Thomas Jefferson’s “Great Claw” from the Greenbrier Valley

While Thomas Jefferson became Vice President of the United States in 1797, he also became President of the American Philosophical Society – a position once held by Benjamin Franklin, who founded the society in 1743. When Jefferson arrived in DC to assume these positions, he had with him some massive bones which came out of a cave in the Greenbrier Valley.

After the death of Franklin in 1790, Jefferson was the most versatile American of his time. A personification of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Jefferson was interested in many fields and made lasting contributions to several. He was a farmer, lawyer, author, statesman, diplomat, architect, and inventor; but perhaps above all, he was a man of science. Jefferson once wrote, “science is my passion, politics my duty.”

Thomas Jefferson and the Great Claw, Virginia Cavalcade, Autumn 1985, by Thomas Horrocks.
Thomas Jefferson, oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale, 1790s.

These bones, which consisted of three large 8″ claws and other smaller associated bones, were to be presented to the APS by Jefferson himself. As it turns out, the bones belonged to a Megalonyx, the first giant ground sloth to be discovered in North America. Jefferson named the creature Megalonyx, which means “great claw.” At the time he named it, Jefferson was hoping it was more of a giant man-eating mythical lion. I mean, who could see those claws and visualize a giant sloth, rather than a huge carnivorous predator?

Jefferson’s Old Bones, American Scientist, by Keith Thomson, https://www.americanscientist.org/article/jeffersons-old-bones

Scientific knowledge about the nature and extent of animal life in North America was still in its infancy in the late 18th century. Like sailors believing in sea monsters, nobody really knew for sure what was out there in the interior of the continent. Many consider Jefferson to be the first Paleontologist in the New World, and even he wasn’t quite sure as of yet what creatures he was dealing with.

Similar tales of strange monsters roaming the western lands of the continent had been common in the previous century. A nice example is given in the journal of James Kenny, a frontier trader who worked for the Commissioners for Indian Affairs, from 1761: 

the Rhinosses or Elephant Master, being a very large Creature of a Dark Colour having a long Strong horn growing upon his nose (wth which he kills Elephants) a Short tail like an Elk; two of sd horns he seen fixd over a Gate at St Augustine, & that its ye bnes of Some of these lies down in Buffelo lick by ye Ohio, wher ye Great teeth Comes from.

Thomas Jefferson avidly collected such accounts as they were important for his view of science. Jefferson did not believe in extinction. He was particularly fascinated by the American mastodon, the elephant relative that he referred to for many years as “the mammoth.” It was not until 1806 in Paris that the French naturalist Georges Cuvier formally separated “mastodonte” from mammoth and also concluded that there were two living species of elephant. But in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson had already concluded that the cold-adapted “mammoths” were different from the living tropical African and Asian elephants. Over many years he amassed a large collection of “mammoth” remains, which he displayed in the entrance hall of Monticello, his great house in Virginia.

Jefferson’s Old Bones, American Scientist, by Keith Thomson, https://www.americanscientist.org/article/jeffersons-old-bones
Jefferson’s Old Bones, American Scientist, by Keith Thomson, https://www.americanscientist.org/article/jeffersons-old-bones

Jefferson was particularly interested in mammoths. Being as large as they are, and having a tendency to be found in boggy, well-preserved places, the bones had been found in North America, and he was highly interested in studying them.

For most of his life, Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with mammoths. (More correctly, he was obsessed with American mastodons, tree-chewing cousins of mammoths that lived in the Northern part of the continent—but at the time, he and the rest of the world thought they were mammoths.) He liked theorizing about mammoths, he liked talking about mammoths, he liked making his friends rack up exorbitant postage bills in order to mail him mammoth teeth. And for decades, from the mid-1760s onward, he was particularly dedicated to one surprisingly high-stakes activity—convincing a famous French naturalist that mammoths were still out there, tearing up the wild West with their tusks.

Thomas Jefferson Built This Country On Mastodons, by Cara Giaimo, July 2, 2015. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/thomas-jefferson-built-this-country-on-mastodons
An 1807 letter from Jefferson to General George Rogers Clark, asking him to help ship some mammoth bones to Washington. (Image: Library of Congress Public Domain)

In 1796, Jefferson received some giant bones from fellow Virginia, John Stuart, the “Father of Greenbrier County,” who obtained them from a local cave during saltpeter excavations. Here’s the letter he received:

Greenbrier County 11th. April 1796.

