Hunting in Early America

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"Felicity, the companion of content,
is rather found in our own breasts than
in the enjoyment of external things."

The American Way

Within the first year of their residence at Plymouth Plantation the Pilgrims learned to appreciate what a hunter's paradise they had found. Seasonally, it provided them with an abundance of waterfowl, as well as a "great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison." That supply of meat combined with their first year's harvest of Indian corn enabled them to celebrate their famous first Thanksgiving with several days worth of feasting. Some later arrivals to Massachusetts country regarded the wild richness of the new land differently. Thomas Morton (1590?-1647), for example, was the adventurous entrepreneur whom the Pilgrims' stern leader, Governor William Bradford of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, excoriated for his un-Puritanical "worldliness," and even more for his practice of providing guns to their Indian neighbors and then hiring them to hunt fowl and deer for his own settlement. The Indians, Bradford scolded–scarcely suppressing a hint of admiration–"became far more active in that employment than any of the English by reason of their swiftness of foot and nimbleness of body, being also quick sighted and by continual exercise well knowing the haunts of all sorts of game."1 Later settlers, especially those without the resources to hire Indians to do their hunting, studied Indian practices and embellished them with their own expedients.

Figure 7

A Trap for Upland Birds

historic etching of a farm and village

Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. L'Encyclopédie: Recueil de planches, sur les sciences, les arts libéraux, et les arts méchaniques: avec leur explication. 40 Vols. (Paris, 1762), Plate XXI, Vol. 20.

The wooden cage grain has been strewn to attract the birds into the trap. When the hunter hidden behind the brush at right pulls the string, the sticks holding up the side of the cage are jerked away and it falls, capturing the baited birds. Diderot didn't explain in his "explication" how the hunter could retrieve even one bird from beneath the cage without the rest escaping. Might this have been the kind of "great Trap" Robert Beverly's friend "invented"?

Early in the 18th century the prominent Virginia planter and public figure, Robert Beverly (ca. 1673-1722), inventoried the repertoire of hunting techniques commonly in use at the opening of the eighteenth century. His list read, in part:

§. 87. The Indians …had in their Hunting, a way of concealing themselves, and coming up to the Deer, under the blind of a Stalking-Head,2 in imitation of which, many [white] People have taught their Horses to stalk it, that is, to walk gently by the Huntsman's side, to cover him from the sight of the Deer. Others cut down Trees for the Deer to browze upon, and lie in wait behind them. Others again set Stakes, at a certain distance within their Fences, where the Deer have been used to leap over into a field of Peas, which they love extreamly; these Stakes they so place, as to run into the Body of the Deer, when he Pitches, by which means they impale him.

§. 88. They Hunt their Hares, (which are very numerous) a Foot, with Mungrils [mongrels] or swift Dogs, which either catch them quickly, or force them to hole in a hollow Tree, whither all their Hares generally tend, when they are closely pursued. As soon as they are thus holed, and have crawl'd up into the Body of the Tree, the business is to kindle a Fire, and smother them with Smoak, till they let go their hold, and fall to the bottom stifled; from whence they take them (Fig. 3).

§. 89. They have another sort of hunting, which is very diverting, and that they call Vermine Hunting; It is perform'd a Foot, with small Dogs in the Night, by the Light of the Moon or Stars. Thus in Summer-time they find abundance of Raccoons, Opossums (Fig. 6-7), and Foxes in the Corn-Fields, and about their Plantations: but at other times, they must go into the Woods for them. The Method is to go out with three or four Dogs, and as soon as they come to the place, they bid the Dogs seek out, and all the Company follow immediately. Where-ever a Dog barks, you may depend upon finding the Game.... In this sort of Hunting, they also carry their great Dogs out with them, because Wolves, Bears, Panthers, Wild-Cats, and all other Beasts of Prey, are abroad in the Night. 3

§. 90. They have many pretty devices besides the Gun, to take wild Turkeys; And among others, a Friend of mine invented a great Trap, wherein he at times caught many Turkeys, and particularly seventeen at one time, but he could not contrive it so, as to let others in after he had entrapped the first flock, until they were taken out.

§. 91. The Indian invention of Weirs in Fishing, is mightily improved by the English besides which, they make use of Seins, Trolls, Casting-Netts, Setting-Netts, Hand-fishing, and Angling, and in each find abundance of Diversion.…They also fish with Spilyards, which is a long Line staked out in the River, and hung with a great many Hooks on short strings, fasten'd to the main Line, about three or four Foot asunder.4

After the Indians of the Northern Plains acquired horses in the early eighteenth century, they developed a variation of coursing, without dogs, in what may be called relay or persistence hunting. This was a coordinated marathon pursuit of deer, elk, or pronghorns by relays of mounted hunters who would chase their quarry in circles until the animals were overcome by exhaustion, and then could easily be killed with arrows or clubs. On 14 August 1805 Lewis and Clark observed Shoshone hunters trying to run down a herd of pronghorns that way, although without success. Even at best, Lewis learned, "forty or fifty hunters will be engaged for half a day in this manner and perhaps not kill more than two or three Antelopes." Indians may have learned this procedure from watching packs of wolves. Near the mouth of "Marthey's river"6 on 29 April 1805 Lewis observed wolves that "appear to decoy a single one from a flock, and then pursue it, alturnately relieving each other untill they take it."

