Early Pioneer Days in Texas
Hunting in the Early Days
Game of nearly every kind abounded on these prairies that are now tilled, and where, on nearly every quarter section, now holds a home of happy, contented families, but in those days wild Spanish horses, deer and buffalo, bear and panther, raccoons, wolves and coyotes had full sway, and they roamed at will over the boundless prairies, feeding off the luxuriant native grasses that grew abundantly and as high as the arm-pits of a man in the valleys, and as high as the waist on the high ground. Game was so plentiful in the feathery tribes that they flocked in such numbers as to cloud the skies when they were in flight, and it was true that because of their abundance the farmer had great difficulty to plant his wheat, corn or other grains, because these birds and wild fowl would come and devour the seed. There were turkeys, geese, prairie chickens, quail and doves, and various and numerous other game birds and fowls in abundance. So plentiful that in their season they were common food on the table, and out of sheer necessity were we compelled to slaughter them in order that we could plant and grow our crops.
Many are the times I have taken part in hunting the wild Spanish horses, and it was an exciting experience, an experience not permitted to this generation to enjoy. The way it was done required some skill and strength and nimbleness of feet and hands. These horses roamed at will, and on the approach of men would run pell-mell, like the wind, away from us as soon as we would come near. The only way we could get anywhere near one was to take a rifle, and with accurate and steady aim, send a ball through the top of his neck, which sent him sprawling on the ground, then with quick and active exertions, reach him before he could get up, place a rawhide loop around his neck and fasten the other end around the stoutly rigged saddle horn. Then the fun would begin. With an experienced, well-mounted rider on a good, strong horse, the battle would not be a long one, but as long as it did last it was a strenuous one. The captured horse would rear and rush and snort, and as he would try to get away the rider would draw a tighter line. Seldom did the wild horse unseat the rider, but there was always danger of the wild horse throwing himself backwards on to the rider. Many a Spanish horse has been broken and tamed to be a useful animal that looked so ferocious when first captured that it seemed impossible to tame him, and the trainers who mounted these wild steeds had many a jolt and shock in getting them to become obedient to the call of man. Many a man has been crippled for life in the effort to master one of these wild, untamed horses, not so many from ' being thrown as from the rearing, jumping and somersaulting of the animals themselves falling back on the rider and injuring him by the animal's fall.
These animals would double up in the air, then send their feet up almost straight, then their head down and their hind feet up, but so long as they remained on their feet, either up or down, the rider would hold on, and it was only when the horse fell backward that the danger came.
Bears furnished exciting sport also. They did not show much fight so long as they were not molested or hunted, but the bear hunted was generally no tame affair, and it was no boy's game when the real work began. Bears did not molest us long, nor did we have much experience hunting them, as they moved farther West with the buffalo as the white man came.
Deer were very numerous, and I have seen as many as 200 playing and sunning themselves in one bunch, where they had. gathered from the Sulphurs, Bois d'Arc and Sanders Creek in the spring, lazily eating the abundant grass and cavorting and playing and enjoying themselves. Well do I remember the sport we had in racing, chasing and catching deer with greyhounds in those days. How we would test the speed of our horses and the endurance of our dogs in the hunt and race for deer. We did not kill for lust's sake, but for sport's sake. It was easy to kill any number with our guns, but we tried our skill in choosing the biggest, and had contests to see who could kill at the greatest distance and with the cleanest shot. The deer in those days were so numerous that they would do great damage to our roasting ears and pea patches, and we would flash them with our fire pans, their eyes shining like stars.
Then we would easily capture them. The choice, juicy venison made a feast fit for kings, and we enjoyed the luxury and the benefit of those venison hams for many a day.
