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.
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).
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.