Last month, I provided excerpts from John James Audubon’s “Quadrupeds of North America”. This scholarly achievement was accomplished late in Audubon’s life, with significant collaboration with the Reverend Bachman; a reputable amateur naturalist known for his work with birds. The research for this publication was gathered principally through a steamboat trip up the Missouri River in 1843. The product of this research, then and for half a century thereafter, had no equal in its breath, scientific accuracy and popular interest.
A reading of this publication is today noteworthy, not so much for its’ scientific content, but rather for a revealing look at the frontier lifestyle Audubon lived in during his adventures in pursuit of these mammals. His are stories that reflect the state of the wilderness west of St. Louis during his time, and the rigorous onslaught of nature that so dominated both the lifestyles and ideologies of the mid-nineteenth century American. To read the antidotal stories of his contemporaries as they related their experiences to Audubon is to gage a frontier society that lived by their hunting abilities and whose next meal was determined by what he could next kill.
Audubon was not unaware of this onslaught of America’s wilderness. In support of the short-tailed weasel’s propensity to kill, he states the following;
“Let us not too hastily condemn the little ermine of its bloodthirsty propensities. It possesses well-developed canine teeth, and obeys an instinct of nature. Man, with organs not so decidedly carnivorous, and possessed of the restraining powers of reason and conscience, often commits a wanton havoc on the inferior animals, not so much from want of food, as from a mere love of sport. The buffalo and the elk he has driven across the Mississippi, and their haunts are now restricted to the prairies of the Far West. Even now thousands are slaughtered for amusement, and their tongues only are used, whilst their carcasses are left to the wolves. He fills his game bag with more woodcock, partridges and snipe, than he requires; his fishing-rod does not remain idle even after he has provided a full meal for his whole family; and our youngsters are taught to shoot the little warbler and the sparrow as a preparatory training for the destruction of larger game."
Imagery of life during Audubon’s time includes the following visit to New Orleans:
‘During the winter season the city of New-Orleans is thronged by natives of almost every land, and the Levee presents a scene so unlike anything American, that as we walk along its smooth surface we may imagine ourselves in some twenty different countries, as our eyes fall upon many a strange costume, whose wearer has come from afar, and is, like ourselves, perchance, intent on seeing the curiosities of this Salmagundi city. Here a Spanish gentleman from Cuba, or a Mexican, next a pirate or thief, perhaps, from the same countries; all Europe is here represented, and the languages of many parts of the world can be heard whilst walking even half a mile; the descendants of Africa are here metamorphosed into French folks, and the gay bandanna that turbans the heads of the coloured women, is always adjusted with good taste, and it their favourite head-dress.
“But the most interesting figures are the few straggling Chactaw and Chickasaw Indians, who bring a variety of game to the markets, and in their blankets, red flannel leggings, moccasins and bead finery, form a sort of dirty picturesque feature in the motley scene, and generally attract the artist's eye: many of these Indians have well formed legs and bodies, and their half-covered shoulders display a strength and symmetry indicating almost a perfect development of the manly form-their sinews and muscles being as large as is compatible with activity and grace.”
Audubon also demonstrates the extent of lawlessness that still pervaded the frontier culture, as illustrated here;
“To give a better idea of the effects of hunger on man, at time, in these wild and desert countries, we will relate a case that happened to Dr. Richardson while upon an expedition. One of his men, a half-breed and a bad fellow, it was discovered, had killed a companion with whom he had been sent upon a short journey in the woods for intelligence, and had eaten a considerable portion of his miserable victim.
“Dr. Richardson, watching this monster from hour to hour, perceived that he was evidently preparing and awaiting an opportunity to kill him, possibly dreading the punishment he deserved for his horrible crime, and perhaps thinking the doctor's body would supply him with food till he could reach the settlements and escape; - anticipating his purpose, the doctor very properly shot him.”
Throughout Audubon’s work, much is made of how the Indians or frontiersmen hunt a particular species, and how it is utilized for food and clothing. Additionally, it is great fun to read about the success or failure of the frontiersmen in domesticating the wild mammals, whether for food or pets. But more than anything else, the reader has the opportunity to see how closely Audubon’s generation still lived among nature, with his literal survival contingent on his hunting skills.
Allow me to provide some additional excerpts from his entries that exhibit the range of content in this surprisingly engaging book.
Common American Deer (White-tailed deer)
While much information is presented on the habits and hunting (and eating) of deer, the one comment that caught my attention was the custom of many of the Indian tribes of eating the contents of the stomach without benefit of cooking or any other preparations. Noting, "Hunger and hardships seldom fail to give a zest to the appetite," Audubon reveals, "As we have never been subjected to the necessity of testing the virtues of this primitive chowder, we are unable to pronounce it a delicacy, and must leave the decision of those who may be disposed to make the experiment."
