Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 9

Wild Animals

From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
The American Panther and Tiger.-Panthers in the Mountains. -One killed in Cairo.-A Panther rand Bear.-A Warm Embrace.-Peter Osterhout, Esq. -A Bear, Panther, and Deer.-An Indian's Luck.-A Panther treed.-One seen in 1865.-Wildeats.-Wolves.-Elk or Moose.-Snakes in the Mountain.-Thorpe's Statement.-Swine cat them.-Black Snakes.-Hung as Criminals.-Their Length.-Rattlesnakes.-A Texas Story.-Snakes in Cairo.-A large Family.-Bears.-A Wolf-chase.-Wild Animals in Schoharie County.-The Indian " Bear Catcher."-Warner and a Bear.-Schaeffer and Schell.-Maria Teabout and a Panther.-Panther Meat.-Beavers.-Wildcats.-Dr. Moulter.-Deer.-Six of them Shot with Arrows.

The cougar or American panther, or painter, as this animal is often called, painter being a corruption of the word "panther," belongs to the feline or cat species, and is found from Patagonia, in South America, to the northern bounds of the State of New York. Its color on the back is reddish, brown, with a lighter hue about the neck and the lower part of the body. Their whole length, including the tail, is commonly six feet or a little more, and they are the same with the Puma or South American lion. The jaguar, or American tiger, is somewhat larger and stronger than the panther, and is found from Paraguay, in South America, to the Red River in Texas. It has some seven stripes on each side, made up of a row of open rings, and, with the panther is by furriers and by some naturalists held to be of the same species with the leopard, while others make them a distinct class.

Panthers were met with in the Catskill Mountains and the country around from the time of its first settlement, though there were never many of them. An aged neighbor of mine told me, that, when young, he saw two panthers not fully grown cross the road and meadow east of the house of Colonel Lawrence, and leap through the grass until they reached a knoll south of the meadow, where they jumped on the trunk of a fallen pine, and gave a loud cry, which was answered by their mother, who was some distance to the west, on the cliff above them. He afterwards saw the mother at the first road turning to the left, above the house of Colonel Lawrence, on the road up the mountain.

Mr. and Mrs. Jessie Taylor, aged eighty-seven, worthy members of the Reformed Dutch Church in Kiskatom, relate that sixty-five years ago, in 1802, soon after they were married, on visiting her father, James Van Atten, or "Van Atta," as some wrote it, about a mile east of where the village of Cairo now is, near the ford of the Catskill Creek, they found that the night before a panther had driven in her father's young cattle from the woods, and, having climbed a white-oak tree near the house, was so shot; that one of his fore legs was broken, when, coming to the ground, he found a hiding-place among the rocks near by, where he was watched all night, and was killed in the morning by a bullet in his head, having been thus dosed with lead several times in different parts of his body before he finally fell. He measured nine feet and seven inches from his nose to the end of his tail, a huge monster of his kind. His body was thick and large, and his legs of the size of a man's arm. An aged man, living in the neighborhood at the time when this panther was killed, told me that an Englishman who was present was seriously injured by the panther.

Many years since, Mr. Wolven, a carpenter, living in Kiskatom, while fishing in one of the lakes near the Mountain House, saw a bear cross a log between the two lakes, and quickly dig a hole in the soft ground near the water, placed himself on his back in it, when, soon after, a panther that was following him came, and rushing upon the bear, received from him a warm and sharp embrace, in his powerful legs and paws, which caused him to cry out loudly for quarter, and to retreat post haste from his ugly neighbor. Had the bear been standing, the panther, by leaping on his back, clinging there, and putting out his eyes with his claws, or by digging into his vitals, or by his superior activity and strength, might soon have killed him.

