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September 11, 2013

ANDREA NEAL: Bison migrating west created 1st Indiana road

U.S. 150 follows path of Buffalo Trace

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.

Bison made Indi-ana’s first highway. It started at the Falls of the Ohio near modern-day Clarksville, where the beasts came together to cross the Ohio River at its shallowest point. It ended near Vincennes, where they scattered to graze on Illinois prairie grass.

If you look closely, you can still see signs of the Buffalo Trace. “You kind of have to know what you’re looking for,” says Teena Ligman, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. She describes the remnants as trail beds or trenches that, to an untrained eye, might appear the work of human labor rather than hooves.

Archaeologists aren’t sure exactly when the trail appeared, but they suspect thousands of bison traversed it during their seasonal migration from Kentucky salt licks to feeding grounds on the prairie. The trail’s width ranged from 12 feet to 20 feet across.

The 1910 book “Early Indiana: Trails and Surveys” by George R. Wilson puts the matter in historic perspective: “The trails and traces were great highways over which civilization came into the wilderness. Wild animals often followed the trails, trappers followed the game, and settlers followed the trappers.”

It’s fitting the buffalo — more accurately called bison — is featured so prominently on Indiana’s state seal. Until 1800 or so, bison were abundant over large portions of what would become the Indiana Territory and the state of Indiana.

In 1720, the historian Charlevoix, who had traveled extensively in New France and across the Great Lakes region, wrote, “All the country that is watered by the Oaubache [Wabash], and by the Ohio which runs into it, is very fruitful. It consists of vast meadows, well watered, where the wild buffalo feed by thousands.”

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