Bartram Trail Conference

Bartram’s Buffalo Lick

Dr. Louis De Vorsey, Professor Emeritus of Geography, University of Georgia
Text of an illustrated lecture by Louis De Vorsey presented to the Athens Historical Society, May 17, 1998.
Inman rose and went to his sack and pulled out the Bartram and showed it to Ada as if it were evidence of something. It was scrolled up and tied with a bow knot of dirty string and had been wet and dry and wet again for months now and looked grimy and ancient enough to contain the aggregate knowledge of a lost civilization. He told her how it had helped sustain him on his Journey, how he read it many a night by the firelight of a lonesome bivouac. Ada was unfamiliar with it and Inman described it to her as a book concerned with this very part of the world and with everything that was important in it. He shared with her his view that the book stood nigh on to holiness and was of such richness that one might dip into it at random and read only one sentence and yet be sure of finding instruction and delight. Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
The author of Inman’s favorite book, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, was William Bartram (1739–1824), a well-educated Quaker natural scientist and artist from Philadelphia. His portrait by Charles Wilson Peale now hangs in Independence National Historical Park in that city. A few years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, Bartram secured the patronage of a wealthy London physician and undertook a long period of travel and botanical collecting that lead him across the Southeast from the Carolinas to Louisiana. It was a time when militarily powerful Indian tribes still controlled all but the coastal margins.

Bartram arrived in Savannah in the early Spring of 1773. After exploring the coast to the south he headed up the Savannah River valley on horseback bound for Augusta. At this back country outpost an Indian Congress was being convened to negotiate a large cession of land from the Cherokee and Creek Indians to the colony of Georgia. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs had earlier, as Bartram wrote, “proposed in order to facilitate my travels in the Indian territories, if I would be present at the Congress, he would introduce my business to the chiefs of the Cherokees, Creeks, and other nations, and recommend me to their friendship and protection; which promise he fully performed, and it proved of great service to me.” At the conclusion of the Congress Bartram joined the large party of Indians and whites who set out to survey and mark the boundaries of the newly ceded lands. A description of the boundary of the land cession was an important part of the treaty signed by Georgia's governor and the chiefs and headmen of the Creek and Cherokee tribes. The boundary was “To begin at the place where the Lower Creek Path intersects Ogeechee River, and along the main branch… to the source of the southernmost branch… and from thence along the ridge between the waters of Broad River and Oconee River, up to the Buffaloe Lick…”

For it to have been mentioned in the treaty document, the “Buffaloe Lick” must have been a singular site well known to Indians and whites alike. In his report to his patron Bartram provides this vivid description of the place where the survey party was detained one day “in adjusting and planning the several branches of the survey.” He wrote:
…We came into an open Forest of Pines, Scrub white oaks, Black Jacks, Plumb, Hicory, Grape Vines, Rising a sort of Ridge, come to a flat levell Plain and at the upper side of this, levell at the foot of the hills of the great Ridge, is the great Buffiloe Lick which are vast pits licked in the Clay, formerly by the Buffiloes, & now kept smoothe and open by Cattle, deer & horses, that resort here constantly to lick the clay, which is a greesey Marle of various colours, Red, Yellow & white, & has a sweetish taste, but nothing saltish that I could perceive, Several Pits were grown over with a very tall broad bladed grass very tender & sweet, which Our horses were moderately fond of. The whole lick may take up an Acre & half of ground & some holes 5 or 6 feet deep. The land descends gradually & a little ways farther down becomes moist & springey from whence proceeds a gully, but this being a very dry Season found no water until We had gone near a mile down it. Passing by other small licking Pits, we come to a lively stream that made in from a cane bottom. This is said to be the head of Grt. Ogechee River.