Under certain circumstances a large, heavy net called a deer-hay could be used to capture deer alive. A lightweight deer-hay was sometimes employed to capture squabs (young pigeons) and passenger pigeons after baiting them with broadcast grain.

Driving," sometimes called "surrounding," was another Indian hunting technique that white settlers sometimes adapted to their own use as a community exercise. It was undertaken only when the opportunity was clear and convenient. Whole families would encircle a herd of deer, for instance, or flocks of gray squirrels or passenger pigeons and in unison drive them toward the center of the circle, trapping the animals so they could be shot or clubbed to death. Lewis and Clark observed an Indian variant of this practice near an Arikara village on 16 October 1804, when Indians on both sides of the Missouri contained a large herd of pronghorns in the river while boys swam among the animals, killing them with sticks and hauling them ashore.

Burning was another Indian strategy that early white American settlers occasionally employed. Thaddeus Harris, who toured western Pennsylvania and Ohio in 1803, was disappointed in what he saw.

We remarked, with regret and indignation, the wanton destruction of these noble forests. For more than fifty miles, to the west and north, the mountains were burning. This is done by [white] hunters, who set fire to the dry leaves and decayed falled timber in the vallies, in order to thin the undergrowth, that they may traverse the woods with more ease in pursuit of game. But they defeat their own object; for the fires drive the moose, deer, and wild animals into the more northerly and westerly parts, and destroy the turkies, partirdges, and quails, at this season on their nests, or just leading out their broods.5

Harris evidently didn't know that in the aftermath of a forest fire the new ground cover that emerges the following spring, more nutritious to some animals than dense underbrush, attracts more wildlife. Lewis and Clark made note of the fact that the Hidatsa Indians set fire to the plains in early spring "for an early crop of Grass as an endusement for the buffalo to feed on" (6 March 1805).

All of these methods were convenient options for the majority of Colonial citizens, to whom hunting was not a recreational pastime but one of a number of daily obligations to be met, especially among subsistence farmers at or near the frontier. What Lewis and Clark hoped to find, however, were men with experience as professional hunters, men with patience, skill and reliability, who could surrender themselves completely to their quarry's environment and spirit. The captains were experienced enough as military officers to know that they would be unlikely to find any such candidates among enlisted men. In 1805 the commander of one frontier garrison was so frustrated over the inadequacy of the provisions reaching his post that he was on the point of ordering his men to start hunting in order to supplement their meager rations. Evidently he considered that tactic only as a last resort.7

"Still" Hunting

One other prehistoric hunting practice that Americans learned from Indians came to be known as still hunting. In contrast with the musically embellished, pseudo-dramatic charades and artifices of the aristocratic chase, it was indeed still–silent, that is–with no coursing or chase involved. But it was much more than that. It was by necessity the means employed by primitive hunters who had to get close enough to their quarry to disable and kill it by hand.

The still hunter could neither hurry, nor trust to luck. There was much to learn. Henry Herbert, writing of it in 1864, declared that it was "so difficult, that an apt and observant scholar shall require many seasons of apprenticeship to a wise woodman, ere he may hope for the least success in attempting it unaided."8 Beginning early in the morning, when the leaves and grass, still wet with dew, would favor relatively silent footfalls through the forest and field, the still hunter stalked his way slowly through the woods, well before his quarry came into view. He made each movement deliberately, to avoid making noise that would alert any animals he could not yet see, and pausing every little while to look and listen. The objective was to get within firing range of a herd of deer, elk, or bison, either feeding or bedded-down, in order to make at least one quick, sure kill shot and not have to track a wounded animal. The expert still hunter sought to identify the leader of a herd and bring that one down first, which often produced confusion and hesitation among the remainder, allowing time for more shots.

Successful still hunting depended first upon the hunter's ability to recognize favorable habitat for the species he sought, in places other hunters had not yet entered and the game would less easily be spooked. The ability to read and interpret signs left by animals was essential–not only to look for bedding sites, hoof prints, and evidence of browsing, but also to estimate recency, as well as direction of departure. Tracking in snow would convey the most information. An experienced hunter could count the number and size of the deer occupying a given area. He could also judge the pace and pattern of their movements. For instance, a buck will normally proceed in a rather straight line, but when the hoof prints draw closer together and the line wavers, the observant hunter might deduce the animal had been looking for a place to bed down, which would tell him what to look for next.

Because a wild quadruped's main defense is its sense of smell, the still hunter always worked either into the wind or across it, bearing in mind that air masses almost always move up-slope in the morning and down-slope in the evening. He remembered that even a movement of air that is too languid to flutter a leaf may betray his presence to a deer in time to rouse it into flight. Inasmuch as the hunter had to place his bullet within a zone no more than ten inches in diameter in order achieve a quick, clean kill, he preferred not shoot a running deer because a running wounded deer would spook and scatter the rest of the herd. If the animal were able to flee, pain and fear would generate chemical changes that would make its flesh tough and ill-tasting. But if the hide, not the meat, were the prize, the hunter would take only standing shots in order to aim for the spine in the neck, leaving an unpunctured body skin.

