A Two Hour Diversion of Sorts

Step by step, center-seamed moccasins paralleled the path. The hired post hunter left no trace. That December’s still-hunt dropped over the ridge crest, then followed the earthen doe trail. Twenty paces to the northwest the faint, crescent-shaped curve of the right toe of a leather-soled shoe pack remained amongst the split-hoof tracks, from the looks, left the prior evening.

A late-morning hush fell upon the hardwoods, foreboding, haunting. A fine snow, the texture of course maple sugar, began to fall. The woodsman progressed, pausing and looking about more than moving. Yet, despite the cold, the air smelled warm and comfortable with a twinge of the wet-fur smell of rain-soaked, fresh-split red oak.

Not far beyond, at a slight bend in the trail, a straight depression, that of the left outer side, appeared, accented by a thin line of white crystals. “A British Ranger, perhaps?” the backcountry hunter whispered to the fox squirrel that sat in the leaves under a stout red oak, uphill, to his left. There were no signs of a blood trail, no reason for the transgression into the post hunter’s wilderness Eden.

The hired hunter of a local trading post pauses behind a wild cherry tree, ever alert...

For a time, securing fresh venison became secondary. Unraveling the intrusion’s meaning became paramount. Eighty paces or so found no further evidence of the Englishman. A modest circle, cast downhill, then up failed to provide a clue. A second, larger circle produced the same results. The two woodland mistakes, uncovered by accident, proved inconsequential.

And yet, on that ordinary December deer chase, in the Year of our Lord, 1794, the chance discovery pumped new vigor in an otherwise normal simple pursuit. In the midst of a still-hunt, brought on by a fruitless quest begun at first light, a two hour diversion of sorts burst forth from a wilderness byway like the wild flush of a frantic fowl from tangled sedge grass.

Tracks and Tracking

Dear reader, there is a postscript to this tale of intrigue and mystery, one that is also ordinary in nature. The evening before, Lieutenant Darrel Lang, a former member of Captain Joseph Hopkins’ Independent Company of Rangers at the Siege of Detroit, wandered about the North-Forty, immersed in his beloved 1760s.

At dusk Lt. Lang’s English fowler bellowed, downing a white-tailed deer. When the post hunter happened upon him, despite the three decade discrepancy, he was dragging the deer on the west side of the ridge. An hour later, on the other side of time’s threshold, being the 21sth century, the modern me barraged Lt. Lang with questions he could not answer. This was no problem, just a quirk on my part that accompanies any deer taken on the farm.

After the next morning’s first stand, my alter ego went in search of the kill site, but could not find it—a tribute to a living historian who, when dressed in proper attire, thinks and lives like a mid-18th-century British Ranger.

Gerry Barker addresses tracking in Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies when he writes:

“One of the most necessary skills of the scout is the ability to read signs of passage. This becomes simple when they are divided into two categories: top signs and bottom signs. Top signs are from the ankle up and are often the easiest to pick up on the move. These are broken twigs, tufts of hair or fiber, bruise marks where someone steadied himself on a sapling, broken spider webs, and bent grasses. Bottom signs are almost always tracks, scuff marks, or overturned pebbles.

“The tracker…must know how long it takes for grass to stand back up in the springtime and how long a footprint will stay moist in that type of soil…

“If the trail is lost, it often can be relocated by making casts in an organized manner out from the last known track…”

And, of course the ultimate warning:

“Tracking an enemy is dangerous because when you find him, he shoots at you” (Barker, 37 – 38).

The historical scenario for that aspect of the morning hunt was to scout the area on the pretext of hearing a close-by shot the night before. The high trail offered the best chance for picking up any leftover sign from the hunter. When the trail evaporated, the hired woodsman cast in ever-increasing circles, but to no avail. Lt. Lang did a fine job of eluding discovery.

In a section titled, “Enemy Trackers,” Barker addresses the necessary forest skill that Lt. Lang demonstrated when he wrote:

Lt. Lang paused beside a red oak, scanning the forest for danger.

“Scouts walk in leaves rather than on sand or dirt that will leave a track that is hard to erase. When they can walk on downed trees, roots, or rocks, they do so. The spy must cover his trail as he goes. When they take a break, they double back and watch their back trail…” (Ibid, 45).

For the traditional black powder hunter, there is no substitute for time spent in the woods. Woodland skills are acquired habits, and even more so when performed in an 18th-century context. Traversing the forest without leaving a sign takes years of mistakes, evaluated in hindsight and the lessons applied to future scouts.

A good example of the historical documentation for “leaving no trace,” can be found in the taking of Mary Jemison. In 1758, a scant couple of years before Lt. Lang’s 1763 adventures, Shawnee warriors captured the fifteen-year-old woman. She lived out her life among the Shawnee, and in her memoir she tells of her captor’s escape into the Ohio country:

“…our captors led us on as fast as we could travel. One of them went behind with a long staff, picking up all the grasses and weeds that we had tramped upon…It is the custom of Indians when scouting or on private expeditions to step carefully, avoiding any spot where an impression of their feet can be left. Thus they shun wet or muddy ground. They seldom take hold of a bush or limb, and they never break one…they leave no trail…” (Seaver, 18).

Thus, the post hunter came upon two partial moccasin prints from heavy-leather, Ligonier-style shoe packs. These two mistakes should have combined with other “missteps,” but they did not. In the end, the search proved useless in a 1763/1794 sense, but then again, those two footprints fueled an exhilarating, two hour diversion…

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

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Careful Research Opens the Door…

Retaliation extracted a tolerated agony. Thorns poked, prodded and prickled. Mosquitoes buzzed about. The trade blanket, pulled tight as in a winter squall, offered some protection from itchy welts, but the cost was excessive heat, dripping perspiration and dehydration. In the humidity of that May morning, in the Year of our Lord, 1792, the woodsman wondered, “Why this sacrifice?”

Wednesday morning, the day prior, a dominant gobbler, two lesser toms and two jakes responded to the post hunter’s draws on the single wing-bone. Four birds exited the hardwoods and marched to the knoll in the little meadow. Their fanning, strutting and spinning, all in silence, lasted a half hour. None of those tender morsels ever ventured within the effective distance of the Northwest trade gun.

With the sun above the eastern tree line, a good-sized hen turkey walked around the broken-down apple tree and angled into the meadow. She kept her distance, uttered one putt, loud and strong, then turned about and pecked her way back to the meadow’s north edge. The four toms folded their traveling show and followed. The fifth gobbler, the wily one, pursued, too, but from a clump of red cedar trees, twenty-one paces behind the frustrated woodsman.

