Hunting and Hunters of the Border — Life in the Woods
Hunting was an important part of the employment of the early settlers. For some years after their emigration, the forest supplied them with the greater part of their subsistence; some families were without bread for months at a time, and it often happened that the first meal of the day could not be prepared until the hunter returned with the sports of the chase. Fur and peltry were the circulating mediums of the country; the hunter had nothing else to give in exchange for rifles, salt, lead and iron. Hunting, therefore, was the employment, rather than the sport, of the pioneers; yet it was pursued with the alacrity and sense of enjoyment which attend an exciting and favorite amusement. Dangerous and fatiguing as are its vicissitudes, those who become accustomed to the chase generally retain through life their fondness for the rifle.
The class of hunters with whom I was acquainted, were those whose hunting ranges were on the western side of the river, and at the distance of eight or nine miles from it. Fall and Winter was the time for deer, and Winter and Spring for fur-skinned animals, which could be hunted in any month with an R in it. As soon as the leaves were pretty well down and the weather became rainy, accompanied with slight snows, these men, often acting the part of husbandmen, began to feel that they were also hunters, and grew restless and uneasy at home. Everything about them became disagreeable. The house was too warm; the feather bed too soft, and even the good wife was not thought, for the time being, an agreeable companion. The mind of the hunter was wholly occupied with the camp and the chase.
I have often seen them get up early in the morning, at this season, walk hastily out and look anxiously to the woods and snuff the autumnal winds with the highest rapture; then return into the house and cast a quick and attentive look at the rifle, which was always suspended to a joist by a couple of buck-horns or wooden forks. The hunting dog, understanding the intentions of his master, would wag his tail, and by every blandishment in his power, express his readiness to accompany him to the woods. A hunt usually occupied several days, and often extended to weeks; the hunter living in a camp, hidden in some secluded place, to which he retired every night, and where he kept his store of ammunition and other plunder. There were individuals who remained for months together in the woods, and spent the greater part of their lives in these camps, which are thus described:
A hunting-camp, or what was called a half-faced cabin, was of the following form: the back part of it was sometimes a large log; at the distance of eight or ten feet from this, two stakes were set in the ground a few inches apart; and at the distance of eight or ten feet from these, two more, to receive the ends of poles for the sides of the camp. The whole slope of the roof was from the front to the back. The covering was made of slabs, skins or blankets, or, if in the Spring of the year, the bark of the hickory or ash tree. The front was left entirely open. The fire was built directly before this opening. The cracks between the poles were filled with moss. Dry leaves served for a bed. It is thus that a couple of men, in a few hours, will construct for themselves a temporary, but tolerably comfortable defense against the inclemencies of the weather.
The site for the camp was selected with all the sagacity of the woodsmen, so as to have it sheltered by the surrounding hills from every wind, but more especially from those of the north and south. These shelters were so artfully concealed, as to be seldom discovered except by accident. An uncle of mine, of the name of Samuel Teter, occupied the same camp for several years in succession. It was situated on one of the southern branches of Cross Creek. Although I lived many years not more than fifteen miles from the place, it was not till within a few years ago, that I discovered its situation. It was shown me by a gentlemen living in the neighborhood. Viewing the hills round about it, I soon discovered the sagacity of the hunter in the site of his camp. Not a wind could touch him; and unless by the report of his gun or the sound of his axe, it would have been mere accident if an Indian had discovered his concealment.
Hunting was not a mere ramble in pursuit of game, in which there was nothing of skill and calculation; on the contrary, the hunter, before he set out in the morning, was informed by the state of weather in what situation he might reasonably expect to meet with his game; whether on the bottoms, or on the sides or tops of the hills. In stormy weather, the deer always seek the most sheltered places, and the leeward sides of hills. In rainy weather, when there is not much wind, they keep in the open woods, on the highest ground. In every situation, it was requisite for the hunter to ascertain the course of the wind, so as to get to leeward of the game. This he effect by putting his finger in his mouth and holding it there until it became warm, then holding it above his head; the side which first became cold, showed which way the wind blew.
As it was requisite, too, for the hunter to know the cardinal points, he had only to observe the trees to ascertain them. The bark of an aged tree is thicker and much rougher on the north than on the south side. The same thing may be said of the moss. The whole business of the hunter consists in a series of stratagems. From morning till night he was on the alert to gain the wind of his game, and approach it without being discovered. If he succeeded in killing a deer, he skinned it, and hung it up out of the reach of the wolves, and immediately resumed the chase till the close of the evening, when he bent his course towards his camp; when he arrived there he kindled up his fire, and together with his fellow-hunter, cooked his supper. The supper finished, the adventures of the day furnished the tales for the evening. The spike buck, the two and three-pronged buck, the doe and barren doe, figure through their anecdotes.
After hunting awhile on the same ground, the hunters became acquainted with nearly all the gangs of deer within their range, so as to know each flock when they saw them. Often some old buck, by means of his superior sagacity and watchfulness, saved his little gang from the hunterﾕs skill, by giving timely notice of his approach. The cunning of the hunter and of the old buck were staked against each other, and it frequently happened that at the conclusion of the hunting season, the old fellow was left the free, uninjured tenant of his forest; but if his rival succeeded in bringing him down, the victory was followed by no small amount of boasting. Many of the hunters rested from their labors on the Sabbath day; some from a motive of piety; others said that whenever they hunted on Sunday they were sure to have bad luck for the remainder of the week.
Our Western Border – One Hundred Years Ago
Written and Compiled by Charles McKnight
Published by J.C. McCurdy & Co.