Hunting in the Great West
By G.O. Shields
THE GULF COAST OF FLORIDA
THE CAMPING GROUND OF COUGHPENNSLOUGH--THE " PALMEETER CABBAGE "--THE SPORTSMAN'S PARADISE- I BECOME PIOUS- SATAN TO THE FRONT--A MOSSY BED --TA-WHOO-OO-OO-AH--"GOBBLE, GOBBLE GOBBLE"--THE WOODS ALIVE WITH SQUIRRELS--THE BOUNDING BUCK--A FLOCK OF TURKEYS--ROSEATE SPOONBILLS--THE SAD WORDS " GOOD-BYE."
ACCORDING to previous arrangement Jack harnessed the horse and hitched him to the cart. We loaded in our tent, blankets, provisions, ammunition, etc.; he took the lines, and we were off for a four days' camp hunt on the Myakka river. For several years past I have heard the praises of this mystic region sung by sportsmen who have visited it and experienced its charms, and the glowing accounts I received of it from Mr. Webb and his family only served to heighten my anxiety to see it with my own eyes. We left home at half-past ten in the morning. Our route lay through a tract of open pine woods, the monotony of which was relieved by ponds scattered along the entire distance, at each of which we got a shot or two at the large water birds, which always hover around them.
At half-past one o'clock we arrived at the scene of one of Billy Bowlegs' old camping grounds during his war with the United States troops. He gave it the poetical name of Coughpennslough; and it is said that one of his favorite warriors lies buried not far from here, who was court-martialed according to the Indian custom and shot on account of some offensive remark made in the chief's presence concerning the name given to this camp.
We took dinner on this historical ground. Our box of provisions being in the bottom of the cart and covered some two feet deep with our bedding, tent and other camp luggage, we decided not to undertake the task of digging it out, but to fall back on the resources of the country for our snack. So we took out the ax and cut- down a palmetto-tree, then we cut off about two feet of the top of the tree, split it open and took out the central portion-the bud-a core three to four inches in diameter and eighteen to twenty inches long. Upon this, seasoned cum grano salis, we made a frugal lunch, and one which any epicure might have envied us.
This "palmeeter cabbage," as the crackers call it, is really delicious in flavor and highly nutritious. It is white and brittle like celery, but much richer in taste. The people here boil it for the table, when it assumes more of the character and flavor of asparagus. In many families it forms a staple article of food, and I am of the opinion that were it introduced in the North it would at once be considered a great delicacy there. It is certainly far superior to celery as a relish or asparagus as a side-dish.
There is not the least danger of any one starving to death in a Florida wood so long as he have an ax or hatchet with which to cut palmetto buds.
Jack and I stored away a good-sized bud, and after eating two or three oranges each by way o f dessert, boarded the "Myakka Express" again and rolled on toward the happy hunting ground. When we got within two and a-half miles of the river we stopped and cut a liberal supply of light-wood to take with us, as no pine grows nearer the stream than this and there is no pleasure in camping in this country without a liberal supply of this staple commodity.
In fact, many Floridians say they had rather try to keep house without sweet potatoes than without "lightard." Jack tells a story of an old cracker who sold his farm and prepared to move out of a certain township. One of his neighbors came to remonstrate with him, and asked him what he wanted to leave the neighborhood for; if this were not as good a country to live in as any other. "Yes," said the old man, "this is a good enough country, only there's no lightard here."
We loaded our "lightard " into the cart and drove on. After going half a mile we emerged upon a beautiful broad prairie some two miles wide. Upon the further side of this we saw a strip of heavy timber through which runs the river. We pushed on across the prairie and at three o'clock entered a grove of tall, stately live-oaks on the bank of the long looked-for and anxiously-sought Myakka river, and pitched our tent. And what a lovely site for a camp! It is on a high bank where the river makes a horse-shoe bend, and we are in the toe of the shoe so to speak. The massive live-oaks stand close together, the limbs of each one intertwining affectionately with those of its neighbor, and the long, gray, Spanish moss hanging to within a few feet of the ground. This moss, together with the leaves of the trees, formed a covering above us so thick as to entirely exclude the rays of the sun by day and to protect us from the dew at night. The river is but a few feet from us in front or on either side, and in the rear are open glades that furnish excellent grazing for our horse.
Jack staked him out and we took our guns and went up the river for a few hours' shooting before dark. This is indeed the happy hunting ground-the sportsman's paradise.
As we walked quietly around a bend in the river, just out of sight of our camp, and came upon an open glade or meadow, of perhaps an acre, a sight met our eyes that might, have inspired the soul of a poet to sing his sweetest songs, or have awakened in the mind of the prosiest human being visions of Paradise. There sat great flocks of large, richly-colored birds, the backs of which were nearly white, the wings and breast a rich and varied pink, changing in some of the males to almost a scarlet. These are the roseate spoonbill.
