Saturday, January 24, 2015

Big Bone. Charles Lyell. Travels in North America in the Years 1841-1842.

Charles Lyell. Travels in North America in the Years 1841-1842.
edited by
James Duvall, M. A.

Sir Charles Lyell

Two days after I reached Cincinnati, I set out, in company with two naturalists of that city, Mr. Buchanan and Mr. J. G. Anthony, who kindly offered to be my guides, in an excursion to a place of great geological celebrity in the neighboring State of Kentucky, called Big Bone Lick, where the bones of mastodons and many other extinct quadrupeds had been dug up in extraordinary aboundance. Having crossed the river from Cincinnati, we passed through a forest far more magnificent for the size and variety of its trees than any we had before seen. The tulip-tree, the buck-eye, a kind of horse-chestnut, the shagbark hickory, the beech, the oak, the elm, the chestnut, the locust-tree, the sugar-maple, and the billow, were in perfection, but no coniferous trees, - none of the long-leaved pines of the Southern Atlantic border, nor the cypress, cedar, and hemlock of other States. These forests, where there is no undergrowth, are called “wood pastures”. Originally the cane covered the ground, but when it was eaten down by the cattle, no new crop could get up, and it was replaced by grass alone. The lick is distant from Cincinnati about twenty-three miles in a South West direction. The intervening country is composed of the blue argillaceous limestone and marl, the beds of which are nearly horizontal, and form flat table-lands intersected by valleys of moderate depth. In one of these, watered by the Big Bone Creek, occur the boggy grounds and springs called Licks. The term Lick is applied throughout North America to those marshy swamps where saline springs break out, and which are frequented by deer, buffalo, and other wild animals for the sake of the salt, whether dissolved in the water, or thrown down by evaporation in the summer season, so as to encrust the surface of the marsh. Cattle and wild beasts devour this encrustation greedily, and burrow into the clay impregnated with salt, in order to lick the mud. Bartram, the botanist, tells us that in his time (1790) he visited Buffalo Lick in Georgia, forming part of a cane swamp, in which the head branches of the Ogeechee River take their rise. The lick consisted of "white-coloured tenacious fattish clay, which all kinds of cattle lick into great hollows, pursuing the delicious vein." "I could discover nothing saline in its taste, but an insipid sweetness. Horned cattle, horses, and deer are immoderately fond of it." The celebrated bog of Kentucky is situated in a nearly level plain, in a valley bounded by gentle slopes, which lead up to the table-lands before mentioned. The general course of the meandering stream which flows through the plain, is from east to west. There are two springs on the southern or left bank, rising from marshes, and two on the opposite bank, the most western of which, called the Gum Lick, is at the point where a small tributary joins the principle stream. The quaking bogs on this side are now more than fifteen acres in extent, but all the marshes were formerly larger before the surrounding forest was partially cleared away. The removal of tall trees has allowed the sun's rays to penetrate freely to the soil, and dry up part of the morass. Within the memory of persons now living, the wild bisons or buffaloes crowded these springs, but they have retreated for many years, and are now as unknown to the inhabitants as the mastodon itself. Mr. Phinnel [i. e. Finnell], the proprietor of the land, called our attention to two buffalo paths or trails still extant in the woods here, both leading directly to the springs. One of these in particular, which first strikes off in a northerly direction from the Gum Lick, Is afterwards traced eastward through the forest for several miles. It was three or four yards wide, only partially overgrown with grass, and, sixty years ago, was as bare, hard, and well trodden as a high road. The bog in the spots where the salt springs rise is so soft, that a man may force a pole down into it many yards perpendicularly. It may readily be supposed, therefore, that horses, cows, and other quadrupeds, are now occasionally lost here; and that a much greater number of wild animals were mired formerly. It is well known that, during great droughts in the Pampas of South America, the horses, cattle, and deer throng to the rivers in such numbers that the foremost of the crowd are pushed into the stream by the pressure of others behind, and are sometimes carried away by thousands and drowned. In their eagerness to drink the saline waters and lick the salt, the heavy mastodons and elephants seem in like manner to have pressed upon each other, and sunk in these soft quagmires of Kentucky. The greater portion both of the entire skeletons or extinct animals, and the separate bones, have been taken up from black mud, about twelve feet below the level of the