That evening, the tom turkeys roosted in a forked oak that stood tall in a corner of Fred’s woods. The hunter knew that some mornings, after fly down, those gobblers descended the steep hillside, sipped at the pool beyond the nameless creek’s tiny waterfall and marched along the doe trail that skirted the east side of the great swamp.

Forty paces distant from the watering pool, the earthen path arched out around a fallen oak’s rotting skeleton. The trail’s course circled back around two large cedar trees and came close to a tangle of thorn bushes. A modest cedar tree with broad, drooping boughs grew among those brambles. Navigating to that fort was painful work.

The backcountry provider of meat heard the birds’ wings, heard the thumps, counted five. Many minutes passed before a solitary crunch in the brittle leaves started arteries throbbing. Crackles paused…began again…paused… A fox squirrel spiraled up a wild cherry tree, but its location was wrong for the oncoming sounds. “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” the hunter mouthed.

Two long-bearded tom turkeys strutting.

A crunch…a pause…a crackle… The approach continued, but the thick underbrush afforded no visual contact with the perpetrator. The only avenue for a humane shot was straight down the hill at the doe trail. The death bees grew impatient. The longest hesitation came when the forest tenant stopped thirty paces or so to the east. Stoic stillness, nary a twitch or twinge, was the hunter’s only defense.

Then, with two quick bounds, an older doe reached the trail, between the pool and the rotted hulk. She sniffed, wiggled her ears and swatted flies with her wide white tail as she scanned the green cattails and sedge grass. Two more bounds, three splashes and a snapped twig put her half way to the south island.

The firelock’s sharp English flint eased to half-cock. The death bees slumbered. Buckskin-clad legs stretched out. The Northwest trade gun rested across the post hunter’s thighs. As he would discover later that morning, the long-bearded tom and his cohorts chose an easterly course, scratching and grubbing in the fresh tilled field behind the Denning homestead.

An Interesting Shelter Comparison

The journal scribblings for that traditional black powder hunting adventure tell of axing down two cedar trees late that morning. The goal was a fall lean-to shelter for the post hunter, but modern life got in the way of that project. I have restarted four times, and well…

So now I am again looking at resurrecting that project. I have two piles of cedar trees, and I hope to return to trimming and cutting-to-length by the end of July.

The post hunter swings a felling ax, deepening the cut in a red cedar tree.

The subject of 18th-century shelter for three personas is a bit daunting. Msko-waagosh’s wigwam was destroyed in a wet, spring snowstorm in 1794. He will rebuild the wigwam in the same hollow, but with a different species of sapling. New canvas pieces will add to the old.

Mi-ki-naak’s peaked wigwam is awaiting horizontal ribs and a covering. The first choice is bark, consistent with the writings of James Smith. The problem is coming up with the bark. I do cut live trees just to harvest bark. That is inconsistent with the land management plan for the North-Forty, and contrary to my normal forestry practices. I have enough downed or dead trees to deal with.  I don’t want to use canvas, but I fear I might have to.

A different research project sent me to George Nelson’s journal, My First Years in the Fur Trade. Like most of my go-to documentation, there are at least fifty sticky notes indexing important passages. After locating the passage I sought, I glanced at a note that said “Begin to Build.”

The entry was from September, 1802. There are two versions of Nelson’s explanation of how the trading house was constructed; the second being from his recollections recorded in 1836. Since shelters have been on my mind this spring, I paused and read:

“We did not make palaces: Ours was about 16 or 18 feet long made thus: We build up the two sides, to the height required, say five & a half, or perhaps six feet. These are secured by two stakes at each end, as a common rail fence, & braced by a good strong stick, the whole breadth of the house, & notched at each end, to lay on the two sides, to prevent their moving. The two trenches werein to plant or set the ends upright, & of the same size as the sides. Two strong posts in the middle, to receive a ridge pole, two & a half or 3 feet, higher than the sides, so that the roof, which consists of straight poles or split slabs, when the timber admits, may have sufficient slope for the water to run off. An opening is left at one end; that part below the cross stick or beam for a door, & the above for a window. The ends, being upright and secured by a pole, bound with good strong with[e]s, to prevent their falling. The whole is well plastered, the Shop only out-side, as some of it will fall & dirty our furs or spoil our grease, meat, &c. but the house is plastered on both sides, inside & out. The joints between the roofing is also plastered; carefully covered about a foot thick with grass which we cut with our knives, & four or five inches of ground thrown on to prevent its being blown off, also as a preservative against the fire. The window is made of the thinnest parchment skin we can procure. The chimney is one side of the house, part of stone, when handy, but most commonly of earth made into mortar & wrapped with grass. The doors of slabs, split with the ax and squared down. The floors, when good wood to rive [split] cannot be had is squared from trees & then dubbed off with an adze, when we have one, if none, then with the hoe, which we sharpen with the files, for we cannot take in grind stones. Our beds, two posts, at the head & foot with a stick fixed, one in the posts & the other in an augar hole (when we happen to have such article) or forced into one of the chinks of the house. The door is secured by a wooden latch, & a leather thong to raise it from the out side. Thus the house is finished, & sturdy simple enough it is…” (Nelson, 58 – 59).

The Burnett County Historical Society in Wisconsin reconstructed Nelson’s cabin based on this description. This would be a perfect trading post for Samuel the Trader, but alas, my alter egos already have three shelters to build. Perhaps another year, on the spot my father said he saw a dilapidated log cabin in his youth. There are five deep depressions in the soil at the location that have never been searched or metal detected. Plus the site is adjacent to a six-foot depression that my father was told was “the old Indian trail.”

It’s interesting to me that the returned captives included various types of shelters in their narratives, more so than the settlement hunters. James Smith tells of a “wintercabbin” constructed by his adoptive band in 1755:

“…Here they made their wintercabbin, in the following form. They cut logs about fifteen feet long, and laid these longs [logs] upon each other, and drove posts in the ground at each end to keep them together; the posts they tied together at the top with bark, and by this means raised a wall fifteen feet long, and about four feet high, and in the same manner they raised another wall opposite to this, at about twelve feet distance; then they drove forks in the ground in the centre of each end, and laid a strong pole from end to end on these forks; and from these walls to the poles, they set up poles instead of rafters, and on these they tied small poles in place of lathes; and a cover was made of  lynn bark which will run even in the winter season…

“At the end of these walls they set up split timber, so that they had timber all round, excepting a door at each end. At the top, in place of a chimney, they left an open place, and for bedding they laid down the aforesaid kind of bark, on which they spread bear skins. From end to end of this hut along the middle there were fires, which the squaws made of dry split wood, and the holes or open places that appeared, the squaws stopped with moss, which they collected from old logs; and at the door they hung a bear skin; and notwithstanding the winters are hard here, our lodging was much better than what I expected…” (Smith, 44 – 46).

