Crushed Soda Cans Slip By…

Black powder overflowed a brass charger. The precious granules trickled down the Northwest gun’s muzzle. Wadding squeaked, resisted, then seated firm with a hickory wiping stick. Lead shot rattled to the breech, secured with thinner wadding, tamped tight.

The fowl cackled again. “Kort-kok,” it called, loud and strong, walking closer. Drying prairie grass with a hint of sweetness from the corn in the north field perfumed the air. A cardinal twittered. That crimson songster was perched low in a wind-tipped cherry tree. The nameless creek meandered west, dividing the cattail wallows, willow stands and rolling knobs. That narrow strip of land, left fallow because of standing water at planting time, produced an evening fowl or two, even in the lean years.

Rolling fog shrouded the cedar tree line.

Chilly air settled in the lowlands at dusk on that late-October day in the Year of our Lord, 1796. A red-tailed hawk cried out, somewhere to the west, but the post hunter didn’t look up. Elk-hide moccasins zigged and zagged due east through the prairie grass and red willow switches. The helter-skelter course turned south at the twin poplar trees that grew at a sharp creek bend.

Here and there roost forms, marked with a single white-edged leaving, betrayed the fowls’ habits. The underbrush thickened, going knee-high to thigh-deep. Pauses, about-faces and quick turn backs highlighted the erratic dance, all choreographed to befuddle one of those winged delights.

On that eve, the quick foray first produced the bounding, brown-fur flash of a cotton-tailed rabbit. Heartbeats grew rapid. The turtle sight pursued, lost the critter, then regained its head in an impenetrable tangle not meant for a swarm of death bees. Pressing on, a lush, shoulder-deep patch of mixed swamp grasses with the occasional clump of cattails produced nary a flush.

A sharp turn about angled the woodsman’s course in the direction of the creek, all the while progressing to the log bridge that crossed the creek, giving access to the north side and a wilderness wander’s way back to camp.

What was once a thick plot of goldenrod, perhaps the size of a fort’s barracks, was now a sea of brittle, dry stems that snapped and crackled with each buckskin leggin stride. Six or seven trade-gun lengths distant, stalks wiggled. The advance ceased. The forest tenant’s body turned. The smoothbore’s muzzle eased right and hovered over the movement. The woodsman’s thumb pressed hard on the firelock’s hammer screw. Arteries pulsed. Death bees huddled tight in great anticipation.

Three or so minutes later, the post hunter’s left moccasin weaseled forward, then the right, cautious and unhurried. A stem snapped, loud and distinctive. Wings flapped. A frantic brown bundle of wildland frenzy exploded skyward. The English flint jerked to attention with the distinctive click. The trade gun’s tarnished brass butt plate slammed to its rightful place. The turtle sight pursued the rising fowl, then stopped, sagging in despair. There was no red wattle, no iridescent green head, no white neck ring, no cinnamon-colored chest, no streaming, barred tail. “Hen!”  his mind shouted as the fowl cleared the swale, set her wings and coasted into the cornstalks on the opposite side of the nameless creek…

Oh, Those Inconsistencies…

Funny thoughts flood my mind right after the intense encounter of a wild bird, be it a gobbler, mallard drake or hen pheasant. I realized not a minute after that hen pheasant dropped out of sight in the standing corn that I had not offered a prayer for that evening’s simple pursuits. “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” I whispered, rectifying my alter ego’s oversight.

I don’t have a name for the inconsistencies in my writings that have arisen in recent days. I’m sure one will come up, either in my scribblings or in a phrase or sentence from a loyal reader.

In the early years of my time-traveling misadventures, there were a lot of issues with my clothing and accoutrement choices—inconsistencies, if you will. I gave little mind to authenticity of ring-necked pheasants.

Fox squirrels, cotton-tailed rabbits and pheasants were the mainstays of hunting in my youth. Small game was the major reason for choosing the smooth-bored trade gun over a longrifle when I decided to journey back in time. I hunted roosters with my modern shotgun, so why not with the firelock? I wasn’t much good at wing shooting, modern or traditional, but that did not matter; getting out for an evening of bird hunting did, if only for an hour or so.

It wasn’t until years later that I started looking into the “authenticity” of the game I loved to chase in a 1790s sense. As I read through trading post clerk’s notes, like those of George Nelson, Michel Curot and Francois Victor Malhiot, I found “fowls” mentioned, but no ring-necked pheasants. But this was no surprise, it only pointed up one of these inconsistencies that Lt. Lang so aptly referred to.

Back then, a conversation with Al Stewart, an upland game specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, brought to light Ralph A. MacMullan’s pamphlet, Life and Times of the Michigan Pheasant, published by the Game Division, Michigan Department of Conservation, Lansing, MI, re-issued in 1957.

The Chinese ring-necked pheasant first showed up in early settlement documents in 1832, a few years before Michigan gained statehood. These wily fowls were introduced in this state on March 27, 1895—a century after my beloved 1790s. Legal hunting began in 1925. These gorgeous game birds thrived across the southern part of the state, reaching their greatest population density in the 1940s to the early 1970s.

A ring-necked pheasant rooster hung from a tomahawk in an oak tree.

As a youth, I was fortunate to hunt at the end of that era. By the time the hired post hunter began his journey back to yesteryear, the local pheasant population was in decline. Despite the falling numbers, “Old Turkey Feathers” downed its share of inconsistent fowls.

But were they inconsistent? To some degree, no, they were not. By the time I considered the period-correctness of the ring-necked pheasant, the principle of measured compromise had found favor with my time traveling adventures. The concept smoothed the modern me’s love for chasing ring-necked roosters, a cherished pastime handed on to the historical me.

