Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Audubon's Dogs: Hunting in the American South Before the Civil War

John James Audubon, in his three-volume treatise, The Vivaparous Quadrupeds of North America (1846), only identifies two indigenous dogs of North America, the Hare-Indian Dog (Canis familiaris var. lagopus) and the Esquimaux Dog (Canis familiaris var. borealis), though he does describe a number of wolves and foxes. Nevertheless, in describing a wide range of animals that are hunted, he provides a wealth of detail regarding the hunting practices, indeed hunting cultures, of the pre-Civil War United States. For the slave states—he long resided in Kentucky and was himself a slave owner—Audubon provides considerable detail about how slaves were used in the hunts, what game they pursued on their own, and the dogs they owned.


The Common American Wild Cat, Lynx Rufus, killed livestock and game, and was hunted on the plantations of the South. (Here I will follow Audubon's spelling and capitalization preferences. Double click to see larger images.) In his description of such a hunt beginning early one morning, Audubon carefully explains the functions of the slaves—always a gentleman, he generally refers to them as servants.

“The hunters greet each other in the open-hearted manner characteristic of the Southern planter. Each pack of dogs is under the guidance of a coloured driver, whose business it is to control the hounds and encourage and aid them in the hunt. The drivers ride in most cases the fleetest horses on the ground, in order to be able, whilst on a deer hunt to stop the dogs. These men, who are so important to the success of the chase, are possessed of a good deal of intelligence and shrewdness, are usually much petted, and regarding themselves as belonging to the aristocracy of the plantation, are apt to look down upon their fellow servants as inferiors, and consider themselves privileged even to crack a joke with their masters.”

The hunt of the wildcat is not to change objective even if a deer is startled:

“The drivers are ordered to stop the dogs if a deer should be started, a circumstance which often occurs, and which has saved the life of many a Cat, whose fate five minutes before this unlucky occurrence was believed to be sealed. Orders are given to destroy the Cat fairly, by running him down with the hounds, or if this cannot be done, then by shooting him if he ascends a tree or approaches within gun shot of the stand which the hunter has selected as the most likely place for him to pass near. The day is most auspicious--there is not a breath of wind to rustle the falling leaves, nor a cloud to throw its shadows over the wide joyous landscape. The dew-drops are sparkling on the few remaining leaves of the persimmon tree, and the asters and dog-fennel hang drooping beneath their load of moisture. The dogs are gamboling in circles around, and ever and anon, in spite of all restraint, the joyous note breaks forth—the whole pack is impatient for the chase, and the young dogs are almost frantic with excitement.”

One could almost be reading of dogs before an English fox hunt:

“But we have not time for a farther description of the scene-whilst we are musing and gazing, the word is given, ‘Go!’ and off start the hounds, each pack following its own driver to different parts of the old fields, or along the borders of the swamps and marshes. Much time, labour and patience are usually required, before the ‘Cat’ can be found by the dogs: sometimes there is a sudden burst from one or the other of the packs, awakening expectation in the minds of the huntsmen, but the driver is not to be so easily deceived, as he has some dogs that never open at a rabbit, and the snap of the whip soon silences the riotous young babblers. Again there is a wild burst and an exulting shout, giving assurance that better game than a rabbit is on foot; and now is heard a distant shot, succeeded in a second of time by another, and for an instant all is still: the echoes come roaring up through the woods, and as they gradually subside, the crack of the whip is again heard stopping the dogs. The story is soon told; a deer had been started—the shot was too small—or the distance too great, or any other excuses, (which are always at hand among hunters of fertile imagination,) are made by the unsuccessful sportsman who fired, and the dogs are carried back to the ‘trail’ of the Cat, that has been growing fresher and fresher for the last half hour. At length, ‘Trimbush,’ (and a good dog is he,) that has been working on the cold trail for some time, begins to give tongue, in a way that brings the other dogs to his aid. The drivers now advance to each other, encouraging their dogs; the trail becomes a drag; onward it goes through a broad marsh at the head of a rice-field. ‘He will soon be started now!’ ‘He is up!’ What a burst! you might have heard it two miles off—it comes in mingled sounds, roaring like thunder, from the muddy marsh and from the deep swamp. The barred owl, frightened from the monotony of his quiet life among the cypress trees, commences hooting in mockery as it were, of the wide-mouthed hounds. Here they come, sweeping through the resounding swamp like an equinoctial storm—the crackling of a reed, the shaking of a bush, a glimpse of some object that glided past like a shadow, is succeeded by the whole pack, rattling away among the vines and fallen timbers, and leaving a trail in the mud as if a pack of wolves in pursuit of a deer had hurried by. The Cat has gone past. It is now evident that he will not climb a tree. It is almost invariably the case that where he can retreat to low swampy situations, or briar patches, he will not take a tree, but seeks to weary the dogs by making short windings among the almost impassable briar patches. He has now been twisting and turning half a dozen times in a thicket covering only three or four acres—let us go in and take our stand on the very trail where he last passed, and shoot him if we can. A shot is heard on the opposite edge of the thicket, and again all is still; but once more the pack is in full cry. Here he comes, almost brushing our legs as he dashes by and disappears in the bushes, before we can get sight of him and pull trigger. But we see that the dogs are every moment pressing him closer, that the marauder is showing evidences of fatigue and is nearly ‘done up.’ He begins to make narrower circles, there are restless flashes in his eye, his back is now curved upwards, his hair is bristled nervously forward, his tongue hangs out—we raise our gun as he is approaching, and scarcely ten yards off—a loud report—the smoke has hardly blown aside, ere we see him lifeless, almost at our very feet—had we waited three minutes longer, the hounds would have saved us the powder and shot!”