Many years ago I discussed tomahawk/ax patterns with a respected blacksmith, John Cummins. As we talked over the ax that I wanted him to make, I asked about time period. A polite smile crossed his face and he explained that for most axes and tomahawks a specific time period is difficult to nail down. The patterns became somewhat universal, because they worked well in the woods. “Don’t mess with success” was his comment. He went on to say a blacksmith would reach into his metal pile, pull out a piece of iron and shape it in a manner consistent with common practice in his locale. Thus the same pattern spanned decades of use by an assortment of owners.

When I started comparing Nelson’s description with that of Smith’s, John’s “Don’t mess with success” comment smacked me square in the face. The same shelter built by Native Americans was used for a trading house a half century later. 

In essence, this log-wall and upright-post shelter construction style is “period-correct” for both Native Americans and traders alike in the Great Lakes region. Further, I would expect anyone coming into the wilderness would have had knowledge of this easy-up cabin, or they might have copied what they saw on their journey to the interior.

As much as these journal entries muddy the waters they also add to the available choices for backcountry shelters, taking into account the individual’s geographic location, time period and social standing. Context plays a role in the selection process, as does the specifics of the historical portrayal. But there is little doubt that careful research opens the door to more options and choices than it closes.

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

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A Place to Be and a Place to Go

Saturday, 17, December, 1763:

Eight Canada geese ke-honked, unseen and to the east. Orange, lavender and yellow marked the western horizon, beyond the Riviere aux Raisins. Snowflakes drifted all about. The air smelled stark and unforgiving. Mi-ki-naak’s nose dripped, but he gave no mind.

A deer pawed at crunchy oak leaves on the next ridge west. Honking all the while, the five by three wedge passed over the tall oaks and hickories atop Fox Hill. The geese flew north, circled once, then set their wings for a majestic descent to the still-open, sand shallows at the river’s bend. The young doe continued her search for acorns, giving the geese no mind.

Mi-ki-naak stalks east and takes a glance to the south.

A fox squirrel scampered along a large oak branch, working its way to the thin limbs at the tree’s drip line. Now and again, the bushy-tailed rodent knocked white fluff, accumulated on the branch tops during the afternoon’s squall, into the air. With a mighty leap, the squirrel flew to the next oak, the one with the torn-off limb. The critter clutched a frail twig, bobbed up and down, gained its footing, then continued on to a leaf nest, giving the deer no mind.

Not long after, a second antlerless deer wandered north. The deer eased around a raspberry patch, stepped over a rotted oak trunk and passed through the poplar trees. Still upwind of the hunter, who learned his craft from his adopted Ojibwe family, the young doe paused to browse. An opossum lumbered from behind a sassafras tree zigging south, zagging east, then back south. The deer gave the white and gray fuzz ball no mind, and the opossum did likewise.

As the daylight dwindled, the tenants of the forest went about their business, each with an appointed mission, each with a place to be, each with a place to go…

The Need for a ‘Rallying Point’

In his book, Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies, Gerry Barker covers a number of topics relative to scouting and spying as a profession. Special Forces service in the U. S. Army mixes with historical research, bringing new insight to this shady endeavor. His 18th-century heroes are different than mine, to some extent, and maybe yours. And yet, his in-the-field experiences and the documentation that he draws together mirror those of my hunter heroes and my wilderness classroom lessons.

In a recent re-reading of his work, many of his comments have struck a note and/or tweaked my thought processes. While discussing necessary steps for maintaining a group’s “Security” he states:

“Finally, it is wise to arrange for emergency meeting points called ‘rallying points’ or sometimes ‘rendezvous,’ where the party can gather if forced to separate after a mishap. Amongst Major Rogers’ orders are the lines: ‘Each night you will be told where to meet up if the Indians attack and make us separate.’ This is a good system” (Barker, 29)

Now Mi-ki-naak, being captured by the Ojibwe, adopted by a Native American family and raised in their culture, might not fret about an “Indian attack”—or would he? Msko-waagosh should, as John Tanner, The Falcon, relates:

“Ais-ainse, the Ojibbeway chief, returned one evening from a successful hunt, having killed two elks and on the following morning, his wife with her young son, started out to dry the meat. They had proceeded a great distance from the lodge when the lad first discovered the Sioux party, at no great distance, and called out to his mother, ‘the Sioux are coming.’ The old woman drew her knife, and cutting the belt which bound the boy’s blanket to his body, told him to run for home with all his strength. She then, with her knife in her hand, ran to meet the approaching war-party. The boy heard many guns, and the old woman was no more heard of…” (Tanner, 159).

Mi-ki-naak sits beside a red oak tree, looking out into the bottom lands.

In December, 1763, the Siege of Detroit is history. In the lower Great Lakes region, near the headwaters of the Riviere aux Raisins, the British are still a concern. For Mi-ki-naak, an exception is the Lieutenant who mustered out of Joseph Hopkins’ Independent Company of Rangers.

James Smith, one of the returned captives used to source Snapping Turtle’s humble existence, makes no mention of rallying points. But John Tanner does, relative to a large group of Ojibwe and Cree engaged in a buffalo hunt:

“…eight men of whom I was one, were selected and despatched [sic] to kill some [buffalo], and bring the meat to a point where it was agreed the party should stop next night…” (Ibid, 106).

Now in most instances, my alter egos hunt alone. The rallying point is that individual’s campsite, with the ultimate goal of returning to the modern version of a homestead after dark. The trading post hunter has been a part of several group hunts. On three, maybe four occasions that I can recall, we all agreed on a rallying point, should we become separated. On the surface, a meeting place doesn’t sound likely, but on two occasions, the rabbit hunters split up and did not see the other party until we arrived back at the road as agreed.

Establishing a rallying point is not a make or break re-enacting habit, but rather one that should be considered when fleshing out a history-based persona. Barker points out the wisdom in a security sense for agreeing on a rendezvous, by location, day and time. John Tanner confirms the habit in a passing statement that leads a reader to believe, as Barker emphasizes, a common practice.

At the least, the notion is worth pondering…

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

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A Free Man in Eden

Mosquitoes buzzed about. A trade blanket, wrapped about the shoulders, pulled over Msko-waagosh’s head, fended off the barbed beasties. A nuthatch flitted to the fallen maple at his back. The little bird searched to and fro about the stout trunk, pecking for sustenance while keeping a watchful eye on its fellow forest tenant. A sassy fox squirrel chattered from atop the big basswood tree. Perspiration beaded on the returned white captive’s forehead. The air smelled humid with a hint of dirty wool.

