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Corn rows paralleled the tiny swale hole. Three tall cottonwoods stood guard over the southwest corner. To the east, a broad weeping willow stood amidst the sedge grass. Two white ash trees, both forked, guarded the northeast edge. Red willows and a few poison sumacs grew here and there among the acre or so of yellowed swamp grasses. Off-center to the west, a patch of cracked black mud glowed prominent like a good friar’s bald head.
Long, brittle corn leaves tugged at linen and leather. Elk moccasins sunk a bit in the dry earth. Muzzle up and out, the trading post hunter’s Northwest gun broke through the loose tangle of flat leaves and bent-over stalks. A bright sun, propped upon the western tree line, signaled the impending end of that late-October day in 1794. In time, the woodsman’s course veered to the east. Moccasins stepped between corn rows. Eyes glanced south, then north; pushed-apart stalks crackled and popped.
Sedge grass tore when stressed by leather-clad legs. The purposeful quest turned into a zigging and zagging back and forth, followed by a sudden halt, an about face, a move to the left then a return to the southward direction of the evening’s quest. This erratic dance befuddled hidden fowl, leaving them no choice but to take flight.
During a pause beneath the weeping willow, frantic brown wings and drab feathers took to the air. The hen pheasant flailed hard. Small feathers floated in the cool night air. Flying straight away, the bird crested the south hill with wings set and coasted on to points unknown near the nameless creek.
On a whim, the woodsman’s course crossed the cracked mud and moved to the west side of the swale hole. The zig-zagging angled towards the three cottonwoods. Stunted, knee-high corn stalks marked the outer reaches of the massive trees’ root systems; the swamp grasses seemed shorter there, too.
Tired moccasins exited the swale hole, then stopped two rows into the corn. Orange, yellow and lavender spears dimmed on the western horizon. A cold chill settled upon the sequestered depression. As an afterthought, the woodsman plunged back into the swale, keeping to the thigh-deep grass under the cottonwoods’ massive upper branches. Three paces from the end of the last-chance appeal, color exploded from beside a short red willow.
“Kort! Okk okk okk okk,” a rooster pheasant cackled as its escape arched straight up, then curved to the southeast. The green, iridescent head, the red wattle, the broad white ring about its neck left little doubt as to the fowl’s gender.
The sharp English flint clicked to attention as the tarnished brass butt plate moved up in search of its rightful place against the post hunter’s linen-covered shoulder. The turtle sight swung to the right, caught the bird’s long barred tail, then flowed through its body. The first cottonwood shielded the bird. The muzzle passed through the pheasant’s beak; the flint crashed against the frizzen. Sparks showered…
A Quotation Worth Heeding…
Not long ago, a discussion about ring-necked pheasants took an interesting turn. Our pheasant population along the River Raisin has declined over the last ten years to the point there are only a handful of birds left—not enough to hunt. I saw a rooster in the spring, and that is the only pheasant I’ve seen this year.
I grew up on small game hunting. I hunted rabbits and squirrels alone, and I tagged along with Mr. Myers for pheasants whenever I could. He favored English Setters, spent his summers training his dogs and devoted the better part of his two-week vacation to hunting birds. Pheasants were plentiful in the 1960s, and rare was the night we didn’t put up at least a half-dozen birds.
Ace was Mr. Myers’ go-to pointer. He was an enthusiastic hunter, but when he got on scent he would freeze so quick he would almost tumble over. Ha! The memories flood back!
One night Ace went on point. Mr. Myers smiled, handed me his shotgun and then picked up the dog’s hind quarters. First he moved his hind end about ninety-degrees to the left and set him back down. Mr. Myers looked at me and grinned. Boy, he was proud of that dog. Then he picked him up, and moved him to the right the same amount. Ace never budged. His nose held tight on that bird.
Mr. Myers took his shotgun back and nodded at me. My job was to stand in front of Mr. Myers. He was a big, tall man, linebacker-sized. I was short. He could aim and swing over top of me with no problem. I was never in danger—and neither was he, for that matter, which in hindsight I think was the reasoning behind this practice.
