Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 8

Early Hunters And Their Adventures

From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
Wild Beasts in the Mountains.-Early Hunters and their Adventures.-John Pierson.-Deer Hunting.-Their Haunts.-Wolves.-Benjamin Peck.-Paul Peck.-Revolutionary Service.-Burning of Kingston.-Success in hunting and trapping Deer and Wolves. - Minister-hunters.- Bear and Cubs.-Hezekiah Myers.-William Travis.-A Bear shot.-One in Shandaken.-Colonel Lawrence.-Tame Bears.-James Powers, Esq.- Bear Feasts.-Sons of Colonel Lawrence.-Bears in winter.-One at Schutt's.-Female Bears.-Bears weatherwise.- Beating one.-Their dens.-Colonel Lawrence's Son and a Bear.-Hard to kill.-Frederick Sax.-A Hard Fight.Close Hugging.-Frederick Layman.-Bear and Dogs.-A Bad TumbleHard Scratching- Hand-to-hand Fight.-Evert Lawrence.-Layman down. -A Bear Family.-Cubs tamed.-Winter Sleep.-Bear Day.-Proofs of it.-Bear Meat.-Log Traps.-Bears near the Mountain House.-Scoring Trees. -Mrs. B. and her Cats.-Their Escape.-Bears and Berries.-Bears in Maine.

The deep, dark, and widespread forests, the high, rough mountain cliffs, the wild ravines and caves of the Catskill Mountains, made them, from early times, a chosen and favorite resort of lynx, panther, wolves, bears, deer, and large and enormous snakes. A volume might be filled with the adventures of early hunters in this region, some of which I will here describe, as related to me by them and their children.

Among the most celebrated of these early hunters were the Piersons, of Kaatsban, the Hummels, of Blue Mountain, Benjamin Peck, of Palensville, and Frederick Sax, of Kiskatom, though he lived, in early life, near West Camp, in Saugerties. John Pierson would camp out alone, for two or three weeks at a time, on and near Roundtop, in Cairo, killing fifteen or twenty deer during the time. There was a large laurel swamp on the mountains, near the base of the South Mountain, where deer fed when snow was deep. Some would not eat their flesh when they fed on laurel, though others did. They were killed mostly from May or June until January. There was a great run or track for deer, near the upper end of the Cauterskill Clove, and along the ravine near the Falls, below the Laurel House. Hunters here, as elsewhere, had favorite stands, where they concealed themselves, and shot deer as they were driven past them by the dogs. Wolves used also to chase deer until they were overcome with fatigue, and then kill and eat them. Hence wolves and deer left this region about the same time, more than thirty years since, having from an early date been very numerous. The wolves were quite troublesome and destructive to domestic animals, so that it was often necessary closely to confine sheep, swine, and young cattle at night.

Cauterskill Falls (Kaaterskill Falls)

Cauterskill Falls

Benjamin Peck came to Palensville from Litchfield, Connecticut, about the year 1796. He was brought up by his uncle, Paul Peck, who was a famous trapper and hunter, sometimes going as far as Canada in pursuit of wild animals, for the sake of their fur and skins. Benjamin Peck served in the army through all the Revolutionary War, having gone early to Boston, and was afterwards enlisted in the cavalry regiment of Colonel Sheldon, of Litchfield, and was with him on the Hudson River when Esopus was burned, our forces being then opposite the place, and wishing to cross over and relieve it, but they were prevented from doing so by two British ships of war, which were lying in the river. What he then saw and learned of the abundance of game in the mountains may have led him, at a later date, to remove here. From his son, of the same name, who came here with his father when seven years old, and is now living in Palensville, at the age of seventy-six, I learned the following facts :

The first year they were here Mr. Peck killed some seven or eight wolves, seventeen bears, and seventy-three deer, which he secured, besides others which were mortally wounded but fled beyond his reach. At first he practised what is called "still hunting," stealing on game unawares or watching for them where they passed along, without the aid of dogs. He soon procured a large and strong bear-trap with steel springs and sharp teeth like nails, with which he caught many bears, but did not use the log or fall-trap and cage, with which bears are still caught on the mountains. His steel trap he used without bait, in a narrow, rocky ravine, near the top of South Mountain, through which bears passed in coming down from the evergreen woods, near the summit of the mountain, where they had their dens, to the oak woods below, to feed on acorns. The rocky ravine through which the bears passed was so narrow that they could not well avoid getting in the trap.