Buffalo in Georgia

The idea of wild buffalo in Georgia surprises many who associate the great humped herbivore with the American West. The historical records, however, make it clear that buffalo were prominent among colonial Georgia's faunal inventory. Some decades before the colony was founded by lames Oglethorpe, an earlier promoter of settlement, Sir Robert Montgomery described the land that would become Georgia as “…all the Land that lies between two great rivers, Allatamaha and Savanna… and abounding with large herds of Deer, wild buffalo’s, and most kinds of Beasts, Birds, and Sea and river fish, to an incredible degree of plenty.” In a letter he wrote from Savannah on March 16, 1736, Oglethorpe mentioned that “Tomochichi and I at his desire go out tomorrow to hunt the buffalo as far as the utmost extent of his dominions towards St. Augustine.” Oglethorpe was, however, more interested in spying on the Spanish than in hunting big game; for he concluded, “we shall then know how far the lands possessed by the English confederate Indians extend.” A few years later while on his way to treat with the Creek Indians in what is today Alabama, Oglethorpe’s party “encamped at Oconee River” and on the next day “crossed the river and killed two buffaloes, of which there are an abundance, we seeing several herds of sixty or upwards to a herd.” Many more accounts of buffalo in colonial Georgia can be cited; but space is limited, and it should be clear that the eastern woodland buffalo ranged deep into Georgia and the rest of the Southeast in the early 1 8th century.

Buffalo Licks in Georgia

The animal licks most frequently noted in historical accounts are saline, so Bartram’s mention that the clay at the “great Buffiloe Lick” had “a sweetish taste, but nothing saltish” is significant. This is because there is nothing in the geology of Oglethorpe and Greene Counties that would promise the presence of sizable salt springs or lick deposits. In a book published in 1784, seven years before Bartram published his Travels, the traveler John F.D. Smyth provided a description of licks including those answering to Bartram's description. Smyth wrote:
Licks are particular places, most commonly on the banks of rivers, or creeks, and sometimes at spring heads, where the clay or earth is impregnated with saline particles. These places are frequented by deer, elks, buffaloes, homed cattle, and horses, which daily resort to them to lick the earth or clay with their tongues… There is likewise another kind of lick here besides. Those are also on the banks of rivers, lakes, streams of water ... and consist of chalk, or calcareous earth of a testaceous quality, which is greedily licked up and consumed by all those different animals I have already mentioned. To the use of this latter kind [of lick] they are prompted by nature and instinct, for salutary and medicinal purposes; i.e. to correct the acidity of the super-abundant vegetative juices accumulated in their stomachs, which would otherwise occasion severe griping, strictures of the bowels and many other disorders.
Bartram’s “great Buffiloe Lick” was an exposed bed of the mineral popularly known as primary kaolin and served the buffalo and other animals much as Kaopectate serves humans with stomach upsets.

Where is Bartram’s “Great Buffloe Lick?”

At least four sites, two in Greene County and two in Oglethorpe County, have been claimed by researchers to be the location of Bartram's “great Buffiloe Lick” where the boundary survey of the Ceded Lands was begun in June 1773. The southernmost site is marked by a metal plaque on a small granite monument at the side of U.S. Highway 278 three quarters of a mile east of Union Point in Greene County. It was identified in 1934 by Colonel T.G. MacFie The second site, three and one-half miles north of Union Point at Temperance Bell, was selected in 1949 by former Georgia State Geologist, A.S. Furcron. In 1934, Francis Harper, editor of the naturalist’s edition of Bartram's Travels, visited a lick site at the eastern edge of the village of Philomath that he argued was the “great Buffiloe Lick” of Bartram. A roadside wooden marker sign much in need of repair currently points to the Philomath lick site. The fourth site, my own nominee, is located near where Georgia Highway 22 crosses Buffalo Creek about five miles north of Philomath. These latter two sites are in Oglethorpe County.

Colonel MacFie. and Francis Harper both based their choices on careful reading of Bartram's descriptive account and their own reconstructions of his route and itinerary from Augusta to the Ceded Lands in 1773. Harper wrote of being convinced that an “old deer lick” on the Wright family land near the village of Philomath answered Bartram's description. In retrospect, and based on the evidence available to Harper and MacFie. in the 1930s, it would appear that Colonel Medflies choice of a site near Union Point and the Ogeechee River drainage was the most convincing. Recall that Bartram placed the lick near where the head branches of the Ogeechee River took their rise. The Union Point site best fits that element in Bartram's verbal description only when read uncritically. A close reading indicates that Bartram was something less than certain of the hydrographic setting of the “great Buffiloe Lick” he described. In Travels he wrote, “I believe the head branches of the Great Ogeechee River take their rise” in the swamp near the buffalo lick. In his report to his benefactor in England, he wrote “This is said to be the head of Grt. Ogeechee River.” From his language Bartram appears to be relying on hearsay when he places the “great Buffiloe Lick” on the Ogeechee River drainage, a fact that Colonel MacFie. chose to discount in his analysis.

