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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Deer Antlers

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Following the sacred deer, the first people emerge from the serpent-filled underwater world in the west. Lighting their way with torches, they walk east toward what they came to call Dawn Mountain. Once they reach the high ground, the deer that willingly led them from the abyss beneficently sacrifices itself.

When the deer falls, its carcass suddenly blooms with peyote buttons. The vision-producing plant even grows from the tips of the deer's antlers. Eating the deer, the people become gods, and the world begins.

Archeologist Carolyn Boyd, who directs the Shumla rock art research and education program in Val Verde County, believes this creation myth, originally ascribed to the Huichol culture of Northern Mexico but now thought to be much earlier than that, is recorded in ancient rock art near the Rio Grande. Paintings found in the high rock canyons of the lower Pecos River often depict deer and human-like figures wearing headgear supporting a pair of antlers. If not every culture's view of cosmology, the roughly 4,000-year-old painting at the White Shaman site nevertheless represents the emergence of deer antlers as a cultural icon in the Southwest.

While most hunters today primarily view whitetail deer as a source of lean meat and trophy racks, the antlers grown and shed every year from the foreheads of bucks are more than symmetrical (or non-typical) calcium formations intended by nature for self-defense and as a symbol of genetic quality. Since before recorded history, antlers—either taken from harvested deer or picked up after being shed—have comforted and benefited man as spiritual symbols and cultural artifacts ranging from tools to art.

But in the beginning, stood the fundamental human need of food.

When a pre-Texas Texan thrust his forearm forward to unleash a flint-pointed dart in the direction of a white-tailed deer, the size of the buck's antlers did not mean nearly as much to him as it does to a modern hunter. Back then what mattered most was providing nutrition for his people, be it immediate family or all the other hunter-gatherers in his band.

Beyond the protein and fat a deer provided, the deer's antlers amounted to the Home Depot raw material section of the day. The heavy end of a deer antler made a good knife handle and the sharp tines could be used as awls. Pieces of antler also came in handy for digging and flint-knapping.

When the first Europeans began trekking across Texas, they did not see a deer as a four-legged deity or walking tool box. But early explorers did come to appreciate how venison tasted, especially with seasoning. In the fresh meat department, Spanish priests and soldiers, along with French interlopers, found white-tail deer and other game animals abundant.

With the coming of the industrial revolution, the utilitarian use of deer began to decrease, though its value as a menu item did not. Somewhere between the take-a-deer-or-go-hungry days and the taming of the Texas frontier in the final quarter of the 19th century, the size of a buck's rack became a matter of hunter pride and bragging rights.

Who knows who the first hunter was who decided to keep a nice rack hanging over his fireplace along with his favorite rifle, but a big set of antlers became increasingly popular as a trophy.

The formation of the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887 by avid hunter and future big stick President Theodore Roosevelt, likely came about the time that hunting began its transition toward being considered more of a sporting activity than strictly a means to acquire meat on the cloven hoof. The club developed the numerical antler scoring system still used today.

Slowly, antlers also attained an economic value. An early instance of that occurred in San Antonio. There, in 1881, German-Texan Albert Friedrich tired of working for someone else as a bartender and bellhop and decided to go into business for himself. With adult-like promotional acumen, the 17-year-old Alamo City teenager opened a saloon on Main Plaza. He named it the Buckhorn.

At some point early in that venerable establishment's history (it's still in business), young Friedrich had a great marketing idea. Since many of the cowpokes and others who came to town had little more than a change of shirts in their saddlebags and even less in their pockets, Friedrich came up with the notion of offering a free drink to anyone who brought in a set of antlers he could hang on the walls of his saloon. As word spread of this arrangement, the watering hole acquired a Texas-size collection of horns that not only drew customers who did have cash for drinks, it attracted the growing tourist trade.

The Buckhorn no longer trades adult beverages for antlers, but deer antlers are big business in Texas today. Shed antlers can be purchased on line for use in a wide variety of ways, or a hunter can spend thousands to harvest a potential Boone and Crockett record-shattering South Texas buck on a high-fenced ranch.

The practical uses of deer antlers, though now mostly ornamental, include using antlers or cut antlers for just about anything a creative type can imagine. Uses range from jewelry to knife handles. Deer antler casket sprays are even available to solace the grief of those who lose avid hunters.


Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 27, 2016 column
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