Visit to Big Bone Lick, in 1821


Constantine S. Rafinesque

Professor of Historical and Natural Sciences, &c.

from the

Monthly American Journal of Geology and Natural Science
Vol. 1 no. 8 (February 1832): 355-358.

edited by

James Duvall, M. A.

Big Bone, Kentucky

reprinted at the

Big Bone University Press

Nec ossa solum, sed etiam sanguinem.

Big Bone




By C. S. Rafinesque, Professor of Historical and Natural Sciences, &c.

      Mr. Cooper, in his account of Big-bone Lick, has craved further information from other explorers. I shall, perhaps, add some additional facts to his. He has omitted Mr. John D. Clifford and myself among the explorers. To my knowledge Mr. Clifford visited the place in 1810 or 1817, and dug for bones. He procured many, which I have seen in his museum, in Lexington, among which a fine tusk of mastodon, and some horns of the oxen found there. His collection of bones has been removed, by purchase, to the museum of Cincinnati, and latterly to the Academy of Natural Sciences, of Philadelphia.

      We proposed to visit this lick together in 1820; but his death that year prevented us. In 1821. I went with Dr. Short, from Lexington to Northbend, at the mouth of the great Miami. I left him there at his brotherís seat on the Ohio, and went on purpose to the Lick by myself to explore it, and wait for him on his return. A horse having been lent to me, I went by the road of Cincinnati, following the banks of the Ohio. I visited in the way a beautiful elliptical mound, near the banks of the river, and the house of major Pratt. It has been preserved intact, with the trees that grow on it. The base measures 550 feet in circumference; it is 25 feet high, and the top is level 100 feet long from N. E. to S. W., by 50 feet broad. This mound, or altar, is nearly half way between the stone fort, at the mouth of the Miami, and the ancient city, temples, circus, and mounds on which Cincinnati has been built, now mostly levelled and destroyed. All are on the second bank of the Ohio.

      Without stopping long in Cincinnati, I crossed there the Ohio to Covington, in Kentucky, on the west side of the mouth of Licking river. I went to survey the singular ancient monument near Covington, at Mr. Jacob Fowleís ; the main road passes between two circular mounds of unequal size; the eastern is 12 feet high; the western 25, and has a pavilion on the top; but the singularity consists in a long sickle-shaped esplanade, running out of it to the south, which is 350 feet long, about 80 broad, and 8 feet high.

      From Covington to Big-bone Lick, the distance is only 18 miles, nearly S. W. over the limestone upland, gently undulating: near the Lick the ground is more broken into ravines which open into the Big-bone valley.

      I remained several days at the Lick, which is a watering place, with ample accommodations; but I found the actual owner a very surly man, who would no longer allow any excavations, having imbibed the notion that digging would take away the water from the spring, around which a pavilion and seats had lately been erected. Seeking for bones was then out of the question and I spent my time in taking an ample survey of the place, the valley, and the landing on the Ohio, with the surrounding hills and monuments, now only two miles from the lick, where steam boats land their passengers. I made some maps and drawings, and collected several plants and fossils.

      Mr. Cooperís account of the place is tolerably correct, but his map does not show all the streams, ravines and springs around the place, and omits entirely the remarkable ancient mound, connected with the Indian traditions mentioned long ago by Jefferson, in his notes on Virginia. Yet this mound is only 300 yards from the large boarding house, but in the woods on the steep hill behind it, towards the S. E. It is elliptical, 10 feet high, 430 feet in circuit at the base, 150 feet long, from N. to S. and is level on the top, with a hollow in the centre, which I ascribe to some late excavation, but am not positive, as no rubbish is seen.

      This was the mound from which the Great Spirit destroyed the last mastodon, according to the tradition recorded by Jefferson.