When we were set, Mr. Myers would speak to Ace, and if the bird was close, he would whisper to me to “nudge him on.” I’d gently push against his rump with my knee. Ace always advanced a step at a time. Oh, would my heart pound! “Pheasant fever?” If a rooster flushed, as it did that night, Mr. Myers waited until I took one shot, then he would shoot.
In the first year or so, he would hit about three in five. Then his son, Roger, acquired an old English double-barrel with a shorter set of barrels, custom made for upland game. The standard production double-barrel back then had modified and full chokes. If I recall, Roger’s double was skeet-I and skeet-II. Mr. Myers used that gun whenever Roger had football practice, and rarely missed. Even with his consistency, I was always thrilled when Ace brought back the limp rooster.
Anyway, out of nowhere my friend asked if I ever hunted pheasants with the trade gun. When I answered, “Sure!” he expressed surprise that someone could take a flying bird with a flintlock. I understand where this thinking comes from; I hear it more than I think I should. And one must realize such comments are not malicious in any way.
Now this friend knew I hunted deer and thought I hunted turkey, but in his mind I would be shooting at a standing critter. Such situations are opportunities to expound the virtues of traditional black powder hunting for all game species. As I always respond, “Any wild game you hunt with a modern arm can be taken with a muzzleloader.”
I reflected on that conversation the other day as I filed an article I wrote about Ed Dennis in the September, 2018, issue of Woods-N-Water News. The article dealt with Ed receiving the “Offhand Rifle Distinguished Master Award” for the high quality of his marksmanship over the years. This designation was a tremendous honor for Ed.
The award is given to individuals who post ten aggregates (four or more matches in the aggregate) with a combined score over 180 (out of a possible 200) during national championship competition at the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association. At the time of Ed’s award, he was one of 13 shooters to accomplish this level of scoring in 82 years.
Ed Dennis is a quiet and unassuming person who approaches his shooting in a methodical manner. Near the end of our interview, I asked Ed how he felt about the award. In his typical manner, he avoided the question. “Over my bench,” he said after a long pause, “I have a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The Man in the Arena,’ Are you familiar with it?”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” he recited from memory. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
He continued in a modest, humble voice: “I am not a gifted shooter, I just work at it.” When I reread his words, I realized I, too, have been working at traditional hunting for a long time. I’ll certainly never approach the marksmanship ability of Ed Dennis, but that said, I keep plodding along on my journey to yesteryear. I hope with as much enthusiasm as when I began four decades ago.
I did, after all, follow the advice I now give. When I built “Old Turkey Feathers” I substituted that smoothbore for the Lefever Nitro Special double-barrel I grew up with. One of my first hunts with the Northwest trade gun was a pheasant hunt. I missed, of course, but nonetheless I entered the arena as Teddy Roosevelt said. And over time, I’ve hunted and taken a lot of game with that flintlock, much to the surprise of a number of people. I know no other course.
This brings me to another recent conversation that delved into the current trend whereby some living historians are elevated to “expert” status based on what they say and not on what they do, or are capable of doing.
In the last two years especially, I have read “sound advice,” “take it to the bank” gibberish, backed up by other “experts” who can’t find one stick-tight on their wool leggins to prove they were ever in the glade. It seems that among some living historians, gaining respect is more about who you chum around with, which events you attend or on what social media platform one posts than how accurate your data is.
What befuddles me is the advice some of these experts offer does not jive with my forty-plus years of 18th-century portrayals—not even close. Granted, their location and a specific incident might support their statement—based on one instance. Further, why is no one questioning when a comment flies in the face of accepted historical documentation?
During that discourse a number of examples spewed forth from both of us, more from frustration than anger or envy. The concern that I have is that these experts are misdirecting those new to living history, and traditional black powder hunting in particular. Basing a portrayal on authenticated, first-person, primary documentation is a monumental task in and of itself.
In addition, one of the goals of traditional woodsmen is to emulate what our forefathers did, and do so in a manner the results in knowledge and understanding that can be duplicated over and over again in the field. Trying to shoe-horn a half-truth, or worse, a mistaken piece of advice, into a historical simulation cheats the individual of the profound benefits this hobby offers.
