A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Living along the Buffalo Highways; where would Dixie Highways be without them?

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

If you were to take a moment and think, who would you say originally built the Northern Kentucky stretch of the Dixie Highway and Ohio’s SR133 in Clermont County? I’ll give you a hint, it was the same group.

If you guessed Native Americans or the pioneers, you’d be wrong. The correct answer would be. . .buffalo. Like so many roads in Northern Kentucky and the Ohio Valley, the Dixie Highway and Ohio SR 133 started out as game traces.

Carl Rakeman, First American Macadam Road, Maryland, 1823. Courtesy of the US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration

In 1755, Daniel Boone was told of a magical paradise that lay over the Appalachian Mountains. The land there teemed with wild game such as buffalo. In fact, on his first extended trip to find “Kanta’ke”(as it was known) in 1767, Boone and company spent the winter holed up in this paradise feasting on buffalo. While Euro-Americans such as Boone were just discovering the bounty that Kentucky and the Ohio Valley had to offer, it was no secret to the Native Americans living there.

For more than 14,000 years, Native Americans had lived and long fought for control of what is now Kentucky. During the historic or common era, tribes such as the Chickasaw and Cherokee to the south and the Shawnee in Ohio overlapped in their use of the land for settlement and hunting. During prehistoric and historic times, Native Americans used the plentiful buffalo, following them on traces they made as the herds moved back and forth between different pastures and salt licks.

At one time Kentucky contained many salt licks. Buffalo, also called bison, and other mammals such as deer and elk would augment their diet by traveling to these areas such as Big Bone Lick in Union, Kentucky. At Big Bone Lick, four “bison highways” from different directions met. Stanley Hedeen, in his book, Big Bone Lick, The Cradle of American Paleontology, describes these highways or traces as being “…up to 15 feet wide.” Bison and other animals traveled these “roads” from Ohio, other parts of Kentucky, and even as far away as Indiana.

Prehistoric hunters and later, the Shawnee and others, would follow these very same game trails to hunt the bison and animals that gathered at the salt licks. In addition, Native Americans extracted salt from the licks. When Euro-Americans began visiting the licks, they would do the same. As more and more settlers came to the region, theses traces became major roads. Two of the more popular buffalo traces would get several new names as settlement in the region took hold.

The Dixie Highway of Northern Kentucky began its life as a buffalo trace, following the natural divide of the Licking and Kentucky River watersheds. As settlers and the military began using this path, it became known as the “Dry Ridge Trail.” The whole of it would eventually link Lexington to Covington. In 1834, the Kentucky General Assembly passed an act allowing a company called the Covington and Lexington Turnpike Road Company to build a “macadamized” road on the trail

Remains of former buffalo trace, southern Indiana. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This gravel road opened for use in the 1850s and boosted commerce from the interior by allowing livestock to be sent to packing plants in Cincinnati. Later, during the Civil War, troops from both the Confederacy and the Union used this turnpike during the “Siege of Cincinnati” in 1862.

The Bullskin Trace began in Clermont County, Ohio. This path also started as a buffalo trace used by bison and other animals to reach salt licks in Northern Kentucky. It crossed the river at present-day Chilo, Ohio. Native Americans used it and extended it further north, connecting their trails to it as a route to raid settlers in Kentucky. Simon Kenton and Tecumseh famously battled near the trace in 1792 at the “Battle of Grassy Run.”

Early settlers would use the mouth of Bullskin Creek to begin the land part of their journey, unloading their flatboats there. Escaped slaves also used this trail, as several stops on the Underground Railroad were located farther north on it. The road quickly became heavily used and by 1807, part of the Bullskin Trace was utilized in the Xenia State Road. In 1923, construction of Ohio State Route 133 was begun using what was once the Bullskin Trace at its beginning in Chilo through Bethel. Parts of the trace further north were incorporated into other Ohio roads such as Ohio 380, and US 68 mirrors it from Xenia to Detroit.

Many roads throughout Ohio and Kentucky began their lives this way. The buffalo, over years of use, would pack down the soil to almost stone consistency. Warriors, hunters, and early settlers found these to be convenient to use and continued to travel them. Cities and villages would spring up on them and even as road building technology improved, they used these well-worn traces to connect the people of Kentucky and Ohio.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks Steve! I shared your story with the Dixie Highway History Group in FaceBook:

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