That’s right, buffalo never roamed the fertile river valleys of Kentucky. The large creatures observed by 18th century European colonists were not actually buffalo. The name buffalo was mistakenly applied to these creatures by early colonists and has stuck ever since. Scientifically speaking, buffalo (Syncerus caffer and Bubalus bubalis) are animals that live in Africa and Asia, while the large game animals of 18th century Kentucky legend were modern bison (Bison bison). With this clarification aside, let’s get to the real story of bison in Kentucky, which began only about 300 years before Daniel Boone and John Finley peered down from Pilot Knob at the vast herds wandering the broad valley of Lulbegrud Creek.
Figure 1. A small bison herd that once occupied the Gladie Bottoms in the Red River Gorge. The bison were relocated to western Kentucky over a decade ago. Photo from the Federal Highway Adminstration.
In North America, bison are typically a plains animal and, until about 600 years ago, probably didn’t spend much time in Kentucky. The only exception to this would be in far western Kentucky where the environment is more similar to the plains. The earliest evidence of bison (bison bison) in central and eastern Kentucky come from archaeological digs at Big Bone Lick in Boone County. Two separate digs at this location have recovered bison remains that date to about 300 and 600 years old. The most recent of the two projects found evidence of stone butchering tools used by Native Americans, who killed and processed the bison there. Bison remains have been recovered from other Native American settlements in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, all probably dating between 300 and 600 years old. These animals were hunted by Native Americans and their remains discarded in their settlements where archaeologists would later recover them. Artifacts representing bison have also been found in the region (Figure 2), suggesting bison were significant despite the fact they only lived in the area for a few hundred years.
Figure 2. Bison pendant from Madisonville archaeological site, a Native American settlement once located in southern Ohio. Image from Hooton and Willoughby, 1920.
More recent evidence of bison in Kentucky comes from the era of European exploration and colonization during the late 1700s. Early explorers such as trader Christopher Gist took note of the bison living in the Ohio valley because they were an important game resource. After departing the Lower Shawnee Town settlement in 1749, Gist observed bison in several places along the path he traveled through central and eastern Kentucky. About 20 years later, Daniel Boone observed herds roaming from a vista at Pilot Knob, as well as on the Red River. During the 1770s and 1780s bison were being captured as food by early colonists, whose forts were occupying Native American territory. For example, bison were reportedly eaten during the occupation of Fort Boonesborough. This historical account was recently confirmed by archaeologist Nancy O’Malley from the University of Kentucky, who recovered bison remains during her excavations at the fort.
While their status may be legendary, Bison were hunted to extinction from Kentucky by about the year 1800. And yet, they are not completely gone from us. Their imprint remains in the landscape in the names of roads, trails, parks and in the names of consumer goods. One business that has carried on the legend of the bison in Kentucky is Buffalo Trace Distillery. You will find no bison or buffalo here, but you will find archaeology at work – recent work at the distillery has uncovered evidence of how bourbon was made over 100 years ago. If you want to get closer to where Kentucky’s legendary creatures once roamed, a few fragments of bison paths can be observed Blue Licks Battlefield State Park. In addition, efforts to revive these magnificent creatures are underway at The Land Between Lakes National Recreation Area, where herds can be viewed along a 3.5 mile auto route (Figure 3). They can also be viewed today at Salato State Nature Preserve near Frankfort.
Figure 3. Bison at Land Between Lakes. Photo from Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
Blue Licks Battlefield State Park – Preserved Bison Path:
Land Between Lakes – Bison Viewing Auto Tour:
Ted Belue (1996) The Long Hunt: Death of the Buffalo East of the Mississippi. Stackpole Books.
John Faragher (1993) Daniel Boone: the life and legend of an American pioneer. Holt Books.
McDonald (1981) North American Bison. University of California Press.
Nancy O’Malley (July 2019) Boonesborough Unearthed. University of Kentucky Press.
Lewis Summers (1929) The Journal of Christopher Gist, 1750-1751. In Annals of Southwest Virginia, 1769-1800.
Matthew Davidson, Archaeologist
Daniel Boone National Forest