Old Time Tales of Warren County



September dawn on the wooded hilltops near Tionesta Creek in the year 1862, a rising sun flinging its first long rays over interminable turrets of tall pine. Slender wisps of white fog floating up from shadowy ravines full of dense hemlock, the exhilarating, indescribable freshness of forest air sweet with the scents of pine and hemlock and fern. The gray boles of a great beech woods faintly pinked by the rising sun. A strange, murmuring sound from the beech forest that increases with the growing light, like the roar of a windstorm in the woods, yet different; a sound known only to the early dwellers in Warren County and now to be heard no more,-pigeons, not a thousand of them, but certainly a million, so many pigeons their numbers can only be guessed at.

A low log cabin cuddling close to the trees. It is the type of cabin built by the later settlers who found the choice land in larger valleys taken, and pushed back into the still-dense wilderness of the hills. Earlier cabins often had chimneys built of sticks and mud, the mud hardened to cement-like solidity by the admixture of a little salt. The stone chimney, mortared with the same salted mixture, was a good solid job. A few of them, built eighty years ago, are still standing and in fair condition.

Early as the hour may be the cabin dwellers are up and stirring, an increasing column of blue wood smoke mounts from the stone chimney to mingle with the morning mists. Corn cakes are being baked in a broad skillet laid directly on glowing coals, which have been raked forward on the hearth. A middle aged woman in blue print skirt and gray homespun jacket is baking the cakes. She steps to a ladder which disappears in an aperture in the low loft.

"Roger,-get up now. The pigeons are starting to come over. I want you should take a binder pole and knock me down a mess before you eat breakfast. Come on now, get up, I hear them going over !"

The woman was Mrs. Samuel Baker, wife of the owner of the log cabin who was clearing a home for himself in the wilderness. The boy in the loft was Roger T. Baker, then fourteen years of age and able to do a man's work in the woods with a team of oxen.

Young Roger bounced down the ladder in a hurry, stuck his bare feet into a pair of boots, stepped outdoors, seized a long, hickory pole and climbed to a piece of high ground some two hundred yards back of the cabin. Over his head as he climbed the slope swept a roaring cyclone of birds, a solid gray mass of whirring wings. The flight of pigeons resembled some great, irresistible force of nature, sweeping forward like a tidal wave. The bright morning sunlight was dimmed as if the sky had suddenly been filled with dark clouds, the wind from the roaring wings made a strange, cool breeze as the pigeons passed close over Roger Baker's head. It was the regular, early morning flight of the cock pigeons, which, with clock-like regularity, left the roost to fly to distant feeding grounds each day.

The boy didn't need to hurry, the pigeons kept going over for nearly an hour. At first he stood on the low hill and thrashed about among the birds with his pole.

Finding this severe effort unnecessary, he seated himself on the ground, planted the pole upright between his knees, letting its top be buffeted and carried back by the flying birds, sweeping the pole forward against the feathered stream and knocking down the pigeons. Frequently lower flying birds made the boy duck and dodge, a passenger pigeon, moving at a speed of fifty miles an hour struck with a lusty smack when it came against one's face; men have been knocked from the saddle by them.

As Roger brought down stunned and crippled pigeons he snipped off their heads with a pair of sharp nippers his father kept for this special purpose. Then he put the pigeons in a bag and, as you may imagine, it was not long till he had a good bag full, four or five times as many birds as his mother would use in the stew,-he might just as well get a good supply of pigeon meat while he was up there.

He who writes of the passenger pigeon in the early days of Warren County stands in imminent danger of being accused of gross exaggeration. That the wild pigeons were once present here in such interminable flocks, their passing actually darkened the sun, not for one hour only, but often for as long as half a day, is a statement difficult for some of the younger generation to believe. Yet there are plenty of men, not old men by any means, living in Warren County today who, as youths, saw the pigeons and caught great numbers of them. Ed. Campbell, of Warren, has netted hundreds of wild pigeons, made the "salt beds" which lured the birds to the ground, built the bough houses used as shelters for hunters who sprung the nets.

Mr. Campbell also owned one of the many "stool pigeons" used in this region. A stool pigeon was always a male bird, captured alive and kept well fed. The bird would be set within range of the net on a low stool, to which his leg was attached with a string some eight or ten feet long. As the captive bird fluttered up to the length of his tether he attracted the attention of his comrades in the sky and down they came, to their doom. The standard price of a good stool pigeon was five dollars, the old pigeon hunters are agreed on that. With the birds so plentiful it is difficult to understand the high price, except for the fact that a good stool pigeon was in some respects, an educated bird.

G. H. Dunham, of Warren, well recalls when "the birds went over like the roar of a big hailstorm." He also remembers sitting on a hilltop close to Warren and capturing the birds with a pole. John Logan, that grand old patriarch of Armitage Corners, who at ninety-six years of age, contributed invaluable material for this book, said, "Pigeons, there was no end to them. When we wanted pigeons we took a bag and went into the woods at night. We carried torches, made of fat pine. There would be plenty of birds roosting on low branches, we just caught as many as we cared for and came home."

George Warner, one of the greatest hunters in this region in later years, was old enough to remember the wild pigeons. He said, "When I was too small to stand the kick of a shotgun I have taken a muzzle loader outdoors, sat down, stood the butt of the gun on the ground and fired upwards into the flocks of pigeons without sighting. This way I brought down four or five at a shot."

The countless flocks of wild pigeons which filled the forests in Warren County's pioneer days make a picture not likely to be repeated in any form of bird life. There were many "pigeon roosts" or "towns" in the county, one of the largest being in the region of Sugar Run, near Kinzua, another vast one at the sight of "Pigeon," a spot to which the birds gave a name. How long the passenger pigeons had been in this region before the white man came is not known. It is certain the Indian had known the pigeon for many years. The Senecas had various superstitious beliefs concerning the birds, but these beliefs did not prevent the red man's killing the pigeons in great numbers. The Indian was particularly fond of squab and used a clever method of obtaining the young birds.

In the area of a pigeon roost, sometimes more than a mile long and half a mile wide, the outlines being as regular and sharply followed as if they were fenced; a single tree would sometimes contain as many as a hundred nests, each, in proper season, filled with its pair of plump young birds.

The Indian would invade the roost with his bow and a handful of blunt-tipped arrows. With these arrows he would strike the slender limb holding the nest and jar out the birds. Not yet being able to fly, the squabs fell easy prey to this method of hunting.

The noise in a pigeon roost at morning and evening was deafening. The birds poured in and out in such numbers they paid little attention to human intruders under the trees. Feathers littered the forest floor and everywhere were smaller branches broken down by the countless birds.

Perry Nichols, who had been all through the pigeon country when the birds were numerous, told of heavy beech limbs splintered by the weight of countless birds. In describing the alighting of a great flock of pigeons on a grain field, a serious visitation for any pioneer farmer, he said, "They would roll over a field like a wave, the birds always fluttering a little way over those which had come down just in front of them. It was like a big wave curling over and under."

The passenger pigeon must have been manna from heaven for more than one pioneer family in the earlier times. The pigeons were easily taken and being plump breasted, solid birds, a very few of them provided food for a family. In regions where the birds were particularly plentiful housewives saved only the breast which was delicious white meat. The pigeon breasts were strung on strings, smoked and dried. Many a log cabin home had hundreds of dried pigeon breasts hanging in the loft to be used in soups and stews and pigeon pot pie during the winter months.

The passenger pigeon was a beautiful bird, slightly longer and slimmer than the domesticated pigeon, very swift in flight. The color on back and wings was a rich blue-gray, the breast was ruddy brick-red.

The wild pigeon disappeared suddenly and completely from Warren County between the years 1880 and 1884. A Warren lady, who was a small girl in Barnes at the time, recalls seeing twelve barrels of pigeons shipped by express from Sheffield in a single day in the year 1878. The birds were sent to New York markets where they brought fifty cents a dozen.

The last small pigeon roost in Warren County was located near Tidioute, in 1884. Since then the passenger pigeon has not been seen in this region. Despite the enormous slaughter of the birds by hunters, it is believed by some, that the pigeons were not exterminated by this means. There were reports of large numbers seen floating dead in the sea. Another rumor is that enormous numbers of passenger pigeons died of disease in the south. No stories of their disappearance have seemed fully satisfactory.

Persistent reports from farmers who claim to have seen the wild pigeon in small numbers in recent years have kept alive the belief that some of the birds still exist. Certainly their complete extinction is by no means proven.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 331-337: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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