Daniel Boone at Big Bone Lick
By James Duvall, M. A.
Big Bone Lick was one of the first places in Kentucky visited by explorers. The Indians had used it as a source of salt for centuries. There was a period when Indians and whites both came to make salt. These were the days in which the two sides were in a contest to see who would control the area.
Of the many visits by white men the most important in relation to Daniel Boone was that of the Indian trader John Finley in 1755. Finley knew little about the interior of Kentucky, but he was familiar with the Ohio River, Big Bone Lick, the Indian town of Eskippakithiki, and the locations of other points where the Indians camped and traded. Findley and Boone had fought together in the ill-fated campaign of Braddock in the French and Indian War, and had known each other a long time. Boone and others had already tried to enter Kentucky by a route along the Big Sandy River. The party was unsuccessful in the attempt. When John Findlay looked up Boone in North Carolina in 1769, they agreed there must be a better way into Kentucky than by way of the Big Sandy. They knew the Cherokee had a way from North Carolina when they went to war against the Northern Indian tribes, so they decided to try to find the Indian warpath. This we know today as Cumberland Gap.
John Filson, the first and most important biographer of Daniel Boone, does not tell us that Boone ever visited Big Bone Lick. Boone left his family in 1769 with John Finley, John Stewart, Joseph Holden, James Monay (thus Filson, elsewhere, Mooney), and William Cool (Filson, elsewhere, Cooley). They arrived at Red River 7 June 1769 and hunted with great success until 22 December. On this day Boone and Stewart were captured by Indians in a canebreak near the Kentucky River. They managed to escape after a week. After finding the camp plundered they met Squire Boone, who had been searching for them. Soon after this Stewart, who was Boone's brother-in-law, was killed by the Indians. Daniel and Squire remained together in Kentucky until 1 May 1770, when Squire returned to the settlements for supplies and Daniel was left alone, "without bread, salt, or sugar, without company of my fellowcreatures, or even a horse or dog." He spent this time alone until the 27 July, when his brother, Squire, returned.
During this three months Daniel Boone, fearing the Indians, stayed hardly a night in the same spot. It was during this period that he had time to thoroughly explore the entire region of Kentucky. While we are not specifically told in his narrative, as recorded by Filson, that he visited Big Bone Lick; however, it seems unlikely that he would have had so much time to travel around without visiting a place of such note. How do we know if he visited here if he did not say so in his narrative? Two of Boone's more recent biographers John Bakeless, and John Mack Faragher, do not say that he visited here, though they mention Lick in other connections. Lyman Draper, the first and most important biographer of Boone, says that he was here, and we will notice this more particularly below. We do know for certain that Boone made salt at Blue Licks, and perhaps at various other salt licks in Kentucky. Can we say he was at Big Bone Lick? There are several lines of evidence that say he did.
The Narrative of Boone's life in Filson's Kentucke is probably the single most important source on the life of Daniel Boone. The second most important — first for personal aspects of his life — is the interview of Lyman Draper with Boone's youngest son. Draper had a lengthy visit with Nathan and Olive Boone in October and November of 1851. Both of them had good memories and Boone had given them many accounts of his exploits and travels. Draper produced over three hundred pages of notes during this visit. Most of the personal information we have on Boone comes from this source.
We know from the account of Nathan Boone that his father was at the Lick at least once during the time Squire Boone left him in May of 1770. Here is Nathan's story as it relates to this period:
By the time Uncle Squire left Kentucky in May 1770, they had hunted so industriously that the supply of ammunition was almost exhausted. For this reason my father was obliged to conserve what he had left to supply himself with game for food. Thus he had to forego the pleasure of a summer deer hunt. After the Indian robbery and the departure of Finley, Holden, Cooley, and Mooney, my father and his remaining companions didn't occupy the old Station Camp but made new camps as new hunting localities required. My father seldom stayed two nights at one place after Stewart's disappearance. When Uncle Squire left, my father decided to explore the country. He discovered several of the noted salt licks or springs, which in every case were easily found by following the well-beaten buffalo roads leading to them. He visited the Upper and Lower Blue Licks on the Licking River. At the latter place he saw thousands of buffaloes, with other animals resorting there to lick the ground and drink the water. He kept on down Licking River a few miles below the lick to where the old Indian warpath crossed, then went along a trail to the Ohio, which he reached about twenty-five miles above the mouth of Licking River. He then followed the southern shore of the Ohio River down to the Falls of Ohio. When passing the Big Bone Lick he saw Indians. There were also two or three instances when he saw Indians on the northern shore of the Ohio, all of whom he avoided without being discovered. [My Father, Daniel Boone: The Draper Interviews with Nathan Boone. ed. N. O. Hammon. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), p. 30-31.]
I have said there are several lines of evidence to suggest that Boone was familiar with Big Bone Lick. Nathan says, "my father decided to explore the country." He tells us that his father had discovered several of the major licks (of course Big Bone had already been "discovered"), and we know Boone was aware of the importance of salt licks. He and his sons produced salt from the salt licks in Missouri at a later date. This was one period when Daniel Boone had time to explore, since he had not enough ammunition to do any serious hunting. It says here that he passed the Lick and saw Indians, so presumably did not stop; if, however he had never been to the Lick it seems he would not have known exactly what it was he was passing, except perhaps from the location as he had heard it from others. We must also consider that Filson's Kentucke included a detailed description of the licks. Col. Boone was the most important subscriber to the veracity of Filson's book:
We the Subscribers, inhabitants of Kentucke, and well acquainted with the country from its first settlement, at the request of the author of this book, and map, have carefully revised them, and recommend them to the public, as exceeding good performances, containing as accurate a description of our country as we think can possibly be given; much preferable to any in our knowledge extant; and think it will be of great utility to the publick.
Witness our hands this 12th day of May, Anno Domni 1784,
Here is the description of Big Bone, and the other licks, as Filson gives it:
At a salt spring, near Ohio river, very large bones are found, far surpassing the size of any species of animals now in America. The head appears to have been about three feet long, the ribs seven, and the thigh bones about four; one of which is reposited in the library in Philadelphia, and said to weigh seventy-eight pounds. The tusks are above a foot in length, the grinders about five inches square, and eight inches long. These bones have equally excited the amazement of the ignorant, and attracted the attention of the philosopher. [John Filson, Kentucke, p. 33-36.]
Many fine salt springs, whose places appear in the map, constantly emit water which, being manufactured, affords great-quantities of fine salt. At present there is but one, called Bullet's Lick, improved, and this affords salt sufficient for all Kentucke, and exports Come to the Illinois. Salt sells at present for twenty shillings per bushel; but as some other springs are beginning to be worked, no doubt that necessary article will soon be much cheaper. Drenne's-lick, the Big-bone, and the Blue-licks, send forth streams of salt water. The Nob-lick, and many others, do not produce water, but consist of clay mixed with salt particles: To these the cattle repair and reduce high hills rather to valleys than plains. The amazing herds of Buffaloes which resort thither, by their size and number, fill the traveller with amazement and terror, especially when he beholds the prodigious roads they have made from all quarters, as if leading to some populous city; the vast space of land around these springs desolated as if by a ravaging enemy, and hills reduced to plains; for the land near those springs are chiefly hilly. These are truly curiosities, and the eye can scarcely be satisfied with admiring them.A medicinal spring is found near the Big-bone Lick, which has persistently cured the itch by once bathing ; and experience in time may discover in it other virtues. There is another of like nature near Drenne's-Lick. [John Filson, Kentucke, p. 32-33.]
Lyman Draper, in his biography, says of Boone that during the summer of 1770, while he was alone in Kentucky: "Among other points of interest, he visited the famous Big Bone Lick and examined the wonderful fossil remains of the mammoth found there." [Lyman Draper, Life of Daniel Boone, ed. T. Beleu (Stackpole Books, 1998), p. 244.] Draper in a long note about Big Bone to which he gives reference at this point, catalogues the early visits to the Lick. He repeats the 1739 error about de Longuiel, evidently following Collins. [In the Introduction to the book, p. 46, and also in this note, #17, p. 248 (On the error of this date vide supra)but this incorrect date has perpetuated itself almost everywhere.] He gives as his source the interview with Nathan Boone quoted above: "Of Boone's visit in 1770, we can give on the authority of his only surviving son, who derived the fact from his father." [p. 249.]
Thwaites, in his biography, remarks of Boone at this time:
Kentucky has a remarkably diversified landscape of densely wooded hills and valleys and broad prairie expanses. The genial climate admirably suited the philosophical wanderer. He enjoyed the exquisite beauty and stateliness of the trees — tulip-trees, sugar-trees, honey-locusts, coffee-trees, pawpaws, cucumber-trees, and black mulberries-and found flowers in surprising variety and loveliness. The mineral springs interested him — Big Lick, the Blue Licks, and Big Bone Lick, with its fossil remains of mastodons which had become mired when coming to lick the brackish soil. He traveled far and wide in his search for the beautiful and curious, being chiefly in the valleys of the Licking and the Kentucky, and upon the banks of the Ohio as far down as the site of Louisville, where, at the foot of the falls, he inspected the remains of an old fur trade stockade concerning which Finley had told him. [Reuben Gold Thwaites, Daniel Boone (New York: Appleton, 1924), p. 82-83.]
Boone is said to have declared on several occasions that every word in Filson's book was true. He would not have said this if he were not acquainted with all the facts as related in the book. Considering the fact that he was very interested in salt springs (as all early settlers were), we should not be surprised to find that his son confirmed that Daniel Boone did pass through the Big Bone area. We may be sure that Boone was quite familiar with Big Bone Lick and its environs.