On 19th Century Hunting

Riffing off yesterday's thread, I got the following note:

Hi, I'm one of your avid readers who cannot for the life of her manage to comment on the Atlantic blog space. But your latest "talk to me like I'm stupid" topic is right in my wheelhouse, so I am pestering you privately. Because that is how much of a nerd I am. Most of my examples are from the Far West (trans-Missouri) in this period, because it's what I study. The answer is: white people were kind of shite at gun-hunting during this period, especially in harsher climates where game were not abundant all the time. Indians were pretty good hunters on the Plains, (A) because they'd been doing it a long time and (B) they also used lances and bows and (C) they did not basically walk around expecting game to fall into their laps.

Many many MANY are the stories of western adventurers (white, black, and Metis) who didn't know the terrain, got too far away from a water source, and discovered that game don't go where there isn't any water. This is how white people discovered that moccasins (and any soft leather shoes) are edible. See: George Ruxton, "Life in the Far West," 1840. (Available at Google Books) Jim Beckwourth* tells in his autobiography of being so hungry when sent off to hunt for his party that, on dropping a duck, he ate it all himself (raw) so as to be strong enough to bring back any further game to the group. (His autobiography is ghost-written and hilariously spelled, published in 1856.)

But people in the west did hunt successfully: they got to know the seasonal migration patterns of prey; they staked out watering holes; and they often shot from cover. When you're shooting from close-by into a cloud of 200 ducks, you're very unlucky if you DON'T hit something. Mountain men trapped for beaver (and considered beaver tongue a delicacy) by baiting stakes with a sex gland from previously-caught beavers. (The stake went underwater, so the trapped beaver drowned. It was an entirely passive system on the part of the hunter.) You could probably do a simple kind of loop-trapping with prairie dog, but I've not run across a story of their being considered edible prey.

Lots of people in the west ate their mules or horses or oxen as soon as they lost their usefulness, by dint of cutting their throats. Whites/settlers rarely killed adult buffalo by themselves (but often did so among Indians, by selectively stampeding herds, cutting out and surrounding small groups, and killing them at close range), but often got solo calves or adolescents. Beckwourth tells several tales of bear-killing, some of them a bit... unlikely, but they all hinge on having a pistol available to shoot from 5 feet away (or if you're very unlucky, a knife to use from even closer) after the rifle is useless. In short, how do you hunt before the invention of the repeating rifle? The same way that a lesser army wins in battle: planning, surprise, traps and ambushes. And sometimes wrassling, although the bear tends to win that one.

You guys are the World Book. It really is incredible.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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