Great American Hunters: Townsend Whelen

As a soldier, writer, hunter, rifleman, and gentleman, he was without peer.

Field & Stream Online Editors

He came from a line of Philadelphia aristocrats and started life as a spindly, gawky, withdrawn kid who lacked any kind of ambition. by rights, the young blue blood should have been a banker or a doctor or a minister, but there was a renegade gene in his makeup that caused him to love the outdoors: "in very early life i seem to have formed a desire to wander off by myself into unfrequented country." it was a desire that would give form to a remarkable life.

He became a career soldier and, as a young officer, was fond of vanishing for months into unmapped wilderness, living off what he could shoot or catch. He became an expert outdoorsman and a superb marksman. He wrote about all of it; his first article was published in 1901 and he remained a prolific writer until his death in 1961. His name was Townsend Whelen. His friends called him "Townie," and there has never been anyone else like him. If there ever was an "ideal" outdoorsman and hunter, that person breathed in the form of Townsend Whelen.

A Boy of Retiring Disposition
Whelen was born on March 6, 1877, and grew into a shy youngster who was happiest by himself. He might have remained so, but in 1891, at the age of 13, his life changed. His father gave him a Remington rolling block .22, and the gawky kid taught himself to shoot. He was soon beating grown men and won his first rifle match two years later. It was to be the first of many. Whelen lived in the outdoors, but at the center of his life was always the rifle.

A second change came in 1895 when he went to see an "exhibition of strength" put on by Eugene Sandow, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his time. Whelen was inspired and began exercising fanatically. Within a year he gained 30 pounds of muscle. And then he did something very odd for a young man of his refined background: He enlisted as a private in the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Gone for a Solider
After three years, Whelen was a sergeant. In 1898, the Spanish-American War began and his unit was federalized. Within months he was promoted to regimental sergeant major, a post normally reserved for noncoms of at least 15 years' experience. A few months after that, Whelen was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Though his unit never saw action, he now knew what he wanted to do with his life and applied for a commission in the Regular Army. But it would take a year until the next competitive exams would be given, and so he quit his job, resigned his reserve commission, and headed for the wilds of British Columbia, which at that time offered the best big-game hunting in North America.

"I gathered a little outfit which consisted of my .40/72 Winchester rifle, a .30/30 Winchester Model 94, the necessary ammunition, a light tarp 8x11 feet which I made, a pair of Army blankets and a poncho, a set of nested camp kettles, and practically nothing else.

"At Ashcroft (British Columbia) I bought a saddle horse for $25, two pack horses for $15 each, a stock saddle for $25, two sawbuck saddles for $5, and $25 worth of grub. An old prospector showed me how to pack the horses and throw the diamond hitch.... The next morning I started out over the Telegraph Trail, bound for northern British Columbia."

In the town of Lillooet he met a stroke of luck in the form of "Bones" Andrews, an experienced wilderness hand and a prospector who took a shine to Whelen and offered to guide him into game country. On Andrews' advice, Whelen bought a Free Miner's Certificate, which permitted him to kill as much game as he needed for food.

Andrews was not only a good guide but a good teacher. In particular, he taught Whelen how to cook over an open campfire, using a cross stick held by two forked sticks with a hooked stick as a potholder. A pit under a forelog served as a baking oven.

Whelen lived in the wilderness for several months, taking game of all typ and recording what he did. He even managed to conduct some business on the return trip, buying two groundhog robes from Chiloctin Indians he met on the trail and selling them at a profit in New York City.

Photographs of Whelen taken around this time show a barrel-chested, ramrod-straight young man of over 6 feet, a curved-stem pipe dangling from his lips, dressed in a campaign hat (we call it a Smokey Bear hat), fringed buckskin shirt (later replaced by Army-issue flannel), jodhpurs, and calf-high moccasins. He carried a rifle and a rucksack always, and sometimes a handgun.

Whelen was a frugal man who traveled light. He made his own gear when he could and did not carry an ounce more than he needed (his complete backpacking outfit weighed only 12 pounds). His camps always looked the same: a blanket roll beneath a lean-to tarp (which he preferred to a tent) and a pot suspended above a cooking fire built just as Bones Andrews had taught him.

The Regular
In May of 1902, Whelen returned to Philadelphia and was informed that no more than 50 candidates would be allowed to take the exam for a Regular Army commission. His father, through a friend, got Whelen an interview with President Theodore Roosevelt who pronounced him "the type of young man I want to see in the Army." Whelen made the list.

At Governor's Island, New York, he underwent an exhaustive weeklong series of physical and written exams and finished second. But two weeks later he was informed that he had failed the physical test because of "insufficient chest development." Whelen, who at the time had a 44-inch chest and a 29-inch waist, was frantic. He went to Washington to plead his case directly with Elihu Root, the secretary of war. When Whelen asked (essentially) "What the hell?" Root told him not to worry, that he would come out all right. And he did. Whelen was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

In 1915, as the Panama Canal neared completion, the Army was given the job of defending it, and Whelen, now a captain, was assigned to the 29th Infantry Regiment, which became part of the Canal Zone garrison.

(At this point, a word about the Panama jungle is in order. After World War II, when the Army was looking for a truly loathsome, horrible rain forest to serve as its jungle survival school, it picked Panama's. I have spoken with Vietnam vets who claim they never saw anything in Southeast Asia that was half as bad.)

The 29th Infantry was assigned to defend a chunk of unmapped real estate that was, as far as anyone knew, uninhabitable, and how you would defend such country, no one had a clue.

