CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Deep in a limestone cave under the Second Creek Valley of Monroe County, a work crew digging and processing saltpeter for use as a gunpowder component came across an assortment of large fossilized bones.
Being a pragmatic bunch, the workers put the bones to good use, fashioning them into props to stabilize a vat of saltpeter being processed inside the cave.
As the digging resumed, more of the bones, including several large claws, emerged from earth inside the cave in the days and weeks that followed the initial 1796 discovery. News of the fossils eventually reached the ears of Col. John Stuart, a Revolutionary War officer who, before the war, led a column of troops from Lewisburg to Point Pleasant in 1774 to defeat a force of Indians led by Chief Cornstalk of the Shawnee.
Stuart, the largest landowner in the area, lived within 10 miles of the cave. He was an acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson, who, later that year, would be elected vice president of the United States. Jefferson, in addition to being a planter and a politician, was developing a reputation as a man of science. Stuart sent Jefferson an assortment of the mysterious animal's fossilized remains.
After Jefferson examined a forearm bone, an assortment of foot bones and three of the mysterious animal's claws -- one of them nearly 8 inches long -- he speculated that the bones belonged to some type of large quadruped.
He presented a report on the bones' discovery the following year in Philadelphia, during a meeting of the American Philosophical Society.
"I will venture to refer to him by the name of Great Claw, or Megalonyx, to which he seems sufficiently entitled by the distinguished size of that member," Jefferson wrote.