History of Buffalo in Pennsylvania by Watershed.   

July 2007

Van Wagner

Karl Shellenberger

The historical presence of buffalo, Bison bison, in Pennsylvania has been debated for almost a century.  Compiling information from various historical and modern sources, it becomes clear that the plains buffalo was found, for a short time span, in Pennsylvania.  The debate comes when trying to determine the where buffalo lived and how many were present. 

Watershed regions of Pennsylvania

The buffalo range will be addressed by watershed regions.  Of Pennsylvania’s six major watersheds, Erie, Ohio, Potomac, Genesee, Susquehanna, and Delaware, the evidence is rather strong that buffalo were only found in a few of these regions.  The strongest evidence relates to the Ohio River watershed.  There are several 18th century accounts of buffalo sightings in the southwest part of the commonwealth.  The Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, who crossed the Allegany Mountains over sixty times and logged 30,000 miles on the frontier, recorded them in this region in the 1770’s.  In 1773 he documented meeting an Indian near Marietta, Ohio, “on his way home from a hunting trip.  He had shot a buffalo ox, of which there are many hearouts.”1 This is less than 50 miles from the Pennsylvania border. 

Another account is from an officer serving under General Braddock recording a salt lick used by “Deer, Buffaloes and bears” in the area known today as Uniontown, Pennsylvania.2 

Another reference to buffalo in this region comes from Lewis Ourry’s letter from fort Bedford to Henry Bouquet on Feb 21, 1760: “Yesterday I forwarded downwards the General’s Baggage, consisting of 5 wagon, each drawn by 6 horses one slope wagon by 4, and a chair by 1 and 5 spare in all 40, and a young Buffalo.”  The General he referred to was John Stanwix, who had been stationed at Pittsburgh since August 1759.  Since there was no British post beyond Fort Pitt at this time, this buffalo almost certainly came from the immediate region.3

Although impossible to quantify, it seems unlikely that buffalo were much more than rare visitors in western Pennsylvania.  This would be supported by the evidence that buffalo almost certainly did not cross into the lands east of the Mississippi River until about 1500.4  To date, no archeological evidence has surfaced which supports buffalo in Pennsylvania.5  No bones or Native American cultural evidence has ever been found.  However, this is reasonable given that the specie only appeared in the region after 1500. 

Some researchers have suggested that a severe drought on the plains in the 1600’s encouraged buffalo herds to migrate up the Mississippi River to the Ohio River and its headwaters.6  In addition, thousands of acres of land originally cultivated by Native Americans were temporarily abandoned as white encroachment and European diseases forced Indians from their lands. 

Some have argued that buffalo could not have existed in Pennsylvania due to a lack of grazing habitat.  Indeed, the heavily forested ecosystem that was Pennsylvania in the 17th an 18th centuries did not provide much in the way of food for bison.  Instead, Pennsylvania would have classified as fringe habitat - providing just enough low land and floodplain grazing to support the occasional buffalo.  Also, the temporary availability of what had been Native American cropland could account for a small natural food supply for grazing ruminants just about the time that the specie was moving east in its range.  Whether due to human demographic changes or by natural processes, the plains buffalo was beginning to broaden its range towards south and western Pennsylvania.7  This leads to the question of exactly which watershed regions of Pennsylvania may have supported some buffalo. 

As previously established, buffalo were present in the Ohio River watershed.  An additional account of buffalo in this region comes from soldiers from Fort Cumberland in 1763.  While serving under Captain Luke Collins the men followed a group of Indians up to the Cheat River, A tributary of the Monongahela River, and attacked them while “they were barbequing a Buffaloe, not thinking of danger.”8

To the north is the land that drains into Lake Erie.  Just to the east in north central Pennsylvania, is the Genesee Watershed.  Between these watersheds is the Northern portion of the Ohio Watershed.  Again evidence is rare for buffalo presence in these areas.  Some people refer to the place name of Fort Le Beuof as proof that bison roamed in northwestern Pennsylvania.  However as explained in Ted Belue’s work, this name almost certainly is derived from a French missionary rather than “wild beef” to which it is often attributed.9  Others point to Buffalo, New York, as proof that the Erie watershed was a link in the bison range. However the presence of bison in New York has also been recently debated.  As was often the case, translations from one language to another often turned place name references from deer, elk, and moose into buffalo.10  If plains buffalo are indeed proven to have existed in New York, then the Erie Watershed would be the link to the plains.  To date, not enough evidence exists to support the definite presence of buffalo in the Genesee or Erie Watersheds.

