A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I haven’t looked as hard as William Byrd II did, back in 1728, but I’ve given it a shot. I’ve driven the back roads of Person County and stomped through

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I haven’t looked as hard as William Byrd II did, back in 1728, but I’ve given it a shot. I’ve driven the back roads of Person County and stomped through

Where the Buffalo Roamed

Buffalo graze happily at Dr. King’s Farms in Leicester, NC

I haven’t looked as hard as William Byrd II did, back in 1728, but I’ve given it a shot. I’ve driven the back roads of Person County and stomped through the woods of the R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell Game Land around Yanceyville. One morning, I climbed a soaring ridge outside the tiny town of Milton, on the eastern edge of where Byrd once owned 20,000 acres of untamed wilderness. He acquired the land as part of his deal for leading a massive effort to survey the official boundary between North Carolina and Virginia, a contested delineation that was stirring up much strife in Ye Olde Colonies. Atop a beech-clad ridge, with blooming redbud and dogwood and carpets of mayapples blanketing the forest floor, I looked out over a creek-bottom pasture where cattle milled about and wild turkeys gobbled, and I thought: If I were a buffalo, I’d put down roots in such a pretty place.

And buffalo did. Byrd would tell us that.

Of the many wild creatures that once, but no longer, roamed our state, the bison species known as American buffalo sticks in my imagination. When Europeans first plumbed the interior forests of the New World, the range of bison in North America extended as far east as the edge of our Coastal Plain. The earliest firsthand report of the animals in the Mid-Atlantic is dated 1613 and comes from the Englishman Samuel Argall, who sailed up the Potomac River near present-day Washington, D.C., and found “great store of Cattle as big as Kine.” Kine is an archaic plural form of cow, and those big browsers had to be buffalo.

Byrd’s team ran into the beasts a couple of times while surveying the dividing line. On October 4, 1728, one of Byrd’s men spied three large, woolly animals along a creek near the Dan River. One can imagine the fellow hastily shouldering his gun, alarmed at the sight of 1,500 pounds of horn, hair, and muscle, then yanking the trigger out of fright. Or perhaps he carefully stalked close, then closer yet, not wanting to blow the chance to bring down such a brute. Regardless of how the scene played out, Byrd’s man was disappointed. His gun was loaded with BB-size goose shot, and the shooter, Byrd reported, “was able to make no effectual Impression” on the thick hides of the buffalo.

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But the bison was to make quite an impression on the region’s early explorers. Colonial accounts leave little question that the animal was here in some numbers. In 1997, historian David Southern discovered the anonymous journal of a 1737 exploration of the Piedmont interior later attributed to John Powell, a New Bern-area surveyor. Powell described six encounters with buffalo, including one killed somewhere between Walnut and Swift creeks near present-day Raleigh and “12 Buffeloes in a gang and Bares almost as thick as hogs” along the Eno River close to present-day Mebane.

John Lawson saw none but reported of bison “kill’d on the Hilly Part of Cape-Fair-River.” In the diary of his trip through North Carolina in 1752, the Moravian Bishop Spangenburg, exasperated by the tough going near the Catawba River, asked, “but why do I speak of road when there is none but what the Buffaloes have made.” A few days later, he complained, the animals’ “tracks can not be followed — for they go through ‘thick & thin,’ & thro’ the deepest morasses & rivers — & often they are so steep that a man may roll down, or fall down, but he can neither ride nor go down them.”

A herd of buffalo spotted in Pisgah National Forest between 1915 and 1930

A herd of buffalo spotted in Pisgah National Forest between 1915 and 1930 might have been part of a failed experiment by the American Bison Society to restore wild bison populations in North Carolina. photograph by BUNCOMBE COUNTY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, PACK MEMORIAL PUBLIC LIBRARY, ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

The bison of the colonial period trampled down byways across the Piedmont, and if those muddy trails have long since vanished, the presence of their builders has been preserved in the state’s cartography. On contemporary maps, you’ll find Buffalo Creeks winding through Caldwell, Cleveland, Cabarrus, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Harnett, Hoke, and Johnston counties, and plenty more. There’s a crossing that old-timers call Buffalo Shoals on the Catawba River, and a Buffalo Cove north of Lenoir. In the 1760s and 1770s, a little spot called Buffalo Race-Path was the site of the Bute County courthouse. Like the buffalo, the county itself is long gone, having been divided into Franklin and Warren counties in 1779. By then, any of the old buffalo roads had likely grown over and were lost to history.

The last buffalo known to our state was reportedly killed in 1799 in the Swannanoa Valley. Travelers along the Blue Ridge Parkway can pull over at Milepost 375.4 and look out from Bull Gap across the valley of Bull Creek, two landforms said to have been named for this late, lingering specimen, the final mention of the animal in North Carolina.

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In truth, the American bison never held more than a tenuous residency here, being particularly susceptible to both slaughter and the whittling away of their habitat. Their numbers might have spiked as abandoned Indian fields grew up in canebrakes and shrubby meadows, but it was a temporary increase, if one at all. By the late 18th century, they nearly vanish from the written records of North Carolina, as they must have from the wilds.

Skeptics hold that some colonial accounts were made up or embellished. And there’s certainly an argument that any buffalo in our state were stragglers and wanderers from farther west. But even the most strident critics won’t deny that the beasts were here at some point, in some numbers.

Today, elk bugle once again in the Great Smokies, and populations of wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, alligators, and bald eagles have been restored. In 1919, the American Bison Society brought three male and three female buffalo to Buncombe County to see if restoration was an option. The project failed. There’s a nascent push to put bison back on the landscape, and while the opportunities are exhilarating on the far side of the Mississippi River, I’m not naïve enough to think that anything but a meager token of such a magnificent beast will ever roam North Carolina again.

Never say never, of course, but until that day, I’ll be thankful that places still exist in my native state where you can climb a tall ridge and look out over wild lands and let your imagination roam as unfettered as those shaggy, horned beasts of a North Carolina gone by. What it must have been like, the land that William Byrd divided. And what a land it remains, where the wild things still are.

This story was published on Feb 26, 2024

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.