Picture the Buffalo, two tons of bearded beast standing six feet tall, with a large head, massive shoulders, and oddly narrow hindquarters – dusty, dirty, hairy, and smelly. More agile than a horse, it can run the 100 yd dash in six seconds (35mph).
Go ahead, picture them in your mind – I’ll wait.
Okay let me guess; you imagined hundreds roaming across the western prairie, dark brown against the golden grass, and in the background beautiful snow-capped mountains.
Did I get it right?
I bet I did, it is part of Americana, massive herds roaming the western prairie, grazing as they traveled. When spooked, they ran – a mass of flesh, hoof, and horn trampling everything in its path. When it was dry, clouds of dust billowed as they passed. When it rained, their hooves puddled the trail into a sea of mud. These Nobel beasts had few predators – wolves, mountain lions, bears, and man. The Indians depended on buffalo for food and shelter. Since they trampled gardens and fields, the early settlers considered them pests. Sadly, we hunted them to near extinction. However, that is not the entire story.
When Europeans first arrived in North America, there were millions of buffalo, perhaps as many as 60 million, ranging from New York south to the Carolinas, west to the Rockies, and north into Canada. Following available water and food, they migrated between summer and winter ranges. In so doing they followed the same route, hoof after hoof, year after year.
Some of the herds grazed on the Illinois Prairie in the summer. In the winter they migrated to the bluegrass region of Kentucky, and in between stood southern Indiana – one hundred and twenty miles of dense hardwood forests.
“The woods had never felt the edge, nor heard the sound of an ax. The trees and brush grew so thick, and the ground was covered with a tangled mass of briers, vines, and creepers, making it almost impassable for man or beast.” – George Wilson, History of Dubois County, 1910.
They entered Indiana by fording the Wabash River near Vincennes. When the water was low, they waded. When it was high, they swam. Once across, they followed a narrow trail through Knox, Pike, Dubois, Orange, Crawford, Harrison, and Floyd Counties. In their wake, like millions of miniature bulldozers, they left a cleared and compacted path, a trail twelve to twenty feet wide. Actually, it was a network of intertwining paths, following ridges or waterways, depending on the weather. Along the way, they passed springs to quench their thirst, mineral outcroppings to provide salt, and mud flats to combat the ever-present gnats and biting flies.
In time, men would give this ready-made road a name. They called it the ‘Buffalo Trace.’ Native Americans established villages along its route. Trappers and hunters used it to bring their furs to market. With the American Revolution came soldiers, followed by a postal route, and then a Stage Line complete with taverns. Finally, the settlers came. For many of these, southern Indiana was but a nuisance. A desolate wilderness lying in their way to the Promised Land. To protect travelers, the territorial government dispatched Rangers to patrol the trail. By 1834, seventy-five wagons moved along the trail every week. In the 1804 Indian Treaty, they used the Buffalo Trace to define a boundary and stipulated that all the Trace remain part of the Indiana Territory. As one of the new States’ first acts, the Trace was declared a state road, and like all state roads, it spurred growth. This lowly buffalo trail was indispensable to the formation of the state. Ironically, by 1816 when Indiana became a state, the buffalo were gone. Nevertheless, their legacy continues.
When did the buffalo start migrating through Indiana, and why?
Some think that it began with a prolonged dry period between 600 to 1100 AD. As the buffalo’s native ranges on the western prairies dried up, the herds moved east, in search of water and food. Thus, the migrations began.
So, there you have it, a buffalo migration created a path. The path became a road. The road led to a State, and it all began because of a water shortage.
Indeed, water scarcity is a recurring theme in the history of southern Indiana.
David L. Dahl
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