Late in the 1700s an explorer named William Bartram who was traveling near the headwaters of the Ogeechee River in what is now Georgia stumbled upon an extraordinary sight. On a great ridge covered with brush, he saw a huge area covered with vast pits licked into the clay. Some of the pits were over 6 feet deep, and the exposed earth in the pits varied from a deep dark yellow to red to a brilliant white. Roaming the area were a large variety of buffalo, deer, and other wild animals. The horses within the party seemed to know exactly what to do, and commenced to lick and bite at the exposed soil.
Scattered throughout most of North America are similar places. Called buffalo licks, deer licks, and just licks, these areas contain large amounts of salt or other minerals in the soil. Animals travel to these licks from miles around. The Indians were very familiar with licks, and used them not only as hunting grounds, but as places to harvest salt for preserving their food.
When settlers began to populate the countryside, they began to harvest the salt from the ground. One place in West Virginia known as The Great Buffalo Lick produced over 150 bushels a day in the late 1700s and is still the site of two rock salt companies and one plant that produces chlorine from the salt brine found there. Towns such as Roanoke, West Virginia sprang up around salt plants. Indeed Roanoke was once named Big Lick.
Cattle ranchers, seeking to improve their animals' weight gain, analyzed the content of some of the biggest buffalo licks and found that salt wasn't the only ingredient found there. Phosphates, Iron, Sulfur and many other essential minerals were contained in the rocks and the mineral springs that attracted wildlife. Today almost all beef, buffalo, and sheep ranchers use commercial "licks" to supplement their herds' regular feed.