A wood duck whistled, then flew from a hollow, bark-less hulk, to the west, in the bottom lands of the River Raisin, deep in the Old Northwest Territory, in the Year of our Lord, 1796. One…then two…then three gray squirrels circled separate trees, a red oak, a shag-bark hickory and a wild cherry. The trio crashed in the leaves, all bent on a joyous woodland frolic.

A marsh hawk swooped from behind Msko-waagosh, then rose up into the fluttering foliage of a tall red oak. The raptor eyed the squirrels, longing, stoic. Two blue jays came and went. The marsh hawk flew south. Msko-waagosh decided it was time to move on, too.

Trail-worn elk moccasins whispered east, over one knoll and around the next. The still-hunt progressed to a majestic oak, perhaps eight-score old with broad-reaching limbs, raccoon scat on one and a black water stain down the opposite side.  Again, Msko-waagosh sat. Again the mosquitoes pestered.

Two fox squirrels scrounged. A solitary deer with a cinnamon summer coat wandered by. A woodpecker, somewhere to the east, rat-a-tat-tatted on a solid dead limb. A male cardinal bobbed on a witch hazel’s twisted twig. “Tu-Tu-Tu-Tu…,” sung over and over, echoed in the hardwoods. When the crimson troubadour flew off, the aimless still-hunt resumed.

The elk moccasins ventured down the hill, around the stagnant water in the huckleberry swamp, southeast beside the tangle, then to the middle trail on the ridge’s west face. The forest tenant discovered a wind-fallen red oak limb, the size of a five-gallon rum cask, blocking the trail. He sat in the shiny, not-yet-wilted leaves.

The leafy fort felt confining and suffocating, despite the afternoon breeze that caressed the hillside. The still-hunt resumed, this time up the hill, then just over the ridge, hiding his deathly silhouette in the shadows. He was, after all, a free man in this wilderness Eden…

“Kentucky Barbecue on the Fourth of July…”

Every year or so, an array of “journalists” embark on finding “the true meaning of the July 4th,” from the perspective of today’s youth. And of course, 2020 is a great year to post videos and commentaries of the United States founding, viewed in hindsight with an enlightened and educated eye. Seek out these contemporary works, if your stomach can tolerate the folly…

In the first quarter of the 19th century, John James Audubon reported on a “Fourth of July barbeque” held in north-central Kentucky, near Louisville. The essay is recorded in Delineations of American Society and Character. In Audubon’s words:

“Beargrass  Creek, which is one of the many beautiful streams of the highly cultivated and happy State of Kentucky, meanders through a deeply shaded growth of majestic beech woods…The spot on which I witnessed the celebration of an anniversary of the glorious Proclamation of our Independence is situated on its banks, near the city of Louisville…”

“…The whole neighborhood joined with one consent. No personal invitation was required where every one was welcomed by his neighbor, and from the governor to the guider of the plough all met with light hearts and merry faces…” (Audubon, 241)

“For a whole week or more, many servants and some masters had been busily engaged in clearing an area…Now the waggons were seen slowly moving along under their load of provisions, which had been prepared for the common benefit. Each denizen had freely given his ox, his ham, his venison, his turkeys, and other fowls…‘La belle Riviere’ had opened her finny stores; the melons of all sorts, peaches, plums and pears, would have sufficed to stock a market. In a word, Kentucky, the land of abundance, had supplied a feast for her children…”

“…Columns of smoke from the newly kindled fires rose above the trees; fifty cooks or more moved to and fro as they plied their trade; waiters of all qualities were disposing the dishes, the glasses, and the punch-bowls, amid vases filled with rich wines. “Old Monongahela” filled many a barrel for the crowd…” (Ibid, 242).

a frontier barbecue held beside a block house.

“…In a short time the ground was alive with merriment. A great wooden cannon, bound with iron hoops, was now crammed with home-made powder; fire was conveyed to it by means of a train, and as the explosion burst forth, thousands of hearty huzzas mingled with its echoes. From the most learned a good oration fell in proud and gladdening words on every ear, and although it probably did not equal the eloquence of a Clay, an Everett, a Webster, or a Preston, it served to remind every Kentuckian present of the glorious name, the patriotism, the courage, and the virtue, of our immortal Washington. Fifes and drums sounded the march which had ever led him to glory; and as they changed to our celebrated “Yankee Doodle,” the air again rang with acclamations…”

“…However, as Kentuckians are neither slow nor long at their meals, all were in a few minutes replenished, and after a few more draughts from the bowl, they joined the ladies and prepared for the dance.” (243)

“Double lines of a hundred fair ones extended along the ground in the most shady part of the woods, while here and there smaller groups awaited the merry trills of reels and cotillons. A burst of music from violins, clarionets, and bugles, gave the welcome notice, and presently the whole assemblage seemed to be gracefully moving through the air. The ‘hunting shirts’ now joined in the dance, their fringed skirts keeping time with the gowns of the ladies…” (243 – 244).

“…During each interval of rest, refreshments of all sorts were handed round, and while the fair one cooled her lips with the grateful juice of the melon, the hunter of Kentucky quenched his thirst with ample draughts of well-tempered punch…”

“…You would have been pleased to see those who did not join the dance, shooting at distant marks with their heavy rifles, or watch how they shewed off the superior speed of their high bred “old Virginia” horses, while others recounted their hunting-exploits, and at intervals made the woods ring with their bursts of laughter…” (244).

“…But now the sun has declined, and the shades of evening creep over the scene. Large fires are lighted in the woods, casting long shadows of the living columns far along the trodden ground, and flaring on the happy groups, loath to separate. In the still clear sky, began to sparkle the distant lamps of heaven. One might have thought that Nature herself smiled on the joy of her children. Supper now appeared on the tables, and after all had again refreshed themselves, preparations were made for departures… (244-245)

“…the glorious Proclamation of our Independence…”

In Congress, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…” (Bragdon, 734)

May God have mercy on us all…

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Such is the Mystique…

Gusty winds swirled ground fog. The air smelled of late March, not November, yet plain and ordinary. Dark clouds delayed first light. A large cedar tree, not eighty paces from Msko-waagosh’s humble wigwam, served as a temporary lair. The mist grew thick, then changed to a light sprinkle. Such was the agony of that sunrise, in the Year of our Lord, 1794.

Bleakness thinned. The mist returned, then subsided. Buffalo-hide moccasins resumed the still-hunt south, up then over the gentle knoll, into the deep valley and around the thick raspberry switches. The returned white captive’s quest ascended a steep west slope. The tight-packed cedar trees hid the swirling black clouds and held back the light drizzle.  

Water dripped from bough tips. Red Fox sheltered beneath the easterly lean of a large red oak tree. Gray hairs escaped the confines of the silk head scarf. The warm breeze pushed the rat tails against his cheek and eye lashes, irritating, frustrating. Despite wishing to avoid movement, bare fingers tucked the two offending distractions back under the scarf.

