The Mammoth's Graveyard


Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham, M. D.

from The Louisville Journal, 1877;
rpt. Boone County Recorder,
22 Feb 1877, p. 1.

Note:    Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham was about 93 years old at the time of his excavation at Big Bone Lick, and was probably the most venerable and interesting citizen of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. He came seeking materials for his Free Museum of Kentucky, in Louisville. He dug for a month with ten men from the area. They were all experienced diggers for the bones, and he paid them a dollar a day. This dig has been generally ignored, but it was one of the major excavations of the 1800's and should be better known. Dr. Graham mistakenly says that Big Bone is two miles from Warsaw; he evidently mistook the town of Hamilton for Warsaw, but the latter is exactly ten miles away as the crow flies, and about half that much again by any other route. Editor.

      The following description has been written out by the request of Prof. F. W. Putnam, of the Peabody Academy of Science, Salem, Massachusetts; but as this great natural treasure belongs to Kentucky, it should first be made known to Kentucky, where it is least known. As there is but one graveyard of the huge mammoth and gigantic mastodon on this globe, it is, with its attending mysteries, one of the greatest curiosities in the world, and as yet has never been made known to the world, except that there is a place where big bones are found, affording no knowledge of the vast accumulation and kind of bones, or how buried and preserved.

      Big Bone Lick is in Boone County, Ky., and two miles in the interior from the village of Warsaw (sic, should be Hamilton's Landing, see note), a boat landing on the Ohio River, and is a perfectly level plat of ground, encircled by a number of hills and from three to five hundred feet high, the imprisoned space containing some ten acres of a once marshy and quicksand earth, that swallowed thousands of animals that ventured into this valley of death to drink the salt water; and the wax-like clay has hermetically sealed them from the warring elements without, till their bones are there found of perfect flint, with opalized and agatized teeth of thousands of years' mineralization. The bone-bed is from ten to twelve feet beneath the surface, where vast quantities of bones of animals that inhabited the country are to be found, with buffaloes' heads and horns well preserved.

     In my excavations we often came to piles of what I thought were collections of yellow, soft sand; but seeing the old diggere rubbing it between their hands till warm, and smelling it with a grin and leer of the eye that said to me you are green, I found it to be decayed flesh that still had the odor, as dogs around the pit would smell and scratch into it. In the bottom of this basin (for a large earth basin it is) there bubble up a great many salt-sulphur springs, and, flowing off gently over a level surface, make a deposit of purely white and glittering sulfur, so odorous that the whole atmosphere of the valley is saturated with it. The earth in this basin, once swimming in water, was so much like a bowl of jelly that a man could stand and shake an acre around him, and yet in places annually getting more solid by deposits. I shook more than twenty feet around me, and in these soft places you cannot dig without a pump to relieve you of the perculating water. The earth has been so long saturated with salt and sulphur that it is beautifully streaked with blue and yellow, cuts smooth like cheese, and when dry bears a glittering polish, and I think it would make fine pottery or queensware, and this I name, not only as a thing unknown elsewhere, but that it may lead to investigation and prove valuable.

     Old persons who have lived fifty and sixty years in the neighborhood, say that the whole valley was denuded of vegetation, and from a distance looked like a frozen pond of water, and portions of it yet remain so, the surface for rods around being naked, smooth and shining as the face of a mirror, and, like a gum-elastic bag or foot-ball blown up, will sink under the foot and tremble around, and yet neither break through nor soil your boots—alarming, indeed, to a stranger, yet perfectly safe to travel over.

      I dug upon these grounds for thirty days, with ten men, and brought off seven barrels of bones, a number of buffalo heads, and both mammoth and mastodon molars, but found no very large bones or tusks (but had nine feet of a fourteen-foot tusk given me by Mr. McLaughlin, proprietor), and left upon the ground a cart load of bones of various animals. The bone-bed is from ten to twelve feet beneath the present surface of the ground. I say present, because the valley, having recently sunk, is annually inundated, till there is a deposit of several feet over the original earth. In sinking one of our pits, we came to a regularly built furnace, six feet under ground, and took up the pipes, partly decayed, that conducted the water from the main spring to the furnace, where salt was made nearly a hundred years ago. I will say of those who may wish to search for those ancient remains that, when they come to a head, rib, or any other bone of an animal, they cannot expect to find, as I did, to find the entire skeleton; and my reason for the fact is that the wolves, bears and wild-cats (the remains of which I found) dragged the dislocated parts about, and that the deposits, as above named, covered them where they lay.

     And now I will say that this brings us to one of the unwritten and unsolved mysteries of Big Bone Lick. What caused this valley to sink?—as it certainly has, else why these recent inundations, that have depositied six feet of earth over the original surface, as shown by the discovery of the furnace and confirmed by the old inhabitants, who say the the innundations and filling up commenced about fifty years ago, previous to which it was well drained by a creek that ran through it. This depression has been not less than ten feet, there being six feet made of earth, about which the water stands, for a time, from four to five feet, leaving, as I saw, large piles of drift upon the flat. A further proof of all this is that, on the first discovery of the place, the bones lay so thick upon the then primative earth, where solid, that the foot could not reach it for bones piled upon bones, that now constitute the bone-bed of six feet beneath, whereas in the big spots the bone-bed is twelve feet. The largest excavation I made was at the furnace, where, six feet deep and upon the level of it, the bones were as thick as autumn leaves, while in other localities they were less abundant and from ten to twelve feet under the present surface, as above named, showing that this basin, though level in bottom, had hard spots, like islands in a pond of water, where some of these remains are found upon that level, and other six feet deeper, where they sank into the water—marshy, muddy, swampy, boggy spots immediately around the bubbling water.

