History of Delaware County Pennsylvania - Chapter 23

Created: Wednesday, 13 April 2011 Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 Written by Nathan Zipfel Print Email

CHAPTER XXIII

WILD ANIMALS, FISH, ETC., OF DELAWARE COUNTY

When the first European settlers located in Delaware County the territory abounded with wild game, and for more than a hundred years thereafter large animals in a state of nature were common. Gabriel Thomas informs us in his "History of Pennsylvania," that when he lived in the province, previous to 1698, "there are in the woods abundance of red deer-vulgarly called stags - for I have bought of the Indians a whole buck - both skin and carcass - for two gills of gunpowder. Excellent food - most delicious, far exceeding that in Europe, in the opinion of most that are nice and curious people," while Mahlon Stacey, writing to a friend in England, says, "We have brought home to our houses by the Indians seven or eight fat bucks in a day, and sometimes put by as many, having no occasion for them."*

Deer seem to have been abundant until after the middle of the last century in the more remote townships, for in 1824, William Mode, then living on the west branch of the Brandywine, East Fallowfield township, Chester County, in his eighty-second year, related that as a boy he remembered when deer were so plentiful that their tracks in the wheat-fields in time of snow were as if a flock of sheep had been driven over them, and on one occasion his father returned home, having the carcasses of two, which he had shot, on his sled. Samuel Jefferis, who died at West Chester, Feb. 28, 1823, aged eighty-seven, stated that deer were common in his neighborhood in his early manhood, while Watson records that in 1730 a woman in Chester County (then including Delaware County) "going to mill spied a deer fast asleep near the road. She hit it on the head with a stone and killed it."

Black bears were frequently slain in the early days, and they generally met their fate because of their partiality for swine-flesh. The animal in search of this dainty morsel would approach near the settlement, and when he had selected a hog to his taste, he would spring suddenly upon his victim, grasp it in his fore-legs, and, erecting himself on his hind ones, would walk away with the porker squeaking at his unhappy situation. The cry of the hog usually brought the owner to the rescue of his property; but if he failed in overtaking the bear, he would in all probability capture the animal before many hours, for after eating sufficient to satisfy his appetite, he would return to devour the remainder of the carcass at his leisure. The settlers knowing this weakness, would set a heavy smooth-jawed steel trap, attached to which was a long drag-chain ending with iron claws. The bear once caught in the trap, would drag the chain along the ground, and the claws catching upon the bushes would compel him to such exertion in freeing himself that he would become exhausted, and when overtaken, as his track would be readily followed, he fell a comparatively easy prey to the huntsman.

In 1721 a bear was killed near Darby, and yet ten or fifteen years later, when Nathaniel Newlin, of Concord, married Esther Midkiff, of Darby, her parents objected to the marriage, not because they had any disinclination to the suitor, but for the fact that he lived in the backwoods of Concord, and there were bears there; while of Mary Palmer, wife of John Palmer, of Concord, one of the first settlers of that township, it is recorded that she drove a bear away from a chestnut-tree with a fire-poker or poking-stick.**

But bears sometimes came closer to the settlement than "the backwoods of Concord." In the winter of 1740-41, so memorable for its extreme cold weather, it is related by Mrs. Deborah Logan that one night an old man, servant of Joseph Parker (then owning and living in the old Logan house, still standing on the north side of Second Street, above Edgmont Avenue, Chester), rose from his bed, and, as he was a constant smoker, he descended to the kitchen to light his pipe. The watch-dog was growling fiercely, and he went to the window to ascertain the cause. The moon was up, but partly obscured by clouds, and by that light the old man saw an animal which he took for "a big black calf" in the yard. He thereupon drove the creature out of the inclosure, when it turned, looked at him, and he then saw it was a black bear. The beast, it is supposed, had been in some way aroused from its winter torpor and had sought shelter from the cold, which may account for its apparent docility. The next morning it was killed in the woods about a half-mile distant from the house. William Worrall stated that when a lad in Marple a large bear made an inroad into the neighborhood and escaped with impunity, although great exertions were made to secure it.

