The Great Hunt
The History Center on Main Street
It’s November. And November is deer season throughout the Twin Tiers. Several decades ago, deer season was almost a religious rite to locals. They geared up for opening day with a solemnity that rivaled the Lenten lead-up to Easter. A few days before the opener, like a last-minute Christmas shopping frenzy, hunters scurried to shooting ranges to sight in rifles. Novice nimrods were baptized by fire as bench-rest shots boomed and echoed off the mountains and up the hollows. Men scouted the woods like they were picking just the right pew for services. Old-timers communed at the coffee shop, telling and retelling hunting stories that were taken as gospel. The first day of deer season was a big event. Going afield on that day was a Holy Day of Obligation. Missing the day would have been sacrilege.
The population of small rural towns doubled during the first week of buck season. Downstate hunters made an annual pilgrimage to the North Woods in what amounted to an invasion. Derided by locals and dubbed “flatlanders,” they were seen as heretics and universally scorned. An army of invaders in Woolrich uniforms paraded Main Streets giving villages the hustle and bustle of city sidewalks. Bored with bivouac in their camps, the flatlanders wandered aimlessly up and down the streets, testing the bars and sporting goods emporiums with equal zeal. A guy could down some hooch while his buddies shopped for shells in a sporting goods store next door. A hunter could buy his license while his buddies sipped suds at the café across the street. Every kid anticipated the first day as much as he did a first date or his sixteenth birthday.
In a time long ago, much of my deer hunting consisted of setting up drives for deer. Simply, a group of hunters gathered together to hunt in a cooperative fashion for whitetail deer. The gang might be family members like Grandpa, Uncle Bully, my dad, his brother Kenny, cousins Tuffy, Hank, and Gimme, and me, the youngest of the clan. Later, the gang would include friends like Spigoon, Coxie, Harding, and a host of others. Those driven deer hunts are fond memories. But, no matter how many deer we tagged, we never approached the success recorded in local histories.
Once upon a time, some seventy-seven years before the existence of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, some Twin Tiers hunters participated in what became known as the Great Hunt of 1818. In those days, hunting was an absolute necessity. Bear and deer supplied food for the family, and the elimination of wolves and panthers was crucial in order to protect livestock from predators. As settlement of the wilds progressed, some food supplies came from other sources, and predators, leery of the rifle, moved their territory to more remote places.
In those days of yore, when our area was mostly a wild, howling wilderness, some men along the Susquehanna organized the largest deer drive in United States history. The drive would take up parts of five counties in two states and encompass some 470 square miles.
The “Great Hunt” was preceded by a somewhat smaller hunt as recorded in Mrs. Perkins local history, Early Times. “New York and Pennsylvania boys engaged in a grand deer hunt in this beautiful valley, in the fall of 1818, it was a gala day…Fires had been lighted on the North mountains the previous night, and the hounds sent out early to drive the deer to the plains.
Marshals for the day had been chosen [and] about two hundred men, armed with guns and rifles, sallied forth from their homes…to engage in the exciting sport.” The idea was to drive toward a central point, driving the deer before them so that the deer were “surrounded by the hunters or hemmed in by the rivers.”
Of course many deer escaped, but a number were encircled. At that point the men began shooting until one of the party cried out that he was wounded. Shooting stopped while the doctor announced that the injury was a flesh wound. One of the men, “Big Decker,” escaped being shot when a ball hit a tree about six inches over his head. He was angry and asked to borrow a gun so that he might return fire, but he was calmed down. The hunters had killed about thirty deer and the take was skinned, dressed, and divided among the men.
The reports of that first hunt sounded like so much fun that Colonel Aden Stevens thought to organize an even bigger hunt and the colonel’s neighbors readily agreed upon the details. The “orders of the day” were published some time beforehand. It required that every man was to be on the lines at eight o’clock a.m. The participants were to bring “as many tin horns as could be found.” The men were lined up and they were to march at the sound of the horn. Captains, respected hunters who knew the forests, were appointed for every ten men. The colonel had figured on about 400 to 500 men, but, unbeknownst to him, the numbers would swell to more than 800 hunters.
The horn first sounded at Wysox, then down the line to Wyalusing, up Wyalusing Creek and north to approximately present-day Vestal, New York. Then the line of hunters stretched west to Chemung where the line followed the northeast edge of the Susquehanna back to Wysox. The drive began with the first blast of the horns. Signals were to be given at short intervals until the center was reached. Colonel Stevens wrote, “I stood and listened. It took about 30 minutes to pass the signals around the line. The men marched with guns, axes, spears, and pitchforks.” It was dark before the hunters reached the rendezvous site and the game was dispatched. Most of the hunters stayed at the site all night.
The hill that the men encircled was a large stand of beech free of underbrush. Excitement reached fever pitch as deer attempting to escape were shot down. The men moved forward slowly until they could see the heads of those on the opposite side of the hill, when the colonel commanded a cease-fire. For years thereafter, the men called the point of rendezvous, “Slaughter Hill.” When the firing ceased, a bear was in the circle and the men charged it with clubs. The bear broke free, but two men standing outside the ring shot him.
On a humorous note, Stevens recorded that a doe with a slight flesh wound sought escape from the circle of hunters. Colonel Theron Darling was a very tall man standing on the top of a steep bank. The doe “came down with a determination to break the ranks. The men by this time had got so close together that they stood shoulder to shoulder. The deer, discovering a larger opening between the colonel’s legs than anywhere else, put down her head and attempted to pass through. The colonel fell forward and clasped his arms around her, and away they both went down the bank a couple of rods, the colonel’s feet foremost. Being a good soldier, he did not relinquish his hold until he got the deer down and cut its throat.”
Hunting dogs accompanied some of the hunters. The dogs were controlled by their masters until the shooting started. Then, confused by the many shouts and shots, the dogs sought out downed deer and lay beside them to take possession for their masters.
Apparently arguments broke among the hunters as the many parties who engaged in this hunt expressed their dissatisfaction. To quote the history, “and so many were the charges of dishonesty and fraud made against some parties living along the river that the hunt was never repeated.” Still, it was quite a hunt, a hunt that accounted for 150 deer and ninety-two bears for the meat larders. They also took fifty-eight wolves, forty “panthers,” and “a few elk.” The predators accounted for $550.00 in bounties. And that’s the way it was done…once upon a time.