creek. It is supposed that the bones of mastodons found here could not have belonged to less than one hundred distinct individuals, those of the fossil elephant (E. primigenius), to twenty, besides which, a few bones of a stag, horse, megalonyx, and bison, are stated to have been obtained. Whether the common bison, the remains of which I saw in great numbers in a superficial stratum recently cut open in the river’s bank, has ever been seen in such a situation as to prove it to have been contemporaneous with the extinct mastodon, I was unable to ascertain. In regard to the horse, it may probably have differed from our Equus caballus as much as the zebra or wild ass, in the same manner as that found at Newberne in North Carolina appears to have done. The greatest depth of the black mud has not been ascertained; it is composed chiefly of clay, with a mixture of calcareous [containing calcium carbonate, i. e. chalky] matter and sand, and contains 5 parts in 100 of sulphate of lime, with some animal matter. (Cuvier, Oss. Foss., tom. i., p. 216.) Layers of gravel occur in the midst of it at various depths. In some places it rests upon the blue limestone. The only teeth which I myself procured from collectors on the spot, besides those of the buffalo, were recognized by Mr. Owen as belonging to extremely young mastodons. From the place where they were found, and the rolled state of some of the accompanying bones, I suspected that they had been washed out of the soil of the bogs above by the river, which often changes its course after floods. Mr. Cooper of New York, who has given the fullest account of the fossils of this place, says, that the remains of reeds and freshwater mollusca accompany the bones; but he names no species of shells. Mr. Anthony and I were therefore diligent in our search for shells in pits which happened to have been recently laid open by collectors of fossil bones; and we soon obtained a small Ancylus and Cyclas. Afterwards, in the eastern marsh, in the middle of which a powerful spring throws up beech nuts and shells from the mud below, we found two species of Melanis known as Recent, Phusa hetrostropha, Cyclas similis, C. dubia? (and another species, not known to the naturalists here), Pisidium (supposed to agree with one from Lake Erie), Ancylus (not known), and fragments of Unio; also the following land shells; — Helix solitaria (with bands of colour not effaced). H. alternate, H. clause, H. fraterna, and Pupa armifera. As new terrestrial and freshwater shells are occasionally added to the recent American fauna, I think it very probable that all the fourteen species which we met with, and which, I believe, co-existed with the mastodon, are still living, though perhaps not all of them in the immediate neighborhood. It is impossible to view this plain, without at once concluding that it has remained unchanged in all its principal features from the period when the extinct quadrupeds inhabited the banks of the Ohio and its tributaries. But one phenomenon perplexed us much, and for a time seemed quite unintelligible. On parts of the boggy grounds, a superficial covering of yellow loam was incumbent on the dark-coloured mud, containing the fossil bones. This partial covering of yellow sandy clay was at some points no less than fifteen or twenty feet thick. Mr. Bullock passed through it when he dug for fossil remains on the left bank of the creek, and he came down to the boggy grounds with bones below. We first resorted to the hypothesis that the valley might have been dammed up by a temporary barrier, and converted into a lake; but we afterwards learnt, that although the Ohio is seven miles distant by the windings of the creek, there being a slight descent the whole way, yet that great river has been known to rise so high as to flow up the valley of Big Bone Creek, and so late as 1824, to enter the second story of a house built near the springs. The level of the Licks above the Ohio is about fifty feet, the distance in a straight line being only three miles. At Cincinnati the river has been known to rise sixty feet above its summer level, and in the course of ages it may occasionally have risen higher. It may be unnecessary, therefore, to refer to the general subsidence before alluded to, in order to account for the patches of superficial silt last described.

Charles Lyell, Travels in North America in the Years 1841-1842. New York: Charles E. Merrill, 1909. p.139-144. (I have not seen the original book yet. This document is from a typescript in the Fitzgerald Big Bone Scrapbooks, Vol. 3, in the Boone County Public Library, Special Collections. There is an note that this copy was "Abridged and edited by John P. Cushing". I have attempted to recover the whole by comparing it with the excerpt in Jillson's Big Bone Lick, p. 105-109, also abridged. Both of these omit large sections included in the other, but I think I have substantially recovered the whole. — J. D.) Big Bone History

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