Deep breaths…deep breaths… Well, I best step down from my soap box…
“Kla-whoosh-BOOM!” The Northwest gun roared as the pheasant slipped behind the second cottonwood. Orange tongues of fire chased the death bees. Bark chips flew. White smoke roiled. The pheasant’s head dropped. The bird’s limp body cartwheeled. Corn stalks crashed. Trail-worn elk moccasins ran past the last tall tree and on into the corn rows.
With the fowl at the post hunter’s feet, he offered a prayer for a blessing received, despite not having uttered the usual prayer before the bird flushed. Standing in the solitude of an 18th-century October evening, the woodsman dumped a charger of black powder down the warm barrel of his smooth-bored trade gun. The hickory ramrod eased a half-green corn leaf, wadded in a sphere the size of his usual round ball, down the bore. Death bees rattled. The ramrod tamped a smaller corn-leaf wad tight. Bone tired, his energy spent on the pursuit of a worthy cause, the trading post hunter’s course turned south, bird in hand…
Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.
Green oak leaves fluttered. Small branches bobbed and swayed a bit in the thinning canopy. Bright sunlight patches dappled and dotted the forest floor. The air smelled warm, humid and spring-like. Now and again a gentle breeze caressed the skin of haggard cheeks and rough hands, soothing the woodsman’s soul, beckoning a restful doze amidst the tranquility of that late-September afternoon.
A crimson cardinal ventured into this backcountry vignette, alighting low on a witch hazel sprig. The songster clutched the branch with spread legs as if hanging on for dear life. A distinctive chorus of “Whit, whit, tsu, tsu, tsu…” drifted among the hardwoods. Likewise, a blue jay hopped along an oak branch, above the cardinal. “Swip-it! Swip-it!” was its contented melody.
With tail stretched straight up, without regard to sunlight or shadows, a rambunctious chipmunk scurried the full length of a barkless oak trunk, about the girth of a powder keg. Then in the distance, up and over the rise to the east, a single, elusive cluck of a wild turkey betrayed that bird’s existence on the woodland stage.
The woodsman’s chin scrunched up. A subtle nod followed. Eager fingers slipped under the deerskin flap of the post hunter’s shot pouch, then searched the front fold for the wing-bone call. The flatter end of the creamy-white bone touched dry lips; cupped hands muffled the rounder end as a soft draw of air added a subdued yet clear “Aarrkkk” to the afternoon’s symphony.
The Northwest trade gun’s muzzle eased eastward; leather-clad legs shifted that way, too. Anticipation and backcountry life lessons dictated a modest accommodation to the possibility of a wild turkey strolling into the glade from that direction.
The chipmunk twittered as it ran along a downed branch, then disappeared. A fox squirrel barked, up high, unseen and many trees distant. Minutes melted away like old snow fading on an overly warm March afternoon. The cardinal was gone, but a blue jay remained—perhaps not the same bird.
About the time two chickadees visited, brown fur passed from shadow to sunlight. White tines flashed, then vanished. A chipping sparrow perched on the same witch hazel sprig used by the cardinal, but the movement farther out on the doe trail captivated the moment. North to south, the first-year, six-point buck walked. The Northwest gun’s death bees fidgeted, but held no power on that afternoon, in the Year of our Lord, 1796.
Balancing “Modern” vs. “Historical”
That history-based scenario was a wild turkey chase, pure and simple. By Michigan’s game laws, hunting fox squirrels required “a cap, hat, vest, jacket, or rain gear of hunter orange.” In truth, a hunter-orange, silk scarf, rumpled up and tucked inside the front fold of the post hunter’s caped, linen outer shirt, was available to switch with the green headscarf. But my alter ego had no desire to do so.
Further, the young buck represented a period-correct opportunity to put meat on the table in an 18th-century sense, but within the confines of the 21st century, deer season wouldn’t open for another six weeks. Traditional black powder hunters are, after all, respectful of the wild game they pursue and the modern rules and regulations that guide scientific natural resource management.