The evidence for the Sunshine/Temperance Bell lick site is also less than convincing. It was proposed by former state geologist Furcron, who found several large deposits of white kaolin near some mica mines there In his essay, “Big Buffalo Lick, Greene County, Georgia,” Furcron wrote, “From a study of Bartram and maps, I conclude that the Buffalo Lick was at a place several miles north of Union Point, which is at the headwaters of Ogeechee River about one-half mile east of Public Square, a little settlement now known as Sunshine.” Furcron overlooks the fact that while Union Point is on the Ogeechee drainage, Sunshine (now Temperance Bell) is located on an interfluve between the north and south forks of the Little River, a stream that drains into the Savannah River system.

Both Furcron and Harper relied on historical maps as well as Bartram's descriptions in arriving at their differing conclusions as to the location of the buffalo lick. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Colonel MacFie. employed historical maps in his analysis. The best map to which Harper and Furcron had access was a tracing of the large (60 inches by 76 inches) compilation titled, “A Map of the Southern Indian District of North America Compiled under the Directions of John Stuart: Esq. His Majesty's Superintendent of Indian Affairs. By Joseph Purcell.” In spite of its large size this map, covering as it did the whole of the Southeast, is of limited value in any attempt to fix the location of Bartram's Great Buffalo Lick. Of far greater value is the original map of the Ceded Lands based on the surveys of the party to which Bartram attached himself in 1773. This map, titled “A Map of the Lands Ceded to His Majesty by the Creek and Cherokee Indians at a Congress Held in Augusta the 1st June 1773… Containing 1616298 Acres,” is at a scale and degree of accuracy that allows the Great Buffalo Lick to be located with a much higher degree of confidence. Fortunately, photographs of both of these rare manuscript maps may be consulted in the enlarged and revised third edition of William P. Cumming’s The Southeast in Early Maps, published in 1998.

In his 1957 essay, “The Buffalo in Georgia,” Professor John H. Goff observed, “Despite its former prominence, the location of the Great Buffalo Lick has been a matter of present-day disagreement.” It was the 1773 Ceded Lands map that prompted highly regarded Georgia place name scholar Goff to place “great Buffiloe Lick” on “a divide above the extreme upper tips of the north fork of Little River and at the beginning of a south branch of Long Creek,” in the area he described as “to the south of Lexington and to the east of the village of Stephens.”

A study of the 1773 Ceded Lands map reveals the presence of a number of lick-related features in the area stretching from the north fork of the Ogeechee River near present day Union Point north to the crossing of Buffalo Creek by Georgia Highway 22, about eight miles south of Lexington. Through this corridor the 1773 surveyors identified “Red. Lick Creek,” “Clay Bank Creek,” “Mud Lick Creek,” “Bufloe Lick,” “Boggy lick,” and “Great Bufloe Lick.” Only one of these is, however actually located on the boundary line surveyed to demarcate the 1773 Indian land cession. It was here that Bartram with the survey party tarried while, as he wrote, they were “adjusting and planning the several branches of the survey.” It was to this site that my attention was drawn 40 years ago while researching for my book The Indian Boundary of the Southern Colonies, 1763–1775. As I worked in London translating the location of that historically important colonial. boundary from the documents, treaties, maps and surveys of the 18th century to modem topographic maps I was unaware of the controversy concerning the location of Bartram's “great Buffiloe Lick.” My analysis of those eighteenth century sources led me to the “great Buffiloe Lick.” close to Buffalo Creek in the area of Oglethorpe County, which I later learned Dr. Goff had described as “to the south of Lexington and to the east of the village of Stephens.”

