We’ve been lucky, here in Bradford County, PA, that nature has been so much kinder to us than other parts of the country. However, historical annals tell us that people who lived here some 200 years ago were often at the mercy of the weather and the beasts of the fields and forests. Mother Nature was often downright surly.
Those of us who live here now certainly don’t have to fear being devoured by wolves after dark.
Harken to the Journal of John Shepard, describing the hard and snowbound winter of 1814-15 here in Bradford County:
The wolves were driven down from the mountains in search of food and many sheep were devoured by them. They could be heard howling at all times of night. The inhabitants were much in fear of them and were afraid to pass from Milltown to Athens, even in the daytime. There was no traveling after dark, so great was the fear and danger… Bears and panthers were sometimes seen between the rivers. Bounties were offered for killing these animals and those that were not killed retired to the mountains.
Then in 1816 summer went on vacation in Bradford County. Guess you might call it a summer vacation. It was called the Year Without a Summer because there was a killing frost every month of the year, including July and August. As we enter November 2017, we’ve been killing frost-free for, what, nine months? Coincidentally the coldest months on the year— January and February— were unusually mild. March was described as “cold and boisterous” and although early April promised a mild spring, it grew colder as the first full month of spring progressed, ending with snow, ice and freezing temperatures. Here’s a description in a chronology of that year from an issue of the Bradford County Historical Society’s The Settler:
In May ice formed half an inch thick, buds and flowers were frozen and corn killed. Frost, ice and snow were common in June. Almost everything green was killed and the fruit was nearly all destroyed. July was accompanied with frost and ice. In August ice formed a half an inch thick. A cold northwest wind prevailed all summer. Corn was so frozen that much of it was cut down and dried for fodder.
There was frost and ice in both September and October, though the first two weeks of September were perhaps the mildest of the year. There was plenty of good sleighing in November, thanks to an abundance of snow, but, believe it or not, December was unseasonably mild, though regularly dipping below freezing overnight. However, the toll of the year was near famine for the farmers and it was remembered for decades as “Eighteen Hundred Starve to Death.”
These days a different kind of wolf is feared after dark, but in 1816 Bradford County paid out $264 in bounties for wolves killed and an additional $136 for panthers taken. That tandem would be reap approximately $6,700 in today’s money. Obviously, wild animals, especially predatory ones, were so plentiful as to be deemed threatening to unarmed and unaccompanied humans.
In that context it is easier to understand the Big Hunt of 1818. There was the uncompromising weather of the second decade of the 1800’s, including that severe winter of 1814-15, the year without a summer of 1816 and the winter of 1816-17, which was regarded as the cruelest and harshest in almost four decades. The famine conditions at the end of 1816 would make that winter cruel enough but winter temperatures were described as fatally cold, with even the rapids in the streams and rivers frozen solid, with wood piles being consumed at alarming rates.
Historian Clement Heverly’s 1914 account of the Big Hunt of 1818, as reported in the Bradford Star, might seem a tall tale if you didn’t know about the glut of wild beasts throughout the countryside and the surly mood of the farmers barely surviving some tough years. The animals and weather had devastated their crops and unguarded food stores, with wolves, bears and panthers slaughtering and devouring their livestock.
It was advertised as a general hunt and posted for publication as far away as Wilkes-Barre. Posters about the hunt were tacked up throughout the region and anything that would remotely qualify as a village or town. Col. Aden Stevens, who settled in what is now Stevensville in the 1790’s, organized the big hunt and set the date for Dec. 4, 1818.
There were two huge hunting parties— one to fan out within 100 square miles of eastern Bradford County from Wysox to the mouth of Wyalusing Creek and the other the entire triangle between the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers that rose above the state line. The bulk of the hunting grounds were described as dense wilderness. Each territory was marked off with a circular area a mile in diameter near the center into which all the game was to be driven. Each of the two circular areas contained a gently sloped knoll or hill.
An estimated 900 hunters, all armed with guns, axes, spears or pitchforks, responded. The two armies of hunters started almost simultaneously at eight o’clock with a blast from a horn in Wysox repeated along regularly stationed points. There were tales of hero hunters slaying wolves, panthers and bears in their march through the thick woods. But the key was to drive the animals into the compact circle until they were surrounded by an unbroken line of hunters. The entrapped snarling wolves and growling bears, along with darting deer, had literally been herded to their doom.
Heverly describes what happened at the climax of the Big Hunt in the north thusly: “In the indiscriminate fire that began in this corral it is a wonder that many of the hunters were not killed. The killing of game lasted about two hours, upwards of 30 animals being slaughtered and probably twice that many escaping.”
This colorful account describes just one of the hunting parties, the Athens-Chemung Company. The hunt in the eastern part of the county reportedly claimed 150 deer alone, as well as 50 wolves, 15 bears and “a great number of foxes.” Dressing and disposing of the game required most of the hunters to stay throughout the night in the wilderness before returning to civilization with the meat and skins.
This was apparently a replay of the Great Hunt of 1805, which took place in June with the express purpose of “ridding the country of destructive wild beasts,” as well as securing pastures and barnyards for raids. An estimated 600 hunters were involved in this hunt, forming a circle 120 miles in circumference and then closing in on their quarry. The reported tally was 72 panthers, 90 wolves, 145 bears, 37 foxes and 25 wildcats.
The typical bear yielded 35 pounds of meat, so we’re talking about almost 5,000 pounds, or two and a half tons, of bear meat alone.