Buffalo Trace

Indiana is crossed by many trails and roads that not only connect local areas to each other, but the state to the country as a whole. Many of them were famous in their day, the best known of these being the Michigan Road and the National Road. But one of the most important of the early trails in what would become Indiana predates the state, the territory, and even European settlement in the United States: the Buffalo Trace.

The Buffalo Trace stretched across Indiana from the Falls of the Ohio, opposite Louisville, to Vincennes. When French settlers migrated into what would become Indiana, they picked a location along the Wabash River where a hard packed trail entered from the east. That trail varied between 12 and 20 feet wide. But to say that this trail was man made is very wrong. The engineers that designed the path were actually buffalo.

While the destinations of this trace are Louisville and Vincennes in modern days, when the path started, it was the path of least resistance between grazing lands in Illinois to salt springs in Kentucky. According to the Indianapolis News of 03 October 1903, “wild buffalo were engineers by nature. In their migrations between two distant points they did not always seek the most direct route, but the route over which they could travel with the greatest ease.” As such, while not in a straight line between the two points, it was relatively level. Or at least as close to level as it can be in that area of the state.

Since the buffalo used the route so much, so did the Native Americans that would hunt these animals. As such, it had been used by people long before Europeans even knew of the “new world.” Several native settlements appeared along the trace. Hunting was good, apparently.

When the first Europeans came to that section of the state, a settlement was started by the French at a point on the Ouabache (Wabash) at the old trail. That settlement would come to be known as Vincennes. As the United States expanded to the west, settlers would use the Buffalo Trace as a major thoroughfare. When the first areas of what would become Indiana started coming into the hands of the US Government by treaty, it was specifically mentioned that the entirety of the Buffalo Trace would be given up by the Native Americans.

The first post road across Indiana would be set up along this route. The posting of soldiers along the road was necessary during the War of 1812, to protect residents of the Indiana Territory from both Native Americans and British spies that might be wandering around the area. Many taverns were established, and many fortunes won and lost. Towns sprung up to serve the large numbers of travelers that would use the Buffalo Trace to connect to the Illinois Trace that would take them to St. Louis, Missouri.

The Buffalo Trace would remain an important part of Indiana transportation even into the days of the Indiana State Highway Commission. Most of the original path became parts of the original State Roads 4 and 5. The section from Paoli to New Albany was also part of the Dixie Highway. Original State Road 42 covered the Dixie Highway section in 1920. With the Great Renumbering, most of the original Trace would become parts of US 50 and US 150. But not all of it.

In 1936, Governor Paul V. McNutt created the Buffalo Trace Commission, an organization that “established the exact course of the trace as far as was possible.” (Source: Indianapolis Star, 27 November 1940, pp 21) This helped lead to more of the original path added to the state highway system.

Today, the old Buffalo Trace has been bypassed in several sections in its travel across Indiana. But very few transportation facilities in Indiana as so little known, but so important to the State of Indiana.

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