Salt is an essential element in the diet of humans, animals, and even some plants. It is one of the most effective and most widely used of all food preservatives. These two facts help to explain why the salt found in this region was so important to those who first arrived in Kentucky.
Natural salt licks attract wildlife because they provide minerals that are typically deficient in their diets. Animals will travel for miles for salt. It is no coincidence that some of the early travel routes wound and meandered to include locations of natural salt licks. Long before settlers entered Kentucky, wild animals discovered various salt springs and used them as natural salt licks.
This image originally came from the Agricultural Research
Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.
The original picture is located here.
The woodland bison once ranged over about one-third of North America. Frontiersmen told of herds numbering 100,000 that wore deep trails to the salt licks in Kentucky and elsewhere. It was these animals that, for the most part, carved out the paths that led, like spokes of a wheel, to the various salt licks. Indeed the first thoroughfares in Kentucky were the traces made by bison and deer in seasonal migration in search of feeding grounds and salt licks.
Most of these routes followed watersheds and the crests of ridges, avoiding the mucky bottomland and the winter snowdrifts.
Like the Indians before them, the European hunters who first entered Kentucky followed the wildlife to these gathering places along the trails made for them by the bison and deer.
Daniel Boone, one of the better known hunters, wrote later in life, "We found everywhere abundance of wild beasts of all sorts, through this vast forest. The buffalo were more frequent than I have seen cattle in the settlements, browsing on the leaves of the cane, or cropping the herbage on those extensive plains, fearless, because ignorant of the violence of man. Sometimes we saw hundreds in a drove, and the numbers about the salt springs were amazing." [Daniel Boone Settles Kentucky by Daniel Boone (1734-1820)]
Theodore Roosevelt, writing about Boone, had this to say: "The shaggy-maned herds of unwieldly buffalo--the bison as they should be called--had beaten out broad roads through the forest, and had furrowed the prairies with trails along which they had traveled for countless generations. The round-horned elk, with spreading, massive antlers, the lordliest of the deer tribe throughout the world, abounded, and like the buffalo traveled in bands not only through the woods but also across the reaches of waving grass land. The deer were extraordinarily numerous, and so were bears, while wolves and panthers were plentiful. Wherever there was a salt spring the country was fairly thronged with wild beasts of many kinds." [Daniel Boone's Move to Kentucky by Theodore Roosevelt]
There were numerous salt licks and springs in and near present-day Bullitt County including ones that we identify by the names of Bullitt's Lick, Long Lick, Dry Lick, and Mann's Lick (near Fairdale). Indeed, the western end of the Wilderness Road, itself laid over ancient animal tracks, passed through Bullitt County on its way to the Ohio River.
The lure of salt attracted the animals, then the hunters, and later the saltmakers to this area.
Food storage is vital for any society. Today we can store food with refrigeration, we can can our food, or even freeze-dry it to preserve it for future use. Before the days when these were available methods of food preservation, the most important method involved the use of salt.
In any normal humidity, such as we experience here, fungus and bacteria can rapidly destroy stored food. Even where food can be stored in ice during a winter, it quickly rots as it thaws in the spring. Salt was the main ingredient to preserve food, as it draws water out of bacteria, causing it to shrivel and die. The vast majority of meat, and fish was salted. Even butter was heavily salted.
Without salt, the early settlers would have needed to spend most of their time obtaining fresh food, leaving little time to clear land, build homes, and plant crops. Without crops their diet would have consisted only of fresh meat and fish, and whatever naturally growing fruits and plants available. Much of the meat would have been wasted due to spoiling before it could be consumed. Having salt changed all that.
Salt was so plentiful in this area that it could supply the needs of a large region. To meet that need, salt works sprang up anywhere a salt lick or spring was found, creating Kentucky's first true industry.
This is a work in progress. It is copyright 2007 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.
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