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State fossil: Thomas Jefferson played role in discovery of bones

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.

After consulting the writing of a French naturalist to extrapolate the size and type of the animal from the size of its bones, Jefferson concluded that the Monroe County cave had contained the remains of a 5-foot-long cat that weighed an estimated 260 pounds. He told those at the conference that an Indian rock carving found near Point Pleasant bore the likeness of "a perfect figure of a lion" that may have roamed the region prior to the arrival of white settlers.

Jefferson delivered his presentation on the mysterious West Virginia creature on March 3, 1797, the day before his inauguration as vice president.

By 1799, when Jefferson published his observations on the creature in a scholarly journal, he had correctly concluded that the bones from the Monroe County cave were not those of a giant cat, but more likely came from a large type of sloth.

The sloth, as it turned out, weighed up to 800 pounds and when mature, was up to 10 feet in length. Its claws were likely used to tear off the tree branches and leaves it was believed to have relied on for nourishment. They roamed across much of North America, their fossilized remains turning up from West Virginia to Alaska.

While scientists later determined that Megalonyx jeffersoni, or Jefferson's ground sloth, as the creature was later named, became extinct about 10,000 years ago, Jefferson wasn't so sure. Early in his term as America's third president, Jefferson urged Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to be on the lookout for the creature as they explored the unmapped territory to the west during their Corps of Discovery exploration in 1804-06.

In 2008, West Virginia geologist Ray Garton led the successful effort to have Megalonyx jeffersoni be designated the state's official fossil.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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