In another part of the glade is a large flock of the stately wood ibis, with a body of pure white, and the wings a glossy, radiant purple and black. In still another part, a flock of snowy white egrets, and here and there a blue or gray heron, or other tropical bird. Alarmed by our approach they all arose, but as if aware that their matchless beauty was a perfect safeguard against the destroying hand of man, they soared around over our heads for several minutes before flying away. As they thus hovered over us we stood and contemplated the scene in silent awe and admiration. Our guns were at a parade rest. We had no desire to stain a single one of their elegant plumes with their rich blood. Our souls were filled with thoughts of heaven and the bright angels who hover o'er its golden gates.
Finally, Jack yielded to a desire to secure one of the birds for mounting, and selecting one of the finest specimens, as they sailed over us, fired. The bird fell into the river, and an alligator, a lank, hungry, ugly looking old cuss, had been watching for such a chance to secure a meal, went for it and took it under the water in a twinkling.
Then our visions of paradise fled, and we almost imagined we were in the other place, face to face with old Satan himself.
We strolled up the river a mile, to the foot of Lower Myakka Lake which is about a mile and a half wide at the widest part and two miles long. In the winter season it is a favorite duck ground, as are many of the smaller ponds along the river, and the tropical water birds breed here in great numbers.
We saw several large flocks of teal, but did not care to shoot them. Jack took a shot at one flock, however, and secured three for supper.
It was growing late, and we returned to camp without finding any better game. We proceeded at once to prepare supper, put up the tent, make beds, etc. We dressed our ducks, cut palmetto-stems, split one end, sharpened the points and impaled the birds on them. We then sharpened the other end and stuck it in the ground, so as to hold the duck over the fire. - They were soon roasted to a turn. It was now dark. Jack started to the river to get water for our coffee, and as he passed the end of a large hollow log that lay a few feet from the fire, he heard a slight noise in it. We cut a stick and passed it in, when we found there was "something alive in it," as Dundreary says of his hat. We put a bunch of dry moss in the opening and set fire to it. In a few minutes a 'possum came tumbling out through the fire, and old Rover, who stood there waiting for him, made short work of him.
After supper we pulled down a large quantity of moss and made a bed in the tent, that a king might have envied. I have been told that this moss was full of red-bugs, and that any one who attempted to sleep on it would find himself drilled full of holes by them before morning; but we slept on it here four nights, and did not get a single bite.
We sat around the fire an hour chatting, enjoying the balmy night air and making our plans for the morrow, after which we laid down,
"And all night slept
About five o'clock in the morning, we were awakened by a great owl who perched on a limb directly over us, and called out in his shrill, piercing voice, Ta-whoo-oo-oo-ah !
Jack reached for his gun, crawled out, and by the light of the moon, which shone brightly at the time, shot him. Later in the day, Jack skinned the bird, and will send the. skin to a Boston taxidermist. His stately form will probably ere long adorn the window of some apothecary's shop, and I would that a photograph of the scene of his taking off might be hung beside it. It would add greatly to the interest of the occasion.
There were the heavy branches of the great live-oaks draped in long gray moss, with the pale light of the moon flittering through them; the blue smoke from our camp-fire curling gently up through the trees; Jack in his long white nightdress, fluttering ominously in the wind, stalking through the woods with his gun across his arm like a specter ruffian, bent on some foul deed of midnight murder. Finally there was a flash; a string of livid fire reaching away up into the tree-tops, a sudden peal of thunder, a flapping through the branches, a " thud " on the ground and all was silent again. But to describe it is unsatisfactory ; such a picture must be seen to be appreciated. When this was over we got into our harness, put a few biscuits, a few oranges and some salt into our game bags, and as soon as the first messenger of day was visible in the east, we started down the river. By the time we had gone a mile it was light. As we entered the edge of a small hammock, we heard a turkey fly into a palmetto-tree. We walked cautiously toward the tree and as we stopped to listen another stepped out into an opening not more than fifty yards away. I raised my rifle and fired, but from some unaccountable cause, missed. The bird was out of sight before Jack could get a shot. Then we ran in opposite directions in hopes of surprising the flock and getting another shot. Presently I heard both barrels of Jack's gun and went toward him. I found him loading, with a fine gobbler lying dead at his feet. He had buckshot in one barrel and number six in the other. He had bagged this bird with the buckshot, but the one he put the number six into, although badly hurt, had gone away. We went on down the river some three miles farther, but failed to get another shot. The woods are literally alive with squirrels here, but no one shoots them ; they are considered too small game to kill in this country. Consequently they are as tame as the English sparrows in our streets. They frequently sit and bark saucily at us while we pass within ten feet of them.. It is no uncommon thing to see five or six on a single tree. About ten o'clock we got hungry and I picked off three of the little fellows. Jack. made a fire while I dressed them, and we had them on toasting sticks almost before they had quit kicking. They were soon nicely browned, and on these, with the biscuit we had brought with us, we made a sumptuous breakfast. We then returned to camp, and when we arrived there, found the fire we had lighted in the hollow log the previous night, to smoke the 'possum out, still burning.
