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Literature of American Big-Game Hunting

Throughout the pioneer stages of American history, big-game hunting was not merely a pleasure, but a business, and often a very important and in fact vital business. At different times many of the men who rose to great distinction in our after history took part in it as such: men like Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston, for instance. Moreover, aside from these pioneers who afterward won distinction purely as statesmen or soldiers, there were other members of the class of professional hunters—men who never became eminent in the complex life of the old civilized regions, who always remained hunters, and gloried in the title—who, nevertheless, through and because of their life in the wilderness, rose to national fame and left their mark on our history. The three most famous instances of this class are Daniel Boone, David Crockett, and Kit Carson: men who were renowned in every quarter of the Union for their skill as game-hunters, Indian-fighters, and wilderness explorers, and whose deeds are still stock themes in the floating legendary lore of the border. They stand for all time as types of the pioneer settlers who won our land: the bridge-builders, the road-makers, the forest-fellers, the explorers, the land-tillers, the mighty men of their hands, who laid the foundations of this great commonwealth.

Moreover, the class of men who follow hunting not as a business, but as the most exhilarating and health-giving of all pastimes, has always existed in this country from the very foundation of the republic. Washington was himself fond of the rifle and shot-gun, and a skilled backwoodsman; and he was also, when at his Mount Vernon home, devoted to the chase of the gray fox with horse, horn, and hound. From that time to this the sport-loving planters of the South have relished hunting deer, bear, fox, and wildcat with their packs of old-fashioned hounds; while many of the bolder spirits in the new West have always been fond of getting time for a hunt on the great plains or in the Rockies. In the Northeastern States there was formerly much less heed paid to, or love felt for, the wilder kind of sports; but the feeling in their favor has grown steadily, and indeed has never been extinct. Even in this part of the country, many men of note have been, like Webster, devotees of the fishing-rod, the shot-gun, or the rifle; and of late years there has been a constantly increasing number of those who have gone back to the old traditions of the American stock on this continent, and have taken delight in the wild sports of the wilderness.

Yet there have been fewer books written by Americans about life in the American wilderness and the chase of American big game than one would suppose,—or at least fewer books which are worth reading and preserving; for there does not exist a more dismal species of literature than the ordinary cheap sporting volume. This paucity of good books is, however, not unnatural. In a new country, where material needs are very pressing, the men who do the things are apt to be more numerous than those who can write well about them when done. This is as it should be. It is a good thing to write books, but it is a better thing still to do the deeds which are worth being written about. We ought to have both classes, and highest of all comes he who belongs to both; but if we had to choose between them, we would of course choose the doer rather than the writer.

Nevertheless the writer's position is very important; and there is no delusion more hopeless than the belief of many excellent people to the effect that the man who has done most is necessarily he who can write best. The best books are those written by the rare men who, having actually done the things, are also capable of writing well about them when done. It is as true of hunting-books as of those relating to graver matters, that in very many cases he whose experiences are best worth recording is himself wholly unable to record them. No amount of experience and observation can supply the lack of the literary gift. Many of the old hunters tried their hands at making books, but hardly a volume they produced is worth preserving, save possibly as material which some better writer may handle at a future time. Boone wrote, or rather allowed a small pedant to write for him, a little pamphlet on his early wanderings in Kentucky; but its only value is derived from the fact that for certain of the events in early Kentucky history it is the sole contemporaneous authority. The biography published by or for Davy Crockett is somewhat better, but it is hard to say what parts of it are authentic and what not. Of course a comparatively uneducated man may by some rare chance possess the true literary capacity; and the worst of all writers is the half-educated man, especially he who takes the newspapers as models whereon to found his style; while the mere pedant who takes his language solely from books and the school-room is but slightly better. But, taken as a rule, it may be stated that the man who writes well about life in the wilderness must not only have had long and thorough acquaintance with that life, but must also have had some good literary training.

There have been a few excellent books written by Americans upon the wilderness life and the wilderness game of this continent. Elliott's "South Carolina Field Sports" is a very interesting and entirely trustworthy record of the sporting side of existence on the old Southern plantations, and not only commemorates how the planters hunted bear, deer, fox, and wildcat in the cane-brakes, but also gives a unique description of harpooning the devil-fish in the warm Southern waters. General Marcy wrote several volumes upon life on the plains before the civil war, and in them devoted one or two chapters to different kinds of plains game. The best book upon the plains country, however, is Colonel Richard Irving Dodge's "Hunting Grounds of the Great West," which deals with the chase of most kinds of plains game proper.

Judge Caton, in his "Antelope and Deer of America," gave a full account of not only the habits and appearance, but the methods of chase and life histories of the prongbuck, and of all the different kinds of deer found in the United States. Dr. Allen, in his superb memoir on the bisons of America, and Hornaday, in his book upon the extermination of that species, have rendered similar service for the vast herds of shaggy-maned wild cattle which have vanished with such singular and melancholy rapidity during the lifetime of the present generation. Mr. Van Dyke's "Still-Hunter" is a noteworthy book which, for the first time, approaches the still-hunter and his favorite game, the deer, from what may be called the standpoint of the scientific sportsman. It is one of the few hunting-books which should really be studied by the beginner because of what he can learn therefrom in reference to the hunter's craft. The Century Co.'s magnificent volume "Sport with Gun and Rod" contains accounts of the chase of most of the kinds of American big game, although there are two or three notable omissions, such as the elk, the grizzly bear, and the white goat. Lieutenant Schwatka, in his "Nimrod in the North," has chapters on hunting the polar bear, the musk-ox, and the arctic reindeer.

All the above hunting-books should be in the library of every American lover of the chase. Aside from these volumes, which deal specifically with big-game hunting, there are others touching on kindred subjects connected with wild life and adventure in the wilderness which should also be mentioned. Of course all the records of the early explorers are of special and peculiar interest. Chief among the books of this sort are the volumes containing the records of the explorations of Lewis and Clarke; the best edition being that prepared by the ornithologist Coues, who has himself had much experience of life in the wilder regions of the West. Catlin's books have a special merit of their own. The faunal natural histories, from the days of Audubon and Bachman to those of Hart Merriam, must likewise be included; and, in addition, no lover of nature would willingly be without the works of those masters of American literature who have written concerning their wanderings in the wilderness, as Parkman did in his "Oregon Trail," and Irving in his "Tour on the Prairies"; while the volumes of Burroughs and Thoreau have of course a unique literary value for every man who cares for outdoor life in the woods and fields and among the mountains.