In the south central portion of the state is the region of the Potomac drainage.  There is a possibility that buffalo were occasionally found in this region.  In 1612 European explorer Samuel Argall, often a bit off bearing, reported seeing “a great store of cattle as big as kine…”  within 15 miles of present day Washington, D.C.11  Maryland, West Virginia, and western Virginia all have solid documented sightings of buffalo.  It seems reasonable to assume an occasional animal wandered into what is now Pennsylvania. 

The presence of buffalo in the Susquehanna Watershed is arguably the most controversial among historians.  In 1915 Henry W. Shoemaker printed a book A Pennsylvania Bison Hunt which tells of herds of “thousands” of buffalo migrating from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia through the Susquehanna River Valley.  This book is very commonly mentioned as proof buffalo were in Pennsylvania.  In this text, the “last Pennsylvania bison” was killed by Colonel John Kelly outside of Lewisburg in 1801 after a group of local marksmen had killed off the last remaining herd in Weikert in western Union County.12  For those who have spent time in the central Pennsylvania ridges and valleys in areas like Weikert and Paddy Mountain, it is hard to not be taken in by the allure of Shoemakers convincing tale. Although still a very worthwhile read, scholars have gone lengths to cast doubt on Shoemakers words.  In 1917 Shoemaker followed up his tale with the book Extinct Pennsylvania Animals.  In this text he acknowledges some of the initial criticism but does little to offer new evidence supporting his tales of buffalo in Pennsylvania. Between plagiarism of Thomas Ashe’s Travels in America, published 1808, or just fabrications, Shoemaker’s words are far too tainted with fiction to be taken seriously in the scientific community even if they may indeed contain truth.13 

Very little reliable documentation of buffalo in the Susquehanna Valleys exists, and the available information is often secondhand.  For example, Reverend John Ettwein in his Notes of Travel in 1772, writes he “Reached Clearfield Creek, where the buffaloes formerly cleared large tracts of undergrowth, so as to give them the appearance of cleared fields: hence the Indian call the Creek Clearfield”. The Reverend is not recording what he saw first hand but rather his assumption or what others had told him.  In fact Clearfield was probably grassland due to controlled burning by Indians.14 

Pennsylvania contains numerous examples of locations named after buffalo.  In frontier culture, people often named their lands after a rare or unique sighting of wildlife, such as White Deer, Bald Eagle, or Native American names like Swatara (“where we feed on eels”) and Moosic (“place of moose”).  The sheer numbers of buffalo place names makes a very strong case that some of the earliest white settlers in the Susquehanna region almost certainly encountered buffalo or Indians who related buffalo sightings. 


Dots indicate buffalo place names in Pennsylvania.  By Karl Shellenberger 2007

It is also possible that some buffalo place names were named for resembling the shape of a buffalo, and not for buffalo sightings. Buffalo Mountain in Union County could be described as resembling a buffalo.  It has a small western hill (head), a long linear ridge to the East (back) and a small crest between the two (hump).  However, given that this mountain is found in the same vicinity of Buffalo Crossroads, Buffalo Valley, Bull Run, and Buffalo Creek it is more likely that it derived its name from the animal occurring there rather than its topography. 

