By Taylor Barnhill
“It is probable that buffaloes made the first roads over these mountains, and that the Indians, following where they led, made their trading paths by pursuing these highways. It is still more probable that the buffaloes instinctively sought the ways that were leveled and shortest between the best pastures, thus insuring a passage through the lowest gaps and to the richest lands… they wanted to go by the easiest routes and to the countries which afforded the best support.” ~John Preston Arthur in Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913
Our southern Appalachian home is known for its beautiful back-country roads and myriad hiking trails. If you are driving an older mountain road along a creek valley, or hiking over a mountain gap, there’s a good chance your route came into being as a buffalo trail thousands of years ago.
The Eastern Wood Bison, like the Great Plains Bison out West, was called “buffalo” by European emigrant settlers, and is one of three subspecies of North American bison. The third subspecies is the Athabascan Wood Bison of the northern boreal region of Canada and Alaska. This thought-to-be-extinct bison was rediscovered in 1957 and restored to small but viable populations. Our Eastern Wood Bison was slightly smaller, had a more distinct hump, shaggy forehead fur and horns that reached higher than its forehead. This eastern subspecies was killed to extinction by 1825, the last one near Asheville having been shot on Bull Creek in 1799 by Joseph Rice.
Two trans-mountain migration routes of the eastern wood bison roughly followed the French Broad River and what is now I-26 from Asheville to Sam’s Gap and into east Tennessee. Elk were also common and would have shared the same trails and migration routes. Many of these paths naturally became the ancient “traces” and trading paths of the Ani Kituwah or Cherokee people and, later, European emigrant settlers. Remnants of old bison trails can sometimes be found today on mountain farms and forest lands, distinguished by deeply sunken paths with old, mature trees growing from high embankments.
Other evidence of our native wood bison is found in place names throughout the region—names like Lick Log. Naturally occurring salt deposits attracted bison and other mammals, and the local hunters could depend upon regular visits by bison or elk to these “licks.” The many creeks and mountains with “bull” in the name were likely named for bison bulls, not domestic cattle bulls.
Diaries from the first surveys conducted through the mountain wilderness often mentioned the trails of the wood bison: “There were no roads save those made by buffaloes. The surveyor was stopped by six Cherokees on a hunt, but they soon became friendly. November 24th they were five mils (sic) from Table Rock, which with the Hawk’s Bill is so conspicuous from Morgantown…”*
Early white settlers were keenly aware of the natural aptitude of the bison to carve the best routes across the mountain landscape and used their own domestic oxen as engineers: “It is still said in the mountains that when the first settlers wanted to build a new road they drove a steer or “cow-brute” to the lowest gap in sight and then drove it down on the side the road was to be located, the tracks made by it being followed and staked and the road located exactly on them.”*
The next time you hike or drive an old mountain trail, imagine a procession of massive wooly mammals that once wound their way before you, as Thomas Jefferson was moving into the White House.
Taylor Barnhill is a historian and architectural consultant living in Madison County. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. *From the Survey Diary of John Strother as excerpted in Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913, by John Preston Arthur. Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 1914.