Hickory County Missouri Mastodon Dig

Part 1




              [photos submitted by Harold John]



Inscription: “Composite skeleton of the American Mastodon,

Upper Pleistocene, Benton County, Missouri, USA. This

skeleton is made up from several individuals. It was first exhi-

bited in London about 1840 by Dr. Albert Koch, from whom

it was purchased by the Trustees of the British Museum. The

skeleton was remounted in its present form about 1850.”


Note: This excavation site was in Hickory County after its

formation in 1845.

In the middle 1800s a man by the name of Albrecht Koch began excavating for mastodon remains in the southern part of Benton County, Missouri. In the middle 1840s this would be the northern part of Hickory County, which was formed from Benton and Polk counties in 1845. The excavation site was located about 8 miles north of where Wheatland is now and was near the Pomme de Terre River in Breshears Valley. This valley is said to have contained about 6000 acres of land and is very near Avery, which is on the Benton and Hickory County line. The valley is surrounded by hills.

Down through the years there have been discussions and differences of opinion on when the mastodon bones were excavated the first time. 1833, 1839 and 1844 have all been given as the time of the first dig. Most sources believe the 1839 time period is accurate. 1844 was most likely the date that one skeleton was shipped to the British Museum in England. Mr. Koch's given name has also been found as Albert in some sources.

Fossils were found in the valley in the 1830s, leading to speculation that prehistoric animals had at one time inhabited this valley. Perhaps Mr. Koch had some connection to residents of the area or he may have learned of this from Frenchman who were supposed to have come into the area in the late 1830s looking for buried silver. Judge James H. Lay of Warsaw in Benton County wrote a history of Benton County, Missouri and in his book he told of the search for the lost silver. Some years earlier a group of Frenchman were supposed to have been going down the river with bullion and coins. They were pursued by Indians and abandoned their boats at the mouth of the Pomme de Terre and buried the silver. In later years other Frenchman came into the area with information on the burial spot and were supposed to have located guns but no silver. Tales of buried treasure in the area are still around today. A buried treasure map was published a number of years ago and Hickory County, Missouri was shown as having a buried treasure. The place where the guns were found was later to become the Henry Breshears farm where the "Bone Hole" was located. The "Bone Hole" was a spring bog with water 3 inches deep year round and a spring at the edge. Some bones supposedly sank out of sight. This is where Mr. Koch found the many bones he excavated. He used wooden pipes made by local residents for the excavation. One skeleton was said to be 20,000 years old and 23 feet high. Mr. Koch set about to assemble the bones, but his Mastodon skeleton was not true to form, although he did draw large crowds on his tours with the skeleton. The discovery was in a museum in St Louis Missouri for a short time.

In 1844 the skeleton was shipped to the British Museum in England and was taken apart by specialists in that field and reassembled correctly. It is still a favorite display at the museum. The tusks of this skeleton are 9 feet in length. The purchase price for the skeleton is said to have been as much as $20,000.

After Mr. Koch's discovery a number of other hunters looked for bones, but he had excavated most of the bones that were considered worthwhile and the excitement faded away.

Some members of the Breshears family made several trips to Jefferson City with mastodon bones about 1850, but none of these compared to the Koch discovery.

Mr. Koch stated that his site was near Anvil Rock and the spring could be seen from there, but with time no one seemed to know where this was located.

In the 1970s plans were being made by the Corps of Engineers for the flooding of the area for the formation of Truman Lake. Rumors came to light about the mastodon dig and so archaeologists began to search for the site. A number of bogs were found and excavated, but none were Mr. Koch's site. They were worried about the amount of time remaining before the area was flooded, so they again interviewed area residents in hopes of learning where Anvil Rock was located. It was to have been 200 paces from the bog where the bones were found. This formation truly resembles an anvil and reaches about 20 feet high. Finally someone remembered the rock and there, about 200 paces away, was the bog where the original dig had taken place. Mr. Koch's platform was found down in the spring. Once again excavations were begun, but this time by archaeologists and students from the University of Missouri. Members of the University of Arizona also worked in the valley in 1976. A number of artifacts and bones were found, but nothing to compare with Albrecht Koch's discovery 140 years earlier. This quiet valley came alive as people from many places drove to see the archaeologists at work in the hot July sun hoping to find another great discovery.

It was soon time for the valley to be flooded. Homes were abandoned and cemeteries were relocated. Hearts were saddened at the thought of this fertile valley and its wonderful history being under water. To reach the area take Highway B about 8 miles north of Wheatland to Avery and then turn right on a gravel road for about 2 miles to the lake waters.

Submitted by Linda Crawford

Note: If you're interested in this topic, check out the Truman Dam Visitor's Center for related displays and photos.


On to page 2 of the  Mastodon Story

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