Letter from Dr. William Goforth of Cincinnati
President Thomas Jefferson

On the Bones of Big Bone Lick

edited by

James Duvall, M. A.

Note: This letter was written in 1807

Cincinnati, Ohio

Thomas Jefferson, Esq.
President of the United States.

Respected Sir,

      I received a letter from Caspar Wistar Jun. dated 1st of Dec. 1806, on behalf of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia requesting information concerning the head of the mammoth; the bones of a large animal with claws; an account of other unknown bones; and also my opinion of the probability of procuring more bones, and the method of attempting it — and I was desired to address my answer to you.

      The bones I collected were unfortunately intrusted to the care of a person who descended the Mississippi with them some months since; whether he proceeded to Europe with them, I am ignorant, as from accident or some other cause, I have received no account either of him or them. — My answer cannot therefore be expected to contain accurate or exact descriptions of the bones, but such a general description as I can give from memory, follows: The part of a head which was in my possession, and which I thought to be the head of the mammoth, appeared small. I only possessed the maxilla superior, and maxilla inferior with the teeth, — two on each side of the jaw,—the 2 nearest the jaw were molars, and had two points or cones on each side of the tooth, making double processes thickly enamelled on the cones or masticating surface.

      The maxilla inferior was in two parts naturally, teeth the same as in the maxilla superior, and from the appearance of both jaws, I concluded they had their full complement of teeth—(I judged the head to which these bones belonged was small, as I had teeth of the same kind more than 5 times the size of the largest of either jaw—each under-jaw with the teeth weighing 48 lbs.)

      I had a number of teeth ribbed transversely on the masticating surface, and enamelled, weighing from 1¼ to 12 lbs. each.

      Of the teeth of the mammoth kind furnished with double-coned or blunt-pointed processes on the masticating surface and thickly enamelled and generally 4 processes for insertion in the jaw, as many as a wagon and 4 horses could draw, weighing from 12 to 20 lbs. each.

      One small femoris, weight 31 lbs.; 4 ribs, weight and length not recollected—they appeared to be so connected with the vertebrae as to throw their edge outwards; one tusk weighing 100 lbs., 21 inches in circumference, and measuring 10 ft. 6 in. in length; its form thus — one horn 5 ft. long, weight 21 lbs.

      The bones of one paw nearly filled a flour barrel; it had 4 claws and then the bones were regularly placed together measured from the os calcis to the end of either middle claw 5 feet 2 inches.

      The bones of this paw were similar to those of a bear’s foot. Where I found these bones, I found large quantities of bears bones at the same time, and had an opportunity of arranging and comparing the bones together, and the Similarity was striking in everything particular except size.

      The vertebrae of the back and neck, when arranged in order with the os sacrum and coecygis, measured nearly 60 feet, allowing for cartilages. Though I am not confident the bones all belonged to one animal, and the number of vertebrae I cannot recollect.

      I had some thigh bone of incognita of a monstrous size when compared with my other bones, which I much regret I neither weighed or measured, and a number of large bones so much impaired by time it was fruitless to conjecture to what part of any animal they belonged.

      As to the probability of obtaining some more bones, and the method of attempting it; the best answer I can give will be a relation how and where I procured the fore-mentioned: They were all procured at a place, called the Big Bone Lick, about 60 miles by river below this place and 3 from the Ohio. From my long residence in this country I had long cherished a desire to make researches at Big Bone Lick, but my circumstances (having a large family, and my practice as a physician, though extensive, is not profitable, owing to the poverty of the people) would not enable me to bear the necessary expenses. About 3 years ago, some persons understanding the avidity with which skeletons of this kind were sought after in Europe, and believing a complete skeleton of the mammoth might be procured, said that it would sell well in Europe. After several exertions to obtain what might be necessary to carry my object into execution, I accordingly proceeded to Big Bone Lick, and with a few hands, such as my trifling resources would permit, commenced my researches, when the agent of David Ross of Virginia (who owns the tract of land), forbid my proceeding further. Since which time I have endeavored, by every means which my contracted situation enables me, to procure liberty to prosecute my search.

      Big Bone Lick was formerly a salt marsh — Salt is made there at present — We generally dug through several layers of small bones, in a stiff blue clay, such as deer; elk; buffalo and bear bone, in great numbers, many of them much broken, below which was a strata of gravel and salt water, in which we found the large bones, some nearly 11 feet deep in the ground though they were found upon the surface.

      The large bones were not found regularly connected together as those of a carcase, which has been consumed by time without disturbance, and I was led to form strong suspicions, that the carcase of the large animals were preyed upon and the bones scattered here and there. —I am so firmly persuaded that large — nay, almost any quantity of teeth bones and tusks may be procured, — that I have long entertained a sanguine hope of bettering my circumstances by procuring skeletons, provided I could obtain permission to prosecute my search, perhaps it may be in the power of your learned body to procure me this permission, and if the society would wish collections of the bones of these non-descripts for their own use, I would undertake to superintend the collection and forward it to Philadelphia, or elsewhere, for such compensation as the Society should think proper to allow me for my trouble and quitting my business during the time of the work. I spent about 4 weeks in my former research, with 6 and sometimes 8 hands, and I think with 10 or 12 hands (who must be found, victuals, and liquor), I could completely search the whole Lick. The expense would be about $1.25 each man per day; we could take provisions from this town, or take a hunter to kill for us. I have now, respected sir, given all the information that suggests itself, and have mentioned the place where the collection is to be made, and the best method to pursue. With sincere wishes, that the Society may prosper, and that you may long continue your labors for the benefit of your country, I am,

With sincere respect, your friend,


Big Bone History