      Behind this mound, and towards the landing, are three small sepulchral mounds near one of the springs of the western branch of Gunpowder creek, which empties itself into the Ohio at the landing; but the main branch comes from the north. The ridge separating the waters of Gunpowder and Big bone creeks, is not very high, and forms a kind of gap where the road crosses it the lick may have once communicated with the Ohio by this gap.*

      I walked to the landing, where there was a very inconvenient landing place; near it was a farm house only, the cliffs being there very near to the Ohio, quite steep, and subject to avalanches. I was told by the farmer, that not long ago, in a storm at night, he was frightened by a dreadful noise like an earthquake, which lasted a long while; and in the morning found a small ravine south of his house almost filled up by an avalanche of huge stones from the cliffs. I went to see the place, and found it so; the stones were of all sizes and shapes, but all angular; some must have weighed many thousand pounds, and yet had rolled 200 yards or more. These cliffs, as usual, are of limestone, in horizontal strata, and 200 feet at least above the river.

      The water at the Lick springs contains salt and sulphur; it has a bluish cast, like that of the, Blue licks, on Licking river; both are limpid, but of an abominable taste, although readily drank by the idlers who come there to loiter, drink, bathe, and kill the gameóvery plenty yet on the hills.

      I should have wished to follow Big-bone creek to its mouth, but had not time. I have since regretted it, when I heard some years afterwards that a very singular ancient tomb had been found there. It was formed by two large slabs uniting into an angle above, and covered by the soil; some human bones were found in it, the fate of which I could not learn. I am inclined to believe it situated in the alluvion of the creek, which is ample in some places, and even contains many fossil shells, or unios, the same as those now inhabiting the creek and the Ohio. It would be interesting to know what connection may exist between this tomb; the mound on the hill, and the regular arrangement of the fossil bones at the lick, although I should myself be inclined to believe in the diluvial eddy which may have brought the bones there in a regular heap, in the bend of the valley.

      At Blue licks, in a rocky valley, no bones and no monuments are found, but Drennonís lick has bones and mounds. Out of the limestone region, in the sandstone hills, many licks are found with fossils, but no bones and no monuments. Is it not strange that there should be an apparent connection between them, or rather their locality? as if some Indian tribe had collected these bones as relics.

      The valley of Big-bone creek is nearly a mile wide at the lick and above it, but becomes much narrower below it, as if the lick had been formerly a basin, or small lake. All the hills are of horizontal blue limestone, with some shells, chiefly terebratulites, productus, &c. But the valley, with the sides of the hills, are of clay. This clay is of various hues and consistency, often mixed with sand and gravel damp in the middle, dry and arid on the sides of the valley. It contains in the ravines several fossils, chiefly alcyonites and entrochites. The hills rise 120 to 180 feet above the valley. They are wooded and full of game, but with a very thin soil. The soil in the valley, near the lick, is rather sterile, but higher up becomes fruitful, and is well cultivated.

      Many pretty plants are found in the valley and hills, but no saline plants. The stream of Big-bone often changes its course, and washes away its banks when it overflows in the spring. The back-water of the Ohio, when very high, comes near to the lick, and may have reached it formerly.

      No bones were protruding or visible in the banks, in 1821; but some were visible as late as 1810, at least. The first European discoverer of this place was Longueuil, in 1739, who took away many bones to Louisiana and France. They were then quite out of the around. He was led there by the Indians, who held the place as holy, and never took away the bones.

      Having well explored the lick and valley, I returned to Lexington with Dr. Short, as soon as he called for me. This was in September, 1821.

*    Which is badly laid out in the map, as well as Gunpowder creek, erroneously called River creek. [Note by Rafinesque] return

Rafinesque refers here to Little Gunpowder Creek, now usually called Landing Creek. The mouth of Big Gunpowder is at mile 513.5 below Pittsburg, Little Gunpowder is at mile 514.6, and he refers to the latter.

See The Ohio River: Charts, Drawings, and Description of Features Affecting Navigation. Compiled under the direction of the Chief of Engineers, United States Army. ed. 5. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1935), Chart 31., p. 108-109.
Both creeks appear just north of Big Bone Creek on Cumings's Chart No. 11, but only the larger one is labelled. See Samuel Cumings The Western Pilot, 1825
[Note by editor.]

Big Bone History