Bison in North Carolina

The Natural History of North Carolina, by John Brickell, 1743.
The Natural History of North Carolina, by John Brickell, 1743.

On January 30, 1919 the French Broad Hustler reported the shipment of “six head of buffalo –three males and three females –to Hominy, Buncombe County” by the American Bison Society. Their arrival in North Carolina marked the reintroduction of America’s largest big game animal to the state. The experiment was short-lived. Despite the birth of two calves and the addition of bred heifers and a bull, only two members of the herd remained a decade later. The reestablishment of bison into the wild in North Carolina was a failure.

Two centuries earlier, North Carolina was home to a robust number of bison. In 1709, English naturalist and explorer John Lawson described North Carolina as having “Plenty of Buffalos” in his A New Voyage to Carolina. A few decades later, Irish-born explorer John Brickell included an illustration of a “Buffello” in his Natural History of North Carolina. Brickell describes Native Americans’ many uses for the buffalo, including for food, bedding, clothing and housewares. Writing in 1748, German explorer and botanist Pehr Kalm noted, “The wild Oxen have their abode principally in the woods of Carolina, which are far up in the country. The inhabitants frequently hunt them, and salt their flesh like common beef, which is eaten by servants and the lower classes of people.”

Bison disappeared from North Carolina almost a century before they were wiped out in the American West. Joseph Rice, an early settler of the Swannanoa Valley around Bull Creek, is known for shooting that area’s last buffalo in 1799. A plaque at milepost 373 of the Blue Ridge Parkway marks the location.

Bull Creek Valley, Milepost 373 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Bull Creek Valley, Milepost 373 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The second edition of the North Carolina Gazetteer includes more than 40 entries for places that bear witness to the once ubiquitous presence of buffalo in North Carolina. They include Buffalo (a community in Cherokee County), Buffalo Creek (a waterway in Ashe County, one of many in the state named after buffalo), Big Lick (a place so named in Stanly County for the salt that attracted deer and buffalo in droves), Buffalo Cove (a place in which many buffalo were killed), and Buffalo Ford (a buffalo crossing along the Deep River in Randolph County).

An Accurate Map of North and South Carolina With Their Indian Frontiers...
An Accurate Map of North and South Carolina With Their Indian Frontiers…

In May, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the bison as the country’s national mammal. The next time you picture a wild buffalo, think of it here in North Carolina, grazing in the state’s woods and grasslands and drinking from its streams.

11 thoughts on “Bison in North Carolina”

  1. It should be mentioned that bison, as large grazers, depended heavily on a landscape prolific with grasses and low forbs. Much of the habitat that bison were dependent on in NC has large been converted to agriculture or forestland. While it is unlikely that we will see herds of bison re-introduced to our state in any quantity, we can preserve the habitats they roamed. Before you plant another tree, consider the value that native grasses and low shrubs might bring to the landscape.

  2. Man, we live in such a beautiful state! I love this kind of stuff.

    I’m glad we managed to get an animal not just off of the endangered list, but actually THRIVING again!

  3. It is so important to keep nature safe and it’s a shame that wildlife takes the fall, when humanity decides. The bison deserves to rome free in NC. Someone should do something to bring them back and protect them. Edward Sprinkle

    1. Would require massive forest fires to clear areas, then reintroduction of a herd immediately in those areas which would keep the vegetation from becoming forestland. It would be awesome, but pretty much impossible without relocating A LOT of people permanently. The south is not an easy area for large fauna to exist.

  4. My great great grandfather, James Buffalo, was listed as being from Randolph County. Somewhere along the line, the “e” was put on my last name.

    1. I too am a descendant of Buffaloe. Look at Raleigh street guide. Buffaloe road was named after my grandfathers mothers family descendant from a Henry Buffalo 1749 North Hampton county colony of NC.
      Magnificent animals and so much a balance of our states natural resources.

  5. Buffalo Bill, at that time he would have had no way of knowing it was the last buffalo. The only thing Mr. Rice was concerned with, was the family of 10 he had to feed.

  6. I’m not sure that North Carolina deserves any American Bison, the correct name for what buffalo are called. I’m from Colorado and we have herds growing at astounding speed. One small herd of 10 started ten years ago is now 76 strong and we’ll probably have to turn a bunch of them over to Ted Turner’s bison project in Montana where he has several herds amounting to more than 50,000 of these critters. It’s magnificent to go see them. There are thousands of wild bison spread all around our state on grasslands in the eastern plains and on grassy mountain parks which are everywhere between the ranges and the high plateaus. There are even more being raised for their meat which is sold in most stores, at a premium price of course.

    But what has North Carolina got? Tens of thousands of acres dedicated to poisoning and killing humans with that foul product tobacco. You rank #1 in tobacco production in this country and by a wide margin, nearly doubling the tonnage of the next two states. I have no idea how many acres your state has in tobacco fields but if you as a society bought acreage to turn into grass fields you could easily have a number of herds hundreds strong. No doubt most of you would see that as some form of socialism, but Colorado has bought up thousands of acres of land just for conservation purposes and it sure makes our state a more beautiful one for it. At least think about it.

    1. North Carolina has half the land and twice the population of Colorado. Bison should be in the wilderness

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