Forks of the Road to the Wilderness—The Indiana Buffalo Traces

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The 1770 Colonial Americans were eager to discover and open new lands west of the densely forested Appalachian Mountains. For Surveyor and Mapmaker, John Filson, the opportunities west of the Mountains, were endless. After several months of exploring along the ancient hoof packed Traces and long hours spent in the company of men such as John Harrod, Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone, he now had the verbal geographic notes necessary to create his first map of Kentucky. The virgin forests and vast blue green grasslands west of the Cumberland Gap needed a map to guide the impending onslaught of hungry immigrants coming west along the “Road to the Wilderness.” With a map to guide them and a hero such as Daniel Boone to protect them, many families would pull up and head west. So, today, we are blessed with a copy of John Filson’s Map of Kentucky, to view and be enlightened by. On Filson’s map, in the lower right corner, we find a dotted line emanating northwesterly from the Cumberland Gap. As we follow this faint dotted line, we come across these words: “Road to the Wilderness.” It is on this Ancient Trace that westward expansion of America took a foothold, literally one foot after another. Tantalizing images of the vast unknown danced across the faces of the Colonial Readers as they studied this first Map of “Kentucke,” while reading Filson`s somewhat bigger than life stories of the great Daniel Boone.

Many, many, centuries have passed, since the glaciers retreated to Canada. That event opened the Northwest Territory to migration. Once these roaming bands of grazing animals and their Human followers, began traversing the terrain north of the Ohio River, they, through many retracements, established these first Footpath Trails. Eventually, the best way west or east, became forks in the overall route. If there were floods in Indiana, the herds moved north to shallow crossings of Silver Creek, then Falling Run, then Little and Big Indian Creeks and Blue River. Some years violent tornadoes ripped up the trees, jaggedly blocking the Forks. Once canopy trees were uprooted, briars took over forcing the travelers to find new forks to proceed on their way. Over that vast timeframe, millions of wild animals created the Forks of The Wilderness Road. The summer migrations pointed their noses to the westerly winds. They crossed over the Appalachians through the Cumberland Gap, meandered through the lush Bluegrass Region, and then instinctively they knew to bear towards the Great Stone Bridge at the Falls of the Ohio at present day Louisville. Thence, this cross-continent trace, (here called The Buffalo Road ), followed the limestone outcrop across the churning rapids, climbing the high banks of the Ohio River, crossing Silver Creek, thence splitting into numerous forks as it wound up the steep knob hill country through Clark, Floyd, Harrison, and Washington Counties in Indiana. These necessary forks of the trace come together at the beneficial French Lick Springs; thence continued westward to the shallow shoals and natural ford of the wild Ou-A-Batch-ee, (Wabash) River at the French settlement of Vincennes; thence, nearly due west, across present day Illinois; thence, across the Mississippi, to the vast freedom of the grasslands. These facts are discoverable by studying Filson’s historic map, and a second map of Kentucky, Published in 1794, which clearly show the connection of the Wilderness Road and the Buffalo Road.

Filson’s dotted line, indicating the “Road to the Wilderness,” gently winds northwesterly across the present State of Kentucky, meandering through the lush Bluegrass as it travels into Louisville along present day SR 60. At Louisville, this Kain-Tuck-ee Fork of The Wilderness Road crosses the Ohio River Falls Limestone Bridge; but alas, here is where historians have missed the broader truth of this Wilderness Road. The Southern Indiana portion of this 2000 mile long TRACE was named the Buffalo Road, as if it was a singular roadway, which it is not. As a Boundary Surveyor, working mainly in Kentucky and Indiana, I have found 7 forks of this “Road to the Wilderness,” winding up the steep Clark, Floyd, Harrison, Washington County Knobs. These many forks come together again at major stream and river crossings. Alternative Forks were discovered by the ranging hard pressed animals, who knew that if they were stopped, the Claws in the Night would devour them; so onward they trekked which resulted in multiple footpaths. One way to tell if you have found a portion of these forks, is to walk it and observe whether you are traveling the most direct and efficient way forward, navigating the ever changing terrain, by foot. If your Fork of the Trail meets the Footpath Criteria, and can be seen to continue for long distances, then, indeed you may be traveling the very first Footpaths into your neck of the Great Wilderness.

