general public that when John Filson wrote the history of Kentucky in 1784 he attributed its discovery to James McBride in 1754. More influential upon the course of westward expansion was an adventure which occurred in 1752, the very year in which the Boones settled down in their Yadkin home.

In the autumn of 1752, a Pennsylvania trader, John Findlay, with three or four companions, descended the Ohio River in a canoe as far as the falls at the present Louisville, Kentucky, and accompanied a party of Shawnees to their town of Es-kip-pa-ki-thi-ki, eleven miles east of what is now Winchester.

     This was the site of the "Indian Old Corn Field," the Iroquois name for which ("the place of many fields," or "prairie") was Ken-ta-ke, whence came the name of the state.

Five miles east of this spot, where still may be seen a mound and an ellipse showing the outline of the stockade, is the famous Pilot Knob, from the summit of which the fields surrounding the town lie visible in their smooth expanse. During Findlay's stay at the Indian town other traders from Pennsylvania and Virginia, who reported that they were "on their return from trading with the Cuttawas (Catawbas), a nation who live in the Territories of Carolina," assembled in the vicinity in January, 1753. Here, as the result of disputes arising from their barter, they were set upon and captured by a large party of straggling Indians (Coghnawagas from Montreal) on January 26th; but Findlay and another trader named James Lowry were so fortunate as to escape and return through the wilderness to the Pennsylvania settlements."


Jillson, Willard Rouse. Big Bone Lick, Louisville, KY: The Standard Printing Co., 1936; reprint. Rabbit Hash, Kentucky: Rabbit Hash Historical Society,

Bellin, Jacques Nicolas, 1703-1772. Carte de la Louisiane cours du Mississipi [sic] et pais voisins: dediée à M. le Comte de Maurepas, ministre et secretaire d'etat commandeur des ordres du roy par N. Bellin ingenieur de la marine, 1744.

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/ g3700.ct000661

Description: 1 map hand. col.; 39 x 54 cm. Series Map Data Scale ca. 1:6,000,000. Prime meridian: Paris.

Chaussegros de Léry, Joseph Gaspard, 1721-1797. Journal de Joseph Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry...: capitaine d'une compagnie des troupes du détachement de la marine, des trois voyages qu'il a fait étant lieutenant des dites troupes en l'année 1756. Québec: Imprimeur du Roi, 1929. Description P. 227-245 : fac-sim. ; 27 cm. Notes: Extrait du "Rapport de l'archiviste de la province de Québec pour 1928-1929"

Collins, Lewis, revised and enlarged by Richard Collins. History of Kentucky, 1874; rpt, Berea: Kentuke Imprints, 1976.

Warner,Jennifer. From Mastodons to the Millennium, Burlington, Kentucky: Boone County Bicentennial Books, 1998.

Draper, Lyman C. The Life of Daniel Boone, ed. T. Belue. Mechanicsburg, Penn.: Stackpole, 1998

Archibald Henderson, The Conquest of the Old Southwest: The Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers into Virginia, The Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky 1740-1790. 1920; rpt. Spartanburg, S.C., Reprint Co., 1974.