The returned white captive pauses during a still-hunt.

In the midst of the second squall, a foreleg moved, down the hill, amongst the thick underbrush. A deer’s dark sides came and went through the scant spaces. A fox squirrel began a soothing chatter. Antlers appeared, strong and mature, with two broken tines on the animal’s right beam. Msko-waagosh knew this eight-point buck, the one that eluded the Northwest gun’s turtle sight a week earlier.

The sharp flint rose to attention. The tarnished brass butt plate eased to the seasoned hunter’s shoulder. The turtle sight waited as the buck’s hind leg remained planted firm, some eighty paces distant, beyond the smoothbore’s effective distance, but within the range of hope. A gust dislodged one of the rat tails, which blew back and forth against his bunched-up cheek and the trade gun’s battered stock. The squirrel hushed. Rain splattering on soggy oak leaves produced the only sound in the glade.

“A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” Msko-waagosh whispered.

The hind leg moved. The returned white captive never glimpsed the buck, never had a shot. He sat with his trade gun up and ready until his arm ached. The forestock balanced on his left knee; his right arm settled into his lap. Fingers tingled as he waited out a buck’s cautious nature. Dark clouds brought a distinct chill. The first November snow began mid-afternoon, by nightfall Msko-waagosh’s buffalo-hide moccasins left clear tracks back to his wigwam, sequestered in the tiny hollow in the hardwoods…

Missing a Moose?

Memoir passages often carry multiple messages. I quoted John Tanner in another missive. The first half of the sentence made my point, the second held a thought provoking statement:

“It happened one morning that I went to hunt with only three balls in my pouch, and finding a large buck moose, I fired at him rather hastily, and missed him twice in succession…” (Tanner, 105).

John Tanner was an accomplished hunter, trained by the Odawa and Ojibwe in the ways of the forest, recognized for his game gathering skills by his peers—sometimes with envy and malice. The amount of ammunition carried was the point of the passage, but the second half of the sentences begs the question, “How do you miss a moose?”

Smoothbore hunters know the limitations of their arm and their abilities. For Tanner, round balls were a precious commodity. That day he started out with three balls. Another day he tells of hunting with seven balls, the number that I carry in my pouch:

“…I had but seven balls left, but as there was no trader near, I could not at present get any more. With those seven I killed twenty moose and elk. Often times, in shooting an elk or a moose, the ball does not pass quite through, and may be used again…” (Ibid, 115).

Before the infamous moose hunt, Tanner describes his shooting ability thus:

“We fixed a mark at a distance of one hundred yards, and I shot first, placing my ball nearly in the center. Not one of either party came near me…” (Ibid, 100).

Starvation threatened his band, and as so often happened, John Tanner provided a good portion of the meat.

“All the men who were still able to walk now determined to start after buffalo, which we knew could not then be very near us…We remained behind, and in a short time killed five moose, all the flesh of which being immediately distributed among the suffering women and children, afforded some relief, and checked the progress of death…” (Ibid, 223).

As this passage shows, Tanner knew how to kill moose. His narrative is filled with hunting exploits that usually end with fresh meat for his extended family. Following this incident, the village decided to move on. One of the hunters stayed back so “that his women might dry the skin of the last moose he had killed, so that they might carry it with them to be eaten in case of the failure of all other supplies…” (Ibid, 224).

A French hunter hides behind a tree as the buffalo cross a clearing.

Tanner and two young men found the herd, “…saw before us the ground black with buffaloes…” (Ibid). The buffalo hunt progresses and results in another subtle admission by Tanner:

“The men having most of them come from a forest country, and having never hunted buffalo before, all failed to kill except myself…

“Next morning, long before the dawn, the women started for the remains of the two buffalo I had killed, and several of the men, most of them having obtained from me some instruction about the part to be aimed at, again went in pursuit of the herds, and this day several of them killed…” (Ibid, 225).

A longstanding hypothesis holds that the journals of the hunter heroes contain stories and tales that are either meant as an explanation of daily life or unique in nature. The missed moose falls into the latter category in that Tanner used his lock screws to bring the animal down. He admits in the passage that he “fired at him rather hastily.” Been there, done that, lived with the guilt that comes with human frailty and poor judgement.

I suspect Tanner’s hunting technique, which often included crawling on the ground to approach game, resulted in the chance to get off a third shot after two misses. Two shots are the most the hired trading post hunter has gotten off at a deer before it began the death run.

In the end, there seems no obvious answer to “How do you miss a moose?” So many stories recounted by our hunter heroes lack a key element or three. The best we can do is smile and sit in awe. Such is the mystique that surrounds the life and times of John Tanner.

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

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A Gobbler Dubbed “Black Bart”

Skin stung; eyes watered. The cedar bough bobbed in arrogance, celebrating its humble victory. Trail-worn elk moccasins staggered, then slowed. Thick clouds, coupled with night’s unforgiving abyss, shrouded the moon and stars. The glade demanded a heavy toll on that pre-dawn April morn in the Year of our Lord, 1794.  

Despite the flogging, the hired hunter persisted through the cedar grove, into the small clearing, then up through the deep gully. The air smelled of rotting deer pellets and the certainty of impending rain. A lone red cedar tree grew at the junction of the ravine and the open prairie. Other cedar trees, yellowed and barkless, losers in the quest for wilderness survival, littered the area between this tree and the nearest wild cherry.

The woodsman’s trade blanket, rolled tight and bound with a leather portage collar, bounced under the cedar. Dead branches tugged at the tattered outer shirt. Days before, swift blows of a forged belt ax cleaved a hiding place within the tangle in anticipation of a future visit. Perhaps this might be the morning a wild gobbler, dubbed “Black Bart” ventured within the jurisdiction of the death bees.

The backcountry hunter, hired by Samuel the Trader to provide meat for his meager trading post, was on his own that day. The quest for the bird was more than a search for a next meal. In early April, the hunter scribbled “Black Bart” in his journal when he first glimpsed the long-bearded tom.

The naming came more by accident than conscious thought, much like “Old Lady Gray,” the gravel-voiced hen that disrupted so many simple pursuits, or “Spins like a top,” an eager short-bearded jake with a strutting style that made one dizzy. This wild turkey was different. The normal red on his head was black, unmistakable from a distance.

“Gob-obl-obl-obl! Obl-obl-obl-obl!”

“Ark, ark…ark, ark, ark, ark.”


“Ark, ark…” Two seductive clucks, sucked through a single wing bone, added a new maiden to the roost discussions. But that was all the mysterious hen offered. Like a thick fog, an enticing silence hung over the grassy clearing’s west border, or so the woodsman hoped.