Wild turkeys were also very numerous, and fine, fat, sleek, blue-headed fellows. What enjoyment we used to have to get among a nice bunch of frying size and shoot till our barrels were hot, then gather so many that we could just barely carry them home, and have to leave them strewn on the ground! What fun it was to see some proud, strutting gobbler as he was helping to make the woods echo with his gobble, and take a shot at him just as he was making a bee-line for our wheat fields. What a load we had to get our trophies home, but I always found where there was a will there's usually a way. I can truthfully say that necessity is the mother of invention. It was quite common for the wild turkeys to come close to our home and mingle with mother's turkeys, and I have shot many of them close to our yard fence. A little experience I had once that happened while several of us were out on one of our camping expeditions was rather humiliating, but I look back on it now with gratification. We had secured seventeen deer and an innumerable quantity of turkeys, and I saw on a sandy branch some turkeys laying in the little creek. There was a hole full of clear water and full of fish. I made up my mind to make a record for shooting turkeys some of the boys had killed two or three at one shot, so I put an extra load in my gun, cautiously and secretly hid myself in a good place on a tree in a reclining position, about six or eight feet from the ground, and, as I anticipated, the turkeys came in large numbers down the trail towards the water hole. I took careful aim, expecting to bag quite a few, as I had cocked both barrels of my big double barreled shotgun, and just when they were in range pulled the trigger. But what happened ? The kick knocked me from my position, I swung under the log and couldn't get back around, so I had to drop, and nearly broke my back in doing so. After I was able to get up I picked up my gun and went after my prize, when, to my amazement, I found feathers, feathers everywhere, enough to make a big feather bed, but not a turkey anywhere. Imagine if you can, how humiliated I was and how disappointed. The prize I expected to boast of became my humiliation. You ask: Did I tell the boys in camp of my disappointment? Well, no. I kept it to myself for several days, but finally I let it out. The joke on me was too good to keep. Even at my own expense, I felt I was letting my comrades have no share in the fun, so we all enjoyed a good, hearty laugh around the camp- fire as I told them my experience as we feasted on venison, turkey, fish, squirrel, quail and wild honey, which we had in abundance. Those days were bright and happy days, and we'll never see their like again. Now we are striving for other things, times have changed, and sports have changed, and with the change we forget the dangers and the labors of the pioneers of the past, but just the same they paved the way for the comforts and the plenty we now enjoy.
When I hear of hunting parties going out today I can't help but remember what a difference there is between then and now. The prairie chickens used to fly in such numbers that they would obscure the sun. It was such sport shooting them and trying to see how many we could kill at one shot as they used to light in our fields when we were planting wheat. They were more numerous than blackbirds in oat-sowing time, and it kept us busy to keep them out of our fields. They would gather in the post oaks and live off the acorns in the fall of the year and weigh down the branches by their weight, they were so numerous. How well do I remember having stood on my father's gallery and shot at prairie chickens in the tops of the old post oak trees that stood in the yard. They didn't quite fall into the frying pan, but they dropped so close to the kitchen door that the cook had only to dress and clean them to put them there. They feasted also on berries, and in the shumake patches, when I was a mere lad herding sheep, too young to shoot a gun offhand, I carried a forked stick on which I placed the gun to shoot, and many of the feathery tribe have fallen when I pressed the trigger. I nearly always got a mess, but sometimes the recoil sent me sprawling on the ground, and not always did I have the time to choose the softest and coziest bed of flowers to lie upon. But what cared I for bruised or injured limbs, or bones, so long as I could get a goodly number of game!
The quail and partridges were fat and fine, and numerous. We used to catch them in pens and shoot them, too. I have caught a dozen in one pen, and in harvest time we used to gather eggs and bake them in the hot sand and feast off them.
Nor shall I forget the nectar of the gods the honey furnished us by the industrious honey bee the most wonderful insect in God's creation, flitting from flower to flower, extracting here a little and there a little, and gathering the sweetest of all the sweets. If there is anything I like better than honey it is more honey. The wonderful tales told of honey and the honey bee may seem exaggerated, but no tale can exaggerate the abundance of honey that was to be found right here in Texas in the early days. What sweet, happy days we had cutting bee-trees and eating the rich, wild honey spread over our buttered biscuits, biscuits ready for the occasion. We had a bountiful supply the whole year round combed honey, strained honey and candied honey. I cannot refrain from paying tribute to the industrious bees. How diligently they gather and economically store during the season of labor that they may have plenty in the store-house in the winter hours. What a lesson to us the bees give, teaching us the need for industry, thrift and economy, using our God-given talents while it is day, and laying in store for the day when our work is done. Honey Grove let the name perpetuate the meaning that its name implies, a grove where industry, economy, enterprise and perseverance shall be perpetuated. It is said that Davy Crockett and his men, those illustrious Texas heroes, camped here a week on their way to that world-famed Alamo, and fed on the honey that gave them the joy of service and zeal for their country's cause. These men, whose names are written in history's pages as heroes unequalled, and who will live in the memory of ages of unborn men and women for centuries to come.