Sir,

Being informed you have retired from public Business and returned to your former Residence in Albemarle, and observing by your Notes your very curious desire for Examining into the antiquitys of our Country, I thought the Bones of a Tremendious animal of the Clawed kind lately found in a Cave by some Saltpetre manufacturers about five miles from my House might afford you some amusement, have therefore procured you such as were saved, (for before I was informed of them they were chiefly lossed). I donot remember to have seen any account in the History of our Country, or any other of such an animal which probabelly was of the Lion kind; I am induced to think so from a perfect figure of that animal carved upon a rock near the confluence of the Great Kenawha, which appears might been done many Centurys ago. The Claw I send must have been one of the Shortest for the man who owns the cave asures me he had one of the same kind that measured precisely eight Inches in Length. Other Bones of Human Creatures have been found here in Caves of a surpriseing size and uncommon kind some years ago, I should been happy to had it my power to have sent to you with these, but none are now to be got, if these should be worthy your observation it would give me much pleasure to hear Conjectures. And shall be Happy at all Times to communicate any thing from here you might desire to Know. And remain with very great respect Your Most Obe. Humbl. Servt.

John Stuart

“To Thomas Jefferson from John Stuart, 11 April 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-29-02-0043. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 29, 1 March 1796 – 31 December 1797, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 64–65.]
Jefferson’s “Big Claws”; (Image: Caspar Wistar 1799/APS Transactions, vol. 4 (old series)

The cave where these bones were found is believed to be “Hayne’s Cave” in Monroe County, West Virginia – probably not more than 4 or 5 miles from where I write this. Here’s the cave entrance:

The entrance of Hayne’s Cave

Here’s a Youtube video I found of a family exploring the cave:

John Stuart was an early settler here in the Greenbrier Valley. His late 18th century stone home is still standing on Stuart’s Draft road, just outside of Lewisburg, West Virginia. The small associated stone “Clerk’s office” building next to the house, where he served as the first Clerk of Greenbrier County, is also still standing.

Back in October of 2019, I wrote a 3 part blog post on the Memoirs of Col. John Stuart. If you haven’t read his memoirs, you’re missing out. He was witness to some epic frontier adventures, including multiple important historic events. Here they are:

I also have an original 1799 court summons, which John Stuart had signed in his capacity as Clerk, commanding the seizure of assets against one Thomas Lowe, in favor of John Byrnside, who owned Byrnside’s Fort – a plantation by then.

Stuart lived in the vicinity of the center of the below drone photo, at the Southern end of what was known as the Big Levels. The Greenbrier River runs somewhere there through the middle of the landscape.

A drone view from the levels looking South towards Monroe County. Flat Mountain can be seen , and then faintly you can see the “Knobs” mountains, and then way back to the left in the distance is Peters Mountain – mostly the dividing line between present day Virginia and West Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson’s original opinion on Stuart’s bones was that the they were from a large lion-like creature inhabitant the mountains of West(ern) Virginia.

Jefferson’s opinion that lionlike creatures existed on the frontier was “rendered still more probable by the relations of honest men,” and he cited several explorers’ reports, folktales, and Indian legends, some of them supplied by John Stuart. The fables were fantastic in nature, but Jefferson believed they had “regained credit since the discovery of these bones.”

One story involved the “first company of adventurers” who, attempting to establish a settlement near the Greenbrier River, were frightened by the terrible roarings” of an animal unknown to them. With eyes “like two balls of fire,” the mysterious beast circled their camp, filling them with terror.

A second tale concerned two hunters near a branch of the Monongahela River. They claimed that in 1765 they had heard “a tremendous roaring, which became louder and louder as it approached, till they thought it resembled thunder.” The earth started to “tremble under them” as the animal prowled around their camp, causing their horses and dogs to cower in fear.

The most frightful yarn came from the vicinity of the Kanawha River. In 1770 a hunter had turned his belled horse loose but moments later, hearing a rapid ringing of the bell and thinking that Indians were trying to steal his mount, he rushed toward the sound and came upon a gory sight. His horse was “half eaten up.” Following the trail of the predator, the hunter overtook an animal of the cat kind,” but of such “enormous size” as to make him retreat to safety.

Thomas Jefferson and the Great Claw, Virginia Cavalcade, Autumn 1985, by Thomas Horrocks.

Jefferson continued to write back and forth with Stuart about the bones, eventually informing him that they didn’t come from a giant lion, but rather a sloth-type creature.

Jefferson admitted that the specimens was “of the clawed kind, but not of the lion class at all; indeed, it is classed with the sloth, ant-eater, etc., which are not of the carnivorous kinds.” Nevertheless, Jefferson clung tenaciously to his original classification and the unsubstantiated narratives. He informed Stuart that from interviews with Indians “we have received some of their traditions which confirm his classification with the lion.”

Thomas Jefferson and the Great Claw, Virginia Cavalcade, Autumn 1985, by Thomas Horrocks.

The bones of the “Great Claw” remained in the collection of the American Philosophical Society until the mid 1800s, when the collection was deposited in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. As far as I know, the bones still reside there. They really should be on display in the Scavengeology Museum right here in the same county they originated. Am I right . . . . ?

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