Wildcats might be treed by accident:

“In hunting at night for racoons and opossums, in which sport the negroes on the plantations of Carolina take great delight, a Cat is occasionally ‘treed’ by the dogs; and the negroes, who seldom carry a gun, climb up the tree and shake him off as they would do a racoon, and although he fights desperately, he is generally killed by the dogs.”


An even more dangerous cat on the plantation was the Cougar, Felis Concolor, as indicated by the following story:

“Another respectable gentleman of the State of Mississippi gave us the following account. A friend of his, a cotton planter, one evening, while at tea, was startled by a tremendous outcry among his dogs, and ran out to quiet them, thinking some person, perhaps a neighbour, bad called to see him. The dogs could not be driven back, but rushed into the house; he seized his horsewhip, which hung inside the hall door, and whipped them all out, as he thought, except one, which ran under the table. He then took a candle and looking down, to his surprise and alarm discovered the supposed refractory dog to be a Cougar. He retreated instanter, the females and children of his family fled frightened half out of their senses. The Cougar sprang at him, he parried tbe blow with the candlestick, but the animal flew at him again, leaping forward perpendicularly, striking at his face with the fore-feet, and at his body with the hind-feet. These attacks he repelled by dealing the Cougar straight-forward blows on its belly with his fist, lightly turning aside and evading its claws, as he best could. The Cougar had nearly overpowered him, when luckily be backed toward the fire-place, and as the animal sprang again at him, dodged him, and the panther almost fell into the fire; at which he was so terrified that he endeavoured to escape, and darting out of the door was immediately attacked again by the dogs, and with their help and a club was killed.”

Black Bear

The American Black Bear, Ursus Americanus, was also hunted as a marauder. The division of labor in such a hunt on a plantation in Louisiana is described by Audubon in detail:

“Being one night sleeping in the house of a friend who was a Planter in the State of Louisiana, we were awakened by a servant bearing a light, who gave us a note, which he said his master had just received. We found it to be a communication from a neighbour, requesting our host and ourself to join him as soon as possible, and assist in killing Rome Bears at that moment engaged in destroying his corn. We were not long in dressing, and on entering the parlour, found our friend equipped. The overseer's horn was heard calling up the negroes. Some were already saddling our horses, whilst others were gathering all the cur-dogs of the plantation. All was bustle. Before half an hour had elapsed, four stout negro men, armed with axes and knives, and mounted on strong nags, were following us at a round gallop through the woods, as we made directly for the neighbour's plantation.

“The night was none of the most favourable, a drizzling rain rendering the atmosphere thick and rather sultry; but as we were well acquainted with the course, we soon reached the house, where the owner was waiting our arrival. There were now three of us armed with guns, half a dozen servants, and a good pack of dogs of all kinds. We jogged on towards the detached field in which the Bears were at work. The owner told us that for some days several of these animals had visited his corn, and that a negro who was sent every afternoon to see at what part of the enclosure they entered, had assured him there were at least five in the field that night. A plan of attack was formed: the bars at the usual entrance of the field were to be put down without noise; the men and dogs were to divide, and afterwards proceed so as to surround the Bears, when, at the sounding of our horns, every one was to charge towards the centre of the field, and shout as loudly as possible, which it was judged would so intimidate the animals as to induce them to seek refuge upon the dead trees with which the field was still partially covered.