It had burned the top of the log off, leaving a large trough-shaped cavity which was a mass of live coals, and which served as a capital oven in which to roast our turkey.
We dressed the turkey, put a stick through him, drove a fork on either side of the log, and laid the stick in the forks, so that the fowl rested over the hottest part of the fire. As one side baked done, we turned him over. There was no smoke, and our oven was a perfect success. Soon after we put the turkey on, we heard two shots about a mile west of our camp. We knew at once it was Will, who had promised to come out to-day and join us, so we answered with a double salute from Jack's gun.
Just as dinner was ready, Will came in sight, carrying a fine old gobbler. We were delighted to see him in this wilderness, for we had not seen a human being, nor even a track of one, since leaving home. After dining heartily on roast turkey, sweet potatoes, and fresh biscuits, with oranges for dessert, we took to the woods again, each going in a different direction.
Jack crossed the river and went east. Will went down, and I up the river. I had not gone more than a mile when I heard a rattling noise in the sea-ash thicket, and looking under the branches saw a fine large buck come bounding directly toward me. He bad been frightened by something, probably the report of Jack's gun on the other side of the river. He had not yet seen me. I stood perfectly still until he came within about fifty yards of me, and taking a steady aim at his breast, fired. He turned suddenly to the right, made one jump, and fell dead. The ball had gone a little higher than I aimed, and entered his neck near the base of the windpipe. It had cut the windpipe and shattered the neck bone. I dressed the animal, and found be was rather heavy to carry, so returned to camp, got the horse, and got back to camp with my venison just as Will returned from the opposite direction with another good large gobbler.
In half an hour more Jack returned with a turkey and four ducks; with this score we closed the day's sport, a spent the evening after supper dressing our game. While were at supper a large 'gater raised his head in the middle of the river opposite our tent. I sent a message from "old reliable," and in an -instant more he was lashing the water into a foam, minus an eye.
At daylight the following morning we were again on foot in hopes of finding more turkeys, for we had found several large flocks already, from which we bad as yet taken but a few. We scattered, and an occasional shot from each told the others that our search was not in vain. About ten o'clock we all turned up at camp once more, and pooled our issues. We had three turkeys in all, and Jack had fourteen coots that he had killed at a single shot. We then roasted one of the best turkeys and a loin of venison, in our hollow log oven--which was still in fine condition--for dinner. As I dressed the turkey I noticed that there was a large cavity in it after removing the entrails, which I thought might as well be utilized, so I put a teal duck into it, and placed the turkey over the fire without mentioning it to either of the boys. When we sat down to dinner, Jack took hold of the turkey to carve it, and saw a leg of the duck protruding. He pulled the little fellow out, held it up, and drily remarked : "Well, I've traveled this road a year or more, but never saw a gobbler with such a young one in before." The young one was well done, however, and we relished it quite as much as any dish on the bill of fare.
After dinner I went south about three miles. On the way I killed a large wood ibis, and hung it up in a tree so that I could get it on my return. I took off my vest and buttoned it around him to keep the buzzards, wild cats, etc., from eating him. Farther down the stream I saw a flock of six or eight turkeys, but could not get a shot at them. About sundown I turned and started toward camp, listening intently in hope of hearing turkeys coming in to roost, but was not favored with any of that welcome music. I kept a sharp lookout, however, in all the tall trees, knowing that it was possible for them to fly in within a few yards of me without my hearing them.
Finally I saw one in the top of a large live-oak. I fired, and cut out a bunch of feathers, but the bird went away. I felt very sore over this loss, and hurried on toward camp.
In a few minutes I saw another in a still taller tree. It was now so dark I could not see the sights of my rifle at all, so I turned down the rear sight, glanced along the barrel, saw the large, dark body of my bird against the sky, pulled, and was rewarded by seeing him tumble through the thick branches to the ground. I was under the tree by the time he reached the ground, and picking him up hurried on. In a few minutes I saw another, this time a large gobbler, perched high in the top of a tall tree. When I fired he started to fly toward me, but by the time he got over me his strength failed, and he fell within two feet of where I stood. I slipped in another cartridge, took my bird, and started again.
