Big Bone Lick State Historic Site in Union, Kentucky is known as being the “Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology”. Thomas Jefferson had a fascination with Big Bone Lick and the mysterious remains of giant animals being found there. Jefferson first enlisted the help of Meriwether Lewis in 1803, instructing him to stop at Big Bone Lick on his way down the Ohio River to meet William Clark in Louisville. Jefferson wanted his own collection of specimens from Big Bone Lick to examine and study at his leisure. Lewis made his collection from Big Bone Lick and had it sent to Jefferson via river boat destine for New Orleans, however, the bones never reached Jefferson for the boat sank in its journey down the Mississippi River.
After the Corps of Discovery returned from their expedition into the new American West, Jefferson still wanted a collection of Big Bone Lick fossils. In 1807, he enlisted William Clark and his brother George Rogers Clark for the task. Upon their arrival to Big Bone Lick, they found the site picked over, with very little fit to send back to Jefferson. The brothers, along with their men, then spent the next several weeks at the site performing the first organized excavation of fossils on America soil. They were able to recover over 300 species to send to Jefferson for review. The first shipment made it to Jefferson, along with Clark’s eleven page collection description, where it was then divided between the White House, Monticello, and the Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.
Several new extinct species emerged from the mud of the Lewis and Clark excavations including the American Mastodon, the Harlan’s Ground Sloth, and the Ancient Bison. It is their organized excavations that make Big Bone Lick State Historic Site the Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology and a cornerstone in the history of science.