It wasn't until several years later, after moving to Georgia to take a faculty position at the University of Georgia at nearby Athens, that I had an opportunity to deal again with the question of the Great Buffalo Lick’s location. It came in the early 1970s when I joined the group that formed the Bartram Trail Society of Georgia. It is not an exaggeration to say that to this group Francis Harper’s book, The Travels of William Bartram, Naturalist’s Edition occupied the same sort of lofty position that Bartram’s original work enjoyed in the mind of Inman, hero of Cold Mountain. Recall that Harper had argued that an old deer lick on the Wright family land in Philomath was Bartram's Great Buffalo Lick. I held my peace as a wooden sign was erected with the support of Dorothy D. Wright, former lick landowner and enthusiastic member of the Bartram Trail Society. While holding my peace, I resolved to delve more deeply into the question of where Bartram's Great Buffalo Lick was located. The present wooden highway sign directing attention to the nearby lick site is in a poor state of repair. It reads, “Bartram Buffalo Lick Located On Boundary of Ceded Lands 1773.” Philomath is an excellent candidate for the location of the lick shown on the 1773 Ceded Lands map and named “Bufloe Lick.” On the map “Bufloe Lick” is on the Indian trail approximately seven miles southeast of the “Great Bufloe Lick.” It is not, however, on the Indian Boundary Line surveyed in 1773.

Once established at the University of Georgia, I quickly became aware of the excellent and well-managed collection of original land survey plats and documents under the care of Georgia’s Deputy Surveyor General, Pat Bryant, and later Marion Hemperley. My students and I made frequent and valuable use of these materials as we worked on a wide array of projects designed to bring to light Georgia's fascinating historical geography. It should be noted that in the eastern 1/3 of Georgia, the headright region, the only systematic way that these land survey materials can be accessed is by way of the original grantee’s name. It is extremely difficult to find original survey plats of any given area in the headright region without knowing the names of the original pioneers to whom those lands were granted in the late 18th century. This is why we became excited when a 1796 plat for “96 acres of land lying on Buffalo Creek of Long Creek” came to our attention. On the plat of the land surveyed for David Witt, the surveyor noted that one of the surveyed corners was located at an “ash in Buffalo Lick.” Further, this ash corner tree in the buffalo lick was on the “Indian Line” that formed the northeast boundary of David Witt’s “96 acres of land.” According to the distances recorded on the plat, the ash corner tree was within about 400 feet of a small branch of Buffalo Creek and about 2,400 feet from the creek itself. This was exciting! Here was firm contemporary evidence of a buffalo lick where the original 1773 Ceded Lands map showed Bartram’s “great Buffiloe Lick” to be. It was squarely on the Indian Boundary Line where I had placed it in my book The Indian Boundary.

A great deal of additional research in the Surveyor General Department, the Oglethorpe, Greene and Wilkes County courthouses and several libraries was required as we worked to locate the geographic features shown on the 1796 David Witt plat on the landscape and topographic map of the present day. Aerial photographs dating from 1942, as well as a number of field examinations, led us to conclude that the site of the lick Bartram described as the “great Buffiloe Lick,” the landmark named in the 1773 land cession treaty, is on a small branch of Buffalo Creek a bit over 1/2 mile south of where Georgia Highway 22 crosses the creek.

In her The History of Oglethorpe County, Georgia, Florrie C. Smith mentioned the following local buffalo lick traditions: “Near George B. Lumpkin’s former home is a peculiar rock known as Buffalo Lick. This immense boulder fifty feet high standing about five feet from a perpendicular precipice, rests on two pedestals probably a foot or so in circumference. Old settlers say the buffaloes licked the rest of its foundation away as the rock contained salt. There is also a large hollow on Dry Fork Creek called Buffalo Lick made by the buffaloes licking the earth for salt.” When Mrs. Smith was queried about this account she revealed that the description of the peculiar rock known as Buffalo Lick had been related to her by John Bacon, deceased. She went on to say that Mr. Bacon had told her that the peculiar rock was located on his property along Buffalo Creek. It is doubtful in the extreme that either of these licks along Dry Fork or Buffalo Creek were actually saline in nature. The Dry Fork lick, it should be noted, is an extremely good candidate for the “Boggy Lick” that was shown to the east of “Great Bufloe Lick” on the 1773 Ceded Lands map.

