Gary Freeze: Buffalo sculpture reminds of long-ago Rowan residents

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 19, 2020

By Gary Freeze

The American buffalo standing beside the Rowan Museum is more than just a pretty face (pretty, that is, if you are into conceptual metallic sculpture with chains as dreadlocks). The buffalo — actually an American Woodland Bison — is part of the city of Salisbury’s current crop of public art. 

That browned chassis of gears and bolts also provides an artistic representation of the early heritage of Rowan County. In 1753, when the county was founded, there may have been more bison resident here than people. Bison made up a vital component of the original ecology of the area, one so central it helped to draw some of the early settlers. 

Exactly how many bison there were is not countable, but across the Piedmont itself there must have been thousands. Bishop August Spangenberg, who helped establish the Wachovia settlement in what is now Forsyth County, said their “tracks are everywhere” as he explored the area in the 1750s.  

Early historian E.F. Rockwell reported oral traditions that the bison ran in herds, with a particular trail that took them back and forth from the Yadkin basin to the hills on the other side of the Catawba. Back in the 1990s Catawba biologist Mike Baranski found a “buffalo wallow” near Young’s Mountain at Cleveland that may have been part of that network. The Buffalo Shoals Road in both Iredell and Catawba counties crosses Lake Norman on that trail today. 

The widespread bisonic presence is further suggested by the “buffalo creeks” that have headwaters in Rowan County, then trace their ways through Cabarrus County. On the west side is Irish Buffalo Creek, a reference to the Ulster Scots — a.k.a. the Scotch Irish — who were the first European group to settle here. On the east side is Dutch Buffalo Creek, a reference to German settlers who came soon after. Like the namers of Crane Creek, these settlers were likely describing what they encountered when they arrived. 

How could there have been bison herds in the dense forests that we are so used to? Back then, the landscape was as much a prairie as a forest. Early explorer John Lawson in 1708 found the area was dominated by “pleasant savanna ground” with trees far apart on the uplands and dense in the low lands. According to the first Rowan historian, Jethro Rumple, when his grandfather arrived during the colonial era, the area was largely “destitute of forests”. Some settlers had to drag logs as far as a mile to build their farms. The grass itself resembled the kind of prairie that would survive longer in midwestern states, with a root structure downward and a flowering upward in excess of six feet. These grasslands persisted in part because both lightning and Amerindians set fire to it periodically, the latter to facilitate hunting.

William H. Foote, a chronicler of Presbyterians, called this area “Mesopotamia”—a reference to the open nomadic plains between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. The Ulster Scots who came to Poplar Tent in Cabarrus County provide some of the best evidence of this perspective. These emigrants had been herders back in Ireland. Their church chronicles say they went about stock raising for the first half century of their settlement. And, they used thatch to roof their original houses! Just like back home in northern Ireland. (The name Poplar Tent itself references the preaching shed or “tent” they built on the top of what was originally an unusually dense “poplar ridge”.)

What happened at Poplar Tent over time also tells us what happened generally to both the tall prairie grass and the animals it supported. With farms came eventual plowing and fencing and sheep and cows and hogs, and with time came “old fields” with broom sedge and cedar saplings. So, the buffalo dwindled in number, and we assume, had disappeared by the time the farms were a half century old. There is a legend on the Blue Ridge in western North Carolina that the last buffalo was shot there in 1799, so the herds may have migrated away to the south and west into the Mississippi watershed.

Gary Freeze lives in Rowan County and recently retired from Catawba College, where he worked as a professor of history. The sculpture he writes about, located on the Council Street side of the old courthouse, will be on display for the next year. The Rowan Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19 and hopes to reopen sometime in the late summer.