The early settlers were much annoyed by the wolves, who preyed on their flocks and herds. In the Duke of York’s laws, promulgated on the Delaware, Sept. 22, 1676, it was provided that if any person, "Christian or Indian," brought the head of a wolf to the constable he was to be paid, "out of the publicque charge, to the value of an Indian coat," and the constable was required to nail the head over the door of his house, previous to which he must cut off both the ears, "in token that the head is bought and paid for." In 1672 the amount paid for wolves’ heads was found to be burdensome, and it was ordered that the sum of twenty-five shillings per head should be reduced to twenty shillings, and the several towns were obliged to maintain wolf-pits. This was the law respecting the killing of wolves in force in the province from the date of the promulgation of the Duke’s "Book of Laws," until the coming of Penn in the latter part of the year 1682. The eighty-sixth law, enacted by the first Assembly at Chester, provided that if any person, excepting an Indian, should slay a he wolf he should receive ten shillings, and for a she wolf fifteen shillings, out of the public fund. The wolf’s head must be brought to a justice, who should cause the ears and tongue to be cut out. If an Indian killed a wolf he was paid five shillings "and the skin for his pains," which latter clause was stricken out of the law May 10, 1690, by the Assembly which met at New Castle, and Indians were placed on a like footing with the whites, receiving the same reward.

The law was more easily enacted than the money could be raised to pay the wolf-head bounty. The court previous to 1700 seemed constantly compelled to take action looking, to the collection of taxes sufficient to discharge these pressing demands. At the court held at Chester, the 3d day of 1st week, Tenth month, 1687, it was "Ordered that Warrants be Directed to ye respective Constables of each Township in this county for raising of a levy to be used towards ye destroying Wolves and other Hurtful Vermin, as follows, viz.: For all lands taken up and inhabited one shilling for every hundred acres; for all Lands taken up by non-residents and so remaining unoccupied eighteen pence for every hundred acres; All freemen from sixteen years of age to sixty, one shilling; All servants, soe qualified, six pence." This order did not secure the sum necessary to keep the county and the wolf-hunters square in their accounts, so that on the 6th day of 1st week, Tenth month, 1688, "The Grand Inquest doe alsoe allow of ye Tax for ye wolves’ heads and that Power be forthwith Issued forth to Compel those to pay that are behind in their arrears, And that receipts and disbursements thereof be made to ye grand Inquest at ye next County Court." But this action of the grand jury did not result as desired, so that Oct. 2, 1695, the grand inquest reported that the county was in debt, not only on account of the prison, which was not completed, but that "there were several wolves’ heads to pay for," and they therefore levied a tax of one pence per pound on personal and real estate and three pence poll-tax. The jury also gave the rule by which the valuation should be made thus: "All cleared land under tillage to be assessed at 20 shillings per acre; rough lands near river £10 per hundred acres; land in woods" (that is, uncultivated land on which no settlement had been made), "£5 per hundred acres; horses and mares at £3; cows and oxen at 50 shillings; sheep 6s.; negro male slaves from sixteen to sixty years of age at £25, and females at £20. Chester Mills (at Upland) £100; Joseph Cochran’s mill (where Dutton’s now is), £50; Darby Mill, £100; Haverford Mills (on Cobb’s Creek), £20; Concord Mills (now Leedom’s), £50," and all tavern-keepers were assessed at twenty pounds. This is the last mention I find of wolves as forming the subject of a grand jury’s action in our county annals, but many bills are on file in the commissioner’s office, in West Chester, for the wolf bounty.

In 1705 the constantly-increasing flocks of sheep caused the wolves to venture nearer the settlement to prey on those domestic animals; hence, in 1705, the law was changed, so that if any person would undertake as an occupation to kill wolves, devoting three days at least in each week to that pursuit, and entering into recognizance at the County Courts to that effect, such person was entitled to receive twenty-five shillings for every head he brought in. This was not extravagant when we remember that at Germantown as late as 1724 wolves were reported as often heard howling at nights, while in 1707 they approached so closely to the settled parts of Philadelphia as to render the raising of sheep a precarious business.

By the act Of March 20, 1724/5, the Assembly provides the following rewards for killing wolves and red foxes: For every grown dog or bitch wolf, 15s.; for every wolf puppy or whelp, 7s. 6d.; for every old red fox, 2s., and for every young red fox or whelp, 1s. I do not know whether the reward for killing foxes was ever repealed, for the accounts in the commissioner’s office at Media show that on Second month 12, 1791, James Jones was paid 13s. 6d. for fox scalps. These animals were very numerous in the last century, for William Mode, heretofore mentioned, stated that in his early days foxes carried off their poultry, and "on one occasion a man threshing espied one in the evening coming towards the barn, lay in ambush with a club, with which he knocked it over and killed it."*** The smaller animals, such as squirrels, raccoons, and "that strange animal the ‘possum,’" as Gabriel Thomas calls them, "she having a false belly to swallow her young ones, by which means she preserves them from danger when anything comes to disturb them," were numerous. In the year 1749, we are told by Kalm, six hundred and forty thousand black and gray squirrels were shot, the bounty paid in the several counties that year amounting to eight thousand pounds at three pence a head.