Facts somewhat similar to those just stated were furnished me, with many others in this work, by my worthy and venerable friend, Peter Osterhout, Esq., of Schoharie, a native of Catskill, a retired merchant, a gentleman and Christian of the old school, now nearly eighty years of age. In a long and valuable letter to me, dated August 7, 1866, he thus writes: "I must give you an adventure of a celebrated Indian, a great hunter, before the Revolutionary War, living in the town of Catskill. I have heard the story related by several aged persons who knew him and had no doubt of his veracity. His name was Wancham; his statement was as follows: While hunting in the Catskill Mountains, he came upon the carcass of a deer, quite recently killed, as he supposed, by a panther or a bear; so he hid himself behind a windfall near by, and had not been there long when a large bear came up and began to make a meal out of the deer. A few minutes after a large panther came also, and began to tear the carcass of the deer. This did not suit bruin, who claimed the deer as his spoil, and struck the panther , who jumped on the other side of the deer, when the bear followed him up and tried to hug him, but the panther soon" (having, doubtless, leaped on the bear's back), "with his hind claws, ripped him open and killed him. The Indian, thinking that the game was now in his favor, fired and killed the panther; and thus he had a deer, a panther, and a bear, all in a pile, by a single shot of his gun."

Frederick Layman relates that when, as a boy, he was living with his uncle Sax, they were called out in the night by the barking of the dogs, at a tree near the house ; supposing that there was a raccoon on the tree, he climbed to near its top, where he could see and hear a large animal directly above him. He told his uncle that the animal was much larger than a coon; but being accused of being afraid, and told to break off a limb and strike the animal, while doing so a large panther leaped to the ground, to a distance of more than thirty feet from the tree, and ran up the side of the mountain, with the dogs after him.

In the spring of 1865, Mr. Daniel Layman, a son-in-law of Frederick Sax, while looking for some young cattle in the woods on the side of the mountain north of the tollgate on the mountain road, saw a panther near them, who would, doubtless, soon have provided himself with a supply of fresh meat, had he not been thus disturbed. With the loud cry peculiar to these animals, he beat a hasty retreat up the mountain.

The lynx, or common wildcat, is still met with in the mountains and near them; and animals of this class are often killed there.

Forty or fifty years since, wolves were as thick in the woods on and near the mountains as gray rabbits now are; their howling could be heard in all directions at night. Abraham Van Vechten, Esq., whose ancestors settled in Catskill in 1681, says that a moose, the elk of Europe, and musu of the Indians, from which comes our word "moose'' was once killed on his father's farm, one of the feet of which he saw. The male has immense horns, and is sometimes seventeen hands high, and weighs twelve hundred pounds.

Copperheads, with black snakes and rattlesnakes, used to abound in the mountains ; but with the exception of black snakes, which are not poisonous, are now rarely met with. Thorpe, "the bear-hunter, "-though he has killed but few bears,-the old man at the Mountain House, affirms that when he first came to the mountains as a young man many years since, he saw hundreds and hundreds of rattlesnakes, but that during his recent residence of several years there he had not seen more than twenty, most of which were dead, having been killed by visitors there. Those who pick berries among the upper heights of the mountains have told me of sometimes seeing a rattlesnake, though very rarely. Swine, running in the woods, where they feed on acorns and other nuts, greedily devour snakes, and are not injured by those which are poisonous ; and hence they soon destroy most of these reptiles where they run at large.

My pupils once had eleven black snakes hung as criminals by the neck to a long, projecting stake, in a rail fence by the roadside near the parsonage, which were killed in the cliff below the house, some of them having been shot as they lay coiled up to enjoy the pleasant heat of the sun. The largest of them were from four to five feet long. A black snake eight feet long is said to have been killed near the mountains some years since, and a gentleman in Orange County told me of one that was killed near where he lived that was twelve feet long. Rattlesnakes which I have seen have not been more than from three to five feet in length. I have, however, recently met with the following in a newspaper: "Large Snake.-A rattlesnake was recently killed near Belleville, Texas, which was fourteen feet long, six inches thick, and had forty-five rattles. Three men, armed with fence rails, had a desperate combat with it."

