Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark


Letter from Samuel Parsons to Ezra Stiles, Forwarded to Thomas Jefferson

Samuel Parsons to Ezra Stiles, Forwarded to Thomas Jefferson, April 27, 1786
Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress
Samuel Parsons describes the fossils and ancient fortifications he encountered on his travels along the Ohio River during the Fall/Winter of 1785. Parsons letter to Stiles was forwarded to Jefferson, who was extremely interested in the discoveries along Big Bone Lick and the Ohio River.

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Middletown April 27, 1786


In my tour to the Country bordering on the river Ohio Maps: the last winter some natural curiosities have fallen under my observation which may afford the learn'd a field of useful speculations. I have therefore take the liberty of sending you a tooth of an animal, now unknown in that country, and a few petrefacations I have collected there, and to trouble you with the account of such facts as have fallen under my observation, in respect to these things; as well as other Singular appearances to be found there: that I may contribute all in my power to facilitate the enquiries the learned & curious may be induced to make.

In November last we went down the Ohio Maps: from the Miami Maps: about 32 miles to a place called the Big Bone Creek, to search for the Bigbones said to be found at a salt lake on that Creek, about three miles from the Ohio Maps: . We found the place to be a flatt of about 20 acres inclosed with rising lands on all sides, through which is a running stream of water; the soil a yellow soft Clay, the Bones are found in and near this stream under the Earth at different depths. We collected about 300 or 400 lb of the Bones, of which the of which, the Tooth I now send you is part. a thigh Bone Intire is the largest bone of our collection, this is 49 Inch in length I imagine is about 60 lb in weight. Part of the Jaws, leg and Head bones were also taken up, but not the intire skeleton of the Animal, What species

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of animal this was I am unable to conjecture, and being wholly Unknown to the Natives we are not aided by tradition. Whatever this creature was, his Height I think must have been between 12 & 16 ft, if the other bones bear any proportion to those we found, and were in any considerable degree proportioned to the parts of other animals. These bones are found in no places but soft ground near rivers or water courses, as I have yet heard. Of what species they were, by what means, and at what time, they became extinct I leave to the inquiry of Others.

In respect to the petrefactions which are common in some parts of that, as well as other countries, I beg leave to state this fact: that at the Rapids of the Ohio Maps: the waters pass over flatt stones extending from side to side of that river, very similar in shape and appearance. That on the SE side I discovered no petrfications, when the surface of the Stones on the NW stones are covered over with petrified Vegetables of all kinds with small fish Animals and Excrements in various degrees of petrefaction from the beginning of an external Incrustation to a perfect stone. that at this place there appeared a gentle dripping of water from the adjoining lands, falling upon the stone in the river which appeared to me to fix the Vegetable, and other substances to the stone like a cement. A doubt arose in my mind whether the received Opinion that certain waters possessed a petrefying Quality was Justified or whether this is not a quality in some kind of Earth & the water passing through these Strata may become so Im

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> -pregnated therewith so as to produce the Effect. If so perhaps a more Valuable cement than has yet been discovered may be found. this I leave to the learned to ascertain. The numerous remains of fortifications in that country, (a draft of one at the mouth of Muskingum Maps: I now send you,) and pieces of Earthen vessels and bricks dug up from considerable depts in the Earth, The numerous mounds of Earth created in conical forms, to the height of 70 or 80 ft, containing the bones of the Dead, are proofs of this Country's having been peopled heretofore by those who had some knowledge of the Arts, and the trees grown up in those fortresses are of a size which leaves little room to doubt that the works were abandoned long before this country was discovered by the Europeans.

The present Inhabitants having no knowledge of the Arts or tradition respecting the fortifications leaves a doubt whether the present are the Immediate descendants of the former Inhabitants. This I leave leave to you & other learned Gentlemen to form Your Opinions upon and am with great esteem

Sir your most Obedient Servt Sam H Parsons

Rev President Stiles Yale College Fine Copy Ezra Stiles

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[docketed page] General Parsons Letter to President Stiles 1786 Copy forwarded to his Excellcy Gov. Jefferson Ambassador at Paris

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[ED Note: A diagram of the fortifications observed by Parsons accompanies this letter, see images]

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Plan of Works or Mounds of Earth & Lines of Circumvallation covered with Forest Trees -- at the Entrace of the River Muskingham Maps: into the River Ohio: taken 1786 by Gen Parsons & communicated to Ezra Stiles May 5, 1786 Yale College Forwarded to his Excellcy Gov Jefferson at Paris, Minister Plenipotentiary, from the United States of America Ezra Stiles