Of Wolves and Men
From Chapter Nine: An American Pogrom
The European colonist was not much troubled by wolves until he began raising stock. The first livestock came to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609—swine, cattle, and horses. By 1625 these animals were common in colonial settlements and how to stop the wolves who preyed on these beasts was a topic to galvanize community discussion. While the European farmer might have dealt with predation by himself, in America, where people were forced to band together for a variety of reasons, wolf control was a community problem. Together with his neighbors a man dug wolf pits and erected palisades. He conducted battues and paid salaries of professional wolf hunters, as he had done in Europe. And he passed bounty laws. Wolf bounties had been a means of effecting wolf control for thousands of years and were current in Europe and the British Isles at the time of immigration. A system both biologically ineffective and wide open to fraud, it was nevertheless popular because raising the bounty payment and exchanging it for a dead wolf was tangible, daily evidence that something was being done.
The first wolf bounty law in America was passed in Massachusetts on November 9, 1630. Further bounty laws were soon passed in Virginia at Jamestown (on September 4, 1632) and in the other colonies. Payments were made in cash, tobacco, wine, corn, and, for Indians, blankets and trinkets. A New Jersey law of 1697 states: “Whatsoever Christian shall kill and bring the head of a wolf…to any magistrate…shall be paid a bounty of twenty shillings….” Only half that much was to be paid to Indians and blacks who killed wolves; it also became the custom to require Indians to produce without compensation one or two wolf pelts a year. A Virginia law passed in 1668 broke down the requirement of tribute in wolves to be paid according to the number of hunters in each tribe, asking 725 hunters to produce 145 wolves annually. (A hundred and fifty years later at Fort Union, Montana, trading companies were buying wolf pelts they didn’t need in order “not to create any dissatisfaction” among the Indians.)
In 1717 residents on Cape Cod tried to build a six-foot-high, eight-mile-long fence across the peninsula between Plymouth and Barnstable counties to keep the wolves from knocking off an occasional cow, but the project proved too expensive. Someone else discovered spring-loaded tallow balls. A steel fishhook was rolled back on itself like a spring, bound with thread, and covered with tallow. The balls were scattered around a wolf kill and the wolves who ate them died of internal hemorrhaging. Iron shipments from England and the production of local bog iron resulted in a variety of traps being produced, but they were too heavy and unwieldy to be popular. Some towns bought their own wolfhounds and appointed a hound master. (The huge Irish wolfhounds, 36 inches at the shoulder and weighing 120 pounds, were hard to come by. Oliver Cromwell in 1652 had issued an order that the popular dogs were not to be exported as they were too much needed in Ireland.)
By the first part of the eighteenth century the colonies were striving for self-sufficiency and the need for a sheep industry was clear. One of those concerned with wool production was Gen. George Washington. In a series of letters he exchanged with Arthur Young, president of the Agricultural Society of Great Britain, with Thomas Jefferson, and with Richard Peters, of the Philadelphia Agricultural Society, Washington lamented the attacks of feral dogs and wolves, which “retarded the growth of the sheep industry.” Young couldn’t understand why, since there were wolves in Europe and sheep raising flourished there. It was one of the last times America went to England for advice.
Two points had eluded Young: first, that there were a lot more wolves and wild dogs in America; and second, that the tendency in the States was not, as it was in Europe, to subdivide more or less settled land but to expand into decidedly unsettled land. Under those conditions more than a couple of shepherds and a hedgerow were required to guarantee a sheep industry.
The extent of predation on sheep by feral dogs that the Washington-Young correspondence alludes to has largely been ignored by historians of the period, who were content, as were the colonists, to ascribe all canine predation to the wolf. Since the wolf, not the dog, wore the cloak of evil and few could tell the difference between their tracks, wolves were blamed for the death of any animal if a canine print was close by. If a sheep died of natural causes—and sheep diseases were another thing that worried Washington—and its carcass was scavenged by dogs, it was often reported as a wolf kill. This error was far from innocuous. Long after the wolf ceased to be important as a predator on New England livestock, he was still bountied and blamed for predation caused by feral dogs.
Compounding the issue was the indiscriminate killing of wolves when only one or two were actually doing the damage in a region where twenty or thirty lived.
Under such continued pressure and harassment, the wolf had begun to disappear in the Northeast before the end of the eighteenth century. What few wolves were left lived in remote areas and avoided men. Some may have emigrated over the Alleghenies like the Indians, ahead of westward expansion.
Barry Holstun Lopez. All Rights Reserved.