Minutes lumbered on, then big wings thrashed. Muffled thumps, heard but unseen, stoked anticipation’s glowing embers. A crimson cardinal twittered, “Tu-Tu-Tu-Tu…” A mourning dove droned on from a young maple, “Aww, coo, coo, coo…aww, coo, coo, coo…” A downy woodpecker rat-a-tat-tat-tatted, but a muffled “Utt…utt,” off near the dying wild apple tree preceded two hens sneaking into the sprouting grass.

A wild turkey hen standing in the wagon trail.

A red-headed turkey skirted the meadow’s north edge. Two more heads appeared. One of the toms stopped and fanned. “Gob-obl-obl-obl-obl-obl!” Arteries throbbed, but the woodsman’s thumb did not fidget over the cock’s jaw screw. Instead, disappointment reigned.

Throughout the next hour, gobblers and hens cavorted near the meadow’s knob. Not a one sported a black head. A hen walked within fourteen paces, then descended the gully’s south finger. “Black Bart never put in an appearance,” the brass lead holder scribbled on a folded page. “Perhaps tomorrow, or Saturday ‘Old Turkey Feathers’ will thunder, perhaps…”

An 18th-century cleaning…

Unbelievable exhilaration comes with a risk. Chain gobbles, fanned tails dancing at sunrise and song bird melodies heighten the traditional hunt. More times that I would like to admit, one particular bird or animal becomes the focus of my 1790 quests. Dear reader, you can read that as “obsession,” if you like. I’ve worked entire seasons for a moment of truth that lasts but a few seconds. A traditional woodsman must overcome the fear of making a minor mistake at a crucial point in the stalk—and if it happens, accept the consequences.

I discovered Rudyard Kipling my senior year in high school. Kipling’s poem “If,” written in an Old English font on a lacquered plaque, hangs to the right of my desk. I used to know the poem by heart, but… One haunting line, “If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,” pretty well sums up the philosophy behind my motivation when it comes to chasing one specific critter.

A many years ago, smoke drifted from a central fire pit at a backwoods traditional hunting camp. White canvas abodes reflected orange and yellow light from crackling oak splits. Tales of the day’s hunt ebbed, and slice-by-slice, so did the size of a juicy venison haunch. One-by-one, weary woodsmen set about cleaning their fouled firelocks.

In the blink of an eye, the charm of that 18th-century vignette vanished. Living historians retrieved modern fishing tackle boxes or emerged from their shelters with plastic squeeze bottles teeming with secret gun cleaning solutions. Stainless steel range rods rattled, reclosable sandwich bags regurgitated precut patches. And yes, the hired hunter was guilty, too.

As I gazed about, I realized risking one turn at pitch-and-toss was in order. With the frustrated sigh that accompanies most of my “not-quite period-correct revelations,” I vowed to learn to clean “Old Turkey Feathers” in an 18th-century manner—at least when immersed in a time-traveling adventure. The big question was, “How?”

I consulted one of my trade good inventories, being that of David McCrea, sent out from Michilimackinac in 1777. Bale #3 included “1/2 Gro Gun Worms” (Armour, 200). A gun worm is a small, tapered coil of steel that resembles an open spring. The large end screwed over the end of a trade gun’s wooden rammer. In the same source, the John Askin inventory from December 31, 1776 listed “15 Dozen of Worms” (220).

Francois Victor Malhiot listed goods “confided to the care and charge of J. Bt. Bazinet and J. Q. Racicot” on October 4, 1804, which included “3 Dozen Wormers” valued at three prime beaver pelts (Malhiot, 221). Most of the trading entries appear for a dozen, and gun worms were sometimes included in lesser quantities with gifts to Native Americans.

S. James Gooding addresses gun worms in his book, Trade Guns of the Hudson’s Bay Company: 1670 – 1970:

“Gunworms appear from that first gun-related minute in 1674 when 300 guns, 300 worms, and 300 bands for guns were ordered. They are frequently mentioned over the next two or more centuries but it is not surprising that they are not discussed in detail. They are such an insignificant item” (Gooding, 118).

Meshach Browning gave a hint as to ancient methods and a possible cleaning medium: “…I took the tow I used for cleaning my gun…” (Browning, 115).

Fingers wrap tow strands on a gun worm.

Tow, flax fiber or any other gun cleaning product are not listed in either the McCrea or Askin inventory. Tow is unspun flax fiber, common in the 18th century. Being a natural fiber, it can be used, washed, dried and reused.

Browning’s use is consistent with his life style, but not necessarily so for the returned captives. With that in mind, the hired hunter for the local trading post carries two small wads of tow along with two or three gun worms in his shot pouch.

Each returned captive persona carries one or more gun worms in his pouch. The worms pull natural wadding with ease, but it is difficult to dislodge a round ball held in place by leaf or grass wadding. I have yet to figure out how John Tanner accomplished this feat: “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). The only explanation/experiment that works is a load where the ball is seated on the black powder with a forest-wad over top.

Instead of carrying tow for cleaning, these forest tenants use wide-bladed grass, stripped from the main stem. Grass leaves with a center rib do not work well. Dried fall grass that feels damp and flexible to the touch is suitable, too. Forming a bore-diameter ball with the leaves wound around the worm serves the same purpose as the tow, except once dirty the wiping wad is discarded rather than rinsed out, as in the case of tow.

The hired hunter sloshing water in the bore of his Northwest trade gun.

The first step is safety; check the bore with the wiping stick to make sure the entire charge is clear and the smoothbore is unloaded. A small whittled twig plugs the touch hole. The barrel is then filled half-full with water, and I have to note, I have used some nasty stump water with the same satisfactory results as tap water.

With a thumb covering the muzzle, the water is sloshed about the bore by tipping the Northwest gun back and forth. The fouling suspends, the water is dumped out on the forest floor and the washing process repeated until the water runs clear. The trade gun is then propped against a tree and allowed to drain for a few minutes.

A second hank of tow or tree leaves works well for wiping the frizzen’s underside and the pan; again, scrub until clean. With the worm secured to the ramrod, wrap the cleaning medium around the worm’s spirals forming an elongated swab that fits snug in the bore. As an aside, the second worm in the shot pouch is a precaution for a dislodged cleaning worm. That has happened only once in almost two decades, but consider that experience a wilderness warning.

A tow swab covered with black powder fouling.

The swabbing continues until the tow, which often requires rinsing out, or leaf ball comes out clean. And don’t pooh-pooh the leaf cleaning until you’ve tried it. The multiple wraps needed to form the elongated ball also form ribs that come out loaded with fouling.

