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Waterfowling in a New World

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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.

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