About five miles north of the Kiskatom parsonage, in Cairo, is a large rock on a sidehill, which I have often seen, over which water flows after a rain, and from under which there came, during a single warm season, more than one hundred black snakes, which were killed by a family living near by, from whom I had the facts stated above. Fourteen snakes were killed one day, twenty another, twenty-two another, and smaller numbers other days. They measured from two and a half to six and a half feet in length. The old gentleman at the head of this family, at the age of eighty-two, in the summer of 1865, one day loaded and mowed away six tons of hay on a stack for one of his neighbors, between nine A.M. and two P.M. He once kicked a wild bear on the nose, that was trying to bite a dog ; had killed three bears on the ground, and helped others kill two on trees. Some of these bears weighed from three hundred and fifty to nearly four hundred pounds. A wolf once followed him closely at night for a mile or more through the woods, gnashing his teeth at him ; when, thinking that he saw a club of peeled wood near him, he stooped to pick it up, but found it to be water in a rut, which reflected the light of the moon, so that he was defenseless still. Then the wolf howled, and was answered by others not far off, which he took as a loud hint for him to reach home as soon as possible, inasmuch as while single wolves rarely attack a man unless they are quite hungry, yet several of them together are often quite dangerous to meet with.

From Simms' "History of Schoharie" we learn that bears, deer, panthers, and other wild animals abounded there when the early German settlers came in 1711, and long after that time. One of these settlers having shot and wounded a bear, it turned upon, killed, and tore him to pieces. An Indian named Bellows came from hunting, holding his bowels in their place with his bands, having had his body torn open by a bear, which he killed after it had thus injured him. An Indian called "the Bear Catcher," an Indian living near Foxes' Creek, once treed a bear, and, having fired upon it, brought it to the ground ; when, in a hand-to-hand fight, he seized the bear's lower jaw so as to protect himself, and then drew it so closely to him as for a time to confine his fore paws, until having drawn one of them out he gave the Indian a fearful wound across the breast; when, having called his son, he came, and placing his gun in the bear's mouth, shot and killed him.

One Warner, living at Punchkill, went near evening for his cows, when he met a bear with cubs, which pursued him. Taking refuge behind a large tree, he kept out of reach of the bear, until, having seized a heavy hemlock knot or limb, he killed the bear with it. Near Foxes' Creek, John Shaeffer and George Schell were hunting, and their dog having treed a bear, Shaeffer fired and brought him to the ground, when, having seized the dog, he bugged him so closely as to hurt him badly; when Shaeffer having grasped the bear's paw with a view to relieve the dog, the bear quickly threw his paw around Shaeffer's arm also, and held him fast, until, having shouted to his companion, he came, and very carefully reaching out a tomahawk to him, he quickly buried its blade in the bear's head, and thus relieved both himself and his dog. We learn also from Simms that one Maria Teabout, who was part Indian, was with several others on Fireberg Hill, when hearing a cry like that of a child, she answered it with a similar cry. Being told not to do so, as the cry was that of a painter, or panther, she still continued to answer it, until, the others having gone away, the panther came; when, before it saw her, she hid herself in a hollow log, where it did not find her. Soon a party well armed and on horseback came to look for traces of her or her remains, presuming she had been torn to pieces; when, in answer to their call, she crept forth from the log and joined them. They then hung a blanket on a bush, so as to resemble a man ; and, concealing themselves, an Indian who, was with them so imitated the cry of the panther that he soon returned, and, springing at the blanket, tore it to pieces. He was then shot and skinned, and the Indians cut meat from the carcass and carried it home with them to cook and eat. The last panther shot in that region was killed near the house of Mr. John Enders, on Foxes' Creek.

Beaver were numerous when the Germans first came to Schoharie; and at a place called Beaver Dam, on Foxes' Creek, in what is now Berne, in Albany County, they had several strong dams.

Of wildcats, or the lynx, which are still often met with in the region of the Catskill Mountains, it is said that one Dr. Moulter, having found a strange animal among his geese in the night, seized it by the hind legs and the back of its neck, and was able to hold it fast until his sons came and killed it. It proved to be a wildcat. If the animal was full grown, the doctor must have been a powerful man to have been able thus to hold it.

Deer were for a long time numerous; and it is said that in one of their runways or paths which they frequented, an Indian who was lying in wait for deer shot six of them with arrows in quick succession, as no noise was made by these winged messengers of death to warn those which were coming of the fate of such as had gone before. In order thus to kill deer, however, one must be quite near them; and a strong bow, with a sure and steady aim, was required.


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