The drain was so great on the county treasuries that the premium was reduced one-half. Great numbers of pheasants and partridges were found in all sections of the county, while wild turkeys in winter were often seen in flocks in the corn and buckwheat-fields feeding, and Mr. Worrall could well remember when there were great quantities of wild turkeys. The latter related that he once saw a flight of pigeons which lasted two days. "They flew in such immense flocks as to obscure for a considerable time the rays of the sun. Thomas Coburn, Caleb Harrison, and Peter Heston went out at night in Martin’s Bottom, and they told him (Worrall) that when they were in the woods where the pigeons roosted the noise was so great that they could not hear each other speak. On viewing the place the next morning, they found large limbs of the trees broken off from the immense weight and pressure of the lodgers." About the time of Penn’s coming the wild pigeons flew in such masses "that the air was sometimes darkened," and, flying low, great numbers were knocked down with sticks by those persons who had no firearms. The birds not immediately used were salted down for future consumption.

The act of 1700, offering a reward for killing blackbirds and crows, states in its preamble that "by the innumerable quantities of blackbirds and crows that continually haunt in this province and territories, to the great prejudice, hurt, and annoyance of the inhabitants thereof, being very destructive to all sorts of corn and grain that is raised therein, so that people’s labor is much destroyed thereby," a reward of three pence per dozen for blackbirds and three pence for every crow killed was offered out of the public fund, the party killing the birds being required to produce their heads before the proper officer in each county, and by the act of March 20, 1724/5, the person claiming the reward for killing crows was required to bring not less than six at one time to the nearest justice, who should "see their bill cut off," after which the magistrate was authorized to give an order for the reward on the county treasurer.

In 1748, Peter Kalm, the Swedish naturalist, records that the old residents stated that the number of birds was then diminishing; that in the days of the early settlers the water was covered by all kinds of waterfowl, and that about 1688 it was no unusual thing for a single person to kill seventy or eighty ducks of a morning, while an old Swede, then ninety years old, told Kalm that he had killed thirty-three ducks at one shot. Capt. Heinricks, of the Hessian troops, however, who could see nothing agreeable in our country, says that "like the products of the earth, animals too are only half developed. A hare, a partridge, a peacock, etc., is only half grown. Wild game tastes like ordinary meat."

In early times swans were said to abound on the Delaware, but it is a circumstance to which William Whitehead, in his interesting sketch of Chester, directed general attention, that at that time "we do not hear of the more modern rail- and reed-birds, which now afford profit and pleasure to the sportsman in the fall season." It has always been a question among ornithologists as to the locality where the rail-bird breeds, but in 1876 James Pierce picked up an unfledged rail-bird on Chester Island whose feathers were not sufficiently grown to enable it to fly, which incident furnished strong evidence that the birds breed on the marshes and meadows along the Delaware, a proposition which had been stoutly maintained by some well-informed persons and as earnestly denied by others.

It is worthy of record that a gentleman in Chester in 1851 caught a white blue-bird, an albino, its plumage being of snowy whiteness.

Of our fishes, William Penn, in his "Further Account of the Province of Pennsylvania," published in 1685, refers to the fact that "mighty whales roll upon the coast near the mouth of the Bay of Delaware." A century and a quarter after he wrote this, in 1809, a clever-sized whale was caught in the Delaware, near Chester. Watson informs us that it "became a subject of good speculation," and was exhibited at Philadelphia and elsewhere. "Thomas Pryor, who purchased it, made money by it, and in reference to his gains was called ‘Whale Pryor.’ The jaws were so distended as to receive therein an arm-chair, in which the visitors sat." In April, 1833, near Chester, three seals were seen, and one of them was caught in a shadseine, and kept on exhibition. Previous to this, on Jan. 21, 1824, a seal was shot in the Delaware, near Repaupo, by Jonas Steelman, a resident of New Jersey, and occasionally sharks of the man-eating species have been seen or caught in the river above Chester. On Aug. 4, 1851, William Haines, Henry Post, and George Ennis caught a shark in a seine while fishing for catfish near the Lazaretto. It measured nine feet in length and five feet across the fins. In August, 1876, Captain Smith, while fishing for herring, saw a shark in the river just above Chester.

