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The ‘Wild Animal Path’ Origin of Ancient Roads

  • Frank G. Roe

The opinion which attributes the origin of ancient winding roads in the older lands (including England) to the ‘wild animal path to the ford’ or drinking-place, is no novelty to most archaeologists, even if they have made no special study of the subject. Many also are doubtless familiar with the argument from the ‘buffalo trails’ or paths of our Western plains, which has been adduced in support of the theory. The manner in which the buffalo argument has been used by its champions manifestly indicates a confident conviction that it is so entirely conclusive as to banish all reasonable doubt and virtually settle the question.

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1 I refer to those given by Jerrold, , Highways and Byways in Middlesex, p. 257,as ‘copied from an American magazine’. There may be others.

2 ‘The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road’. Elsewhere he speaks of the road ‘curving away’—‘And here because the dog barked loud’.

3 I shall note one or two stray references to deer or elk; but there is nothing to show that these animals originally made the paths, which are in the buffalo territory in any case.

4 Mason, Otis T. in Handbook American Indians, (cited by Blair, Emma H. Indian Tribes, 2, 199).

5 McGuire, J.D. in Handbook American Indians (in Blair, op. cit. 2, 200). Miss Blair cites a work by Hulbert, A.B. The Historic Highways of America (1902–3, 16 vols.) which I have not seen. Vol. VII, ‘Portage trails, the key to the continent’ deals with this subject.

6 Rogers, Thorold Agriculture and Prices, 4, 692 cf. Economic Interpretation of History, p. 490.

7 Hubbard, A.J. and Hubbard, G. Neolithic Dew-Ponds and Cattle-Ways, 1905, 512.

8 A.F. (‘The Town Bellman’), Edmonton Journal, (Canada), 31 March 1928.

9 Road, i.e. ‘trail’. Trail never used by L. and C.; always ‘road’ or ‘track ’.

10 Journals, 3, 208.

11 Great Lone Land, p. 217.

12 McDougall, Western Trails, p. 108.

13 It used to be said, c. 1894, that wild bands of Wood buffalo still remained ‘up North’ in the Peace River country and beyond.

14 Hughes, Father Lacombe, p. 263.

15 Ency. Britannica, IIth ed. s.v. ‘Buffalo’. I have somewhere read that in 1876 Fort Benton (Montana) sent 80,000 hides to market; and in 1884, not one!

16 Oregon Trail, pp. 314; 77, 83, 95–7, 413.

17 Alkali lakes sometimes preferred to rivers; Lewis, and Clark, 3, 180; see also Hughes, Father Lacombe, p. 169.

18 Quantities of bones found at a spring near High River, Alberta, S.. Palliser Reports, p. 91 (1857–9).

19 McDougall, Forest, Lake, and Prairie, p. 171.

20 Old-timers from the woodlands often speak of bear, moose, and elk, dashing into the water in their frenzy, oblivious of human intruders.

21 Hennepin, , New Discovery (ed. Thwaites) 1, 146.

22 Ibid. I, 242.

23 See the learned editor’s Introduction.

24 Journals, 3, 237.

25 Journals, 1, 2656, 306; III, 237, 238.

26 Letters, 2, 1314.

27 Saddle, Sled and Snowshoe, p. 63; so also, somewhere in the same locality, Sept. 1862, Milton, and Cheadle, North-West Passage, p. 59.

28 Lewis, and Clark, , 1, 199; Smet, Father De Travels, 3, 852; McDougall, Saddle, Sled, etc., pp. 255, 270; and a description, Bow River; Western Trails, p.237.

29 McDougall mentions a similar propensity when excited by a hunter (not meaning ‘Indian pounds’) Western Trails, pp. 230, 236.

30 Journals, 1, 352.

31 Hughes, Father Lacombe, p.172.

32 Above, note 5. ‘Whether hunter, trader, or settler’; as if all were alike!

33 In Hennepin’s journeys, they marked the trees with crosses to identify their party to those who should follow (New Discovery, I, 143, 144); a very different thing ! Early forest settlers blaze their boundaries and clearings.

34 See on this, Parkman (who had unrivalled opportunities for judging, in 1846) Oregon Trail, pp. 15–18, 65–80, 100–3, 132–5, 169, 294–7, 309, 356, 459.

35 For a moose-hunter’s tactics, see Butler, Wild North Land, pp.20610.

36 John McDougall’s books reveal a calm indifference to fords, also a capacity for judging or finding such when essential. Saddle, Sled, etc., pp. 166–74, on his crossing the flooded S. Sask. in 1863, and the resourcefulness shown. Cf. Western Trails, pp. 24-5 (Bowand ‘Big’ Red Deer Rivers); pp. 27, 29–30 (N. Sask.),p.30 (S. Sask.). ‘Finding a ford’ in the Red Deer Canyon; ibid. p. 48. ‘Big Red Deer’, all day-finding one, Oct. 1873—–the three requisites, approach, ford, departure’, ibid. pp. 85–7, 97. Summer 1874—the flooded Battle, Blindman, and Red Deer rivers; pp. 179–81. Swimming the Bow River, 1875, in the summer floods, p. 276. Nine rivers in S. Alberta in 200 miles, all high and strong, 1875; ibid. p. 272. See also on this, Smet’s, Father De Travels, 1, 222, 30810.

Mr Watkins (Old Straight Track, pp. 42–8) has much to say concerning ‘sighting points’ to fords to reveal their situation to strangers; but after the first few times by the discoverers, would not their path indicate the direction ? Even the circumstance that down certain straight streets the Thames (at high tide—a strange season for identifying a ford!) can be seen from the Strand proves them (to his satisfaction) to be ‘leys’ (p. 42). He does not say if there is a ford opposite each ‘ley’ or not.

37 Lewis, and Clark, (not then on horseback) finding ‘dry ravines so steep and numerous along the upper Missouri as to compel them to keep to the river’. Journals, 1, 322. Later for the same reason (being then on horseback) having to keep back from the edge of the river-valley, on the plain (‘bench’) above. Ibid. III, 182.

38 See on these, Cox, R. Hippisley Green Roads of England; Belloc, Old Road, etc. cf. Lewis, and Clark, —;‘pursuing their route over the ridges of the highlands, so as to avoid the bends of the river’. Journals, 3, 220. Parkman, —;‘The Arkansas? (River) makes a bend, and a smaller trail, known as “the Ridge-path”, leads directly across the prairie from point to point, a distance of sixty or seventy miles’. Oregon Trail, p.452.

39 Journals, 3, 215, 216, 218.

40 See note 5.

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