A coating of oil or tallow can be applied to prevent rusting, but in an 18th-century context, the arm was reloaded after cleaning, either as a precaution for protection or to continue the hunt. This was the way of the forest, the best path to survival in the Old Northwest Territory.

When the hunt is ended, but before the trade gun returns to a locked safe, it is best to do a quick modern cleaning and complete oiling of the firelock. Our favorite muzzleloaders are expensive and require proper care to ensure years of service. Always remember, a rusty bore, or worse a burst barrel, was period-correct for the 1790s, too. Better safe than sorry.

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

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Chasing the Makings of Squirrel Stew

Black granules tumbled. The tarnished brass measure filled. Two taps against the Northwest gun’s inner bore freed stragglers, more habit than need. Two palm-sized maple leaves, yellowed and dry, rolled to the size of a death sphere, squeaked as the wiping stick eased them down the bore. Three hard taps pounded the wadding flat and firm.

A startled fox squirrel studies a traditional woodsman.

“Chukk, chukk, chukk, chukk,” a fox squirrel barked, well up in a shagbark hickory on the next knob north. The air smelled damp and a bit humid as the morning’s heavy dew dissipated. The hired hunter’s fingers dug for the cowhide shot bag. In due time a brass measure of squirrel shot rattled down the trade gun’s eager bore. A thumb and forefinger tore the stem from a single maple leaf. Rolled in a like manner, pressed into the muzzle, then tamped firm, the wadding quelled the anxious death bees.

“Tseep, Tseep, Tseep…” a tufted titmouse sang as it bobbed on a scrub-oak sprig. The wiping stick bumped the forestock; with a quick twist and a gentle sigh the warped rod aligned with the bare entry hole.

“Caw, caw, caw, caw…” crows cawed as they winged from the tangled bottoms that lined the east bank of the River Raisin to the tall hardwoods on the west hillside. Elk moccasins began a slow, quiet stalk of the shagbark. Downriver, contented geese ke-honked; now and again a hen mallard cried out, “Wack, wack, wack, wack, wack…” It was a pleasant morning to chase the makings of squirrel stew, in the Year of our Lord, 1795…

How much shot?

Francois Victor Malhiot was 15 years old when he became a clerk for the North West Company. His July 9, 1804 entry contains an accounting of the trade goods in his charge:

Northwest guns leaning against shelves of trade goods at Michilimackinac

“…an outfit of eleven assorted bales, twenty kegs of rum double strength, four kegs of powder, five bags of shot and bullets, half a bale of kettles, a case of guns, twelve traps and four rolls of tobacco, the whole entrusted to my care by Mr. William Mac Gillivray to be traded for furs in the Department of Montreal River. Moreover, I was supplied with as many French provisions as a proprietor might wish for, [missing word] four hundred pounds of flour, two barrels and a half of pork, forty pounds of biscuit, a Keg of shrub, a Keg of high-wines, two of sugar, four pounds of tea, a ham, bread butter, etc. etc…” (Malhoit, 166 – 168).

Malhoit’s account ledgers give a sense of the value of these trade goods and commodities. “…a Double handful of Powder” is booked at a value of “1 Plu,” or one prime beaver pelt, “A Handful of shot” for one beaver (Ibid, 216) and “Sixty bullets” for two beaver (218) or thirty round balls for one Plu.

The question in my mind has always been, “What constituted ‘a handful?’” Is this one cupped hand? Two hands cupped together? Was there a scoop or other utensil used “that equaled ‘a handful’?” And if so, why didn’t the clerks refer to it as “a measure?” What happened when the trader’s hand was smaller than the purchaser’s? Oh, my…

The next question that perplexes me is “How did they carry the shot?” A horn is mentioned for the ‘double handful of powder,’ and the round balls are big enough to remain loose in a shot pouch. I don’t have a problem with a dedicated bag for shot for the hired hunter who cavorts about the forest in the last decade of the 18th century. Both Tami and I have fine leather shot bags designed to hold loose shot, hidden under our Christmas tree by Darrel Lang. They fit the trading post hunter persona.

I’ve tried carrying lead shot loose in Msko-waagosh’s shot pouch, once. That experiment did not work—akin to trying to nail Jello cubes to a wall. Alas, the issue resurfaced as I worked on attributing specific accoutrements for carrying loose shot to each persona. The post hunter is set, thanks to Darrel. I have materials on order for a wilderness classroom experiment with regards to the two returned white captives, and I can’t wait.

And along with the “a handful” dilemma, the question arises, “How much shot to carry?” The whole handful? All that remains from hunting plus that acquired by trade? Enough for one outing? Or a week in the woods?

Upon leaving Philadelphia, John James Audubon lists what he took with him to the forest, including “…25 pounds of shot…” (Audubon, 6). There is no way he carried that much shot on his person while gathering the subjects of his great illustrations. Likewise, there are references in Tanner’s journal and Browning’s narrative to leaving possessions in camp. Right or wrong in a living history sense that is the course my personas have taken.

The post hunter’s shot bag holds five or six doses of lead shot, give or take seven ounces. Before the shot bags from Leather from the Past, I carried that same quantity in a deerskin bag with a whittled spout. That worked for three decades; I never came up short for a day’s hunting. I’m sure I just jinxed an alter ego with that statement, but that has been my experience in the wilderness classroom.

And then again, running out of shot or ball is period-correct, too, as John Tanner relates. And as a safety warning, this is a “don’t try this at home” tale:

“It happened one morning that I went to hunt with only three balls in my pouch, and finding a large buck moose, I fired at him rather hastily, and missed him twice in succession. The third time I hit but did not kill him, only wounding him in the shoulder. I pursued, and at length overtook him, but having no balls, I took the screws out of my gun, tying the lock on with a string, and it was not till after I had shot three of them into him that he fell…” (Tanner, 105)

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

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Only a Sentence or Two…

Daylight waned. Two gray squirrels frolicked, uphill, forty paces ahead. Half-hidden by boughs, a plump fox squirrel leaped from cedar top to cedar top. The hired hunter did not glance up, but detected the movement. A blue jay perched on a twisted lower branch of a shagbark hickory, cocked its tufted head, but did not utter a warning.

The air on that late-October eve smelled of rain with a hint of drying field corn from the distant homestead. The toe of the woodsman’s buffalo-hide moccasin weaseled under brittle oak leaves. His body, hunched, steady and under control, paused. After a minute or so, this forest tenant executed another increment in his solitary course.

Leaves crackled, then rustled with a broken cadence. Up the hill, beneath a maple sporting a smattering of crimson leaves, a shadow stepped. Another foreleg…another…a hind quarter… A deer’s head popped up, checked its back trail, flicked its ears and walked north to south, parallel with the woodsman’s journey. A second doe appeared, displaying the same casual caution of the first. A third trailed.

