The year was 1779, and the Seneca Nation’s political dominance in the central Finger Lakes was about to end. Two years after the Seneca joined the American Revolution on the side of England, American General John Sullivan brought 5,000 soldiers to the Finger Lakes with orders from George Washington to destroy the crops and settlements of the Iroquois Confederacy. Ironically, Sullivan used fire, a tool of the Seneca, to lay waste to food supplies and villages all across the region. The traditional way of life of the Seneca Nation was over.
The first immigrants to America and the settlers who came to the Finger Lakes then had a markedly different view about natural resources than the Seneca. In his book, The American Indian as a Hunter, John Whitthoft explains that land, trees and wildlife were not subject to individual control and ownership. To the Seneca, these natural resources were allies and part of a shared domain controlled by the supernatural. In contrast, early white settlers sought property rights to natural resources in order to exploit and transform them.
Pioneer farmers harvested deer, small mammals, birds and fish as sources of food and clothing, and for barter. However, they relentlessly hunted wolves, cougar, bear, fox, snakes, hawks and owls; these animals were considered enemies because they preyed on livestock. Bounties were established on nearly all predators, and $10 bounties for large predators, like panthers and wolves, were common.
In the History of Yates County, a farmer from the town of Jerusalem recalled, “In 1800, wolves were so numerous that on many occasions I listened to their discordant chorus – wolves were making the night hideous with frightful howls. One night when my dog was absent, a wolf seized a sheep and disemboweled it within a few feet of the house door.”
As similar stories became abundant, pioneer farmers were prompted to take action in a big way. “In 1811, wolves were driven off by a great hunt in which a line of men posted at 5 rods distance from each other extending from Penn Yan a distance of 18 miles reaching into Steuben drove the vagabonds before them to the south.”
Scattered records left by early settlers indicated that bear were also numerous and troublesome: “The pigsty, no matter how strongly protected, was no challenge to hungry bruins who developed a taste bordering on mania for tender pork.”
Hunting bears became so intense that one hunter shot five bears in one day. Bounties were profitable, but bears were also an important source of food, clothing and cooking grease. A Mrs. Crane of Yates County recalled that no less than 50 bears were killed in one year around the lower part of Keuka Lake. By 1830 bear had been hunted to the point that a bear sighting was news.
As predators were eliminated, deer numbers increased. Hunters of the day used various practices to slay deer. Blinds were built near salt licks. When the deer approached the licks, night hunters would shine lights in their eyes and the bewildered deer, frozen in place, were easily shot. Fawns were captured and kept as pets. When they matured, hunters put bells around the deer necks, and they would come and go freely. In the woods they mingled with other deer and were a great help to hunters – the sound of the bells indicated where more deer might be found.
Each year, farmers typically harvested two or three deer for food, but when the railroads were constructed in the 1830s, market hunting took over and became big business. Deer, passenger pigeons and other wildlife were sent by train to restaurants in New York City. One famous hunter, Bona DeRock of the Genesee area, “reckoned he shot 2,000 (total) deer and 102 in one season.”
By 1850, the hillsides surrounding the Finger Lakes were markedly different than they were when the Iroquois Confederacy was founded in 1142. Thousands of acres had been stripped clear of trees, and the hillsides were alive with small farms. A combination of factors, including loss of habitat, bounties, unregulated hunting and market hunting, resulted in dramatic declines in wildlife populations. Little thought was given to these declines. By 1860, joining deer in virtual extinction were wolf, cougar, bear, bobcat, beaver, snowshoe hare and turkey. Fox, owls and hawks were scarce.
This dramatic transformation was not the last one the Finger Lakes would experience. It would soon be time for another change agent, natural succession, to take control in the region.
by Bill Banaszewski
Farmland to Forest is adapted from a multimedia presentation coproduced by Bill Banaszewski and his friend and colleague, the late John Meuser, while they were professors at Finger Lakes Community College. Watch for Part III: “Abandonment” in the Fall Issue of Life in the Finger Lakes.