Other buffalo place name references are found in the Susquehanna Watershed. Whether Colonel John Kelly actually shot a buffalo in Union county, as Shoemaker claimed, it may never be known.  The year, 1801, is in the same general time period when the animals were killed off in neighboring states.  By 1730 buffalo were gone from the tidewater region of Virginia; in 1808 the last Ohio buffalo was killed, and by 1825 the last was killed in western Virginia.15  The location of the Pennsylvania legend, however, is a bit unexpected.  Southwestern Pennsylvania probably had a higher number of buffalo, still far from the herds of thousands described by Shoemaker, but that would be the region expected to harbor the last hold out of the specie.  It is possible however that a small herd of animals was pushed to the northeast and temporarily into the Susquehanna Watershed. As various militaries and explorers increased hunting pressure on the area around Fort Pitt, modern day Pittsburgh, the mountains and valleys of central Pennsylvania may have offered a refuge for a short time until that region too began filling with Europeans and their rifles.   

It is worth noting that small pockets of grassland habitat did indeed occur along the Susquehanna.  In 1743 the botanist William Bartram explored the region and noted “Our journey now lay through very rich bottoms to a creek, six miles from Shamokin [Chillisquaque Creek], a great extent of fruitful low ground still continuing.  Here we found a fine meadow of grass on our right, and rich dry ground on the left…” 16 Shamokin was located at modern day Sunbury.  Bartram was describing the Chillisquaque creek in the area of modern Montandon.  He does not, however, mention seeing any buffalo in his travels through the watershed.  That being said, he does not mention other animals such as elk, moose, or deer, all of which did occur there.

To the east of the Susquehanna lies the Delaware River Watershed.  Within this watershed there exist few historic buffalo place names, no reliable oral or written buffalo tales, and, as in all other five watersheds in Pennsylvania, no archeological evidence.  The closest written reference is that of Thomas Penn, of William Penn’s colony, in 1733 paid William Linvil for a “Bull Buffalo.”17 Very little is known about this man or the location of the transaction.  Another account refers to a Delaware Indian named Buffalo Horn between 1756 and 1759.18  The Delaware nation encompassed much more than just the Delaware River watershed.  It is impossible to pinpoint the birthplace of Buffalo Horn or the origin of his attire which may have come via trade or personal travels.  It is probable that no buffalo occurred naturally within the eastern portion of Pennsylvania.

Although infrequently and only somewhat recently, buffalo were indeed in Pennsylvania at the time of European colonization.  Some researchers suggest that the specie may have continued eastward in their range had Europeans not eradicated them.19  Given the thousands of armed settlers backed by a lack of appreciation for nature, the buffalo were quickly extirpated from Pennsylvania.  Although it is uncertain when, exactly, the animals began arriving here, it seems likely that by the close of the 18th century, the few buffalo had been in Pennsylvania were gone. Like wolves, mountain lions, moose, and many other species, buffalo were extirpated from Pennsylvania by the hand of man.



Thirty Thousand Miles With John Heckewelder.  Pg. 108   See also  The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 152

2  “The Journal of a British Officer” in Charles Hamilton, ed., Braddock’s Defeat (Norman Okl., 1959), 47.

3  Bouquet Papers, Brittish Museum, Additional Manuscripts Series 21642, f. 110  See also  Historical Evidence of the Buffalo in Pennsylvania.  The Pennsylvania Magazine April 1969  Pages 151-160

4 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 8

5 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 144

6  John W. Griffin and Donald E.  Wray, “Bison In Illinois Archeology,”  Illinois Academy of Science Transactions, XXXVIII (1945)

7 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 8-10

Pennsylvania Gazette, Sept 15, 1763, p. 2 col. 2

9 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 145-146

10 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 146

11 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 56

12  A Pennsylvania Bison Hunt.   Henry W. Shoemaker 1915

13 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 136 

14 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 201 Fot note #1

15 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page 163

16 By Charles Augustus Hanna Published 1911    page 197

17 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page  142

18 The Long Hunt Ted Franklin Belue Page  142

19  Indian Paths of Pennsylvania Paul Wallace 1965   Page 10