One day while hunting north of the Clove, on the mountain, a deer came along heated and fatigued, pursued as he supposed by his dog ; when, having shot it, and, as his custom was, having loaded his gun immediately, an immense wolf followed on the track of the deer, which he also shot. At another time Mr. Peck met a bear, with two cubs, which had seriously injured and driven off his dogs with the exception of one, which was very staunch and of an imported breed, which followed by scent, but more resembled a greyhound than a bloodhound. This dog he called away, when the bear made a rush upon him, when, waiting until she was about a foot from the muzzle of his gun, he shot her in the breast, and the ball passed through the whole length of her body, suddenly ending her days. Mr. Peck continued to hunt until he died, in Palensville, where his son now lives, in 1820, in the sixty-fourth year of his age.

Mr. Hezekiah Myers, aged ninety, hunted some in his early days, and was familiar with the hunting adventures of others. He was once with a hunting party on the mountains when the dogs drove a bear so near him that he could have struck him with an axe which he had in his hand ; but as he had, besides this, only a pistol, he feared to strike him, though many of the old bear-hunters did not shrink from fighting a bear with an axe. To strike and wound a bear, without killing him, is, however, dangerous, as when thus enraged they are very furious. Nor is it safe to wait until a bear is as near as was the one shot by Mr. Peck, spoken of above ; for should the gun miss fire, or only wound the bear, he might prove a troublesome neighbor.

Mr. William Travis, aged seventy-eight, a neighbor of Mr. Myers in Palensville, near the Clove, when sixteen years old, watched at night for a bear in a cornfield a little north of where Mr. Charles Teal now lives. He had done much injury to all the fields in the neighborhood; and hence all the neighbors watched in their respective fields at the same time, as he did not visit the same field two nights in succession. Near morning Mr. Travis heard a bear in the bushes, then he entered the field, and, rising up erect snuffed the air to learn if any danger was near, and, bringing his paws together, drew before him the corn of two hills, one on each side of him, and began to eat. Mr. Travis rose twice before he dared to fire; but the third time shot him in the breast, when he turned back over the fence, groaning like a man. A Dutchman who was near him asleep, rose suddenly, sadly frightened, made a fearful floundering on the ground, declaring that he had shot a black man. Soon guns were heard in all directions, as the neighbors hastened where the first shot was heard. The bear, a large one, was found in the morning in the mud, in the woods near by, where he had gone to check the flow of blood. Though badly wounded, it required several shots to kill him.

When Mr. Travis was living for a time in Lexington, west of the mountains, a neighbor and friend of his went, to Shandaken, some twenty miles south, to keep school. One day, as some of his pupils went to drive the cows home from pasture, they found a large bear seated on the carcase of one of the cows, which he had killed, taking his supper from her flesh. The children gave the alarm, when the neighbors, who were together at a raising, took their guns, - five rifles, and several shot-guns; and having by shooting so injured one of his legs that he could not move rapidly, they fired at him thirty-five times before they killed him. Mr. Travis had one of his tusks, which was larger than his thumb. When dressed, the four quarters weighed more than four hundred pounds.