Indiana and the vast Northwest Territory is “The Wilderness” noted on Filson’s Map. The Ohio River Falls Natural Stone Bridge is where the Kentucky Wilderness Road emptied into the “The Indiana Buffalo Road.” They are portions of a transcontinental migratory trace aptly named “Lan-An-Zo-Kee-Mo-Wee,” by the native Delaware tribal peoples. History did not pick up on John Filson’s name for the Trace–The Road to the Wilderness. Instead, they simply called it the Buffalo Road.

In July 1805, Surveyor William Rector was hired to Survey and Map the Buffalo Road from the west line of the Clarks Grant to the east line of the Vincennes Tract, as recently laid out by George Washington’s friend, the fearless Surveyor Thomas Freeman. Young and strong, Mr. Freeman had marked the Vincennes line with Peace Trees. To create a Peace Line Tree, Freeman and his Survey crew drove an iron wedge into the heart of a young 8″ or so diameter tree, splitting the live tree about 5 feet above the ground. Freeman then inserted a 4″ by 3′ log into the split tree, wherein the line tree continued to grow around the inserted log creating this unique line marker. The duty of Rector was to map all the twists and turns of the Trace, then strike a line running southeasterly from the Freeman Peace Tree line of the Vincennes Tract to the Clarks Grant, with the new line being at least one half (½) mile north of the most northerly turn of the Buffalo Road. No easy feat to accomplish, but Rector and his Compass and Chain Survey Crew were able, after several months, to complete this new 10:00 Greenville Treaty Line. Since Rector could not survey all the forks up the steep knobs, he simply picked a fork and stuck to it, thusly creating the illusion that the Buffalo Road (Wilderness Road) was a singularity. Now, once Surveyed and marked, that fork could be controlled and patrolled by the expanding Colonies, giving a bit of false comfort to the buyers of this Indiana Territory. Two Hundred Years to the month and day, on July 11, 2005, I volunteered to retrace Rectors bearings and distances of the trace and present my findings to the Surveyors Historical Society at a meeting of fellow surveyors, held in French Lick on the Buffalo Road. I compared Rector’s notes with those of the Rectangular Surveyors, who began work in the fall of 1805. Amazingly, the two sets of notes differed as to where the Trace was located. This was my first clue that the Trace was not a singularity, but instead had many forks. Legendary Purdue Professor Kenneth Curtis was at that meeting and noted that his comparison of the two sets of notes, also, did not agree on a single path for this Trace–which had led to speculation that one set of notes were incorrect as to the exact location of the Trace. However, my findings of multiple forks dispel the notion that Rector’s original Survey was inaccurate. The truth is that both sets of notes do accurately show where the forks of the Trace are located.

How the buffalo and migrating herds were able to go directly from the springs at Greenville to the spring, at Beck’s Mill; thence directly to the springs at French Lick, is an amazing feat of navigation from water hole to water hole. We take drinking water for granted, but to the great herds, water was more important than food. As I intently study the 10 by 15 foot USGS compilation map on my office wall, I can piece together the parts of the Trace that are abandoned, connecting them to the parts of the Trace still being used today as County Roads. As I study this topographic map and color in the different forks, great patterns arise as the Trace weaves into different forks before forming together again at the river fords. Standing below the fast flowing spring at Beck’s Mill, I think back to the days, wherein the ever thirsty herds, drank their fill and lounged in the valley pastures. Grazing to their hearts content, before continuing on their way to the summer or winter pastures. The Trace is a two way road, going west to the Great Plains in the spring and then returning east to the herd and tribe’s winter home in Kentucky and Tennessee. Millions of sore, tired hooves and feet forever left their footprints behind. Many times over the past 45 years, I have stood alone on an abandoned portion of the Trace, amid wild briar lands, old forest and new growth areas where there once were productive farms. Silently I have paused there, mainly to chart my next boundary traverse leg, but always, I was awed when I came across another fork of the Great Wilderness Road–Buffalo Trace, following it as it meanders along the most efficient footpath way into the forever land ahead.

The Author is a self-employed licensed surveyor working in Indiana, Kentucky and New Mexico. He has written 2 books, including the beautifully handmade Men of the Compass, and has created a painting titled Mason and Dixon–End of the Line. He is also a dealer for Champion GPS Instruments and can be reached at

A 3.773Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE