Using GIS to Search for the Buffalo Trace
Many years before settlers from Europe settled the United States, bison migrated along a route through southern Indiana as they traveled from grasslands and salt licks in Kentucky to prairies in Illinois. Later, Native Americans followed the path beaten into the ground by the bison as they moved through the lower Midwest. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, early American pioneers used the road to move livestock and settle the Northwest Territory. An estimated 5,000 people traveled the route to the Missouri Territory in 1819. Famous Americans, including Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Benjamin Harrison and Abraham Lincoln, journeyed on the road.
Known as the Buffalo Trace, the trail extended from present day Clarksville, Ind.—across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky.—to Vincennes, Ind., through hilly terrain that was untouched by glaciers during the last Ice Age. But the historic route, which once was 12 to 20 feet wide and had worn through several feet of rock in some places, is largely lost to history. There hardly is a trace of the Buffalo Trace.
Personnel from the Hoosier National Forest hope to change that, though. They are using GIS and historic documents, including old General Land Office (GLO) notes and William Rector’s survey of 1805, to try to locate the Buffalo Trace. The ongoing project goes through fits and starts, according to Angie Krieger, the forest archaeologist for the Hoosier National Forest, and it is massive in scope. “This is just one of the things that could go on and on,” Krieger said.
Chuck Stewart is a forestry technician with a background in CAD and GIS. He has combed through survey notes, plat maps and other documents to try to find clues about the Buffalo Trace, which also is known as the Vincennes Trace.
“We started off with GLO notes, trying to find out where there was evidence of the trace,” said Stewart, who works with Krieger at the Hoosier National Forest. In addition, Krieger went to the Indiana State Archives in Indianapolis to find more GLO notes. Stewart digitized plat maps, scanned them into AutoCAD and imported the data into an ArcMap GIS file. After he had those documents in a GIS file, Stewart turned to William Rector’s notes. In 1805, Rector surveyed the Buffalo Trace from Clarksville to French Lick, about 60 miles east of Vincennes. Rector, tasked with surveying the route before an Indian treaty line was established, left behind a treasure trove of information that offered Stewart many clues.
“He made notes where it crossed township lines, Indian villages, caves, springs,” Stewart said. “It’s pretty informative. It gives a lot of detail.” After determining where the survey crossed natural landmarks, including township boundaries and rivers, Stewart took Rector’s calls and imported them into the GIS file. “(Stewart) re-created all the calls because the survey went from the Ohio River,” Krieger said. “He had other GLO notes over a various time period. He converted everything to feet and meters and corrected for magnetic variations.”
Going through the notes took time and posed unique challenges. For instance, the writing style of both Rector’s survey and the GLO notes had centuries-old quirks that took time to understand and decipher. Still, Stewart forged ahead and learned much about the surveyors and other men who worked in the wilderness of the Northwest Territory years ago.
“One of the things that caught my attention was the hardships they had to go through: the threat of mountain lion attacks and attacks by hostile Indians,” Stewart said. “The year 1805 was a long time ago, and there wasn’t a 7-11 or convenience store around. When you left Clarksville, you left civilization.”
And, as someone who has spent a lot of time in the Hoosier National Forest and south-central Indiana and is familiar with the cliffs, bluffs and steep slopes of the countryside, Stewart has a keen appreciation of the physical labor required of the surveyors of the past. “Imagine how they had to deal with the terrain with the chains,” he said. “It gives you an idea of what they were like and how tough they were.”
Their hard work left good clues for Stewart to follow. He took the information they left behind and digitized it, overlaying it with aerial photography and topographic maps to get an idea of where the original Buffalo Trace was—and where remnants of the original road might be found. Stewart gathered all the data into a GIS file. “I got a pretty good fit,” Stewart said. “But there’s no way of telling how accurate something is until you actually find something on the ground.” The challenges in doing that, however, are many.
To start, the beginning point of the Buffalo Trace has moved because the Ohio River is not in the same place it was two centuries ago when Rector recorded his survey. “A big question is where do you start because the river is nowhere near where it was 200 years ago,” Stewart said. “After that, it’s going on the ground and ground-truthing. That’s going to be the hard part of it because there’s not much left.”
Modern-day construction and infrastructure has wiped away much of the original route. For example, Stewart said the interchange of Interstates 64 and 265 has obliterated any sign of the trace. Similarly, urban and suburban areas such as New Albany likely have erased the original route. Farther west, toward Vincennes, there are fewer GLO and survey notes to draw on. “Another issue as it goes farther west, it kind of fades out,” Stewart said.
Nevertheless, forest-archaeologists have had some success in the quest to ground-truth segments of the Buffalo Trace that cross through the Hoosier National Forest in Orange County, Ind. Archaeologists discovered one segment in the Spring Valley Trail area that is 50 feet long by seven feet wide and seven feet deep. It is now marked with a sign at the start of the trail. Another segment was found by State Road 37, approximately one-half mile north of Pine Valley. Archaeologists Samuel Snell and Ryan Jackson, who have written extensively about the Buffalo Trace, also found a third part that is 541 feet long, 53 feet wide and 6½ feet deep. (Snell and Jackson’s work can be found on the Hoosier National Forest website.)
Stewart, Snell and Jackson are only some of the people intrigued by the Buffalo Trace. Krieger said many others have contributed to the understanding and research of the historic route. “There are quite a number of people interested in it, but it’s such a big project,” Krieger said.
As surveyors of yesteryear helped mark the way for the Buffalo Trace, Krieger believes today’s surveyors could play a major role in rediscovering the remnants of the route. The Hoosier National Forest strives to keep the legacy of the road alive and continues to meet people interested in researching the Buffalo Trace.
“It may just be completely gone,” Krieger said. “But, if it’s going to be found, surveyors would be the ones who could do it.”