In a story in its Jan. 5, 1896, issue, The New York Sun quoted 94-year-old Orrin Decker, who told of two wild game hunts that had taken place in northern Pennsylvania in 1818.
The old gentleman was, in 1896, visiting Waverly, Pa., a town just south of the New York border, between the Susquehanna and the Chemung Rivers.
Decker had grown up in the area, but had moved away and had lived in Wisconsin for many years. Decker’s story follows.
“Waverly is a pretty big town now, but I remember when in one day, 40 deer, 8 bears, 13 wolves, and I don’t know how many foxes, were killed in what is now the very heart of the city.”
He went on to describe the area back in 1818 as almost unbroken woods with just an occasional clearing. He recalled the hunt well, for he had taken part in it as a 19-year-old.
According to Decker, there were so many wild animals in the area that they interfered with the pioneer farmers, devastating crops, killing livestock and sometimes attacking people.
In the fall of 1818, a Colonel Adin Stevens, who lived about 35 miles further down the Susquehanna, announced a big hunt, with as many men as could be gathered, to systematically cover a large territory and kill all the animals that could be found within that area.
When the men along the upper Susquehanna, who had suffered the same depredations from wild animals, heard of the Colonel’s hunt, they organized one of their own on both sides of the state line. A New York contingent advanced south, while the Pennsylvania men moved north, meeting near where Waverly is today.
They were to drive all animals found in the area into the rendezvous, corral them there, and put them to “indiscriminate slaughter.”
On the morning of Dec. 4 the hunt began.
Decker says, “We had orders not to fire a gun until the rendezvous was reached, (however) the force was too small…, and many (animals escaped). This led to a general disobedience to the order…, and guns began to bang on every side. Although (some game) was killed, (it) was dangerous to the hunters (and) after three men had been hit … the firing was discontinued.”
Many of the hunters had no gun, but were armed only with farm tools. One man “…particularly distinguished himself by dispatching two bears with his flail, after a hard struggle with each.”
Another “… smashed the skull of an immense buck with his (flail) as the deer bounded by him,” while a young man “… ran his pitchfork clear through a wolf, and carried the struggling, howling beast aloft on his weapon until it died.”
Late in the afternoon the two lines came together, trapping deer, wolves and bear. Decker describes the scene: “In the indiscriminate firing that began in this corral it is a wonder that as many hunters as animals were not killed.”
One man was nearly hit and became enraged. As he had no gun, he grabbed one from someone else and fired at the man (named Frazier) who had nearly shot him. Fortunately, the gun’s owner struck the gun barrel just as it fired, deflecting the shot, the gunner was subdued by several other men, “… and Frazier hurried to another part of the woods.”
Decker concludes, “The killing of game lasted two hours. It was never known, of course, how many animals escaped, but the number was easily double the number killed.”
Meanwhile, Colonel Steven’s hunt had taken place on the same day and Decker heard the results a week or so later. Every man on this hunt had come armed with “… a gun, an axe, a spear, or a pitchfork, and as many tin horns as could be gathered…”
More than 1,000 men showed up and were strung around the territory to be covered. A horn blast at 8 a.m., that was repeated all around the circle, set off the hunt, with “… the horns … blown lustily all along the line at short intervals,” to keep the animals moving.
The marching hunters came together in midafternoon around a three-acre tract with a knoll in the center. Decker relates, “As the hunters drew in around this knoll they killed 150 deer, 15 bear, 50 wolves, and no end of foxes. Thirty deer escaped through one gap in the ranks.”
Among Colonel Steven’s hunters was Major Thereon Darling, a veteran of the Revolution. He was a man over 6 feet tall. In the chase of … a big doe, Major Darling stood still, waiting for the deer to be driven his way. He stood with his long legs wide apart.
Suddenly the doe started toward him, ducked her head, and rushed between (his) legs. The contact threw the Major forward on the doe’s body. He mechanically clasped his arms about her horns.
Away the perplexed deer flew through the forest, bearing Major Darling, feet first, along with her. He held on, and after the deer had run … half a mile or more, he managed to catch her by one hind leg and trip her up. She fell heavily to the ground, and before she could regain her feet the Major cut her throat.”
The 1896 story is titled, “How Our Forefathers Hunted Big Game” and, while a little gory, I’m sure the scene was repeated many times on the American frontier as our pioneering ancestors fought for survival.
(Note: I’m not sure why Major Darling’s doe had horns, or just how he “clasped” them while being borne “feet first” on her back, but that’s what the newspaper story said.)
(Send questions or comments to Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, Ohio 44460-0038.)