The Pennsylvania Mammal Holocaust of 1760–A Rare Record of an Old-Fashioned “Varmint” Drive

The old timey pioneers did not appreciate wildlife or wilderness at all.  They saw their environment as a dismal wasteland filled with vermin, a word later Americanized to varmint.  Today, what most consider a beautiful animal was then viewed as a wealth-destroying scourge.  During the 18th century most people didn’t hold large amounts of money in banks but instead measured their wealth in the quantity and quality of the agricultural produce the land they owned produced. There was an economic basis behind their desire to exterminate all competing large mammals because if herds of deer ate their corn or a pack of wolves ripped apart their sheep, they would be financially ruined.  Nevertheless, the methods they used to accomplish this goal of ridding the countryside of varmints seems appalling to modern sensibilities.  One of the methods was known as a ring hunt.  Ring hunts were especially popular in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and settlers used them annually from about 1750-1850.  By the middle of the 19th century, all large wild animals had been completely extirpated from these 2 states.  Ring hunts were popular social events where men got together to enjoy the wonton slaughter of animals.  Few of the participants had any scientific interest in the composition of the animals they killed, and accordingly, the results of most of these murder parties have been forgotten.  However, 1 detailed account has been handed down to us.

A man known as Black Jack Shwartz led a ring hunt in Snyder County, Pennsylvania about 1760.  (Shwartz must have been a charismatic leader because he was previously known to have headed a group of volunteer sharpshooters for General Braddock during the French and Indian War.)  Shwartz organized a group of 200 settlers into a ring surrounding about 30 square miles of wilderness near the Mahantengo Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.  The Mahantengo, translated from the local Indian language, means “where we had plenty of meat to eat.”  The name suggests this region was particularly rich in game, although at this early date wilderness still bordered the young city of Philadelphia, and wild animals ranged throughout the state.  The hunters, standing at intervals about 200 yards apart, made bonfires, rang bells, and fired their muskets into the air, while gradually advancing toward a cleared area in the middle of the circle.  They drove all the wild mammals into the clearing, then shot and killed 1200 of them.  Hundreds of animals did escape.  Faced with a choice between a concentration of wolves, cougars, and bears or puny but noisy humans, hundreds of bison, along with some deer and elk, stampeded through the perimeter and broke free.  This probably explains why the ratio of carnivores in the final talley is so unusually high.  The death toll included 198 white-tail deer, 111 bison, 2 elk, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 41 cougars, 114 bobcats and/or Canadian lynx, 17 black bears, 1 white bear, 12 wolverines, 3 fishers, 3 beavers, 1 otter, and 500 smaller mammals probably consisting of assorted rabbits, squirrels, possums, raccoons, and skunks.  It seems amazing that such a concentration of wildlife lived in just a 30 square mile area, but other written accounts from Kentucky and Oklahoma also claim high numbers of animals in places prior to the advancement of civilization into formerly pristine environments.

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Snyder County 

Location of Snyder County, Pennsylvania where pioneers wiped out most of the large mammals within a 30 square mile area in a day.  “Varmint” drives such as this were common in the 18th century, explaining how wildlife rapidly disappeared in the east. 

An albino black bear mother.  The white bear killed in Pennsylvania during a “varmint” drive was probably an albino black bear but may have been a polar bear straggler. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/a-polar-bear-ursus-maritimus-fossil-in-breck-smith-cave-kentucky/)

Photo: Wolverine, Gulo gulo.

Wolverines lived in Pennsylvania til about 1865.  A total of 3 were killed in the 1760 circle hunt.

A few choice cuts of meat and a few hides were taken, but most of the dead animals were placed in a pile as “high as the trees.”  This was set on fire, creating a stench that forced some settlers to leave their cabins, even though they lived 3 miles away.  According to the author of the below reference, a mound, within which bones from this mammal holocaust were interred, still marked the site in 1917.  I wonder whether this mound is still there today.

The local Indians were so furious over this destruction of their food supply that they later ambushed and killed Black Jack Shwartz.  They also murdered 12 settlers.  But these murders did not discourage the settlers.  Instead, the settlers continued to hold annual ring hunts, purposefully aggravating the Indians.  The settlers took joy in poking the Indians in the eye.  They held ring hunts as much to insult the Indians as to eliminate varmints.  Ring hunts helped the settlers starve the Indians, while protecting their crops and livestock. 

The concept of a ring hunt is especially revolting to the modern day naturalist.  There are no National Parks east of the Mississippi that host the variety and numbers of wildlife killed in just the 1 ring hunt for which we have a detailed record.  I wish I could live in a wilderness where wildlife was that abundant, yet other people who did have that opportunity chose to destroy it rather than enjoy it.  How ironic.

Reference:

Shoemaker, H.

Extinct Pennsylvania Animals

Altoona Tribune Press 1917

 

 

 

https://archive.org/stream/extinctpennsylva00shoe#page/n9/mode/2up

 

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2 Responses to “The Pennsylvania Mammal Holocaust of 1760–A Rare Record of an Old-Fashioned “Varmint” Drive”

  1. Black Bear (Ursus americanus) Diversity during the Pleistocene | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] occasional individuals with white coats.  A white-coated bear was killed in a 1760 ring hunt (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/the-pennsylvania-mammal-holocaust-of-1760-a-rare-record… )  Black bears may also be cinnamon, blonde, or even […]

  2. Revisiting Lewis and Clark | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] a blog article a few years ago about a ring hunt that took place in Pennsylvania during 1760. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/the-pennsylvania-mammal-holocaust-of-1760-a-rare-record… ) Settlers exterminated wildlife in these organized hunts to protect their crops and livestock and […]

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