Sunday, September 7, 2014

Early settlers describe interaction with wolves

Posted: Saturday, September 6, 2014 
In the winter of 1818-1819, a young Henry Rowe Schoolcraft — he would later become famous as the man who discovered the source of the Mississippi River — wandered west into the largely unexplored Ozarks. For three months he and a lone companion explored as far south and west as modern-day Branson and the James River, near Springfield, before entering Arkansas.  

His journal is filled with descriptions of game — deer, turkey and elk — as well as large predators, including wolves. He does not distinguish the species of wolf, but most scientists and experts today believe it was most likely the red wolf that lived deep in the Ozarks. 

Once found throughout the Southeastern United States, the red wolf is larger than a coyote but smaller than a gray wolf. “While lying before our campfire last night, the wolves set up their howling, apparently within 200 yards of us,” Schoolcraft wrote on Nov. 11, 1818, while camped along the Current River. “... We had little apprehension for our safety ... when we awoke, the wolves were still on an adjacent hill.” Later, south of Springfield, he describes “innumerable tracks of deer, wolf, elk, bear and turkey” in the snow, “affording a perfect map of their movements.”  

But even before Schoolcraft set out on his journey, the territorial Legislature in Missouri had put out a bounty on wolves — $2 if the animal was found within two miles of a settlement. A generation after Schoolcraft, in 1844, Silas Turnbo was born on the White River. Before he died in 1925, he left behind an account of early Ozarks’ life that includes stories of wolves. 

Turnbo does not distinguish between wolf species, either, but notes that because of attacks on livestock, settlers “did the acts of savages and in some cases inflicted the most creel (cruel) treatment on the ravenous beast they could invent in payment for the destruction of property.”

 Some settlers, he wrote, stripped the hide off captured wolves and then released them; others knocked the teeth out of the captured animals, then turned their dogs on them. “They shot them, caught them in pen traps, steel traps, poisoned them and destroyed whelps until it would seem that there was not a live wolf left to tell the doleful tale of their destruction, but instead of being exterminated, they appeared to increase in numbers as fast as they were thinned out.”