The idea of physically traveling back in time is not possible within the confines of man’s understanding of the laws of the universe. The mental route is the only option. As a living historian, I can only approach some semblance of what it was like to live, hunt and survive in the wilderness that abuts the River Raisin in the Old Northwest Territory. I can never achieve that reality, only view from a distance.

When modern inconsistencies arise within the framework of a time-traveling simulation, they threaten the fabric of the total experience. Some are serious situations, dangerous or life threatening in nature, others acts of frivolous stupidity, like the proverbial crushed soda can beside the re-enactor’s path.

Yet in either case, dangerous or frivolous, the principle of measured compromise steps in to ease the disruption created by a specific transgression. With luck, one’s mind assesses the severity of the infraction, calculates the probable effect and applies a suitable solution that negates that disrupting impact. The best case is the crushed soda can will pass by without conscious awareness on the part of a forest tenant.

In truth, ring-necked pheasants morphed into fowls in the same manner coyotes evolved into wolves. The error on my part, as a humble writer wishing to reflect on the life and times of a hunter hero, was allowing my mind to cross back over time’s threshold and describe the “fowl” as a “pheasant.” Even with a healthy dose of measured compromise, those pesky crushed soda cans spring up now and then…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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Not Much Changes…

Muffled wing beats rumbled. A reddish-brown blur rose in the grey soup of morning vapor. The fowl dropped into a thick patch of sedge grass, thirty or so paces east of its night roost. Overnight dew drenched each slender, tawny blade of prairie grass. Silver droplets splashed and scattered as trail-worn buckskin leggins crept along. Likewise, greased elk moccasins did little to fend off the inevitable soaking.

Despite unseasonable warmth, the humid scent of damped goldenrod stems, rich, black earth and a hint of wild mint left little doubt fall had arrived in the Old Northwest Territory. Faint, yellow streaks emerged from behind the eastern tree line. And yet, the misty haze that hung all about the nameless creek grew thicker, perhaps even with a slight chill. Such was that October morning, in the Year of our Lord, 1796.

That 18th-century frolic was a diversion of sorts. The post hunter’s course was erratic, zigging and zagging, first left, then right, with a turn-about or a pause thrown in, all with the sole purpose of unnerving one of those luscious fowls. After the rooster rose up like a specter in the night, the woodsman’s mouth salivated at the thought of a white, tender breast-half roasting on a pointed stick over the evening fire. The craving overtook his thoughts when he first awoke.

A traditional black powder hunter walks beside a corn field

The Northwest trade gun’s turtle sight fidgeted to and fro out over the sopping tangle. A hefty swarm of death bees mingled in the breech, packed tight with ample wadding. An eager thumb maintained a gentle, hopeful pressure on the domed jaw screw that secured a sharp, English flint. All the while, bare hands, guided by unconscious knowing, maneuvered the smoothbore’s firelock around any treacherous, dripping foliage that might wet the pan’s priming.

Overhead, a milling flock of cawing, black demons winged hard to the west and the morning melee that had already erupted in the hardwoods. A chipping sparrow tottered on a red willow shoot, but did not sing. This tiny forest tenant followed the woodsman, flying out and around, then landing square in front of the Northwest gun’s muzzle. It was hard to not notice.

The still-hunt, nay, the erratic dance reserved for the fowls of the fen, continued in the direction of that first rooster. But the hired hunter, out on a simple pursuit of his own pleasure, did not wish to miss any opportunity at a bird crouched in seclusion between the wagon trail and that patch of sedge grass. And at that thought, his mouth watered again…

Common Northwest Gun Questions

I knew better than to answer William’s comment to “Big sigh…guilty as sinned” with another comment. I hope you don’t mind, sir, but your thoughts touched on a number of issues that are common questions among traditional black powder hunters.

Northwest guns might be called the “Model T” of trade guns. They were produced by contract from the late-1750s to the early-1930s. In general, depending on what trading company or partner placed the order, the specifications were sometimes vague, sometimes specific. Yet despite the discrepancies, the pattern for a Northwest gun was well established by the 1790s.

A ring-necked pheasant taken with a Northwest trade gun.

I don’t recall seeing any published statistic on the length of pull. From the originals I have viewed, that dimension varies from 13 1/2 inches to 14 inches. A 15-inch LOP was uncommon. That said, my son-in-law has long arms and needs a 15-inch LOP, which required a custom butt stock. From a modern perspective, a gun made to fit the owner is best. The idea is to enjoy shooting black powder and traditional hunting; fighting a short or long stock is no fun.

Curly Gostomski, the founder of North Star Enterprises in the mid-1960s, started making reproduction Northwest trade guns patterned after the “Barnett” and “Wheeler” guns. He was one of the first to promote the versatility of the Northwest gun—and he was a lefty. To my knowledge, he was the first to offer a left-hand trade gun lock, other than custom made locks.

I met Curly on my first trip to the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, in Friendship, Indiana. On the surface, he was gruff, with a sun-weathered complexion, but the grizzled exterior and abrupt manner melted away when he started pontificating about the virtues of the Northwest trade gun. He was a wealth of knowledge.

I purchased the last trade pistol he ever produced. I hope that is not the same sales pressure as “I purchased the last room available at this hotel…” I have three of his pistol barrels, bought off trade blankets at Friendship, a blanket gun barrel and two longer barrels. Not one of them matches in bore diameter, which I was told was standard practice for Curly, especially in his later years. Several people have told me he made his own barrels, and the bore was determined by how he tooled up for a given batch run.

Most of his barrels that I’ve seen are .600 of an inch, give or take a thousandth or three, but he made “16-gauge” and “12-gauge” guns, too. The barrels I have range from .600 of an inch to .617 of an inch, yet are all considered “20-gauge.”