      The first white man who ever saw this place was James Douglass, of Missouri, in 1773, who reported the bones to be so thick upon the ground that he could walk upon them—teeth of ten pounds weight, tusks eleven feet long, thigh bones and ribs ten, which he used for tent poles, all being sound and firm; and Mr. Thomas Rich, who was born in sight of the Lick sixty-eight years ago (and who was one of my hands), told me that when a boy he often passed over creeks and ditches on bridges made of these huge bones. The first shipment made of these remains was by Dr. Goferth (sic, should be Goforth), who in 1803 loaded a flatboat with them and sent them by an English agent to England,where they are now to be seen in the British Museum. The news having spread of the great wonder, President Thomas Jefferson, then President of the American Philosophical Society, had a collection made in the year 1805, a portion of which he donated to the French naturalist, Cuvier; and in 1819 a third collection was made by Mr. Finnell and sold to Mr. Graves for $2,000, which he took North and sold for $5,000.

     In the year 1833 Thomas Rich, as above named, who dug for me, was foreman in excavating for an agent of New York, and exhumed a gigantic skeleton, twenty-two feet long and eleven feet high, with tusks twelve feet long, all of which are now in the Kentucky Department of the British Museum, in London. Mr. Rich told me that he also dininterred, during the same digging, the skeleton of an elk whose horns were seven feet long, since which he has been digging for various parties, among whom was Mr. Shaler, our present geologist of Kentucky, but never found an entire skeleton of any kind; and I to save money to those who may wish to search, say that I am satisfied there will never be another found. I obtained petrified horns of both deer and elk, but not very large.

      And now, these sound bonds found upon the surface of the earth in 1773, strong enough to make tent-poles and bridges, afford a key to the living age of these extinct animals, that has ever been a matter of conjecture with the scientific world. That bones, as well as wood, may be preserved for a great length of time sunk far beneath the earth is well known, and that they will last but a short time on the surface is equally well known; and I will say that, in the latter condition, they would not last more than from thirty to fifty years; so that this key of Big Bone Lick (never before or elsewhere found) unlocks the mystery and shows to a certainly that these now extinct giants might have been seen stalking through the forest like moving mountains, with their fearful tusks, glaring eyes and heads of a thousand pounds, but a short time before the discovery of their remains. I say that this philosophic key of the puzzled world was never known till found on Big Bone Lick, for no such undecayed bones were ever before found near the surface of any part of this globe.

     By way of information for those who may hearafter wish to search for these hidden treasures, that any number of faithful laborers may be found in the neighborhood who will furnish their own tools, board themselves and work for one dollar per day; but I will further make known that no permission, in my opinion, will hereafter be given to dig upon these grounds.

     The land is owned by three proprietors—Mr. McLaughlin, owner of the hotel, ample for two hundred visitors; Mr. Moore, and the county of Boone and Major T. D. Carneal, once a prominent citizen of Cincinnati, owning the Lick and a large body of land around it, deeded to the county of Boone, two acres, including the largest spring, and to my application for the privilege to search (though in the name of Louisville and the Free Museum of Kentucky), the Magistrates unanimously rejected my petition. Having, however, gotten ready to dig, thinking those "surly dogs in the manger" could not refuse to let me, at my own expense, bring to light these hidden treasures, that otherwise will remain forever unknown, I went to work, looking every hour for the Sheriff with his warrant for trespass, but come he did not. The other owners, at first, also firmly refused, saying that persons had been there from Europe, as well as from all parts of the Union, tearing up the ground, which, by recent deposits had become a rich and valuable garden spot, but who subsequently granted a limited search.

      I am sorry to say that our people in Kentucky are not yet sufficiently cultivated to appreciate anything but the almighty dollar and the driveling and veering petty things of fashion and art, and have let their rich treasures of nature go off to other countries, unobserved and uncared for; and moreover, that the labors of a man who is building up a monument of future fame for them, at his own expense, is unthanked for.

      Another remarkable feature of the Mammoths' Graveyard is the singular trees adjacent, with bodies as large as the tallest trees in the forest, and with greatly larger tops, and yet not half as tall, called by the inhabitants the Mammoth's tree, having been kept down as they think, by those browsing beasts, and, from my own personal observation, I am convinced of the fact. In my desire to make known to strangers as well as to our own people, all about this wonderful rendevous city and cemetery of a race of beings that have gone out of existence, and the search for whose remains being greatly more interesting than excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum for petty pottery, I have necessarily been somewhat tedious.

      Having forgotten to give my views in regard to the sinking of the valley, I will premise that geology had discovered parts of our globe where large tracts of land are imperceptibly sinking, and others as slowly rising, from unknown causes; but in the present case I will suggest the cause to be the melting down of the foundation of the valley, that must be composed of salt and sulphur, which, by affording the perpetual flow of numerous springs, must as certainly waste away as that of any portion taken from the whole leaves the whole less.

C. C. Graham, M. D.

Transcribed and edited by James Duvall, M. A.

Big Bone History