“The plan succeeded: the horns sounded, the horses galloped forward, the men shouted, the dogs barked and howled. The shrieks of the negroes were enough to frighten a legion of bears, and by the time we reached the middle of the field we found that several had mounted the trees, and having lighted fires, we now saw them crouched at the junction of the larger branches with the trunks. Two were immediately shot down. They were cubs of no great size, and being already half dead, were quickly dispatched by the dogs.

“We were anxious to procure as much sport as possible, and having observed one of the Bears, which from its size we conjectured to be the mother of the two cubs just killed, we ordered the negroes to cut down the tree on which it was perched, when it was intended the dogs should have a tug with it, while we should support them, and assist in preventing the Bear from escaping, by wounding it in one of the hind-legs. The surrounding woods now echoed to the blows of the axemen. The tree was large and tough, having been girded more than two years, and the operation of felling it seemed extremely tedious. However, at length it began to vibrate at each stroke; a few inches alone now supported it, and in a short time it came crashing to the ground.

“The dogs rushed to the charge, and harassed the Bear on all sides, whilst we surrounded the poor animal. As its life depended upon its courage and strength, it exercised both in the most energetic manner. Now and then it seized a dog and killed him by a single stroke. At another time, a well administered blow of one of its forelegs sent an assailant off, yelping so piteously that he might be looked upon as hors du combat. A cur had daringly ventured to seize the Bear by the snout, and was seen hanging to it, covered with blood, whilst several others scrambled over its back. Now and then the infuriated animal was seen to cast a revengeful glance at some of the party, and we had already determined to dispatch it, when, to our astonishment, it suddenly shook off all the dogs, and before we could fire, charged upon one of the negroes, who was mounted on a pied horse. The Bear seized the steed with teeth and claws, and clung to its breast. The terrified horse snorted and plunged. The rider, an athletic young man and a capital horseman, kept his seat, although only saddled on a sheep-skin tightly girthed, and requested his master not to fire at the Bear. Notwithstanding his coolness and courage, our anxiety for his safety was raised to the highest pitch, especially when in a moment we saw rider and horse come to the ground together; but we were instantly relieved on witnessing the masterly manner in which Scipio dispatched his adversary, by laying open his skull with a single well directed blow of his axe, when a deep growl announced the death of the Bear.”


Dogs were sometimes imported, most probably from England, as indicated in the following passage regarding the Red Fox, Vulpes Velox:

“In order to ascertain whether the speed of the Red Fox was as great in the south as in the colder regions of the north, several gentlemen near Augusta, in the winter of 1844, resolved to test the question by a regular Fox chase. They congregated to the number of thirty, with one hundred hounds, many of them imported dogs, and all in fine running order. They started a Fox at two o'clock on a moonlight morning. He took to a pretty open country on the west bank of the Savannah river. A number of gentlemen were mounted on fleet horses. Mr. Beile rode in succession three horses during the chase, two of which were good hunters. The pursuit of the flying beast was kept up till three o'clock in the afternoon, having continued thirteen hours, when the horses and the whole pack of hounds were broken down, and the hunt was abandoned.”


Some animals were hunted primarily by the slaves, including the Raccoon, Procyon Lotor. Audubon, describing a visit to a plantation, relates that the animal fed on birds and rabbits, but in winter robbed the poultry houses. “The Negroes on his plantation he said kept good dogs, and relied on them for hunting the Raccoon.” Audubon records his host’s description of a hunt and what becomes of the meat:

“Whenever a Raccoon was about to attack the poultry house, the dogs scenting him give a shrill cry, which is the signal for his owner to commence the hunt. He comes out armed with an axe, with a companion or two, resolved on a Raccoon hunt. The dog soon gives chase with such rapidity, that the Raccoon, hard pressed, takes to a tree. The dog, close at his heels, changes his whining cry while running to a shrill short sharp bark. If the tree is small or has limbs near the ground so that it can be easily ascended, the eager hunters climb up after the 'coon.’ He perceives his danger, endeavours to avoid his pursuers by ascending to the farthest topmost branch, or the extremity of a limb; hut all his efforts are in vain, his relentless pursuers shake the limb until he is compelled to let go his bold, and he comes toppling heavily to the ground, and is instantly seized by the dogs. It frequently happens however that the trees are tall and destitute of lower branches so that they cannot be climbed without the risk of life or limb. The negroes survey for a few moments in the bright moonlight the tall and formidable tree that shelters the coon, grumble a little at the beast for not having saved them trouble by mounting an easier tree, and then the ringing of their axes resounds through the still woods, awakening echoes of the solitude previously disturbed only by the hooting of the owl, or the impatient barking of the dogs. In half an hour the tree is brought to the ground and with it the Raccoon, stunned by the fall: his foes give him no time to define his position, and after a short and bloody contest with the dogs, he is despatched, and the sable hunters remunerated, —for his skin they will sell to the hatters in the nearest town, and his flesh they will bang up in a tree to freeze and furnish them with many a savoury meal.”


The Opossum, Didelphis Virginiana, was hunted on plantations throughout the South:

“‘Come, men,’ says one, ‘be lively, let us finish our tasks by four o'clock, and after sundown we will have a 'possum hunt.’ ‘Done, says another, ‘and if an old coon comes in the way of my smart dog, Pincher, I be bound for it, he will shake de life out of him.’ The labourers work with increased alacrity, their faces are brightened with anticipated enjoyment, and ever and anon the old familiar song of 'Possum up the gum tree‘ is hummed, whilst the black driver can scarcely restrain the whole gang from breaking out into a loud chorus.”

As to the dogs for such a hunt, they are “two or three curs, half hound or terriers, each having his appropriate name, and each regarded by his owner as the best dog on the plantation.” The slaves banter, one calling another’s dog a “good-for-nutten fox-dog.” The tools are axes and torches:

“One of these humble rustic sportsmen shoulders an axe and another a torch, and the whole arrangement for the hunt is completed. The glaring torch-light is soon seen dispersing the shadows of the forest, and like a jack o'lantern, gleaming along the skirts of the distant meadows and copses. Here are no old trails on which the cold-nosed hound tries his nose for half an hour to catch the scent. The tongues of the curs are by no means silent--ever and anon there is a sudden start and an uproarious outbreak: ‘A rabbit in a hollow, wait, boys, till I twist him out with a hickory.’ The rabbit is secured and tied with a string around the neck: another start, and the pack runs off for a quarter of a mile, at a rapid rate, then double around the cotton fields and among the ponds in the pine lands—’Call off your worthless dog, Jim, my Pincher has too much sense to bother after a fox.’ A loud scream and a whistle brings the pack to a halt, and presently they come panting to the call of the black huntsman. After some scolding and threatening, and resting a quarter of an hour to recover their breath and scent, they are once more hied forwards. Soon a trusty old dog, by an occasional shrill yelp, gives evidence that he has struck some trail in the swamp. The pack gradually make out the scent on the edges of the pond, and marshes of the rice fields, grown up with willows and myrtle bushes (Myrica cerifera). At length the mingled notes of shrill and discordant tongues give evidence that the game is up. The race, though rapid, is a long one, through the deep swamp, crossing the muddy branch into the pine lands, where the dogs come to a halt, unite in conclave, and set up an incessant barking at the foot of a pine. ‘A coon, a coon! din't I tell you,’ says Monday, 'that if Pincher come across a coon, he would do he work!’ An additional piece of split lightwood is added to the torch, and the coon is seen doubled up in the form of a hornet's nest in the very top of the long-leaved pine, (P. palwtria). The tree is without a branch for forty feet or upwards, and it is at once decided that it must be cut down: the axe is soon at work, and the tree felled. The glorious battle that ensues, the prowess of the dogs, and the capture of the coon, follow as a matter of course.”


Audubon notes that deer hunting varies from place to place:

“In mountainous, rocky regions, where horses cannot be used with advantage, he [the hunter] goes on foot, armed with a rifle, carries no dog, and seeks for the Deer in such situations as his sagacity and experience suggest. He either espies him in his bed, or silently steals upon him behind the covert of the stem of a large tree whilst he is feeding, and leisurely takes a steady and fatal aim. On the contrary, in situations adapted to riding, where the woods are thickly clothed with underbrush, where here and there wide openings exist between briar-patches, and clumps of myrtle bushes, as in the Southern States, the Deer are almost universally chased with hounds, and instead of the rifle, double-barrelled deer guns, of different sizes, carrying from twelve to twenty buck-shot, are alone made use of by the hunters.”

As in England, dogs could be specialized for different phases of a deer hunt, with beagles used to track and greyhounds to bring the animal down.

Hunting deer could present considerable risk to a slave, or a dog, as shown by the following story concerning a night hunt of Virginian Deer, Cervus virginianus.