The still hunter had also to be acutely attentive to nearby creatures other than his quarry. Nature's tattle-tales, such as squirrels, ravens and grouse, are always prepared to telegraph news of a hunter's presence far and wide. Therefore the still hunter had to learn to recognize the differences between their "conversational" sounds and their cries of alarm.

Finally, the still hunter had to be consciously aware of his location at every moment relative to his point of departure, and able subconsciously to remember the course of his steps over an hour, a day, a week, or even many months. This was the salient mark of a skillful woodsman. A lost hunter was no hunter at all, especially when he was aiming to make a living, or when he had mouths at home to feed.

Still hunting would have been the means employed by primitive hunters individually, or in twos or threes at most, who had to get close enough to their quarry to disable and kill it with stones, clubs, or spears. In later times, as John James Audubon wrote in 1831, it was practiced by frontiersmen who considered themselves professional hunters.9 Still hunting was the method used by the men who came to be known as "long hunters."

1. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (ed. Samuel Eliot Morison; New York: Knopf, 1952), 90, 206-07.

2. Lewis (29 May 1805) described the Indian practice in which "one of the most active and fleet young men is scelected and disguised in a robe of buffaloe skin, having also the skin of the buffaloe's head with the years and horns fastened on his head in form of a cap, thus caparisoned he places himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffaloe and a precipice proper for the purpose;…the other indians now surround the herd on the back and flanks and at a signal agreed on all shew themselves at the same time moving forward towards the buffaloe; the disguised indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently nigh the buffaloe to be noticed by them when they take to flight and runing before them they follow him in full speede to the precepice, the cattle behind driving those in front over and seeing them go do not look or hesitate about following untill the whole are precipitated down the precepice forming one common mass of dead an mangled carcases; the…decoy in the mean time has taken care to secure himself in some cranney or crivice of the clift whih he had previously prepared for that purpose. the part of the decoy I am informed is extreamly dangerous, if they are not very fleet runers the buffaloe tread them under foot and crush them to death, and sometimes drive them over the precepice also, where they perish in common with the buffaloe." More than likely Lewis learned of this from the Indians at Fort Mandan the previous winter. Clark (10 April 1806) described a group of Nez Perce hunters as they left the Clearwater River valley "on their way up the leavel uplands to run and kill the deer with their horses and Bows and arrows Some of them were also privided with deers heads Cased for the purpose of decoying the deer."

3. In his boyhood Meriwether Lewis was fond of "Vermine Hunting." Jefferson, in the eulogy of Lewis that he wrote for the 1814 edition of the expedition's journals, recollected that, "When only eight years of age he habitually went out, in the dead of night, alone with his dogs, into the forest to hunt the raccoon and opossum, which, seeking their food in the night, can then only be taken. In this exercise, no season or circumstance could obstruct his purpose—plunging through the winter's snows and frozen streams in pursuit of his object." Thus Lewis began to make himself, as Jefferson phrased it in the same memorial, "habituated to the hunting life."
History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814), 1:xvii, xxii. "Vermin hunting" typically involved the use of torches or lanterns, and thus was sometimes called "torch hunting" or "jack lighting."

4. Robert Beverly (ca. 1673-1722), The History and Present State of Virginia, in Four Parts (London: printed for R. Parker, at the Unicorn, 1705) Book IV, Part II, p. 71-73. Electronic edition, Documenting the American South, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed October 25, 2007. In the 1890s the first known hunter-photographers, A.G. Wallihan and George Shiras, similarly used tripwires to set off flash pans and camera shutters at night. The spilyard, also called a "trot line" is still used today in certain regions of the U.S.

5. Thaddeus Mason Harris, The Journal of a Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Alleghany Mountains; Made in the Spring of the Year 1803, in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, 32 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 3:327. Robert Beverly described the Indians' practice of surrounding and containing a game herd in successively smaller rings of fire in The History and Present State of Virginia, p. 137.

6. Clark named the stream after the obscure but "Selibrated M. F" and immediately explained that her given name was "Marthey." Lewis partially clarified Clark's naming on the same date with the statement, "This stream my friend Capt. C. named Marthas river in honor of Miss M F –." Her true identity has never been determined. A proposal to replace the name Big Muddy Creek with the original Marthas River was submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in December 1998, but was rejected by the Board in March of 2000. In 1883 it was shown on a map of Montana as Park River, perhaps merely through a map-maker's error.

7. Cited in Theodore J. Crackel, Mr. Jefferson's Army: Political and Social Reform of the Military Establishment, 1801-1809 (New York: New York University Press,1987), 90.

8. William Henry Herbert [Frank Forester, pseud.] Frank Forester's Field Sports of the United States, and British Provinces of North America, 2 vols. (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1864), 2:245-46. He called it "American Deer Stalking." It is still considered the only true hunting by men and women who take the sport seriously.

9. John James Audubon, "Deer Hunting," Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America;…interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners, (Philadelphia: E.L. Carey and A. Hart, 1832), 335.

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