Buffalo Trace: The Frontiersmen’s Inland Highway

By Joy Neighbors
The Buffalo Trace, also known as the Vincennes Trace, was a major thoroughfare that ran through a 3-state area. The Trace was created by millions of American bison migrating from the salt licks of Kentucky to just south of Vincennes where massive herds crossed the Wabash River into the wide open prairies of the Illinois frontier. This bison migration route was the most important of the early Indiana trails and led to westward settlement.

The trace was called “lenaswihkanawea” (bison trail) by American Indians. The bison were especially drawn to the French Lick area due to the abundant salt and mineral licks that provided them (and early settlers) with necessary nutrients and minerals. In the early 1700s, American settlers discovered this hard packed route was broad enough for two wagons to pass, making travel through the rough terrain easier. It became the primary route from Louisville to Vincennes and was traveled by two-thirds of the pioneers going west.  

William Henry Harrison
The 19th century brought several amenities along the trace; the first western mail route was established from Louisville to Vincennes to Kaskaskia, near St. Louis, in 1800. In 1802, Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana Territory, requested the trail be made more convenient for pioneers by providing protective sites along the way. By 1804, the Buffalo Trace was so well known Governor Harrison used it as a treaty boundary line with the Indians. The first stagecoach service in the state also began along this route, traveling from New Albany to Vincennes. When Indiana became a state in 1816, a bison was chosen to appear on the Seal of the State of Indiana to honor the heritage of the Buffalo Trace.

Known by several names (Buffalo Trail, Old Indian Road, Harrison’s Road, Clarksville Trace, Vincennes Trace, Louisville Trace and Kentucky Road), the Buffalo Trace embodies our state’s legacy, and the grit and perseverance of our citizens. Indiana’s Bicentennial Celebration proudly spotlights the Buffalo Trace, honoring its important role in Hoosier history and westward expansion; guiding its people, state and country into a new frontier, and a new era.
Today, parts of the Trace can be seen south of French Lick along the Springs Valley Trail System. A segment of U.S. Route 150 and the Buffalo Trace were designated as part of the Indiana Historic Pathways in 2009. There are 112 miles along U.S. Route 150 that coexist with the original Buffalo Trace route.