Frontier Trappers at Home

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Midway between the reactionary broodings of farmer Crévecúur and the idealism of artist Thomas Cole (Fig. 6) was the unbridled Romanticism of the naturalist and poet Alexander Wilson. His epic poem The Foresters, was a tediously versified 2,210-line diary of his twelve hundred mile round-trip hike from Philadelphia to Niagara Falls in the autumn of 1804. It was serialized in The Port Folio, America's first literary magazine (1801-1827) in 1810 and 1812.1 Artist John Barralet created copperplate engravings of two incidents, plus a view of Niagara Falls, all based on rough sketches by Wilson.2

"small, cheerless, rude"

Figure 11

The Trapper's Return (c. 1809)

John James Barralet

The Hunter Returns, a cozy scene of poeple around the hearth

Special Collections, Free Library of Philadelphia

Engraved illustration of lines 1748 through 1788 of The Foresters in The Port Folio, New Series, Vol. 1 (1810), facing page 166. Both this and the following image (Figure 12) were photographed for this article by David Ninemire, Head of the Literature Department at The Free Library of Philadelphia.

With a mien "of surly gloom" a trapper, "the ragged owner of the hut" who has been in the forest for six days, strides past his timorous son and irritated wife into their "solitary hut, small, cheerless, rude," which "amid vast swamps and wildernesses stood." He is:

Laden with skins, his traps around him slung,
Two dead racoons across his shoulders hung,
Musk-rats and 'possums in each hand he bore,
A large brown otter trailed along the floor.

Above the door hangs "A sacred horseshoe, guardian of the whole,/Terror of sprites prophane, and witches foul,/Dread, powerful talisman 'gainst imps unknown!"

The trapper's scowl might reflect his suspicion at finding three strange men in his cabin. He could not have known until they introduced themselves that they were, from left to right, Alexander Wilson the poet, Wilson's nephew, Billy Duncan, and a young traveling companion, Isaac Leech. No doubt Wilson explained to his host that he and his friends were just passing through, and that one of the purposes of his journey was to study birds in preparation for a book he was thinking of publishing.3

The trapper greets the strangers politely–"Friends, how d'ye do?" to which two of them respond with discreet handwaves–then asks his wife about their livestock. The calves? "Why three of them are gone!" He curses the wolves. "They'll eat up house and hall!" And the sheep? They're all dead. "I thought it would be so," responds the trapper. "Well,–now they're at the devil, let them go." This was the sort of worry Meriwether Lewis didn't want distracting his hunters; it was perhaps the main reason why he sought only unmarried men for the job.


"Intrepid amazon"4

Figure 12

Shooting Panthers

John James Barralet

Shooting Panthers

Special Collections, Free Library of Philadelphia

Engraving The Port Folio, New Series, Vol. 2 (1812), facing page 587.

Lines 35-41 of Wilson's poem enumerate the subjects of some of the tales told to Wilson and his companions by old Sox, the proprietor of a hostelry ominously named "Shades of Death."

He dealt out tales and anecdotes in store;
Of panthers trapp'd of wounded bears enraged,
The wolves and wildcats he had oft engaged,
The noble bucks his rifle had brought down,
How living rattlesnakes he took to town.
His dog's exploits–the glory of his kind!

At the mention of "panthers"–which was then the North American name for  cougars or mountain lions–the poet digresses to a footnote to outline one of Sox's more entertaining yarns.

Our host made himself very merry by relating to us an anecdote of one of his neighbours living ten or twelve miles off, who having fixed his large steel traps, in the evening, returned to the spot next morning, when, to his terror, he saw two panthers (F. Cougar) [now Felis concolor] surrounding a trap in which a very large one was taken by the leg. Afraid to hazard a shot lest the surviving one, who was at liberty, might attack him, he hurried home, loaded another gun and gave it to his wife, an intrepid amazon, who immediately followed him to the scene. Arrived within forty or fifty yards, the hunter presented to take aim, but was so agitated with terror, that he found himself altogether unable. His wife instantly knelt down before him, ordering him to rest the rifle on her shoulder, which he did, and by this expedient succeeded in killing the whole three.