Colonel Merchant Lawrence, who for many years lived where the family of the late Joseph Sax now reside, opposite the Dutch Church, at the foot of the mountain, and kept a public house there, tamed and raised several young bears, some of which he kept until three years old. His house was a favorite resort of sportsmen; and James Powers, Esq., a prominent lawyer in Catskill, now more than eighty years of age, told me that he used, after the labors of the day in his office, to drive out to Lawrence's, spend the night there, catch a fine string of trout from the meadow brooks near by, and then return to town in time for the business of the day. For several years Colonel Lawrence invited him and other friends to a New Year's supper of bear's meat, which they highly relished. From two sons of Colonel Lawrence, who live near me, and who from early life have been familiar with hunting, I have learned many facts with regard to early hunting adventures, and the habits of the bears tamed and fed by them when they were young. Tame bears do not commonly lie torpid in their dens the first winter of their lives, especially if they are in a public place, where there is much to excite them. This was true of bears kept by Colonel Lawrence; and Mr. Schutt, at the Laurel House, has a large young bear, which, during the whole of the winter of 1865-6, moved freely about. Some, however, sleep through their first winter.

As bears grow old they commonly become ugly and cross, the females being more so than the males. One of the bears kept by Colonel Lawrence, when a storm was coming on, would climb to the top of a high post to which he was chained, and howl loud and long, which always proved to be a sure sign of rain or snow. Sometimes these bears would be very kind and affectionate with those who trained and fed them, but fierce and savage when strangers approached them. As cold weather came on they became cross and sometimes dangerous. A son of Colonel Lawrence, and another man, once beat a furious bear of his on the head with clubs for half an hour, before they could subdue him; his head swelling up, and the blood running from his nostrils. Dens were commonly made for them by sinking part of a large hollow tree several feet in length in the ground, with an entrance to it at one end; but sometimes they dug dens for themselves in the side of a hill to the horizontal depth of ten or twelve feet.

One of the bears kept by Colonel Lawrence was quite a pet with his son Merchant, then fifteen years of age, who played freely with him; but, as is supposed, becoming cross with the approach of winter, and excited to fury by the smell of the blood of a squirrel on the pantaloons of the boy, he seized him by the leg, and tried to drag him into his den to devour him. This the boy prevented, by seating himself on the end of the log within which the bear was trying to draw him, where the beast fiercely gnawed his leg from the heel to the knee, until a smaller boy who was with him called the Colonel with his gun, and his wife with an axe, from the house for his relief. The father wished to shoot the bear; but the mother, fearing lest the boy might be injured by the shot, prevented him, and, beating the teeth of the bear with the axe, compelled him, for a moment, to loosen his hold on the boy, when he was hastily withdrawn, the bear rushing fiercely after him as far as his chain would permit him to do so. The bones of the leg were not injured, though portions of the tendon separated from the flesh.

Facts have been stated, showing how difficult it is to kill an old bear by shooting him, and hence the danger there is of waiting until they are quite near before shooting, lest, having wounded them, they should prove dangerous.

Colonel Lawrence, wishing to have an old bear of his killed, his son took a gun and shot him deliberately in the head. The bear gave little heed to the shot, and a younger son bantered his brother on being such a wonderful shot that he could not kill a bear with the muzzle of his gun close to his head, and told him that the bear cared so little about his shooting that if he should feed him he would eat as well as ever. This was warmly denied by the older son, when his brother brought some bread from the house which the bear quickly ate. A second shot, however, brought him to the ground. I have seen an ox shot several times in the head with a bullet before he fell. In such cases it is probable that the ball enters the head too high or too low to give a deadly wound.

One of my neighbors, aged seventy-four, relates among other things that one day while ploughing, he heard his two hunting dogs, and three belonging to Uncle Frederick Sax, barking on the side of the mountain above them. Mr. Sax went on the upper side of a high hemlock-tree, on which was a large bear, and the other man below it. As Mr. Sax aimed too low in shooting, he only wounded the bear in the fore leg, when, rushing quickly down from the tree, one of the dogs seized the bear by the throat, while bruin returned the compliment by firmly fixing his teeth in the skin of the dog's back; and thus, fiercely struggling, they rolled some ten rods down the steep side of the mountain, closely pursued by the other dogs and the man, until he twice struck the bear a heavy blow on the head with an axe, which killed him. So staunch and true, however, was the dog, that he did not loose his hold on the bear until he was dead ; though the bear had, up to that time, held him in his teeth. This same man once very irreverently remarked to me that he was "no more afraid of a bear than of an old sow; " and he and other old hunters in this matter did certainly, at times, show their faith by their works. A tight hug by a bear is not, however, a thing to be lightly spoken of; and the way in which they thus embrace one, is not soon forgotten by those who have been favored with such a salutation.

The facts which follow were stated to me late in June, 1866, by Frederick Layman, of Catskill, a nephew, if I mistake not, of Frederick Sax, the great bear-hunter ; and who lived with him, in his mountain home, from the time lie was eight years old until he was twenty. Mr. Layman is now sixty-eight years old, so that what is here related took place fifty years since and more. During the twelve years referred to above, Mr. Layman aided Uncle Frederick in killing thirty-five bears.

The first adventure they had together was south of Roundtop, in Cairo, as distinct from the high mountain in Hunter, of the same name, near where the Websters now live. A bear had made sad havoc with the corn in that neighborhood, and was tracked and treed by a dog, when Mr. Sax shot it through the leg, after which it ran a quarter of a mile. Another shot broke his back; when, sitting down, as the dogs rushed upon him, he knocked them, one after another, a distance of ten or fifteen feet with his paws. A third shot ended his days.

While hunting with Uncle Frederick in Winter Clove, they came upon three bears, in a den in the rocks, on a ledge some twelve feet high. They had no fair view of the bears ; yet, after firing into the den twice, the noise and smoke drove the bears out, when a dog seized one of them, while another ran against Uncle Fred's legs, and he, with the two bears and the dog, all rolled down the ledge together,-an adventure much more pleasant for one to tell of, or to hear, than to be engaged in. On pursuing these bears, one of them ran up a tree, half a mile distant from the den, and was shot; another was killed the next day, and the third escaped.

A bear was once caught in a trap, on the side of the mountain above Uncle Fred's, and Layman pursued him half a mile, leading his dog. As he fired at the bear, the clog broke loose from him, and, rushing upon the beast, bruin rose on his hind legs, and seizing the dog with his fore paws, was hugging him more closely than was either comfortable or safe for him, when, Layman coming up, seized the bear from behind by the nape of his neck, and pulled him over backwards. The bear then turning upon Layman, struck him with his claws in the palm of his hand, badly wounding and tearing it open, when the dog seized the bear and held him until Layman shot him.

On the side of the mountain, back of Nicholas Rowe's, a little northeast of where the tollgate on the road to the Mountain House now is, Uncle Frederick and Layman found a bear in a den. As he came out, Mr. Sax shot, and broke the under jaw of the bear, and Layman put a bullet in his head, but fired so low that it did not kill him. Uncle Fred, in a hand-to-hand fight with the bear, which was pressing bard upon him, while stepping backwards, hit against a fallen bush or pole, and fell upon his back, when the bear rushed upon him, and but for his broken jaw might have made quick work with him. The dogs, however, fiercely seized the bear, thus releasing Mr. Sax. The late Joseph Sax, who was working near by, having come up, Uncle Fred took his axe and with it killed the bear.

Frederick Layman used to hunt with Evert Lawrence, a son of Colonel Lawrence, spoken of above. South of the Cauterskill Clove they once treed a bear, when, both of them having fired at him, he fell from the tree, and, having run half a mile, he was stopped by the dogs. Layman loaded his gun, and was trying to get a chance to shoot the bear without putting the dogs in danger of being shot, when the bear suddenly sprang upon him, from an elevation of a few feet above him, threw him down under him, and would soon have ended both his hunting and his life had not one of the dogs seized the bear by the nose and two others in the rear, when Layman was quickly released, and, seizing his gun, shot him through the heart.

Uncle Frederick once shot a female bear just at night on the mountain back of his house, and, seizing her by the leg, dragged her home. The next morning her three cubs, several months old, having followed her trail down to near the house, were there treed by the dogs. The tree was cut down, when one of the cubs was killed by the dogs who had broken from their muzzles, while the other two were secured, one of them having been carried to the house in the checked woollen apron of Mrs. Sax, and, though it scratched her severely, she held it fast.

These two cubs were tamed and kept two or three years, one of them by Colonel Lawrence, at the hotel at the foot of the mountain, and the other by Mr. Peter P. Sax, about a mile north of the hotel and church. From the sons of Colonel Lawrence, and from Mr. Peter F. Sax, a nephew of Peter P., who lived with him when young, I had the facts which follow. Mr. Peter F. Sax was about twenty years old when the facts here spoken of took place, and is now sixty-four. He and one of the Lawrences referred to above were elders in the church of which I was pastor.

During the winter, from early in December until about the first of April, these bears were torpid in their dens, eating nothing, and when disturbed barely opening their eyes, without stirring unless they were forced to do so. They lay so still that they did not disturb the snow which fell on their chains, as the chains lay on the ground outside of their dens. The bear which Mr. Sax had, dug a den in the side of a hill near the house of a horizontal depth of about twelve feet, where he wintered. Mrs. Sax once in a measure forced him from his winter quarters, soon after he had retired there, to gratify the curiosity of some visitors, when so cross was he that he gave her a blow on her hand with his paw, the marks of which she bore with her to her grave, though he was very fond of her, and used to take food from her bands and her large pockets as he stood erect beside her. Peter F. Sax told me that he once tied a bone, with meat on it, on the end of a long pole, in winter, and thrust it under the nose of the bear, in his den, when he stupidly opened his eyes, but did not taste or touch it, though at other times he had a most greedy appetite for meat.

And now I come to a fact connected with the natural history of bears, of which I have never seen anything in books, but for the truth of which all the old hunters of the Catskill Mountains and the country around, and those connected with them, will solemnly vouch, as proved by their own personal observation, or the testimony of those whose veracity cannot be impeached, and the truth of whose statements no one who knew them well would ever question. And yet there may be those who would think it strange that an honest old Dutch dominie, of full size and mature age, should venture to tell as true what follows. My reply to such would be, that there always have been those in the world who doubt or deny the truth of what they themselves have never seen or known. A fool of this stripe, who said that he would not believe in what he had never seen, was very properly asked if he had ever seen his own back?

What I here refer to is that the second day of February of each year is known as "Bear's Day; " and that on that day bears wake from winter sleep, come forth from their dens, take a knowing observation of the weather for a few minutes, and then retire to their nests and finish their repose of some weeks or months,-it may be longer. It is further claimed that if the sky is clear, the sun shining so that they can see their shadows, and the weather cold, when they thus come forth, they sleep quietly on until about the first of April, thinking that cold weather will continue thus long. On the other hand, if the weather is mild and cloudy, they look for an early spring, and often leave their dens; or if the water from the melting snow above them penetrates the earth, so as to wet them in their dens, they seek some new resting-place and home.

That bears do thus come forth from their dens the second day of February, is known by the tracks made by them that day at the mouth of their winter quarters, as also by observing the habits of tame bears, which, as in the case of the two named above, come forth on Bear Day, and, after wisely observing the weather some five minutes, retire again to rest. As several tame bears have been kept by those whom I know well, men of Christian principle, and entirely reliable, and after a careful observation in some cases for two or three successive winters of the same animals, as their testimony is uniform as to the fact that these bears did, each winter, thus come forth from their dens the second day of February, as described above, I cannot therefore question or doubt the truth of the statement here advanced. Thus much for Bear Day.

Since writing the above I met with the following, under date of February, 1867:

"THE WEATHER AT CINCINNATI. - The 'Cincinnati Commercial' says that 'the old tradition that when, on the 2d of February, the ground-hog leaves his hole, and, seeing his shadow, returns to winter quarters, we may expect six weeks of severe winter weather, was determined, so far as this section is concerned, in favor of an early spring. The sky was overcast on Saturday; and the ground-hog, if he appeared at all, found that he cast no more shadow than the Dutchman who sold his to the Evil One."

