How Tough Were 19th-Century Hunters, Really?
Good thing I wasn’t born in the 19th century—I wouldn’t have lasted four days
RECENT BREAKTHROUGHS in technology have led Field & Stream to acquire a machine that lets it send writers back in time to produce stories. Since the new technology is still in the beta stage, the magazine’s editors picked me for the trial run.
“Once someone used the word expendable, you were basically a lock for the assignment,” one of them told me. “We didn’t even consider anybody else.”
Appropriately grateful for their confidence in me, I asked where I was going. America in the 1840s, as it turned out. “The whole continent was basically an unfenced game farm,” I was told. To prepare, I delved into two books from the period. One was Forty-four Years of the Life of a Hunter by Meshach Browning. The other was Wild Sports in the Far West by Frederick Gerstaecker. Both of these writers were exceptional men—incredibly brave, almost unbelievably tough, and certifiably insane. The other thing was that the quantity of wild game was not to be believed. Nobody thought Browning was inflating his numbers when he claimed to have killed between 300 and 400 bears, 2,000 deer, and about 50 mountain lions. He also took so many wolves that he stopped counting. One time, he killed three bears in four hours. I am not making this up.
For his part, Gerstaecker recounts things like covering “only” 20 miles of rough country a day when he was running a high fever. He might have made better time if he hadn’t been slowed by carrying a zither everywhere. Once, having killed nothing to eat, Gerstaecker dined on the acorns of an overcup oak “so as not to leave my stomach entirely unemployed.” Unprocessed acorns contain enough tannin to send pretty much any normal person to a poison control center. I told my editor about what I’d read and expressed the tiniest bit of concern. “Look, Heavey, you’re uncomfortable wherever we send you,” he replied. “This wouldn’t be nearly as interesting with someone competent.”
I CAME TO with a splitting headache, lying on the ground outside a tavern loud with people singing. Staggering inside, I found Gerstaecker playing an out-of-tune zither and everyone singing along. Browning, who looked exactly like his portrait in the book, was there as well. Finishing the song, the two hunters laughed and ordered another round. I showed them a business card, said they were the exact men I’d been looking for, and begged them to take me on their next hunting trip. They nodded and smiled widely, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Browning mouth the words “whack job” to Mr. Gerstaecker while making a circular motion next to his temple. Despite this—or because of it, I never found out—they said they’d like nothing better than to take a greenhorn hunting.
First, however, they wanted to see a demonstration of my shooting skill. Outside the tavern, Browning pointed at a barrel some 40 yards away and told me to aim at the steel band near the top. I did, but my shot flew wide and hit a cow, which said one last “Mo—” and fell over dead. It was, I was told, a prized milk cow belonging to the tavern owner, who was known to be a violent man.
“I suggest we make haste,” said Gerstaecker. He slipped his zither into a leather bag and bade me to follow him into the woods. Browning, who said he’d had quite enough of the damned zither, was already ahead of us. After a mile, they stopped. Browning told me, “Here’s the deal. You walk third, behind us. And for heaven’s sake, don’t shoot anything.”
“What did you say your name was?” asked Gerstaecker.
“Nickens,” I replied. “T. Edward Nickens.”
At that very moment a big bear came charging down the path. Knowing it was a moment that called for nerves of steel, I shrieked and wet my pants. I must say that Gerstaecker, who was in the lead, was the coolest customer you’d ever want to see. He leveled his gun and just stood there as if he wished the bear would hurry up. As the bear reached him, he jabbed the barrel into its chest and fired. Figuring that poor Gerstaecker was a goner and not wishing to share his fate, I rapidly ascended the nearest tree. The shot missed the heart, and the bear was on its feet again in a second. It took a nasty swipe at Gerstaecker’s leg. The big claw shredded his buckskin leggings and took a small chunk out of his calf, but the man seemed unfazed.
“Now we shall have excellent sport!” he cried, pulling the knife from his belt and engaging in hand-to-paw combat with the bear. Displaying preternatural agility, Gerstaecker dodged the bear’s teeth and stabbed the animal in the heart. “Ah, nothing like a tussle with a bear to make you feel alive!” he cried. I couldn’t believe that the dude had survived. By this time, both men were looking up at me from the base of the tree with the kind of pity one might have for a boy severely frightened by a loud noise. “Didst thou find any honey up there?” asked Browning, barely suppressing a smile. “Thy breeches look quite dark all of a sudden.
This, I learned, was a pretty normal outing for these guys. And things got even crazier over the next few days. After dining on saddle of venison, mushrooms, and quail, I was taken to a rocky area where the men said there were many “bear holes.” These turned out to be small caves where bears sheltered. Browning entered one carrying his rifle and a candle, having stationed Gerstaecker at another opening in case the bear tried to escape that way. There then came a great deal of roaring, a few shrieks (man or bear, I couldn’t tell), and a great deal of grunting. Then a slightly bloody Browning emerged and blew out the still-lit candle.
“Come over,” he called to Gerstaecker. “I need help in retrieving the bear. He was a big ’un.” I have known some crazy men in my time, but this was a whole new level. It was a wonder to me that any 19th-century hunter survived long enough to pass on his genes.
At another hole, this one with two exits, the two men paused to strategize. The next thing I knew, they were handing me a candle and tying a rope around one of my legs. “We figured you’d want to participate. You know, for your story. If you get in trouble, just tug on the rope and we’ll pull you out.” The idea was that I would enter the cave by the front door and scare the bear into fleeing from one of the two other exits, where Browning and Gerstaecker would be stationed. I explained that I was only a pretend outdoor writer—a charge that has often been levied against me—and that my commitment to the story didn’t extend to wandering into caves stocked with bears.
At that, the two withdrew a ways to confer. When they returned, they untied my leg and began to rub my clothes with the haunch of a deer they had recently killed. I was soon covered in deer blood and fat. “What the heck are you doing now?” I demanded. They said that since I didn’t want to hunt bear, they had decided on easier prey. “And what would that be?” I asked.
“Mountain lion,” said Browning. “A big cat can’t resist the smell of fresh deer meat. Don’t worry. We’ll shoot before any lion gets you. These rifles fire a good 90 percent of the time.”
Pondering this scenario, I did the courageous thing and passed out completely. Evidently, it was at this moment that the editors must have decided to retrieve me, for when I awoke it was 2010 and I was standing outside a stadium where a banner read Sting and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Tonight. This almost made me want to tangle with bears again. I really hope they get the bugs out of the time machine soon.
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