Waterfowling in a New World


Photo © Spencer Griffith

By Bill Nichol

Hunted for both food and sport, waterfowl were crucial to the survival of North America's early colonists and pioneers

On a winter day in 1607, Captain John Smith, the controversial figurehead and sometime leader of Jamestown Settlement, was hunting ducks along the marshy banks of Virginia's Chickahominy River when some 200 Pamunkey Indians ambushed his party, killed his companions, and took him captive. He was then presented to Powhatan, ruler of the region's federated tribes. Smith later wrote about this episode and the remarkable events leading up to his release in a series of journal entries, from which Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas first entered into American folklore.

It was not entirely by chance that duck hunting was part of one of America's earliest legends. The pursuit of waterfowl, along with other game such as deer, elk, bison, and turkey, was essential to the survival of the first American colonists and pioneers on the early frontier. Writings from settlers at Jamestown and Plymouth as well as journals written by Canada's pioneering fur traders and members of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery provide clear evidence of how important waterfowl hunting was to the hardy souls who colonized and explored this vast continent.

Hunting in the Early Colonies

To the modern sportsman, the storied abundance of fish and game is perhaps the most vivid aspect of the colonists' world. Their letters describe a land of plenty: turkey flocks exceeding 100 birds, oyster banks stretching more than a mile, and schools of cod that could fill countless boats. Thomas Morton, who had immigrated to Plymouth in 1624, was so amazed by the wealth of the land and sea that he labeled the new colony "Nature's Master-peece."

Huge gatherings of ducks, geese, and brant were certainly part of the ecological wealth of the American colonies during the 17th century. A few days after the Mayflower first dropped anchor in American waters, one pilgrim claimed he saw more waterfowl than he had ever seen in his life.

Near Jamestown, Alexander Whitaker, a minister, reported that "in winter" the rivers and creekes bee over spread every where with water foule of the greatest and least sort . Swans, flocks of Geese & Brants, Duck and Mallard, Sheldrakes [mergansers], Divers, &c." And John Pory, who visited the pilgrims' colony in January 1623, described the bay beyond Plymouth's harbor as "covered with all sorts of water fowl in such swarms and multitudes as is rather admirable than credible."

The colonists were eager to harvest this bounty, and the success they enjoyed is recorded in their own words. In a book published in 1634, William Wood exclaimed, "If I should tell you how some have killed 100 geese a week, 50 ducks at a shot [hunting spot], 40 teals at another, it may be counted impossible though nothing [is] more certain." In a contemporary book, Thomas Morton boasted, "I have had often 1000 [geese] before the mouth of my gunne." Down in Virginia, John Smith and two other Jamestown inhabitants also experienced some good luck when they bagged 148 waterfowl during one hunt.

How the settlers went about hunting ducks was mostly determined by the capabilities of their firearms. During the first years of settlement, Jamestown's most common gun, the matchlock musket, was used for both hunting and military purposes. By 1630, both groups of settlers were hunting with "fowling pieces," or "fowlers," designed especially for shooting waterfowl. To increase stability and range, these guns had long, smoothbore barrels and stretched out five or even six and a half feet in length. Most were designed with early versions of the flintlock firing system and had a range of about 50 yards, but both musket and fowler were a far cry from the modern 12 gauge. These primitive guns took minutes to load and did not always fire dependably.

With their guns' limitations in mind, colonists planned their hunting strategies accordingly. A long, heavy barrel meant shooters needed a shooting stick or some other rest to be accurate. This also meant that all shots were taken when waterfowl were relatively stationary—either standing in the marsh or dabbling in the water. Many waterfowl were likely bagged by hunters who silently stalked rafts of ducks or geese along the edges of lakes, rivers, and marshes.

Upon their arrival in America, securing adequate sources of food became a constant priority for the colonists and was frequently a cause for worry. In the first few years, the pilgrims struggled to grow enough crops for their needs, and Jamestown took even longer to become self-sufficient on agriculture alone. Although both colonies often found themselves surrounded by nature's bounty, this abundance was seasonal. Periods of rich plenitude were often followed by times of bleak scarcity.

Under these circumstances, it's easy to see why the colonists' attention would turn to hunting waterfowl in the fall. As an illustration of the good times, Thomas Morton bragged that it had become a custom in his house to serve a whole duck to every person at his dinner table. At Jamestown, John Smith recalled an episode when the fortunes of the colony were partially restored by the arrival of the first flight of migratory birds. In a letter to England, he stated that by October 1607 many colonists were afflicted by disease and fatigue and the settlement was within 20 days of running out of provisions. Fortunately for the men of Jamestown, they were able to barter with neighboring Indians for corn and were soon greeted by the first ducks and geese of the season. "There came such abundance of Fowles into the Rivers, as greatly refreshed our weake estates," Smith wrote.

Watefowl and the Fur Trade

While the early colonies along the Atlantic coast were becoming more established, waves of European explorers and pioneers ventured farther into the continent's interior. By the end of the 17th century, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) had established itself throughout much of eastern Canada as a large trading outfit collecting beaver pelts and other furs and supplying a variety of Old World goods to trappers and Native peoples. It was in the employment of the HBC that Henry Kelsey, the first European to travel to Canada's Great Plains region, kept a journal describing his life as a trader and explorer in the northern woodlands and prairie.

Henry Kelsey's words clearly reveal the importance of waterfowling to the livelihood of York Fort, HBC's primary trading post located on the western shore of Hudson Bay in modern Manitoba. Journal entries from 1694 and 1696 show that inhabitants of the post and neighboring Cree Indians hunted geese during both the spring and fall staging periods. To hunt these large concentrations of geese, Kelsey and other traders would set up tents in the marshes surrounding the trading post and along the Nelson and Hayes rivers. These tents served as base camps and storehouses where harvested geese could be stockpiled before being taken to the fort.

