Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 17 January 1813

To Francis Adrian Van der Kemp

Monticello Jan. 17. 13


Your favor of Nov. 16. arrived here soon after I had set out on a journey on which I was absent between five and six weeks. this must apologise for this late acknolegement of it. I am sorry it is not in my power to give you any direct information on the subject of the mammoth. about half a dozen years ago I had a number of labourers hired & employed a fortnight or three weeks in collecting bones for me at the Big bone lick of Kentucky. a part of this collection I gave to the Philosophical society at Philadelphia, & I sent a part to the National institute of France. Dr Wistar of Philadelphia examined the whole minutely & promised to give a Memoir on the subject to the Philos. society. but whether he did or not I am uninformed. but I am sure he can give you the best information on the subject. those sent to the National institute of France were subjected to the examination of the celebrated Cuvier. he decided it to be entirely distinct from the Mammoth of Siberia and from the family of elephants altogether, and he gave it the new appellation of Mastodont. I have no doubt that Dr Wistar possesses what Cuvier has written on the subject. this indication of the source from which the information you ask may be obtained being the only aid I can give you, be so good as to accept it with the assurance of my great esteem & respect.

Th: Jefferson

PoC (DLC); at foot of text: “M. Van der kemp”; endorsed by TJ.

In 1807 TJ asked William Clark to lead an expedition to excavate fossils at the big bone lick of kentucky. During a meeting of the American philosophical society two years later, Caspar Wistar read a memoir about the bone collection “procured for this Society at the expense of Mr Jefferson President of the Society.” This paper was lost during the publication process, and Wistar rewrote it but died before seeing it in print (George Gaylord Simpson, “The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America,” APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings 86 [1942]: 154–6; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 3 Feb. 1809 [MS in PPAmP]; Wistar, “An Account of Two Heads Found in the Morass Called the Big Bone Lick, and Presented to the Society, by Mr. Jefferson,” APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, new ser., 1 [1818]: 375–80). For the findings of the celebrated Georges Cuvier, see note to TJ to Wistar, 31 Mar. 1809.

Index Entries

  • American Philosophical Society; and mastodon bones search
  • Clark (Clarke), William; excavates fossils search
  • Cuvier, Georges; analyzes bones for Institut de France search
  • Cuvier, Georges; and mammoth bones search
  • elephants; compared to mammoths search
  • Kentucky; mammoth bones found in search
  • mammoth; and F. A. Van der Kemp search
  • mammoth; bones of found in Ky. search
  • mammoth; compared to elephants search
  • mammoth; G. Cuvier on search
  • mammoth; Institut de France analyzes bones of search
  • mastodon (mammoth, Ohio); G. Cuvier on search
  • Siberia; frozen mammoth found in search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; and mammoths search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; letters to search
  • Wistar, Caspar; and mastodon bones search