I’ve been keen on dinosaurs and Ice Age mammals my whole life, since I read Roy Chapman Andrews’ All About Dinosaurs. When I was nine, I added paleontologist to my string of future occupations (writer, artist, ballet dancer, detective).
My love for Jefferson began when we moved to Fredericksburg in 1996. I was touring James Monroe’s Law Office downtown one day and learned how the building was nearly torn down in 1927 for a gas station when Monroe’s descendant stepped in and turned it into a museum.
One day, the woman’s son stood across from the museum. He saw two men in colonial dress in deep discussion. Then they walked through the door of the Law Office, still talking. A crack appeared in the wooden door. Until the day he died, Lawrence Hoes insisted he saw young James Monroe and his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, walk through that door.
I always noticed that crack whenever I walked down Charles Street, easily imagining those two gentlemen. While Monroe was an interesting man in his own right, I believe Jefferson’s much stronger, more complicated spirit split the door.
In 2014, I read Stanley Hedeem’s Big Bone Lick and came across this sentence: “The delighted Jefferson had the Lick’s fossils laid out in the White House storage area that later became the elegant East Room.” That single image burned in my mind. Delighted Jefferson! Laying out crates of mastodon fossils in the East Room of the White House!
I didn’t know then that Jefferson was retiring from a lifetime of public service he often didn’t seek and that the boxes of fossils symbolized freedom and recognition of his scientific efforts. The bones were the end of a story — I had to work backwards to find out the rest.
My reading research journey took me from Virginia to Kentucky to upstate New York, from Paris, London, Madrid and Paraguay, from the halls of Philadelphia’s Continental Congress to the battlefields of General Washington’s Continental Army. Researching this story gave me a front-row seat in the growth of the new republic, viewed through the lens of one man and his obsession for one animal.
My physical research journey took me from Monticello, to Saltville, in the Virginia Highlands, to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York City. My initial goal — to write about why Jefferson was so happy to receive mastodon bones in the President’s House — blossomed into a transatlantic drama set during the Age of Enlightenment. Jefferson was not alone. Many people shared the stage with him.
Identifying the mysterious giant bones found in Big Bone Lick was a collaborative effort between people of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities. Neither rebellion nor war, geography nor political ideologies dampened the pursuit of scientific knowledge. At the center of this continental theater stood Jefferson, dogged in his determination to place America in a commanding position in the scientific world.
Yet I researched with increasing trepidation. Who was I to write about Jefferson? Jefferson! Surprisingly, Keith Thomson, paleontologist, author, PhD from Harvard, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Yale, Director of Oxford Museum of Natural History, former Executive Officer of American Philosophical Society, confided to me he felt the same way when he began writing about Jefferson.
Lacking Dr. Thomson’s deep scholarly background, what could I bring to the table? I only had to look out my window. I grew up — and still live — in rural Virginia. Like young Jefferson, I rambled through woods and fields, spotting turkey vultures and possums, listening to peepers, watching the greening of Virginia springs.
At the heart of the man’s complicated, flawed, brilliant self was a boy who loved nature. Jefferson never outgrew his sense of wonder. Neither have I. As I plowed through letters and documents, I too hoped, as Jefferson did, that Lewis and Clark would find a living “mammoth” out West, even though I knew better.
As Edward O. Wilson says in his memoir, Naturalist: “A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder … Hand’s‑on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time searching and dreaming.”
As a boy, Thomas Jefferson did that. I did, too, in nearly the same territory.
Jefferson seized the opportunity to advance science in our fledgling nation during a time when people were still trying to sustain a toe-hold in this vast land. He realized species needed to be recognized and catalogued, daily weather recorded, season cycles noted, and mountains climbed to see what was on the other side.
As I read and took hundreds of pages of notes, I fell in love with Thomas Jefferson and mastodons, Big Bone Lick and Louis XV’s royal cabinet of natural history specimens, Charles Willson Peale and Georges Cuvier. I’m grateful to have spent time with those people.
My book changed in scope from a simple tale about Thomas Jefferson capering in the East Room with his boxes of fossils to a story of dedicated men eager to better understand the planet.
I wrote Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mammoth (Doubleday, 2020) to explore Jefferson’s interest in science. What kept me going those three years was the romance of the story. I slipped through that crack in the door and was greatly rewarded for doing so.