Red Texan Wolf
Audubon describes black, white and gray wolves, along with the red wolf, as residents of Texas; all separated into species by Audubon (current taxonomy accepts only the gray, or timber, and the red wolf as true species). Here are a few choice comments:
"It is said that when visiting battle-fields in Mexico, the wolves preferred the slain Texans or Americans, to the Mexicans, and only ate the bodies of the latter from necessity, as owing to the quantity of pepper used by the Mexicans in their food. Not vouching for this story, however, the fact is well known that these animals follow the movements of armies, or at least are always at hand to prey upon the slain before their comrades can give them a soldier's burial, or even after that mournful rite.
“No corpse of wounded straggler from his troop, or of unfortunate traveler, butchered by Camanches, is ever neglected by the prowling wolf.”
And a story by a Texas Ranger named Powell;
I was out on a survey about 15 miles west of Austin, in a range that we didn't care about shooting in any more than we could help, for the Camanches were all over the country; and having killed deer in the morning, I took the ribs off one side and wrapping them in a piece of the skin, tied it to my saddle and carried it all day, so as to have a supper at night without hunting for it; it was a dark, dismal day, and I was cold and hungry when I got to where I was to camp to wait for the rest of the party to come up next day; I made my fire, untied my precious parcel, for it was now dark, with two sticks put up my ribs to roast, and walked off to rub down and secure my horse, while they were cooking; but in the midst of my arrangements I heard a stick crack and as that in an Indian country means something, I turned and saw, to my amazement, for I thought no animal would go near the fire, a large red wolf actually stealing my ribs as they roasted; instinct made me draw a pistol and let drive at him; the smoke came in my face and I saw nothing but that my whole supper was gone. So not in the most philosophical manner I lay down, supperless, on my blanket; at daylight AI was up to look out for breakfast, and to my surprise, my half-cooked ribs lay within twenty feet of the fire, and the wolf about twenty yards off, dead; my ball having been as well aimed as if in broad daylight."
Common American skunk (Striped Skunk)
As one might imagine, numerous stories abound about encounters with this well-known mammal and unfortunate woodsmen. However, did you know, at the time of Audubon, the skunks putrid spray was used as a medicinal prescription? Read on.
“The properties of the peculiarly offensive liquour contained in the sacs of the skunk have not, so far as we are advised, been fully ascertained. It has, however, been sometimes applied to medical purposes. Professor Ives, of New Haven, administered to an asthmatic patient a drop of this fluid three times a day. The invalid was greatly benefited. All his secretions, however, were soon affected to such a degree, that he became highly offensive both to himself and to those near him. He then discontinued the medicine, but after having been apparently well for some time the disease returned. He again called on the doctor for advice; the old and tried recipe was once more recommended, but the patient declined taking it, declaring that the remedy was worse than the disease!”
And, another account of this custom:
“We were once requested by a venerable clergyman, who had for many years been a martyr to violent paroxysms of asthma, to procure for him the glands of a skunk; which, according to the prescription of his medical adviser, were kept tightly corked in a smelling bottle, which was applied to his nose when the symptoms of his disease appeared.
“For some time he believed that he had found a specific for his distressing complaint. We were however subsequently informed, that having uncorked the bottle on one occasion while in the pulpit during service, his congregation finding the smell too powerful for their olfactories, made a hasty retreat, leaving him nearly alone in the church.”
American Black Bear
Captain J P McCown furnishes the following remarks;
"In the mountains of Tennessee the bear lives principally upon mast and fruits. It is also found of a bee-tree, and is often found seeking even a wasp’s or yellow-jacket’s nest. In the autumn the bear is hunted when lopping for chestnuts. Lopping consists in breaking off the branches by the bear to procure the mast before it falls. When pursued by the dogs the bear sometimes backs up against a tree, when it exhibits decided skill as a boxer, all the time looking exceedingly good-natured; but woe to the poor dog that ventures within its reach!
The dogs generally employed for pursuing the bear are curs and fice, as dogs of courage are usually killed or badly injured, while the cur will attack the bear from behind, and run when he turns upon him. No number of dogs can kill a bear unless assisted by man.
In 1841, the soldier of my regiment had a pet he-bear (castrated) that was exceedingly gentle and playful with the men. It becoming necessary to sell or kill it, one of the soldiers led it down the street of Buffalo and exposed it for sale. Of course it attracted a large crowd, and was bid for on sides on account of its gentleness. But unfortunately, the bruin was carried near a hogshead of sugar, and not disposed to lose so tempting a repast, quietly upset it, knocking out the head, and commenced helping himself in spite of the soldier’s efforts to prevent the depredation. The owner of the sugar rushed out and kicked the bear, which, not liking such treatment, gave in return for the assault made upon him, a blow that sent his assailant far into the street, to the terror of the crowd, which scattered, leaving him to satisfy his appetite for sugar unmolested."
If you would like to learn more about Audubon’s experiences encountered in the production of this work, “Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America” has been published in it’s original complete and unabridged form by The Wellfleet Press, Secaucus, NJ, in 1989.