By Nick Orange
A migration trail carved by millions of bison, the Buffalo Trace spanned Indiana to connect the areas that have since become Kentucky and Illinois.
Around 10-20 feet wide, the path was heavily trafficked by bison and offered several key river crossings. The Buffalo Trace crossed the Ohio River near Falls of the Ohio in Kentucky, passed through Indiana towards what is now Vincennes, then crossed the Wabash before continuing into present-day Illinois.
The Buffalo Trace has been known by a lot of different names over the years. Vincennes Trace, Old Indian Road, Clarksville Trace, Harrison’s Road, Kentucky Road, and the Louisville Trace. Pre-contact, Buffalo Trace was called Lenaswihkanawea or “buffalo road”. Used by Native Americans for centuries, the Buffalo Trace was an important route for early European settlers and played a key role in Indiana’s settlement and development.
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In the early 18th century, the French explorers set up a trading post near the Trace’s Wabash River crossing. This settlement would later develop into Vincennes. Following the American Revolution, the Trace became heavily trafficked as people ventured westward. This made it a popular target for Indian war parties.
In 1805, after many years of consistent usage, the Buffalo Trace was officially surveyed for the first time. William Rector established the Trace’s precise path, and noted that the road was “spacious enough for two wagons to go abreast.”
In many ways, the Buffalo Trace was a victim of its own success. Because the route was so effective, settlers began using it as a road. Shortly following statehood in 1816, the path was paved over between New Albany and Vincennes, creating the New Albany-Paoli Pike. In 1935, Indiana established a commission to study the Trace and the impacts it had on Indiana’s early history. The chairman of the commission, George R. Wilson, published a number of findings documenting the history.
Although the Trace no longer exists in its entirety, it has fared a bit better than the buffalo that originally created it. It is possible to view a section of the original Trace outside of French Lick, while other portions are protected in state and national parks, including Hoosier National Forrest and Buffalo Trace Park.
Stretches of the contemporary US Route 150 have incorporated the Trace, some of which has been designated a National Scenic Byway. Like the original Buffalo Trace, this highway connects Kentucky and Illinois, via Indiana.
Want to Know More?
Uncover the sad fate of the buffalo in “The Machined Massacre of the American Bison.” The wholesale slaughter of this plentiful animal reduced their numbers from the hundreds of millions to a few thousand.
Indiana’s Historic Pathways, a collection of historians and volunteers, has collected observations, documentation, and surveys at “Buffalo Trace Trail“, providing a comprehensive image of this influential byway.