From the last week of April to the end of May in 1696, Kelsey recorded that in 19 trips more than 400 geese were brought to the fort from the marshes. In return, supplies such as flour, shot, powder, and flints were shuttled from York Fort to HBC's men in the marsh or traded to Cree hunters in exchange for geese. Over the years, this annual operation helped provide a crucial source of meat for the trading post, which could only receive supplies from England in the summer when Hudson Bay was free of ice.

The continued prosperity of the fur trade prompted HBC and rivals such as North West Company to expand trade networks into Canada's western and northern boundaries. In 1789 and 1792, Alexander Mackenzie, an employee of North West Company stationed on Lake Athabasca in Alberta, led two expeditions intent on finding a nautical passage to the Pacific Ocean. His first excursion led him to the Arctic Ocean, along a river that was later named in his honor. On his second attempt, he navigated the Peace and Fraser rivers, ultimately reaching the Pacific in the summer of 1793.

During both trips, Mackenzie made journal references to the waterfowl he encountered on the way. Traveling near the Arctic Ocean, Mackenzie recorded lots of activity on the breeding grounds: "Saw many Wild Fowl to-day with their Young Ones, but they were so shy that we cou'd not approach them." However, in June of 1789, he noted, "All the Banks of the [Slave] River are covered with wild Fowl. We killed 2 swans 10 Geese 1 Beaver this morning without losing an hour's time, so that if we were for the purpose of hunting we might soon fill our Canoe." While hunting geese and ducks was an important way of securing food in the wilderness, Mackenzie's crew had no time to linger at good hunting spots. Their mission demanded that they stay on the move.

Hunting with Lewis and Clark

Building on the foundations laid by the early colonists and explorers, North America's population grew during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1803—nearly 200 years after the founding of Jamestown and 30 years after the founding of the United States—President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's Corps of Discovery to explore the continent's vast western frontier. That same year, Jefferson had effectively doubled the size of the nation by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France. This vast tract of new land represented another pristine area largely untouched by white Americans or Europeans. Like Kelsey, Mackenzie, and the early colonists before them, the Corps' members left the comforts and familiarity of society and set off to face the challenges of an unexplored wilderness.

As this group pushed west, game was their primary source of food, and hunting was key to their survival. Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, they encountered game of legendary proportions.

On their trek, the expedition traveled across the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyways and crossed paths with hosts of migrating waterfowl. While camping on the Columbia River, Captain Clark complained in his journal that he was kept awake during the night by multitudes of waterfowl. Dinners consisting of duck, goose, brant, crane, and swan also appear frequently in the journals.

Captain Lewis recorded at the end of July 1805 how a duck had provided an opportune meal. During a walk along the Missouri River, he managed to get somewhat ahead of the slow-moving main party and found himself alone at dusk: "By this time it was getting nearly dark and a duck lit on the shore [within] about 40 steps of me and I killed it . I cooked my duck which I found very good and after eating it layed down and should have had a comfortable nights lodge but for the musquetoes which infested me all night." In many ways, this scene captures the essence of the explorer's lifestyle; Lewis had to take all that nature gave him, both duck dinners and mosquito bites.

 This episode also reveals much about how waterfowl were hunted during the expedition. Most of the time, members of the Corps shot game that was readily available or would yield the most meat. But when bison or other big game was absent, the explorers sought waterfowl, upland birds, and other small game.

Throughout the expedition, the Corps' hunters used flintlock rifles. But hunting waterfowl with a rifle was not an economical way to harvest birds. Although the party contained several top marksmen, powder and lead were so vital to their survival that conserving these commodities was a priority. As they passed west of what is now Bozeman, Montana, on July 25, 1805, Lewis had to curb his men's enthusiasm for shooting geese: "We killed a couple of young gees which are very abundant and fine; but as they are but small game to subsist a party on of our strength I have forbid the men shooting at them as it waists a considerably quantity of amunition and delays our progress."

In a broader context, both captains viewed waterfowl as more than merely a source of food. While the Corps' primary objectives were commercial and political, Jefferson also charged its leaders to take note of any new plant and animal species they should come across on their journey. In his journals, Lewis was meticulous in reporting the appearance of every new duck or goose—noting the coloration of its head, neck, wings, breast, and feet; the number of tail feathers; wing and bill lengths; and all other features relative to those of familiar eastern species. For example, he compared the snow goose to the Canada and commented that he preferred the taste of the "white brant" to that of its eastern counterpart. The white-fronted goose, tundra (whistling) swan, and northern shoveler were also among birds new to these men, and in 1806, near today's Rainier, Oregon, Lewis "discovered" the ring-necked duck, which was previously unknown to science.

The journals also recorded the migration patterns of waterfowl. On the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark observed waterfowl flight patterns during their three-and-a-half-month stay at Fort Clatsop. As the winter passed, they kept record as the birds migrated south and back north along the coast. On November 30, 1805, there was "a great abundance of fowls." By January 31, 1806, "the Swan white Brant geese & ducks still continue with us," while "the brown or speckled brant are mostly gone." And on March 24, the second day of their trip back up the Columbia, Lewis noted, "we saw very few waterfowl today, not a single swan, white brant nor a small goose is to be seen."

However, the Corps did continue to see and hunt waterfowl as they moved east toward the completion of their mission. Like the early colonists, the Corps of Discovery helped transform the wild America they knew into a modern landscape partially tamed by agriculture and a rapidly growing human population. Alterations to the landscape as well as advances in technology changed the practice and significance of waterfowl hunting in this country. Yet, regardless of how the sport has evolved through the years, waterfowling has remained a North American institution. After all, it's been with us every step of the way.