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Early Hunting

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Texans still enjoy hunting deer and turkey in the fall and winter, especially around the holidays, but when it comes to harvesting game that's about the only similarity between today and yesterday.

In the late 19th century, those who saw themselves as equal to the "Deerslayer's" Natty Bumppo did not behave very sportingly, at least not by comparison to 21st century standards. Consider:
  • Most hunters went out when the game did, paying no attention to the calendar or the clock
  • Neither did they see anything wrong with killing as many animals as they could, often just for the heck of it
  • Nor did they worry about how they did it, either hunting at night with lights, using dogs to chase down deer or using fowling pieces only slightly less powerful than a modern anti-aircraft battery
  • Early settlers found plenty of game in Texas, which fed the notion that wildlife amounted to a constantly renewing resource. Most hunters saw no need to restrain themselves.

    "Geese and ducks were innumerable," J.W. Lockhart wrote of the Texas he first saw in 1837, "deer by the thousands - sometimes we could count from 100 to 150 in a bunch." Not only that, he continued, "…deer, turkey and other game were comparatively gentle and easy of approach."

    Back then, having fresh meat on the table presented no greater challenge than stepping out the front door of your log cabin and sighting your rifle on the choicest deer or gobbler.

    Denton County Judge T.D. Ferguson, who had ridden with the Texas Rangers in the early 1860s, recalled a hunt in what later became Archer County.

    "I know that it's pretty hard to believe in this day," he said in 1896, "but around the camp those little post oaks were completely covered with wild turkeys. There were thousands, yes, ten of thousands of them…Every other kind of game was the same way. On the plains it looked as though it were one solid mass of buffaloes, while deer, wolves, antelope and the like were in great abundance and were tame to almost fearlessness."

    The abundance of game continued for decades. In the fall of 1887, the Dallas Morning News reported that a party from Chappell Hill in Washington County had recently returned from a hunt in the Big Thicket. They had killed 22 deer. (In many Texas counties today, the limit is only one buck per hunter per season.)

    Earlier that year, a commercial hunting party sold 26 sets of venison hams in Pecos. One of the hunters reported that they also had killed "some wildcats, foxes, wolves and one bear." A correspondent for the Dallas newspaper observed: "The Davis Mountains should be set aside for a public hunting park. They are hard to beat."

    Twelve years later, noted Austin lawyer "Buck" Walton and seven others spent two weeks hunting in LaSalle County.

    "Major Walton stated that up to the time he left the party had killed 25 deer, about 30 javelinas and innumerable partridges [a common, if incorrect, early description of quail]," the New reported. "We made our camp about 30 miles west of Cotulla," Walton said. "We had fine sport hunting. It is a veritable sportsmen's paradise."

    But over hunting eventually took its toll. As Judge Ferguson said when interviewed shortly before the turn of the 20th century, "Those good old days are gone, never to return."

    Ferguson was right on the first count, wrong on the other.

    By the 1880s, biologists and others who understand that wildlife in Texas had been under too much hunting pressure for too long prevailed on the legislature to pass the state's first hunting law.

    Getting used to the new law took some adjusting on the part of Texans, even Gov. James Hogg. Judging from a Feb. 27, 1894 account in the Dallas newspaper, he seems to have forgotten that February was not deer season. His lapse of memory or judgment came to the attention of the press, which led the Santa Fe New Mexican to editorialize that if Hogg had indeed shot a deer out of season "he is a law-breaker and he ought to be punished."

    Thanks to the establishment of seasons and limits as well as the serious enforcement of those laws, by the early 1950s the Texas deer herd had come back. Once again, many rural Texans can shoot a deer from their doorway if they want - provided they have a license and its in season.

    © Mike Cox
    "Texas Tales" November 16, 2016
    Originally published December 21, 2006 column

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