John Harrigan: Hunting then, now not the same
Saturday marked the beginning of muzzle-loading season, which explains some of the gunfire echoing off the hills during the past week. Many people, particularly those who have stayed with the traditional ramrod-patch-and-ball method handed down from settlement times, spend the last few days before the season sighting in their rifles, a pastime almost as rewarding as the hunt itself.
Hunting from a stand is not for me, even though statistics show that hunters who pick out a good place and stand or sit motionless have more success than hunters who move. Still, I'm going to try something a little different this year - an enclosed blind that springs into shape when dropped onto the ground. It has windows you can actually shoot through, as novel to me as the blind.
Many hunters who sit bring some reading material along, which is fine as long as you don't get too engrossed in the reading, remember to keep looking around and don't make any noise turning the pages. And I'm going to try that, too, with an interesting item regarding circle hunts sent along by reader Marc Belleville of Hudson. It's from a book about Kentucky rifles written by John Dillin in 1924.
Dillin's focus was the Philadelphia area, where game of all kinds was still plentiful as late as 1682 despite the arrival of 23 shiploads of settlers in just that one year. "Wild fowl were in abundance," Dillin quotes a source. "Wild pigeons were like clouds and often flew so low as to be knocked down with sticks. Wild turkeys sometimes were so immoderately fat and large as to have weighed 46 pounds. As late as 1720, an act was passed fining five shillings for shooting pigeons, doves or partridges in the streets of Philadelphia, or the gardens or orchards within the city."
Into this arena of great plenty, the continent's newest inhabitants introduced drives, or circle hunts, in which settlers and their families from hither and yon would encircle a targeted area and gradually shrink its enclosure. Often such a large and painstakingly choreographed undertaking was aimed at predators making inroads on livestock.
One of the more infamous such events took place around 1760. Panthers and wolves had been troubling some settlers, Dillin wrote, and so a huge drive was planned involving a circle of settlers two or three miles in diameter. Men cleared the center area of this encirclement to afford a clear shooting area, and the drive commenced. Participants started great fires on?the periphery and fired guns, while women and children rang bells, blew whistles and made all the noise they could, while some 200 men with rifles gradually moved in toward the center.
"When they reached the point where the killing was to be made, they found it crowded with yelping, growling, bellowing animals," Dillin wrote. "Then the slaughter began, not ending until the last animal had been slain."
The count was 41 panthers, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 114 mountain cats (presumably bobcats), 17 black bears, 2 elk, 198 deer, 111 buffalo, 12 gluttons (presumably badgers but perhaps wolverines) and upwards of 500 smaller animals.
A circle hunt of old is partly the reason why the summit of Monadnock, in New Hampshire's southwest, is bare to this day. Settlers drove wolves there during settlement times and put the slopes to the torch. The other reason, of course, is the wear and tear from countless waffle-stompers, sneakers and sandals, it being the hallowed ground of Emerson and Thoreau, and the most climbed peak in the East.
John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at email@example.com.
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