“Fire hunting is another destructive mode of obtaining Deer. In this case two persons are essential to success. A torch of resinous wood is carried by one of the party, the other keeps immediately in front with his gun. The astonished Deer instead of darting off seems dazzled by the light, and stands gazing at this newly kindled flame in the forest. The hunter sees his eyes shining like two tapers before him ; he fires and is usually successful; sometimes there are several Deer in the gang, who start off for a few rods at the report of the gun, and again turn their eyes to the light. In this manner two or three are frequently killed within fifty yards of each other. This kind of bunting by firelight is often attended with danger to the cattle that may be feeding in the vicinity, and is prohibited by a law of Carolina, which is however frequently violated. The eyes of a cow are easily mistaken for those of a deer. We conversed with a gentleman who informed us that he had never indulged in more than one fire-hunt, and was then taught a lesson which cured him of his passion for this kind of amusement. He believed that he saw the eyes of a Deer and fired, the animal bounded off, as he was convinced, mortally wounded. In the immediate vicinity he detected another pair of eyes and fired again. On returning the next morning to look for his game, he found that he bad slaughtered two favourite colts. Another related an anecdote of a shot fired at what was supposed to be the shining eyes of a Deer, and ascertained to his horror that it was a dog standing between the legs of a negro, who had endeavoured to keep him quiet. The dog was killed and the negro slightly wounded.”

Black Wolf

The Black Wolf, Canis Lupus var. Ater, was still prevalent, and sometimes dangerous, as Audubon relates regarding an incident in Kentucky:

“Although Wolves are bold and savage, few instances occur in our temperate regions of their making an attack on man; and we have only had one such case come under our own notice. Two young negroes, who resided near the banks of the Ohio, in the lower part of the State of Kentucky, about thirty years ago, had sweethearts living on another plantation, four miles distant. After the labours of the day were over, they frequently visited the fair ladies of their choice, the nearest way to whose dwelling lay directly across a large cane brake. As to the lover every moment is precious, they usually took this route to save time. Winter had set in cold, dark and gloomy, and after sunset scarcely a glimpse of light or glow of warmth were to be found in that dreary swamp, except in the eyes and bosoms of the ardent youths who traversed these gloomy solitudes. One night, they set forth over a thin crust of snow. Prudent, to a certain degree, the lovers carried their axes on their shoulders, and walked as briskly as the narrow path would allow. Some transient glimpses of light now and then met their eyes in the more open spaces between the trees, or when the heavy drifting clouds parting at times allowed a star to peep forth on the desolate scene. Fearfully, a long and frightful howl burst upon them, and they were instantly aware that it proceeded from a troop of hungry and perhaps desperate wolves. They paused for a moment and a dismal silence succeeded. All was dark, save a few feet of the snow-covered ground immediately in front of them. They resumed their pace hastily, with their axes in their hands prepared for an attack. Suddenly, the foremost man was assailed by several wolves which seized on him, and inflicted terrible wounds with their fangs on his legs and arms, and as they were followed by many others as ravenous as themselves, several sprung at the breast of his companion, and dragged him to the ground. Both struggled manfully against their foes, but in a short time one of the negroes had ceased to move; and the other, reduced in strength and perhaps despairing of aiding his unfortunate comrade or even saving his own life, threw down his axe, sprang on to the branch of a tree, and speedily gained a place of safety amid the boughs. Here he passed a miserable night, and the next morning the bones of his friend lay scattered around on the snow, which was stained with his blood. Three dead wolves lay near, but the rest of the pack had disappeared; and Scipio sliding to the ground, recovered the axes and returned home to relate the terrible catastrophe.”

Note that this is the second reference to the slave Scipio.


As was true of the forest laws of medieval England, social hierarchies were reflected in the kinds of dogs separate classes owned. In England, however, the greyhound was restricted to those who had a high income, whereas in the American South the separation of classes was primarily due to the economics of masters and slaves on plantations. Plantation owners could import dogs and maintain bloodlines. Although greyhounds are mentioned by Audubon, by far the most common breed he describes in plantation hunts is the foxhound, though he does not think the dog ideal in all circumstances, mentioning cases where foxhounds could not catch the game being hunted. Slaves and the poor picked up the mixed breeds and rejects.

The Vivaparous Quadrupeds of North America was Audubon’s last work, and though not the reason for his continuing fame, is a valuable source on both mammals and their significance to human society before the Civil War. When Audubon wrote, much of the United States remained wild, and the West was still poorly known. Game was plentiful, and Indian nations west of the Mississippi lived the ways of their ancestors, though that was beginning to change. There is a naïveté about Audubon’s description of hunts, a recollection of the time when gentlemen hunted because it was part of their destiny, something that came with one’s station in life. Some observations about slaves might seem callous now, but Audubon was an advanced thinker as a naturalist, and his powers of observation were not lost in his descriptions of hunting.

Thanks to Richard Hawkins for ideas and suggestions.

Additional Note.  The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas now requires "dogs for hunting raccoon/opossum at night."  50 CFR 32.23, 80 Fed. Reg. 51888 (August 26, 2015).

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