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September 20, 2013

NEAL: First roads in Indiana were created by bison herds

— Bison made Indiana’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 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 that 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.”

Settlers mistook the animals for buffalo because they looked so much alike, but it was a misnomer; the American bison is a distant relative.

Surveyors in the 1800s often drew the Trace and adjacent buffalo wallows on Indiana maps. A 1910 history of Dubois County by Wilson described the wallow remnants as “big circular patches, where the grass was greener, thicker and higher than anywhere else around.” Wallows were essentially huge mud puddles dug out by bison in order to take cooling baths.

Though the bison disappeared, their route was put to good use. Archaeologists believe it served as a trade route for Native Americans. Pioneers followed it west. In the early 19th century, a stagecoach line ran the length of the Trace from New Albany to Vincennes. Much of it was eventually paved over as U.S. 150.

Today, there’s scant evidence of the Trace. There’s a spot off Ind. 37, about six miles south of Paoli, where motorists can see trenches in both directions. Probably the best way to experience the Trace is on the Springs Valley Trail in the Hoosier National Forest southeast of French Lick. A segment of the trail follows the Trace, and attentive hikers may notice other remnants and signs of wallows from centuries ago.

— Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a veteran teacher now on the Indiana State Board of Education.

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