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Buffalo Trace (road)

The Buffalo Trace was a trackway running through what are now the American states of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. Originally formed by migrating bison, the Trace crossed the Ohio River near the Falls of the Ohio and continued northwest to the Wabash River, near Vincennes, before it entered Illinois. This well known buffalo migration route and Indian trail also became an important early land route that settlers used to travel west. It was known by various names, including Vincennes Trace, Louisville Trace, Clarksville Trace, Old Indian Road, and after being turned into a turnpike, the New Albany-Paoli Pike, among others. The Trace's continuous use encouraged improvements over the years, including paving and roadside development. U.S. Route 150 between Vincennes, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky, follows a portion of its path. Sections of the Trace are part of a National Scenic Byway that crosses southern Indiana.


The Trace was created by millions of migrating bison that were numerous in the region from the Great Lakes to Tennessee.[1] It was part of a greater buffalo migration route that extended from present-day Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky, through Bullitt's Lick, south of present-day Louisville, Kentucky, and across the Falls of the Ohio River to Indiana, then northwest to Vincennes, before crossing the Wabash River into Illinois.[2] The trail was well known among the area's natives and was later used by traders and white settlers who crossed the Ohio River at the Falls and followed the Trace overland to the western territories.[3] It is considered to be the most important of the early traces leading to the Illinois country.[4]

In Indiana the Trace's main line split into several smaller trails that converged north of Jasper, near several large ponds, or mud holes, where buffalo would wallow.[5] Due to the large number of buffalo that used the Trace, the well-worn path was twelve to twenty feet wide in places.[6][7] A major salt lick, probably near present-day French Lick, Indiana, was another intersection of divergent trails.[8] The Trace crossed the White River at several points, including places near the present-day towns of Petersburg and Portersville, Indiana.[5][9] After a major crossing at the Wabash River, the Trace split into separate trails, which lead west across Illinois to the Mississippi River.[10]

The Trace's route across southern Indiana made it mportant to the state's history and early development. It joined two main areas of early settlement in the Indiana Territory: Clark's Grant in the south and Vincennes to the west. In 1732 François-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, founded a trading post, which became the site of Vincennes, Indiana, near the Trace's Wabash River crossing.[11] Clark's Grant included approximately 150,000 acres (61,000 ha; 230 sq mi) of land across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, in the present-day Indiana counties of Clark, Floyd, and Scott. The U.S. government granted this land to George Rogers Clark and his men for their military service in the Illinois campaign against the British during the Revolutionary War.[12] George Rogers Clark used the Trace to return to the Louisville area after his Illinois Campaign.

As the United States took control of the Illinois country during the Revolutionary War, the Trace became a busy overland route, which made it a target for Indian war parties. The Trace is mentioned in Clark's memoirs describing an early attack on traders in 1779, after Hamilton surrendered at Fort Sackville and Clark's militia controlled Vincennes.[13] This Indian attack led to the Battle of the White River Forks. Another incident involved Richard "Dickie" Clark (1760–c. 1784), brother of General George Rogers Clark and Captain William Clark. According to Clark family history, Richard Clark disappeared along the Trace in 1784 after leaving Clarksville, Indiana, alone to travel to Vincennes. The Clark family heard in one account, that his horse had been found with saddlebags bearing his initials. Another account has his horse's bones found with the bags nearby. His remains were never found. It is thought that he may have been killed by Indians or thieves in the area or may have drowned while crossing the White River or Blue River.

Several written accounts from explorers, the military, and settlers document the Trace's use as an overland route. In 1785 and 1786 explorer John Filson travelled by river to Vincennes and returned to the Falls of the Ohio via the Trace and documented his travels along the road. Filson's overland route took nine days.[14] General Josiah Harmar, Commander of the Army of the Ohio, also kept a log when he led the First American Regiment on a return march from Vincennes in 1786.[15] Following the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, settlers poured into the western territories. Many of them kept journals, recording their observations along the Trace.[16]

In late 1799 U.S. postmaster Joseph Habersham established a mail route from Louisville through Vincennes to Kaskaskia along the Trace.[17] The route began on 22 March 1800 and ran every four weeks. It was extended to Cahokia the following year.[18]

In 1802 William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, recommended that the Trace be improved into a road suitable for wagon travel with inns for travelers every thirty to forty miles.[19] By 1804 the Trace was so well known that Harrison used it as a treaty boundary with Indians.[20] The Vincennes treaty of 1804 gave the U.S. government possession of Indiana land from south of the Trace to the Ohio River, including the Trace itself.[20] William Rector was hired to survey the treaty land in 1805. His survey notes provide an important record of the Buffalo Trace's location.[21] Survey maps and field notes identified forty-three miles of the old trace road from Clark's Grant to the White River in southern Indiana.[6]

The Buffalo Trace was the primary travel route between the Louisville area and Vincennes; two-thirds of settlers coming from the Louisville area into the interior of Indiana used the trace.[22] Rangers were hired to protect travelers using the road, eventually doing so on horseback in 1812.[22] During the War of 1812, Harrison assigned 150 men to patrol the Trace between Vincennes and Louisville, "so as to completely protect the citizens and the road."[23]

Because the Trace remained the primary road across southern Indiana after Indiana became a state in 1816, the state legislature had a road paved from New Albany to Vincennes as part of its internal improvements program. The road "approximated" the Trace's route and was extended to Paoli, Indiana, after the state government leased operation of the road to a private organization as part of their negotiations to avoid bankruptcy.[24] The paved road was called the "New Albany-Paoli Turnpike." The first stagecoach service along the Trace, from New Albany to Vincennes, began in 1820—the first stagecoach service in Indiana. The route served Floyd County, Indiana; the towns of Greenville, Galena, and Floyds Knobs in particular.[24]

Other names for the Trace through its history have been the "Old Indian Road," the "Clarksville Trace," "Harrison's Road," the "Kentucky Road," the "Vincennes Trace," the "Louisville Trace," and "Lan-an-zo-ki-mi-wi" (or lenaswihkanawea, an Indian name meaning "bison trail" or "buffalo road").[6][25][26][27]

Present day

U.S. Route 150 from Vincennes to New Albany, Indiana, follows the path of the Trace.[28] A large section of the original Trace can be seen south of French Lick in Orange County, Indiana, along the Springs Valley Trail System.[5][28] In 2009 a section of U.S. Route 150 and the Buffalo Trace became part of the Indiana Historic Pathways, a National Scenic Byway, that crosses southern Indiana.[7][29] In total, driving U.S. Route 150 to coincide with the Buffalo Trace is a distance of 112 miles (180 km).[30]

Parts of the Trace are now protected, including sections in the Hoosier National Forest and a small tract within Buffalo Trace Park, a preserve maintained by Harrison County, Indiana.[31]

See also

Indiana portal



External links

  • Buffalo Trace Park
  • Indiana’s Historic Pathways
  • Hoosier National Forest, Buffalo Trace
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