Capt. Whelen took it upon himself to find out. On weekends he set out to explore, taking only a rifle and a rucksack, always alone because: "I knew of no one who would not be more of a hindrance than a help. I had no fear of getting lost, for I knew that my faculty of keeping a mind map would serve me as well here as it always had in other unfamiliar country I had been penetrating all my life. And I discredited all the stories of snakes, reptiles, insects, and wild beasts.

"I soon found that the only way to keep located was to make a continuous map, and¿¿¿that it was necessary to keep the map up to date every 200 yards. I made the map on a little sheet of celluloid which I carried in my shirt pocket-celluloid because paper would not stand the sweat. Every hour I would copy the sketch off the celluloid on to the big sheet in my rucksack." For Whelen, hardship and danger were too trivial to mention. Given his rifle and rucksack and pipe, a lean-to and a bedroll, he was as at ease in the Panama rain forest as he was in the wilds of Alberta. Everything he saw fascinated him.

When he felt himself to be at home in the jungle, Whelen trained his company to live in it, and they set the pattern for the rest of the 29th Regiment and, most likely, the U.S. Army itself.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Whelen had compiled a distinguished record and had attracted the attention of senior officers. He was assigned to the Army General Staff and spent the war inspecting camps and developing training programs.

After the war, lacking combat experience and having developed an intense interest in small-arms development, he transferred from the Infantry to Ordnance, where he would serve until his retirement in 1936. But his heart remained with the doughboys. Long after he took off the uniform for the last time, he wrote: "I would chuck all the work I have done, all the small success I have made, if I could go back tomorrow as Captain in command of Company F, 29th Infantry."

Whelen became commanding officer at the Frankford Arsenal (where, in 1804, his great-great-grandfather, Commissary General of the Army Israel Whelen, had outfitted the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery) and director of research and development at the Springfield Armory. These two assignments put him in daily contact with not just his own highly skilled gunsmiths but with their civilian counterparts. Whelen learned from all of them.

He hunted all his life, taking his first deer in 1892 and his last 66 years later. Whelen's lifetime big-game bag totaled 110 head. Everything he learned went on paper. He wrote at least half a dozen books and over the years was a regular columnist for Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, The American Rifleman, and Guns & Ammo.

Confused Moose, Plummeting Goat
Whelen hunted all over Canada, throughout the Rocky Mountains, and in the Adirondacks-wherever there was real wilderness and deep forests. He left no records of what he considered close calls, but others might view the stories differently. On one occasion in the Canadian Rockies, he had come down off a sheep mountain. Lying down at a stream to get a drink, he heard a sound like someone hitting a tree with a baseball bat, then the sound of thundering hooves, then an ominous silence. It was a bull moose in the throes of whatever afflicts bull moose, standing over him. One more step and he would have trod on Whelen's feet.

Whelen rolled over and aimed his rifle at the moose, just in case. They remained that way for perhaps 10 seconds until finally Whelen inquired in his best Army terminology what the moose thought he was doing there. The moose almost fell over backward and cleared 50 feet in three jumps. Then he stood, horning the bushes, grunting nonstop, with Whelen grunting back at him. Finally Whelen got his drink and went back to camp, leaving the moose to amuse himself as best he could.

(There is a photograph taken on this trip that shows Whelen packing out the head and cape of a different bull moose-roughly 150 pounds. He does not looly, the U.S. Army itself.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Whelen had compiled a distinguished record and had attracted the attention of senior officers. He was assigned to the Army General Staff and spent the war inspecting camps and developing training programs.

After the war, lacking combat experience and having developed an intense interest in small-arms development, he transferred from the Infantry to Ordnance, where he would serve until his retirement in 1936. But his heart remained with the doughboys. Long after he took off the uniform for the last time, he wrote: "I would chuck all the work I have done, all the small success I have made, if I could go back tomorrow as Captain in command of Company F, 29th Infantry."

Whelen became commanding officer at the Frankford Arsenal (where, in 1804, his great-great-grandfather, Commissary General of the Army Israel Whelen, had outfitted the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery) and director of research and development at the Springfield Armory. These two assignments put him in daily contact with not just his own highly skilled gunsmiths but with their civilian counterparts. Whelen learned from all of them.

He hunted all his life, taking his first deer in 1892 and his last 66 years later. Whelen's lifetime big-game bag totaled 110 head. Everything he learned went on paper. He wrote at least half a dozen books and over the years was a regular columnist for Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, The American Rifleman, and Guns & Ammo.

Confused Moose, Plummeting Goat
Whelen hunted all over Canada, throughout the Rocky Mountains, and in the Adirondacks-wherever there was real wilderness and deep forests. He left no records of what he considered close calls, but others might view the stories differently. On one occasion in the Canadian Rockies, he had come down off a sheep mountain. Lying down at a stream to get a drink, he heard a sound like someone hitting a tree with a baseball bat, then the sound of thundering hooves, then an ominous silence. It was a bull moose in the throes of whatever afflicts bull moose, standing over him. One more step and he would have trod on Whelen's feet.

Whelen rolled over and aimed his rifle at the moose, just in case. They remained that way for perhaps 10 seconds until finally Whelen inquired in his best Army terminology what the moose thought he was doing there. The moose almost fell over backward and cleared 50 feet in three jumps. Then he stood, horning the bushes, grunting nonstop, with Whelen grunting back at him. Finally Whelen got his drink and went back to camp, leaving the moose to amuse himself as best he could.

(There is a photograph taken on this trip that shows Whelen packing out the head and cape of a different bull moose-roughly 150 pounds. He does not loo