The deer angled downhill, yet remained upwind of the backcountry hunter. Heads bobbed up and down with regularity, each lingering up four counts. First one, then the second slipped behind the dark mass created by several fallen cedar trees, fifty paces distant. When the third deer’s head dropped to the trail, the woodsman knelt, counting all the while.

The trio had been gone about ten minutes when another deer shape ventured down the trail. This whitetail acted different from the first group. It scented the trail and spent little time with its head up, enough to be safe, but no more. A small white tine flashed as the young buck wandered back and forth. He pawed and sniffed.

A fork horn buck browses, head down and at ease.

From the antics, the hired post hunter expected the buck to follow the other deer on the same trail, but it did not. Instead, the fork horn buck changed course, choosing the south island crossing. Quick steps grew closer and closer. The buck was scrawny and lean, more bone than meat. Not a choice for Samuel the Trader’s hand-hewn dining table.

Unaware of the hunter’s presence, the deer passed twenty paces upwind without so much as a side-wise glance. The crunching march continued to the edge of the great swamp. The buck’s demeanor changed as it stood and surveyed the sedge grass, elders and red willows that surrounded the little stream that babbled between the cut bank and the oak-covered island.

The small antlered deer stepped into the swamp, made dainty splashes, then vanished into the mass of twigs and branches. Thick gray clouds meant total darkness was minutes away. With great trepidation the woodsman got to his feet and walked off into the night…

Scouts and Spies

The complexion of that wild turkey chase, in the Year of our Lord, 1796, changed after the fork horn passed. The day was not finished, and neither was the time-traveling adventure. However, the degree of caution exercised in the afternoon’s stalk diminished with impending darkness. Returning to the campsite before the fall of the black abyss that accompanies a moonless night was a challenge, but a period-correct challenge.  

In reality, legal shooting hours passed a few minutes before the first doe appeared. The Northwest gun’s priming was scattered about the forest floor, the frizzen flipped up and the cock set down. But that minor intrusion of 21st-century game laws did not impact the wilderness jaunt or impose a need to cross back over time’s threshold.

Of late I have been re-reading Gerry Barker’s book, Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies. It’s been a while. What better way to spend an hour sitting in a parking lot? In truth, I would’ve read the same book if I was sitting in the waiting room.   

The Preface sets the tone for the book: “This book is the product of watching other people, of spending time scouting, and some reading. It is not a research work, nor is this intended to tell anyone the right way to do anything; just what I have found by making a lot of mistakes in the woods. I have been lost, caught by the enemy when I did not want to be, skunked by deer, and let my party get far too close to danger…” (Barker, 5).

Barker’s admissions fit traditional black powder hunting, a hands-on endeavor where trial and error learning is the best educator. Failure is success, but in a hidden and mysterious sort of way. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have outfitted myself as described in an old journal, only to fail over and over before realizing the guiding passage was edited by a non-woodsman to fit a book publisher’s romantic image of 18th-century life.

This is especially true when it comes to the captive narratives, which appeared “after the fact” in the first quarter of the 19th-century. This captive narrative genre became the first form of American literature. However, it was filled with underlying agendas, rigid stereotypes and political persuasions, which sometimes hinder a dedicated living historian beyond belief.

The section on “Movement” rang true for me and my alter egos. So many times at outdoor shows, seminars or speaking engagements the question arises, “How can you hunt without camouflage?” The answer is always the same, “I am using camouflage, 18th-century clothing in a 1790s setting.”

Oh, the looks some folks come up with. In response, I have a few pages in the traditional hunting photo albums that I leaf to, showing in-the-field images of traditional woodsmen and women. In some, it’s nearly impossible to find the hunter!

Likewise, when the discussion turns to the “need for camouflage clothing,” the historical me points out that “movement is the key to detection.” Standing still, the hired hunter caught the leg stepping of the first doe, the head bobs of the second and the sniffing about of the young buck.

Suppose the hunter had been walking, even at a slow pace, north to south on a trail halfway down the hillside? The approach of the doe, her cautious “step and look” taught to her by her dam, would have seen the woodman’s progress and she would have chosen a different course. And if not that doe, her summer fawn.

“The movement of a scout must be silent, slow and cautious,” Barker writes. “Major Rogers’ admonition to move like you are sneaking up on a deer is wise. Good deer hunters move like deer…Often stopping for long periods of time, deer stand motionless, carefully searching the land ahead for danger. Scouts spend a lot of time looking and listening…He squats down from time to time…” (Ibid, 20 – 21).

A traditional woodsman, kneeling in the midst of a wild turkey stalk.

Like so many aspects of traditional black powder hunting, movement in the forest in an 18th-century manner is an acquired skill.  The learning comes from “making a lot of mistakes in the woods,” as Barker says.

On that October evening in 1796, Samuel’s hired man made all the right moves, or rather paused and stayed put, which allowed the deer to pass. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Deer are skilled forest tenants. Survival is their game. In a 1796 context, the post hunter might have taken the fork horn despite the animal’s meager appearance—some meat is better than none. His woodland abilities put him in a position to do so. The deer’s death would have been period-correct; perhaps another tale nestled in a hunter hero’s journal?

I picked up …Scouts and Spies with a purpose in mind. There is no “off season” for a traditional black powder hunter.  Yes, prime game is protected, and it was, more by tradition than law, in the 1790s, but that doesn’t mean a post hunter cannot venture back to yesteryear. A “scout” is always in order, no matter how long or how short. The historical context may vary from the simple pursuit, but the relevance is still there.

In the summer months, my emphasis on any trip afield changes. Rebuilding shelters is a key goal for the next few months. I am making progress on differentiating the material goods that go with each persona, and that is a year ‘round task. Will I achieve those goals? Maybe, maybe not… Shelter or not, a new knife, ‘hawk or moccasins or not, the first priority is to get afield.

And then there are the special scouting projects, which are different from the actual hunts. One has been percolating for several years, a woodland scenario predicated on a common 18th-century occurrence that doesn’t get much attention in the re-enacting world. Past attempts have failed to materialize due to unforeseen issues, but that is life.

With renewed vigor, the research is almost complete. The preliminary plans are drawn to scale, and I’m mulling over the final design/construction details with hopes of starting this special project in mid-July. Will it happen this year, maybe, maybe not… Yet, a moccasin step forward, no matter how long or short the stride, is still a moccasin step forward.

At any rate, the re-read of Gerry Barker’s Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies pumped renewed enthusiasm for the summer months. As I read along, I have no doubt there will be other topics of interest that arise. I’ll share my thoughts when they do. It only takes a sentence or two to spark this living historian’s exuberance.

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

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