The marmots, or woodchucks, are sometimes called ground-hogs, and so also are bears. Which are here meant, I do not know.

The two tame bears spoken of above were killed at the same time, and their meat taken to market. The skin of one of them was sold for ten dollars in Albany, and stuffed, and is still in a museum there. Bears are seen here and there on the mountains every year, a few of which are killed; while, at times, they make free with sheep, calves, and swine. During the winter of 1865-6, a bear weighing three hundred and thirty-eight pounds when dressed was killed on Stony Clove; and one was shot by a grandson of Frederick Sax in October, 1866, the meat of which was eaten with a relish by those who had been familiar with such meat in their early days. The largest black bears in this region weigh, when dressed, from four hundred to five hundred pounds. Five or six bears were trapped or shot by hunters in and near Kiskatom in the fall and winter of 1866-7.

Traps for catching bears are made by hewing off the upper surface of logs to about one third of their thickness, thus making a floor seven feet long and three feet wide, with sides and an end of logs, some three feet high. There are two heavy logs lengthwise on the top, a low entrance, with two logs over it at one end. Within is what is called a figure four, or other spring, baited, by the falling of which the logs at the entrance come down, and the bear is thus caged.

In the autumn of 1857, bears trampled down and ate oats in a field near the lakes, just back of the Catskill Mountain House. They were tracked by Mr. Beach, proprietor of the house, and Old Thorp the Bear Hunter, as he is called, who lives there, along the ridge of the North Mountain, by the well-known marks which they make by rising on their hind feet and removing with their teeth a piece of bark from the sides of trees, when they wish to pass the same way again. It is said that along some of their paths, on the upper ridges of the Catskill Mountains, there are trees which have thus been entirely peeled some feet from the ground, and killed. A trap like the one spoken of above was built on the North Mountain, where its ruins now are, in which the old bears that troubled the oats were caught, while their young ones taken were near by.

It is a fact worth noticing that there are those who have a peculiar fondness for animals, and towards whom animals, both tame and wild, are strongly attracted. In one of the towns among the upper heights of the Catskill Mountains there is a Mrs. B--- who is peculiarly fond of animals, as they are also of her. She says that she is not afraid of any animal, and wild bears have come to her in the woods, and licked her hands. Domestic animals she sells; but will never have sheep, horned cattle, or swine killed on the farm, nor sold to butchers or drovers for slaughtering.

Her greatest favorites, however, are cats, of which she keeps twenty or thirty, each one having its own name and place for feeding. Wishing to spend a winter with friends in New England, some years since, she hired a man with a team to take her cats there, safely confined in a large box-cage, and with them a cow to furnish them with milk. While passing through the Cauterskill Clove, as the cats were noisy and troublesome, the man made an opening in their cage and let them all loose in the woods, much to the annoyance of their mistress when she learned of her loss.

Bears are very fond of wild berries, which grow in great abundance on the mountains, and are at times met with by those who are picking them. Some young ladies thus employed in the summer of 1865, a little north of and above the tollgate, on the way to the Mountain House, on looking up saw a bear near them, very politely standing upright, as much as to say, "I would take off my hat if I had one, and make you a low bow." They did not, however, wish for better acquaintance, and hurried down the mountain in double-quick time. One of them, a granddaughter of Frederick Sax, said that she would have taken a stick to him and driven him off, had not her companions left her alone in such bad company.

That the bears are not all dead yet, at least in the State of Maine, is evident from the following, published in the winter of 1866-7 under the heading of " Bears Killed: "

"AUGUSTA, Me., January 10.-Returns received at the office of the Secretary of State show that during last year there were two hundred and sixty-five bears killed in this State. In Penobscot County alone there were one hundred and nine killed, and in the town of Lincoln fortyfive.

"The returns show that there were only four wolves killed in the entire State during the year."  

Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery