A few years ago I was stuck in a tent for three days during a freak snowstorm in the woods of western Maryland. As I waited to die, I passed the time by wondering if the hardships that modern hunters endure compare with what our forebears from the 19th century had to undergo.
The storm lifted, and I got out of the woods, but I was still curious if we are as tough as they were. So I did some research, and I got my answer: No.
Not even close.
Compared to those guys, we do not even deserve to be called wussies. Doubt me? Let me introduce you to Oliver Hazard Perry.
Gone for Three Months Perry (who was almost certainly named after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry [1785-1819], the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie) was the original whitetail fanatic, a guy who routinely headed off into the wilds of his native Ohio and Michigan for three months at a time to hunt, and who bore almost unimaginable hardships. That we know anything about Perry at all is something of a miracle. His colorful and detailed notes of his hunting exploits from 1836 through 1855 weren’t published until 35 years after his death, and then only in a run of 100 copies, making it one of the rarest sporting books ever. It’s called, appropriately, The Hunting Expeditions of Oliver Hazard Perry.
Perry let almost nothing stand in the way of going hunting. For a short hunt–a little over two weeks–he could be ready to roll at the drop of a hat. “December 17th, 1841. James Williamson and myself, providing ourselves with a half-gallon of Old Jamaica rum, three papers of cocoa, three pounds of sugar, and a loaf of brown bread, took our rifles, and with my sorrel mare and buggy, started for Smith’s in Russia, Lorain County, Ohio, on a deer hunt.”
Lack of funding was a minor detail. At the end of a hunt lasting five weeks in 1837, during which he noted that game was scarce that year, he wrote, “Our party had killed nine deer, three coon, one turkey, seven or eight partridges [the common term for grouse at the time] and as many hedgehogs. Having no property or money, I was only enabled to go on this hunt by borrowing five dollars from Dudley Baldwin.”
A Night With Puking Jake He wasn’t picky about accommodations, either. He routinely slept on makeshift beds of bark or spruce boughs on bare ground. If he’d chased a wounded deer into a cedar swamp where it was too wet to lie down, he’d sit up all night by a fire.
But even Perry seems to have been a bit put out by the night he spent in December 1842 with the boy he and a friend nicknamed Puking Jake. They had arrived at a dilapidated old log house belonging to a well-known wolf hunter named Old Snyder near Black Swamp, Ohio. The house–unchinked, with just a few loose boards over the dirt for flooring–consisted of a single room and two large beds for a family of seven. Perry and his companion were forced to sleep on the floor. “Nothing disturbed our rest this night, save our extreme suffering from cold, the soreness of our backs and ribs from coming in contact with the hard puncheons, and the unearthly groanings of poor Jake, who, during the night, gave us specimens of his turkey-buzzard vomiting, which made the old folks grunt and John and myself groan in madness and despair at the stinking effluvia that rose from Old Snyder’s bed.”
Spicebush Tea and Thorn Apples Perry had the perfect constitution for a hunter. Strong and healthy, he didn’t mind living for weeks at a time on venison, spicebush tea, hickory nuts, and thorn apples. He preferred to hunt with friends, but it was always the hunting itself that mattered most. He could be stoic about the sufferings of lesser men. “Frederick was taken with a sudden fit today when upon the deck of the boat and fell suddenly backward on his head,” he wrote at the start of one hunt. “He frothed at the mouth, was wild and delirious, and probably had an attack of delirium tremens, although some thought it was an apoplectic fit. This evening was delightful. Slept sound this night and felt well.”
If you’ve ever gotten turned around and had to spend a night in the woods, you know it can be a fairly daunting experience. Perry seemed almost to relish it. He wrote in 1838 of seeing several deer but not being able to get a shot at them. “Traveling till night and not finding camp, I built a large fire, made a kind of shelter out of spruce brush, and made camp. The night was clear and frosty which, with the novelty of my situation, prevented me from sleeping.”
The next day, he kept hunting rather than searching for camp, missed a shot at a bull elk not more than 10 yards off due to a severe case of buck fever, and stopped to rest in an old Indian camp littered with birchbark moccasins with the bottoms burnt out. He slept out again, “nesting” so close to the fire that sparks burned holes in his coat.
Having not eaten in two days, he at last came across a deadfall trap baited for wolves with a horse carcass and followed the trail back to a log house. “The folks in it received me very hospitably and gave me a good supper,” he wrote. “I ate till I nearly killed myself.” When he arrived back at camp the next day, his friends were preparing to leave, supposing him dead. Perry persuaded them to stay, as the woods were full of game.
Buck Fever In 1845, Perry received a cast-steel, double-barreled muzzleloader from Morgan James, a New York gunmaker, which provoked “more than my usual fall fever for a deer hunt.” The .47-caliber rifle weighed 11 pounds and offered something few other hunters of the time had: a fast follow-up shot.
Perry’s diary entries show that he shot at almost every game animal he saw, and–owing to the quality of the firearms of the day and his own excitement–missed often. “The buck fever seized me in a moment. I was all shakes and made two foolish shots at the Old Patriarch, who hearing a noise and smelling gunpowder, threw up his head, hoisted his flag, gave a snort and bounded away forever from my sight, leaving me to suffer from chagrin and mortification.”
After such encounters, Perry was likely to seek solace in a glass of Old Bald Eye. When a friend missed an equally easy shot and said nothing for several hours, Perry asked the fellow how he felt. “I feel,” the man retorted, “as though I would have been under a lasting obligation to you if you had stepped up to me immediately after I shot at that buck and kicked me all the way back to Napoleon.”
Into the Muck One of Perry’s more trying adventures came in the course of a three-month deer hunt in 1852, during which time he and a friend left their main camp for the headwaters of the Cass River in Michigan carrying “six days scant rations” of hard bread and boiled pork along with their rifles, knapsacks, tomahawks, an axe, and an Indian rubber cloth for shelter.
They slogged through a cedar swamp, through smaller swamps of black ash and cedar, then came to an even more forbidding tamarack swamp, which they “dreaded to enter,” with muck up to their knees and timber so thick it obscured the sky. It rained steadily all the while.
After four days during which they were unable to find enough dry ground to lie down on, they realized that the swamps behind them were now too full of water to allow backtracking; their only option was to keep going. They had eaten all their pork and shortened their rations of bread. “Fred had the blues considerable this morning, expressing fears that we would not kill any game and consequently starve to death,” Perry wrote on September 28. “He said that if we could only kill a deer so as to have plenty to eat, he did not care how long we were in the woods before we got out.”
That day, Perry came across a small herd of elk and shot at a cow, but missed. “We very much grieved,” he reported, and they despaired of following the elk in the swamp. Just then, Perry heard bugling, threw off his pack, and raced toward the sound. He snuck up on a “bull elk of the largest size with tremendous horns” and killed it at 100 yards with two shots from his rifle.
They had meat now and salted and smoked a good portion of it to sustain them on the rest of their journey. But they had been traveling for several weeks, and even Perry admitted the ordeal had taken its toll. “Could hardly stand a portion of this day from extreme exhaustion,” he wrote on October 5, “caused by so long an exposure to wet and cold, poor diet, and the labor of walking through cedar swamps, windfalls and thickets, through muck and mud, and climbing over heaps of fallen timber carrying in my hand a rifle of 11 pounds weight and on my back the ammunition for said rifle, together with a pack containing one heavy undershirt, a pair of socks, et cetera, and some 25 pounds of jerked elk meat.”
The two men eventually found their way to an isolated house on the banks of the Cass, where a woman named Mrs. Bigelow gave them bread and milk. The next morning, “As there was no wood for the fire, I worked an hour or two in dragging in from the woods to the house some dry poles and chopping them up.”
And then, of course, he went hunting.