There is no indication from Outarde as to how he hunted or why he provided the game that he did for Sayer’s trading post. One explanation is that the variety of game was governed by where he hunted and what game presented itself when afield.
Eighteenth-century hunting methods and ethics vary from today. For example, the number of ducks brought to the trading post by the different hunters sometimes draws questions. We think of one shot per duck or goose, taken while flying. In that era, shooting ducks at rest on a pond was an economical means of securing multiple morsels with a single shot. John Tanner alludes to this method in this passage:
“As I was one day going to look at my traps, I found some ducks in a pond, and taking the ball out of my gun, I put in some shot, and began to creep up to them…” (Tanner, 60)
One of the other points gained from Outardes game bag is the mix of game. Again, John Tanner helps us understand that in 18th-century terms, gathering the most meat with the least amount of effort was common practice:
“As I was crawling cautiously through the bushes [stalking the above ducks on the pond], a bear started up near me, and ran into a white pine tree almost over my head. I hastily threw a ball into my gun and fired…” (Ibid)
Throughout the ensuing months the post hunters supply bear, muskrats and beaver, in addition to the other game. What seems to be missing from Sayer’s journal that appears in many other clerks’ entries are moose and elk. The question that comes to mind is, “Did Sayers lump these animals all into one category, ‘deer’—or were there only white-tailed deer in that area?” Perhaps this is a side discussion best left for a later date?
The problem that arises, if one wants to call it that, is how do you create a scenario that allows for the taking of game as it is presented, given modern game laws? To be true to the journal passages, on that late-September afternoon in 1796 all game should be available for the taking—again, in a historical sense.
Following Tanner’s example, the post hunter should have/could have pulled the turkey load, added a round ball and shot the six-point buck, as long as that amount of movement did not spook the buck off. Viewed from yesteryear, the choice was simple: a couple pounds of wild turkey flesh versus a hundred-weight, or there about, of venison.
There are, of course, fall time frames when most game is in season. Additional rules, such as using non-toxic shot and not carrying round balls when waterfowl hunting, dictate how a smoothbore gets stoked.
When ring-necked pheasants were plentiful on the North-Forty and waterfowl season was also open, the death bees were bismuth, not lead. I can recall a number of times when wood ducks jumped from the nameless creek that flowed beside some of the best pheasant habitat on the farm. Likewise, a fine rooster pheasant came to the table on more than one occasion when an intended stalk of the duck marsh took an unexpected turn.
In today’s world, the post hunter does not have to arrive at the homestead door with thirty ducks or four deer or a half dozen geese. Such a need for meat is not that pressing or urgent. But that said, over the last forty years as a traditional black powder hunter, there have been several occasions when the taking of multiple critters became a reality, mostly with small game or waterfowl.
In the case of white-tailed deer, multiple harvests by one individual are contrary to our game management plan and the ethics associated with spreading the blessing of fresh venison among all family members who wish to hunt.
Sometimes the historical record tweaks the curiosity of a traditional woodsman. Meshach Browning tells of betting his hunting buddies that he can kill two deer in a day. As the hunt played out, Browning killed six deer (Browning, 168 – 173). Well, that story got to me, and I set out to see what I could do, still within the game laws, carrying an empty smoothbore.
When a deer, either buck or doe, come within “Old Turkey Feather’s” effective distance, I took aim, and at the appropriate instant said, “BANG!” quite loud. If I came upon more than one deer, all ran when I yelled, which duplicated the resulting flight after a single muzzle blast. I allowed an hour for tracking or skinning as Browning described. By the end of an afternoon, I “killed” four deer, but more important, I came away with an exhilarating feeling of having experienced what Browning accomplished.
By following Sayer’s dealings with Outarde, a living historian bent on the simple pursuit can come away with a better understanding of what a post hunter really did. A hired hunter for a trading post was just that, a hired hunter. This was an 18th-century occupation, a professional hunter who supplied meat for multiple people, not just his family. The mindset is different. A glimpse of that mindset is only gained by walking in that person’s moccasins, or better said, by hunting in that person’s moccasins…
Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.