It was at the “Great Bufloe Lick,” located near where Georgia Highway 22 crosses Buffalo Creek in Oglethorpe County, that William Bartram experienced one of the most intensely dramatic events marking his long peregrination across the Southeast. It was an episode that threatened both the abrogation of the recently signed treaty and a much feared outbreak of renewed frontier warfare.

In his Travels Bartram recounted how:

We were detained at this place one day, in adjusting and planning the several branches of the survey. A circumstance occurred during this time, which was a remarkable instance of Indian sagacity, and had nearly disconcerted all our plans, and put an end to the business. The surveyor having fixed his compass on the staff, and about to ascertain the course from our place of departure, which was to strike Savanna river at the confluence of a certain river, about seventy miles distance from us; just as he had determined upon the point, the Indian Chief came up, and observing the course he had fixed upon, spoke, and said it was not right, but that the course to the place was so and so, holding up his hand, and pointing. The surveyor replied, that he himself was certainly right, adding, that the little instrument (pointing to the compass) told him so, which he said, could not err. The Indian answered, he knew better, and that the little wicked instrument was a liar; and he would not acquiesce in its decisions, since it would wrong the Indians out of their land. This mistake (the surveyor proving to be in the wrong) displeased the Indian; the dispute arose to that height, that the Chief and his party had determined to break up the business, and return the shortest way home, and forbad the surveyors to proceed any farther… [.]
At that moment it looked as though the thousands of pounds sterling and months of effort spent in persuading the Creek and Cherokee Indians to cede an area approaching the size of the state of Delaware were about to be lost in a heated dispute concerning a faulty surveyor’s compass. But, as Bartram wrote, “after some delay, the complaisance and prudent conduct of the Colonel [Colonel Edward Barnard, in charge of the survey] made them change their resolution; the Chief became reconciled, upon the condition that the compass should be discarded and rendered incapable of serving on this business; that the Chief himself should lead the survey; and, moreover, receive an order for a very considerable quantity of goods.”

The intervention of Colonel Barnard had saved the day and well may have averted a resumption of the recent hostilities with the Indians. Bartram continued, “Matters being now amicably settled, under this new regulation, the Colonel having detached two companies on separate routes, Mr. McIntosh and myself attaching ourselves to the Colonel's party, whose excursion was likely to be the most extensive and varied, we set off from the Buffalo Lick, and the Indian Chief, heading the party, conducted us in a straight line, as appeared by collateral observation, to the desired place.”


William Bartram. “Travels in Georgia and Florida 1773–71 A Report to Dr. John Fothergill,” annotated by Francis Harper, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. n.s . Vol. XXXIII. Pt. 2 (Nov. 1943).

William P. Cumming, The Southeast in Early Maps, [3rd ed. revised and enlarged by Louis De Vorsey, Jr., (Chapel Hill., 1998).

Louis De Vorsey, Jr., The Indian Boundary in the Southern Colonies, 1756–1775, (Chapel Hill, 1966).

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (New York 1997).

A.S. Furcron, “Big Buffalo Lick, Greene County, Georgia,” Georgia Mineral Society Newsletter, Vol. II (1949).

Francis Harper, ed., The Travels of William Bartram, Naturalist's Edition, (New Haven, 1958).

John H. Goff, “The Buffalo in Georgia,” The Georgia Review, Vol. XI (1957).

Mills Lane, ed., General Oglethorpe’s Georgia, Colonial Letters 1733–1743, (Savannah. 1990).

Sir Robert Montgomery, A Description of the Golden Isles, &c, (London, 1720).

Thadeus B. Rice, History of Greene County, Georgia 1786–886, (Macon, 1961).

Florrie C. Smith, The History of Oglethorpe County, Georgia, (Washington, Ga., 1970).

John F. D. Smyth, A Tour in the United States of America (London, 1784).
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