William Penn, in the pamphlet mentioned, states that "sturgeons play continually in our rivers in summer," and it is said could be counted by dozens at a time, leaping into the air and endangering the boats, while of shad, which he tells us are called "aloes" in France, by the Jews "allice," and by "our ignorant shad,"(4*) "are excellent fish, and of the bigness of our largest carp. They are so plentiful that Capt. Smyth’s overseer at the Skulkil drew 600 and odd at one draught; 300 is no wonder, 100 familiarly. They are excellent Pickeled or smok’d as well as boyld fresh. They are caught by nets only." He also informs us that six shad or rock were sold for twelve pence, and salt fish at three farthings a pound. The rock-fish Penn stated were somewhat larger and rounder than the shad, while he mentioned a whiter fish, little inferior in relish to the English mullet, which were plentiful, and the herring, he tells, us, "swarm in such shoals that it is hardly creditable. In little creeks they almost shovel them up in their tubs." There is among the lesser fry "the catfish or flathead, lamprey eale, trout, perch, black and white smelt, sunfish, etc." The eels in former time must have been monstrously large, for, as late as 1830, one measuring nearly six feet in length and of proportionate girth was reported as having been caught off the mouth of Chester Creek, which was a giant as compared with that captured by Capt. Peter Boon, in June, 1869, which was over three feet in length and weighed ten pounds.

Locusts were known in early days, and in 1749, Kalm alludes to them as returning every seventeen years, showing that even then the peculiar interval of time between their coming in great numbers had been noted. The first mentioned, however, of locusts, so far as I have seen, is recorded in Clay’s "Swedish Annals," as follows:
     "In May, 1715, a multitude of locusts came out of the ground everywhere, even on the solid roads. They were wholly covered with a shell, and it seemed very wonderful that they could with this penetrate the hard earth. Having come out of the earth, they crept out of the shells, flew away, sat down on the trees, and made a peculiar noise until evening. Being spread over the country in such numbers, the noise they made was so loud that the cow-bells could scarcely be heard in the woods. They pierced the bark on the branches of the trees, and deposited their eggs in the openings. Many apprehended that the trees would wither in consequence of this, but no symptoms of it was observed next year. Hogs and poultry fed on them. Even the Indians did eat them, especially when they first came, boiling them a little. This made it probable that they were of the same kind with those eaten by John the Baptist. They did not continue long, but died in the month of June."

In the early days flies were more abundant than in our times, and during the occupation of Philadelphia the flies were very annoying to the residents of that city. "You cannot conceive," wrote Capt. John Heinricks, in 1778, "of the superabundant swarms of flies."(5*) If flies attracted attention, certain it is that the early settlers, as well as all subsequent European visitors, were much surprised and interested in our phosphorescent beetles, or, as more commonly called, fire-flies. Thomas Moore has used these insects with effect in one of his most admired ballads. The origin of our common bees has long been a mooted question, because the Indians always declared that they were unknown in this country until the advent of Europeans, and termed them "the white man’s fly." "Bees," writes Gabriel Thomas, in 1698, "thrive and multiply exceedingly in these parts. The Swedes often get great stores of them in the woods, where they are free for anybody. Honey (and choice, too) is sold in the Capital City for five pence per pound. Wax is also plentiful, cheap, and considerable commerce." That nocturnal pest, the mosquito, was general in the early time, and, within the recollection of the writer, in the vicinity of Chester they were more numerous thirty years ago than at the present day. They were certainly abundant in the early days of Swedish sway on the Delaware, for we learn that shortly after Governor Printz built Fort Elsinborg, near the mouth of Salem Creek, Campanius records "At last within a few years it was demolished by the Swedes themselves, who could not live there on account of the great numbers of moschetoes. After they left it they used to call it Myggenborg, that is to say, Moscheto Fort."


* Proud’s "History of Pennsylvania," vol. i. p. 152

** Genealogical Record of Palmer and Trimble Families, by Lewis Palmer, p. 27

*** Statement of William Mode in 1824, Village Record, West Chester, Pa.

(4*) It is stated that the timid nature of these fish gave it the name of shad. The early settlers noticed that the overhanging of trees on the river or streams frequented by this fish, casting a shade upon the water, frightened them, and hence from this peculiarity they were called shadow-fish, or the fish that is frightened at a shadow, and in time the first part of the word alone came to be used as the name of the fish.

(5*) Penna. Mag. of Hist., vol. i. p.41

Source:  Page(s) 212-215, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, by Henry Graham Ashmead, Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co. 1884