When I built “Old Turkey Feathers” there was no consistency among manufacturers. The barrel came from Track of the Wolf, and in the late 1970s, all of their 20-gauge barrels measured .620 of an inch. A number of years ago, there was a shortage of barrels and barrel makers for smoothbores. The barrel that came with the Track of the Wolf kit mentioned in the previous post, measures .600 of an inch, and a Track of the Wolf representative said that the “interim maker” was tooled for the .600 of an inch bore.

The English shotgun bore size for a 20-gauge is .615 of an inch. After the barrel shortage, some manufacturers gravitated to that “true bore size,” including Track of the Wolf—and some did not. Thus the discrepancies still exist. But that is no different than the varied bore diameters found on the originals.

Pushing dry oak leaves down the Northwest gun's muzzle.

Old Turkey Feathers has had a rough life, but that trade gun is over forty years old—and a “go-to gun” at that. I started to show some wear and tear at that age, too. That barrel has belched out more than 12,000 rounds, probably closer to 15,000. I used to keep track of the count by the number of .125 cards used. I kept notes, too, but with the lure of natural wadding, the actual count got away from me about ten years ago.

From time to time, I’ve honed the bore, too. That’s another story, but the end result is that between honing and shooting Old Turkey Feathers now measures .628 of an inch, or just over a “19-gauge” by the English shotgun bore size chart in the back of the Dixie Gun Works catalog (2014, pg. 613).

“Gauge” refers to the number of balls that can be cast from a pound of lead that fit the bore of the gun. Thus, “20-gauge” means 20 balls to the pound. A .600 of an inch diameter ball (equivalent to the .600 of an inch bore size) weighs out at 21.5 per pound. A .620 of an inch diameter ball weighs out to 19.5 per pound, so a .615 of an inch bore falls real close to 20 balls per pound (ibid, 612).

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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Big sigh…guilty as sinned…

A chilly breeze held mosquitoes at bay. Light dew glistened on greening grass. The autumn olives’ pungent perfume filled the glade with expectation. Damp elk moccasins pressed north, angled west, then crested a flat-topped knoll. That May, in the Year of our Lord, 1794, was colder than normal but pleasant for chasing wild turkeys.

A returned white captive starts out after game.

“Whit, whit, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu,” a crimson cardinal twittered as Msko-waagosh’s bound blanket dropped to the ground in a fresh-scrapped nest behind a wild cherry tree. A tom gobbled in the distance, off to the west, just over the ridge crest that loomed beyond the big swamp.

A lone Sandhill crane winged south, silent, majestic, determined. Three black crows flew low over the cedar grove, bent on the River Raisin’s bottomlands, anticipating the day’s opening melee.

“Whit, whit, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu…”

An unexpected head popped up, fifty paces distant, beyond a dried and broken-over patch of the prior summer’s nettles. The gray head disappeared, reappeared, then slipped away again, all the while venturing southeast of the crooked-trunk cherry tree with the two cedar trees growing beside it.

Years before, judicious blows of a tomahawk cleared the lower, dead branches of the cedars, creating a curved haven that half-hid the returned white captive. Msko-waagosh did not budge, but his thumb massaged the firelock’s jaw screw with great anticipation.

“Whit, whit, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu…”

The hen came into full view at thirty-five paces, pecking, inspecting, herky-jerking along, following its usual routine. The hunter’s task was to allow that bird to pass, and any other hens that accompanied it, in hopes a fine gobbler strutted not far behind.

Brown eyes squinted. Breaths grew short and controlled. Purple legs marched closer and closer. Blood surged through tense arteries. The fowl never stopped or looked about, much to the hunter’s delight.

The cardinal’s morning song continued, but the intense concentration of that moment shut out the melodious distraction.

A dozen or so trade-gun lengths away, half-grown green shoots mixed with knee-deep, dead prairie grass.  The bronze-backed beauty melted into that thick tangle. The gray head popped up now and again, marking the hen’s path through the tiny clearing, angling east and off into oblivion.

Sun rays broke over the jagged tree line. Two deer wandered by. Once they walked off, two more appeared. An hour or so passed with no inkling of a gobbler existing in the glade. Cardinals came and went. Geese winged from the River Raisin. Sandhill cranes chortled. Black demons cawed and screamed. But no tom ever followed that hen.

The returned white captive scrambled to his feet. He gazed about, but saw nothing of interest. In one swift movement, his bedroll, bound with a leather portage collar, flew over his shoulders. He adjusted the headband across his breast, checked the Northwest gun’s prime and walked off to the north…

Oh, Dear…Inconsistencies Pop Up…

A couple hours after Friday’s post, “No red, no snood, no gobbler…,” an email from my great friend, Lt. Darrel Lang, popped up in my inbox. I needed a break from writing, so I opened it.

Now usually Darrel’s emails include a link, photo or topic that begs further discussion. In truth, we both just love to talk about living history, re-enacting and traditional black powder hunting so we look for whatever excuse we can find to “venture back.” With respect to Friday’s post, our discussions most often fall into the category of “like-minded individuals.”

Lt. Lang walking back to camp with a wild turkey.

Lt. Lang’s historical persona is that of a ranger mustered out from Joseph Hopkins’ Company of Rangers after the siege of Fort Detroit in 1763. We hunt together, when we can. Over the course of a couple of deer seasons a clear inconsistency existed between Lt. Lang’s portrayal based in 1763 and Msko-waagosh’s existence in the mid-1790s. The solution to that dilemma pushed me to embark on my third persona, Mi-ki-naak, a returned white captive living and hunting around the River Raisin’s headwaters in the fall of 1763.

Darrel’s cheery beginning, “Good Morning,” followed by “I read your post this morning, a good way to start the day,” started my day our right, too. In his quiet, unassuming manner, he continued with “I had a couple of observations…” Knowing Darrel as I do, when he speaks to a living history topic,  a re-enactor had best listen to his wisdom and advice, especially if it involves one of my portrayals. I took a deep breath and read on.

He noted that I had written from the perspective of Msko-waagosh, then part way down in the story I referred to my alter ego as “The woodsman…,” which Darrel stated confused him a bit. He re-read the passage. To a professional writer, re-reading to grasp an idea, objective or mental image on the part of a loyal reader points up poor communication structure—a definite failure.

“That’s not a term I would use to describe a native or a white captive,” he wrote. “It made me think that the character of the story changed…” Ouch…

I dialed as I read on. I called up my research outlines for the narratives of John Tanner, Jonathan Alder and James Smith, one at a time, as our conversation unfolded. A search for the word “woodsman” resulted in nary a single reference among the passages deemed important. I wasn’t surprised, because I knew he was right.

“To me,” Lt. Lang said, “a woodsman would be a hunter the likes of Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, or Hawkeye…” The ensuing give and take brought light to the fact that so often the “returned captive” was a misfit among the folks of the settlement or station, tainted by the experience, viewed as part savage, to use the common phrase of the era.

The hour or so we spent on this topic changed my perspective on both Msko-waagosh and Mi-ki-naak. My emphasis has always been on the intricacies of the simple pursuits themselves, undertaken within the umbrella of documented, historical context. But slop-over from the current generation’s political correctness fetish toned down the realism and authenticity that these characterizations need with regard to social standing. The material culture is correct as to location and time period; the interpretation with regards to life station, and communicating that understanding, needs work.

And therein lays the crux of my reference to a constant reliance on a specific process of self-evaluation as one’s best understanding of a forgotten lifestyle improves and grows. Yes, document-based research and hands-on learning in the wilderness classroom move a portrayal forward, but so does contributions and observations from like-minded, knowledgeable living historians, like Darrel Lang and a host of others. I am and will be a better traditional black powder hunter, because he took the time to express a couple of simple impressions.  

And I can’t overlook his second observation: “…you called Red Fox’s Northwest gun ‘Old Turkey Feathers.’”  Oh, my, another inconsistency. “I’ll try not to let that happen in the future,” I pledged. Subtle awareness of an overlooked detail is a powerful motivator.

“Well, the reality, especially from a new reader’s perspective,” Darrel said as he tried to soften the blow, “is that you wouldn’t know that it was the same gun. A long-time reader would know it, and to me it stuck out when I read the story. I found it confusing as to which character you were writing about.” Forty lashes still stings, even when administered with a wet noodle.

Here again, a hand-me-down has weaseled its way into my ever-evolving portrayal of a returned white captive. To some degree, I have been a “one gun guy” for four-plus decades. “Old Turkey Feathers” is my go-to gun. That smoothbore earned its moniker more than thirty years ago and it belongs to the nameless woodsman who provides sustenance to Samuel the Trader’s meager post.

But in time-traveling reality, the Northwest trade gun that Msko-waagosh used was borrowed, which is inconsistent with most period documentation. Any hunter with a modest amount of skill, be he a Native American or a returned white captive such as John Tanner, harvested enough peltry to purchase his own arm. If he didn’t, he starved and certainly never dictated a book of his misadventures.

An assortment of parts for assembling a Northwest trade gun.

As soon as I got off the phone, I made a bee-line for the gun parts stashed in a corner of the re-enacting clothes closet. Ten or so years ago I purchased a Northwest trade gun parts assortment someone barely started. The bore mics .600-inch, which doesn’t match any of my smoothbores or round ball molds. The barrel is 42-inches long, not 36-inches, which I favor for heavy brush hunting. The lock is different from my usual choice, too. I think that is why it still cowers in the closet.

But “different” is good in this case. The finished trade gun will be period-correct, but different from “Old Turkey Feathers” or Mi-ki-naak’s French fusil. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to begin work on this gun, but if I give up my two hours of television each night, maybe… Big sigh…guilty as sinned…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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Transforming an Offending Transgression

Treetops swayed. Gusts whooshed in the barren branches. Winter moccasins, made of buffalo hide and lined with trade blanket pieces, stepped cautious. Red blanket tails, encrusted with snow, flapped against deerskin leggins. Wolf tracks wove in and around the hardwoods, headed to the River Raisin’s bottomlands and protection from the frigid west wind on that bleak Thursday in the Year of our Lord, 1796.

The meager post’s supply of venison ran short; Samuel the Trader expected his hired hunter to remedy that situation. A fox squirrel bounded in the snow, romping from one oak tree to the next. Screaming crows treed to the south; other black demons hollered to the east.

Snow covers the River Raisin's bottomland.

The still-hunt pressed on to the yellow tree, the wound to the split oak now weathered, more gray than sapwood yellow. Moccasins crept down the rise, through the slender white ashes, then across the narrow strip of solid ground to the first earthen mound, dubbed Tamara’s Island. The post hunter’s course followed the west edge, circling deeper into the tangled abyss of snow-covered mucky puddles and wind-tipped maple saplings.

White fluff weighed down the dried sedge grass patch. In the eastern third of that tiny oasis, four yellow birch trees grew in an odd configuration. Two angled in the direction of the River Raisin and the main deer trail that paralleled the river’s course, inside the slash rather than out in the cattails. The third, twisted and gnarly, leaned to the east. The last one, the size of a powder keg, towered straight and tall.

Like gripping hands with bent fingers, tense knuckles and clawing nails, the four root systems intertwined, forming an ankle-high seat above the muck and mire. Years of green moss covered and cushioned the weave. A wool-clad hand dusted away the snow, taking care not to disturb the spongy, unfrozen clumps.

After a careful look-around, the woodsman’s blanket roll settled in place in front of the largest tree, but behind the other three. The post hunter sat cross-legged in the nest. His eyes peered just above the sedge grass, his body hidden from the view of passing whitetails…

Coyotes Morph into Wolves

Coyotes are a problem predator in southern Michigan. Either sightings or notations of tracks in the sand, mud or snow show up in my alter ego’s journal entries. But the mention of a coyote raises an historical issue in an 18th-century, lower Great Lakes narrative: coyotes didn’t exist. If such a reference finds its way into the field notes, it usually gets passed over when the time-traveling adventure makes print.

Wolves traipse through many period documents and there is little doubt they once roamed on the North-Forty, near the headwaters of the River Raisin. The History of Jackson County Michigan contains many references to wolves, penned by the early settlers of the area. One such recollection, written by Reverend Asahel A. King tells of the winter of 1837, the same year Michigan entered the union.

“The wolves used to howl terribly at night. In the winter of 1837 they killed and ate an Indian, near the corner of Tompkins, Eaton Rapids, Springport and Onondaga townships [the northwest intersection of Jackson County with Eaton and Ingham Counties]. He backed up against a tree and fought with his hatchet until he killed seven wolves; then he was overpowered. His hatchet, some of his clothing and part of his body and the wolves were soon found. Many others made very narrow escapes” (History of Jackson County, 199 – 200).

Mrs. M. W. Clapp reinforced King’s statement, not far from the North-Forty, and again, in 1837: “…the wolves and screech-owls would sometimes make night hideous…” (Ibid, 204)

A traditional woodsman pausing behind a snow-covered deadfall.

Now and again I address the principle of “measured compromise,” whereby the re-enactor’s mind measures the intrusion of a modern-day circumstance, weighs the significance or danger of the transgression and applies a compromise that nullifies the impact on a given history-based pursuit. The usual intrusion takes the form of a silvery balloon, passing aircraft or crushed soda can.

Coyote evidence presents a different problem, that of a modern forest tenant not fitting into a faithful quest to  experience the texture of daily life in the Old Northwest Territory, two-plus centuries removed. In the case of the coyote, the easiest solution to retelling a wilderness tale is to apply a little “writer’s license” and transform the offending creature into one that existed in the 1790s.

And if that substitution is not acceptable, then my newest fictitious character, that of a primitive hunter and gatherer one generation beyond the Neanderthals, is in deep hooey, too.  In his case, the etchings on his stone tablets depict modern woodchucks. However, when he shares his harrowing hunt with his family around an orange-flamed, crackling fire, he transforms those offending creatures into woolly mammoths, the bones of which are occasionally dug up not all that far from the North-Forty…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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No red, no snood, no gobbler…

Silvery dew drops splashed. Wool leggins whisked north. Elk moccasins whispered along an earthen doe trail. That course led to an overgrown wash and a skinny box elder tree that afforded a commanding view of a tiny break between the cedar trees and open prairie grass.

“Gob-obl-obl-obl-obl-obl!”

Msko-waagosh, the returned white captive who learned his woodsy skills from his adoptive Ojibwe family, slid the leather portage collar over his head. The rolled and bound blanket dropped into a grassy nest behind the box elder. The Northwest gun rested across his lap with the muzzle on the left side of the trunk. The air held a hint of fermenting deer droppings mixed with the spring freshness of growing greenery and budding cherry trees.

“Gob-obl-obl-obl! Obl-obl-obl-obl!”

Two gobblers bantered from the treetops on the hogback ridge, some distance west of the clearing he called “the meadow.”

“Gob-obl-obl-obl! Obl-obl-obl-obl!”

Chilly fingers rummaged in the shot pouch, seeking a single turkey wing bone, then reconsidered the quest. A long silence prevailed followed by a lone, muffled half-gobble, “Obl-obl!” from the ridge crest, south of the roost trees.

The birds are on the ground,” Red Fox mouthed to no one. His thumb traced impatient circles on the hammer’s jaw screw. “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” he continued.

Second thoughts circled about the skinny, box elder. On only two occasions, early-morning gobblers were seen at the east corner of the meadow; more often on the west or south side.

If usual habits prevailed, the gobblers, and maybe a hen or two, should be coming down the ridge’s east face, approaching the crossing trail at the swamp’s narrows. The misgivings won out. The woodsman got to his feet, snatched up the bedroll, slung it over his left shoulder and started off with long, gentle strides.

Hustling moccasins swished into the sanctity of the first layer of cedar trees. Half hunched over, the deathly shape kept to the shadows, then struck a known trail. A mature doe, standing upwind amongst a cluster of red oak trees, watched with perked-up ears. The woodsman’s course reached the meadow’s northwest corner. The doe shook her head and walked off toward the big oak with the broken-down limbs.

Many cedar trees to the south, a favored dead oak stands. Brush about its base was hacked away with judicious blows of a post hunter’s belt ax the year prior.  The right amount of grass, barberry and underbrush circles that tree—enough to hide in and still afford a decent chance at a fanned and strutting wild turkey.

Msko-waagosh sat in the thicket, watching to the north in the direction of the gobbling.

“Obl-obl!” The half gobble came from down the hill, on the meadow side of the big swamp.

The woodsman dug the wing-bone from his pouch, then sucked once. “Arrkk,” soft, subtle, beseeching with a bit of authority. The smoothbore’s muzzle eased in the direction of the last gobble.

“Gob-obl-obl-obl! Obl-obl-obl-obl!” The tom hollered from the edge of the gully, a different one that started on the north side of the meadow. The response continued, drowning out the short chortles of Sandhill cranes feeding somewhere off to the east. Geese honked in the distance.

“Gob-obl-obl-obl-obl-obl! Gob-obl-obl-obl-obl-obl!”

Twice the tom started to ascend the hill. At best, he would enter the meadow to the east of the gully, closer to the skinny box elder than the favored, barkless oak. Two Sandhill cranes appeared over the eastern tree line, wings set, coasting into the grassy clearing’s center. The birds all but stopped midair, flapped twice and took the usual three or four long-legged steps upon touching down.

A glimpse of bronze feathers slipped through the half-leafed-out barberry bushes to the right of “Old Turkey Feather’s” muzzle. Msko-waagosh squinted. He touched the trigger as his thumb drew the sharp, English flint to attention, avoiding the loud click of the sear bar dropping into the tumbler. A gray head popped up; no red, no snood, no gobbler…

Making a Choice, Hustling Forward

A line squiggled across the journal page, just after the big move to the meadow’s west side. I often do that, change thoughts in the midst of time traveling. When it happens, squiggly lines mark the beginning and end of the transgression. I have other little scribblings in my journal—funky characters, kindergarten sketches and/or strange symbols. They only have meaning for me, the writer. My kids can have fun figuring my methods out, once I’m gone. I don’t plan on leaving notes to explain my notes…

But the intrusion that morning was a notation that I had “completed Msko-waagosh’s shot pouch two nights ago.” The pouch is based on a couple of Odawa examples in museum collections. The bag is not an exact copy, but rather a utilitarian accoutrement that mirrors the general style. “Affixed a temporary strap to the bag…maybe it will bring me good luck.”  

Msko-waagosh stands beside the quiet waters of the Pigeon River in northern lower Michigan.

Msko-waagosh used a “loaner bag” when the personification first came to life. Creating a new character is exciting, but a common stumbling block is assembling the clothing, arms and accoutrements necessary to cross time’s threshold in a meaningful manner as an alter ego. I am of the opinion that the best way to develop a persona is to just be that person, now, not later.

As living historians read through a long-lost journal, they become enamored with the author or some other character in the narrative. The interest grows, but they find themselves bogged down with the research and then the assembling of the necessary material goods. Two years, maybe three years down the road they have yet to acquire or make all of the clothing and accoutrements they deem “important to start.” And worse, they never set foot in their 18th-century Eden as their version of the “historical me.”

With time, interest wanes. What goods this not-yet-born person owned find their way to a trade blanket or a forum posting. In essence another re-enactor benefits, so we would hope. In truth the goods hang in a closet, because an existing persona’s broken-in garb gets grabbed first, more out of habit than conscious thought.

There is no right or wrong way to develop a history-based persona, within reason, of course. As knowledge grows, so does the character. That understanding can come from document-based research, from hands-on lessons in the wilderness classroom or from the exchange of information among like-minded individuals—or any combination thereof.

Mixed with this learning is the ongoing process of self-evaluation based on one’s best understanding of frontier survival within the context of a chosen time period, location and life station. Sometimes a discovery requires an immediate adjustment, and other times puzzle pieces must accumulate until a clearer picture emerges. This is the joyous exhilaration derived from living history and traditional black powder hunting. What a blessing!

So on that May morning, in the Year of our Lord, 1794, Msko-waagosh hunted with his new pouch. A buckskin strap attached with a simple thong punched through the back offered a make-do remedy that was a thousand times better than the hand-me-down bag. The pouch at his side was his, a part of the emerging historical me, viewing life through the eyes of a returned white captive in the 1790s.

Taking those first, feeble steps down the path to yesteryear, rather than waiting until the entire persona was fleshed out, facilitated the creative process. In many instances, the hand-me-downs pointed out glaring errors, omissions and immediate needs with respect to the historical record as it applied to a captive who mastered woodland skills under the tutelage of an adoptive Ojibwe family.

Hands-on, wilderness classroom lessons tested each article of clothing, each accoutrement as they became available for use. By the time the permanent strap was beaded, the pouch was an integral part of the person called Msko-waagosh.

Yet, when the woodsman arose from behind the skinny box elder, slung the bedroll on his shoulder and hustled off into the shadows, the new shot pouch disappeared in the switch. Not that it was lost, misplaced or left behind, but rather in the sense that the buckskin pouch flowed along with the move, a part of the persona, a part of the action, a contributing artifact in the midst of a time-traveling adventure.

And what of the gobbler? The hen milled about in the underbrush, then uttered a single cluck, “Arrkkk.”

“Gob-obl-obl-obl-obl-obl! Gob-obl-obl-obl-obl-obl!”

The tom marched up the hill, sounding off as it slipped through the shadows and navigated around the tight-growing cedar trees, much like Msko-waagosh had done over an hour before. A red head with a white pate appeared at the edge of the clearing. The roll of the knob hid the bird’s body. The red snood swung side-to-side. The tip of his spread fan teased and taunted. The tom pirouetted, gobbled and danced some more. His head vanished behind the knoll’s crest. When he stopped yodeling, the hen started walking around the meadow.

There was a silver lining to this display: the long-bearded gobbler never came close to the skinny box elder, either…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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Toss them into the evening fire!

Oak leaves rustled. A fox squirrel bounded to a powder-keg-sized red oak. Dirt and duff flew as the forest tenant dug unaware danger lurked so close. Its bushy tail twitched and flicked, but alas, if found nothing.

A fox squirrel sits on an oak branch.

Next, the squirrel hopped to a dead cedar tree that curved to the earth. The squirrel scampered to the crest of the cedar’s arch, stopped and began chattering. It sat for quite a while, looking, barking, watching…

Not far off on that Monday evening, in the Year of our Lord, 1795, Msko-waagosh hid in a tangle of oak branches. The quest that day was wild turkeys, not squirrels. The air smelled of drying field corn and impending rain. The returned white captive, who spent his youth among his adoptive Ojibwe family, busied himself pinching and twisting sticktights from his trail-worn wool leggins.

The still-hunt down the steep slope and into the little valley consumed the woodsman’s concentration. Hens and gobblers on their way to the roost passed close to the monarch oak that stood in the midst of the hollow. He never saw the cluster of clutching beasties that even burrowed into the tattered silk ribbons adorning the blue-wool flaps. Pinch and pull…glance about…pinch and pull…

A chipmunk scampered back and forth, two trade gun lengths to the right. The leggins cleaned, attention turned to the sticktights that dotted the hem of the yellow linen outer shirt. Red Fox fought the urge to toss the seeds aside; he despised planting them as the Lord intended, only to grow and torment him next season. Instead, he tucked the prickly brown nuisances into a small deerskin pouch. He always smiled when he tossed them into the evening fire…

Dealing with Sticktights

Sticktight season begins when chilly fall mornings become the norm. The North-Forty always seems to be ten degrees colder than the homestead, especially if a jaunt hovers close to the big swamp, the nasty thicket or the River Raisin’s bottomlands.

Sticktights dot the tail of a red-wool trade blanket

A wool trade blanket, worn over the left shoulder and under the right, is a must from late-October on through the winter. Despite being folded in half, the tails reach to my alter ego’s knees, low enough to brush every sticktight sprig in the glade. I swear, they pull up roots and sidle over to whatever path that day’s character chooses.

If I pick them as soon as they leap onto anything wool or linen, they are easier to remove. After a couple of days, they burrow deep into the weave. I’ve never come across any way to clean them out, other than plucking them one-by-one.

Our spring is colder than normal this year. That isn’t a surprise, given the warmer, wetter winter past. Mi-ki-naak has hunted only twice without his walnut-dyed wool blanket this spring, which is not normal along the Riviere Aux Raisins. The other evening’s still-hunt slipped into that same hollow.  Snapping Turtle sat with his back against a fair-sized red cedar tree, overlooking the monarch oak. Out of habit, his hands ran along the blanket’s hem as he tucked it in around his body.

Distress of distresses! A passel of sticktights gripped the right-side blanket corner. Pinch and pull…glance about…pinch and pull…look… The same routine that is followed in the fall cleaned the blanket’s edge. But as he sat, this is the first time the veteran woodsman can remember encountering sticktights in the spring. Lots of wood ticks, yes; lots of mosquitoes, yes; sticktights, no.

There is only one solution: “Toss them into the evening fire!”

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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Mini-Mondays

“This is interesting,” I said to Tami as I looked through several weeks’ worth of web-site visitor data. It seems the site views spike on Monday and Tuesday and, of course again on Friday. That Monday/Tuesday trend is new, perhaps driven by stay-at-home cabin fever, perhaps just happenstance.

At any rate, Miss Tami stated the obvious: “Why don’t you try to put up a post on Monday so your readers will find something new?”

Well, two postings a week will be a lot of effort, and I’m not sure I can maintain that work flow. That said, I have accumulated a variety of topics that are best categorized as “short thoughts.” With that in mind, I will try—I’m really emphasizing the “try” part of this endeavor—to pen a short post for Mondays. What better name than “Mini-Mondays?”

Enjoy, be safe and may God bless you,

Dennis Neely
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Time to move on…

Ten paces grew to thirty. Cedar tree after cedar tree met rejection. A wild turkey scratching bowl came into view, ahead, to the right of the earthen doe trail. “Three, maybe four days old,” the post hunter muttered in a gravely whisper. White-tipped droppings, not a lot just a few, all curled on one end, lay scattered about. “Gobblers,” the woodsman nodded…again, to no one.

A circular search, executed with the stealth of a stalk on a fine buck, found three more torn up locations, each with the distinct toenail marks of a purple-legged bronze beauty. A dead apple tree stood twenty paces distant. Limbs stretched wide, all devoid of foliage or even tiny twigs bearing some hint of life. Elk moccasins investigated the barren lair, certain of rejection, too.

Now a ways beyond the apple’s drip line two hefty red cedar trees grew straight and tall. A third cedar of the same size, tipped earthward by some calamity, angled on the uphill side of those two. Prospects seemed good. Autumn olive bushes with yellowing, fish-like leaves dotted the ground all about, adding cover, but limiting clear-shot possibilities.

At a prospective spot, the woodsman dropped to a leather-clad knee and gazed about. Bare fingers dusted away duff until a sharp spine suggested an alternative. Standing in disgust, the hunter’s left moccasin soon completed the task. The red-wool trade blanket, rolled tight and bound with the tails of a leather portage collar, settled into the nest.

After an appropriate wait, the single wing-bone call touched the forest tenant’s dry lips. “Ark, ark,” two clucks, soft and sweet, beckoned through the cedar trees. Five minutes later…“Ark, ark.”

The post hunter sits with the Northwest gun up and ready.

“Ark, ark,” came the answer, bold and crisp, uphill to the east. The Northwest trade gun’s muzzle crept in the direction of that utterance. The forestock rested on the leather leggin of the left knee, raised and ready. Arteries pulsed. The death bees waited. Those same dry lips mouthed an almost overlooked prayer: “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord.”

“Scu-reeeeee…Scu-reeeeee!” To the west of the cedar grove, somewhere out over the expanse of the big swamp, a red-tailed hawk circled, unseen but not unheard. About then, a hint of black herky-jerked through a break in the autumn olive sprigs. The bird pecked along, looking side to side, stopping to sample, then continuing on with no concern. Another appeared, then another, all well beyond “Old Turkey Feather’s” effective distance.

