On July 15, 1805, William Rector undertook an important, if arduous, task. By government order, he was to survey the Buffalo Trace, also known as the Vincennes Trace, a makeshift road pounded down by migrating herds of bison. “The trace varied from twelve to twenty feet wide,” wrote the Department of Agriculture, “and had been in use for centuries. In some places, it had worn through solid rock to a depth of twelve feet.”
Treaties with the Delaware and Piankashaw nations had given the United States land along a mythical straight line the followed the Trace’s general route. Rector would draw that line on the maps of the day. He and other surveyors would also note salt licks, mines, and other important details.
The Buffalo Trace was an essential route for settlers bound for the Indiana and Illinois Countries. By and large the road ran along high ground–to bypass marshes–and through valleys–to avoid bison-unfriendly steep hills. Native Americans had used the Trace for ages before French explorers trouped along in the 1700s. During the Revolutionary War, the Trace provided George Rogers Clark with a troop road to attack the British—most of them actually Canadians sympathetic to American independence—at Vincennes, Indiana. Clark’s victory helped encourage the Crown to hand over the Northwest Territory to the United States. Illinois-bound settlers soon passed through Vincennes in droves on their way to cheap prairie land.
The Trace became a postal route connecting Kaskaskia, the capital of Illinois, to Louisville. Indiana Territory governor William Henry Harrison convinced the federal government to encourage a line of taverns along the Trace to aid, intoxicate, and shelter travelers heading west. Needing the Native Americans’ cooperation, the government signed the treaties that launched William Rector on his survey, and tavern-keepers on their business plans. Later on, a portion of the route became known as Harrison’s Road.
Past the Wabash River, the Trace split. Part of it ran west to the Mississippi at Kaskakia. The other fork went north through modern-day Danville and Hoopeston to suburban Blue Island to the swamp that became State Street in present-day Chicago.