Frontier hunters' wives had too many farm and household chores to do to get involved in their husbands' business. Nevertheless, many were able to load and fire a gun in order to put meat in the stewpot by shooting small game near their homes, to drive off predators, and sometimes to defend themselves from maurauding Indians, so this woman's eagerness to help steady her husband's aim would not have been exceptional.

Both Sox's yarn and Barralet's drawing are somewhat fanciful in other details: First, cougars are solitary creatures, not sociable enough even to travel in threes. The Corps of Discovery encountered only a few "panthers," now usually called cougars, pumas, catamounts, or mountain lions. A few days after they left the Three Forks of the Missouri Reubin Field shot the only one they killed, a few days up the Jefferson River; no details of the event were recorded. During the winter at Fort Clatsop, Clark bought the skin of one (23 December 1805) from local Indians, and on 26 February 1806 he wrote a summary of their conclusions about the species:

The Panther is found indifferently either in the great Plains of Columbia the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains or on this coast in the timbered country. it is precisily the Same animal common to the Atlantic States, and most commonly met with on our frontiers or unsettled parts of the Country. this animal is Scerce in the Country where they exist and are So remarkable Shye and watchfull that it is extreamly dificuelt to kill them.

Since it was a familiar species, there was no need to say any more.

Although this illustration is unsigned, the similarity of these stylized pine trees to those in Barralet's depiction of the Grand Fall of the Missouri River, as well as his better known drawing of Niagara Falls, almost certainly proves that this one was his also.


Today it is common knowledge that only the cubs of cougars (Felis concolorfeel-iss con-coal-er) have leopard-like spots; adults wear plain coats in various shades of tan (concolor is Latin for "one color.") In those days, however, there was widespread confusion over the distinctions among panthers, jaguars, and oscelots. One reason for the confusion was the contemporary tendency to associate North American species with those of Europe, Africa and Asia. Another reason was that each of them was, as Clark put it, "Scerce in the Country where they exist." Therefore, naturalists hadn't the opportunity to observe any one of them often enough to have developed comparative descriptions of the various species of cat-like animals of the Western Hemisphere. Even Noah Webster's first (1806) definition of the cougar described it as "a spotted and very fierce wild beast,"5. We now know that the jaguar (Panthera onca, the New World counterpart of the African-Asian leopard) is native to the American southwest, Mexico and South America. The ocelot ranges from southern Oklahoma, southwest Arkansas, and western Louisiana through Texas and Arizona. The jaguar (Panthera pardus; pardus is another Latin word for panther) is spotted with black rosettes or rings in parallel rows along its back and sides; the ocelot Felis pardalis; Felis is Latin for cat; pardalis is Latin for female panther) is marked with black-bordered brown spots of random shapes. But it took many decades for biologists to sort them out and arrive at the present understanding.

Still, those "panthers," or whatever we choose to call any of the noble ancestors of our favorite house cat, remain blithely indifferent to names of any sort.

1. Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, ed., The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson (Paisley, England: A. Gardner, 1876). Literature Online, (accessed 21 November 2007).

2. John James Barralet (1747-1815) was an eccentric Irish artist and engraver who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1795. In 1807 Meriwether Lewis gave Barralet his sketch and word-picture of the Grand Fall of the Missouri, and commissioned him to create a drawing of the landmark. The result was the engraving that appeared only in the 1817 Dublin reprint of the 1814 Biddle-Allen edition of Lewis and Clark's journals. Barralet earnestly wished to portray American life in somewhat the same spirit as George Caleb Bingham later captured in paintings such as Shooting for the Beef and Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap (Fig. 8), but landscapes and genre paintings were not his fortes. As a student of Italian Baroque traditions, he was more effective in his historical allegories such as First Landing of Columbus and Apotheosis of George Washington. Both were visual poems crammed with graphic metaphors of classical significance. See Phoebe Lloyd Jacobs, "John James Barralet and the Apotheosis of George Washington," Winterthur Portfolio 12, 115-137.

3. American Ornithology, 9 vols (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1808-1825).

4. The annexed engraving, from a sketch by professor Barralet, is intended as an illustration of part of Mr. Wilson's poem called The Foresters. The incident to which the plate refers occurred in the interior of Pennsylvania.

5. A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806; reprint, New York: Bounty Books, 1970).

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program.