The first wild turkey edged to its left at forty paces, but that adjustment would not help. A modest beard with a slight downward curve came into view. More birds fed their way down the hill, all lacking the curiosity needed to investigate the hired hunter’s four clucks. The birds’ contented manner never wavered, pecking, inspecting and once in a while stretching a neck to look about for danger.  Frustrating…Oh so frustrating…

Clearing my head…

On that late-October morning, in the Year of our Lord, 1796, wild turkey sign, coupled with a careful assessment of the surrounding natural cover increased the probability of besting a fowl. But the flock did not wander within the effective distance of a Northwest gun called “Old Turkey Feathers.” All the wishing didn’t change that fact. Sometimes the glade is a cruel tormentor.

Most living historians share a keen sense of responsibility for getting their given portrayal as close as possible to the available documentation from their favorite bygone era. Unfortunately any historical simulation, especially those that center on traditional black powder hunting, can only approach what life was really like in the 18th century. Generations have come and gone on the North-Forty. The River Raisin has changed course, who knows how many times. The Old Northwest Territory is no more.

As I transcribed that fall wild turkey chase from my journal notes, I re-lived the moments. I heard the hen’s “Ark, ark” and the red-tailed hawk’s “Scu-reeeeee…Scu-reeeeee!” I recalled pulling up my left leg, resting my elbow and swinging the muzzle with a flood of hopeful anticipation. Ah, yes…the first glimpse of a bronze beauty, played out in my mind’s eye like a slow-motion instant replay of a NASCAR bumping.

I pounded the keyboard. My pulse grew stronger—despite knowing the outcome of that encounter, too. And when the words reached the conclusion of that foray, my shoulders sank in an empathetic pity puddle of frustration.

Now, dear reader, please keep in mind that I often select a 1790-era journal entry at random. That was what I did on Monday. I did not consciously pick a frustrating incident. It just happened.

Much to my consternation, when the vignette ended the frustration I felt for that moment unleased the frustrations and emotions of this troubled time we live in. I was sputtering, typing like mad, venting at…well, you understand, I’m sure. I left the desk in desperation, mad at the world, then mad at myself, because I didn’t want to read someone’s rant, so why would you?

Then the reality of “moving on” set in just as it did that afternoon. Life went on in 18th-century America, or New France, depending upon who I am on any given living history adventure. I waited on the birds, making sure there was no chance of detection when I finally got to my feet. That gave me time to think, to reason out my next attempt at bringing food back to camp that evening.

It seems this year’s gobblers are sneakier than last. Why not? That said I’ve had a ball in the turkey woods this spring. Since late April, frustrating jaunts—oh, there’s that word again—have turned into great delights, bringing new insight into my traditional black powder hunts.

The focus of what little hunting I was able to squeeze in last fall centered on re-evaluating each characterization. To get those portrayals off and moving, I used “historical hand-me downs.”

The goal was always the same: make each character unique and different, each with his own backstory, life experience and material possessions. About two years ago, when Mi-ki-naak entered the picture, I began crafting or purchasing separate accoutrements and clothing items that “belonged” to a specific alter ego.

A traditional hunter stalks up a modest hill.

That process got put on hold, but I stumbled my way back on track earlier this year. I am moving on, slow but sure. The cedar log pile, destined for the post hunter’s lean-to, is growing. My thoughts on where to place the shelter are changing, but I’m big on overthinking the obvious.

A forum post on shot pouches led to a telephone conversation. In the midst of quoting documentation and hashing over the comments, I pulled up my outline of James Smith’s captive narrative, Scoouwa. I searched the word “pouch.” For purposes of our discussion, I was interested in Smith’s deerskin pouch, which contained his books.

But the search also found his reference to the “polecat skin pouch, which had been skinned pocket fashion…” (Smith, 30). That pouch had slipped my mind, but offered a solution for carrying Mi-ki-naak’s flint and steel and whatever form of journal keeping I settle on for his persona—he can’t keep borrowing the post hunter’s journal. After researching several similar pouches in museum collections, a case-skinned skunk is on its way. Polecats are not native to this area, but Sir Johnathan Caldwell’s painting shows a skunk-skin pouch. I am moving on…

The same held true with looking at knives. Samuel the Trader’s hired hunter started out with a butcher knife. I couldn’t begin to count the number of deer that knife has dressed and skinned—but it is one of those “shared” artifacts. Well, he gets to keep his knife.

I purchased an English scalper reproduction, not an expensive one mind you, but one that came with high recommendations. I re-worked the handle to match an original I had photos of. Msko-waagosh was thrilled with that knife. I was about to begin an Ojibwe-style sheath, but then the unthinkable happened—the knife would not skin a buck. After all that work, the knife won’t hold an edge.

A package arrived Monday with two new knives forged by Nick Barber. One is an English scalper of a similar pattern as the old one for Msko-waagosh, the other a French boucheron for Mi-ki-naak. Individual sheaths, both showing an Ojibwe or Odawa influence are the next project. In a short while, each of my alter egos will have his own personal knife. No more sharing, no more bickering.

The post hunter wore out his knee breeches two years ago. The patches were threadbare; there was no saving them. In essence, this nameless hired woodsman has no lower-body covering; to complicate matters, that character is not a breechclout kinda guy.

I dug out the new pair the week before the Woods-N-Water News Outdoor Weekend in September, held at the Eastern Michigan Fairgrounds in Imlay City. That was to be my demonstration project for the event. A trip to the local emergency room ended that. I unpacked those breeches yesterday and hope to get the last of the buttons and buttonholes stitched up in the next few nights. The post hunter wants to venture back to yesteryear, too.

So this week’s message is the same as it was that afternoon in 1796: accept the frustrations of life and keep moving on to the next time-traveling adventure…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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