By this time the stars were shining, but I continued to scan the tops of the trees closely. Presently I saw another dark object against the sky, and knew from the shape that it was a turkey. It was, perhaps, thirty-five yards from me. I took the best aim I could, pulled and scored my third bird, this time a fat young hen.
What a magnificent hand ! Two kings and a queen! For the wild turkey is truly the king of birds. My blood bounded through my veins as I contemplated my game. Three straight birds, two in deep twilight and the third by starlight. Not a bad score for a rifle, eh ?
It was now so dark that my only means of finding my way to camp was by following the bank of the river. It was light enough close to the water to walk comfortably, but back in the thicket it was so dark that an Indian could not see to get through it. I succeeded in finding my wood ibis, and when I added it to my already large bag, had a full load. It is about the same size as the turkey. The four birds weighed over fifty pounds. I tied their heads together and swung them over my shoulder, two in front and two behind.
The river is so crooked that following it closely made me about three or four times the distance to walk that I should have had could I have gone straight through the woods, and I did not reach camp until after eight o'clock. Will and Jack were there dressing game and preparing supper. Will had brought in another turkey, and Jack a deer and twenty-one teal ducks. He killed the ducks at two shots-thirteen to his first barrel and eight to his second. Teal are very plentiful here and very tame. The mallards and other large ducks have not come in yet.
We were out at daylight again the following morning and decided to make but a brief hunt that day and start for home At noon. A mile below camp I got a running shot at a deer and missed. Soon after I came upon a flock of turkeys, feeding under some live-oaks. I knocked one over and as they ran tried another but failed to get him. I then started for camp, and as I had no hope of seeing any more large game concluded to take in a few squirrels.
As I walked rapidly toward camp I picked off those nearest to my path, and when I got in and counted up my bag had sixteen. I also killed one of the brightest and handsomest roseate spoonbills I could find. Not having time to skin it properly for mounting I cut off the wings and head and shall preserve them. I did the same with my wood ibis, killed the day before. Soon after I reached camp Jack came in with still another turkey. Will drew a blank this time. He failed to get a shot at anything. After breakfast we broke camp and commenced preparations for the homeward march. I saw a small alligator lying on the bank a few rods from us, and being anxious to take home a skin of one, picked up my rifle. At the sight of it, he went into the water. I waited a few minutes and he came up to take a look at me. I sent a ball through his head and pulled him out. In a few minutes he recovered from the shock and commenced thrashing the ground at a lively rate. I cut his throat open and severed the windpipe, but he would not lie still and tried very hard to breathe. I opened his body and took out the lungs, heart and all the entrails, and even then it was a full hour before it would lie still enough for me to skin it. If a cat has nine lives, this animal must have at least nineteen.
I could give further details of this case more wonderful by far than those I have mentioned, but I forbear, lest they should prove offensive to some sensitive reader.
Suffice it to say that the contortions and violent struggles continued for at least three hours after what I have described took place. I have heard some most marvelous accounts of this animal's tenacity of life--its post mortem powers, so to speak.
Will Webb told me that he killed a large one near their house some years ago. He shot it through the head several times with a rifle, and then took an ax and pounded its head .into a pulp. He took out several of its largest teeth to preserve as specimens; then cut it open and took out a quantity of the fat which is extensively used in this country for gun oil. They then left the carcass lying, but what was their surprise on going back the next day to bury it, to find that it had actually crawled away ! They could see its trail, plainly, where it had gone into the water. Such stories sound incredible, but the facts can be corroborated by correspondence or conversation with anyone who is familiar with the nature and habits of the 'gator.
We loaded our game and camp equipage into the cart and about one o'clock P.M. reluctantly bade adieu to the enchanting Myakka, with all its charming associations; its great live- oak forests; its dense sea-ash thickets; its everglades its flaming-hued water birds; its deer, turkeys, and the thousand and one other attractions that render it so dear to a sportsman and a lover of nature.
Though I may in future years visit every famous hunting ground on the continent; though all such trips may be eminently successful, I can never hope to experience more genuine pleasure in so short a period of time than I did in this four days on the Myakka river. I shall ever cherish it in my memory as one of the brightest, most romantic and exciting episodes of my whole life.
We arrived at Mr. Webb's just as the sun was going down among the white caps on the Gulf, and on the morrow began preparations for our return North. We packed our trunks, taking great care to put our collection of specimens in in such a manner that they would carry safely. Mr. Webb loaded about thirty boxes of oranges, our baggage and two days provisions into the little "Sea Bird." By this time night had arrived, and it being our last night here we concluded to go fire-fishing once more.
As soon as it was dark, Jack, Mr. Griffith and myself took the spears, lit our fire in the fishing-jack and pushed off. We had excellent sport and killed a large number of fine fish. Among the number was one angel-fish, a variety we had not caught before. We also killed a good-sized sting-ray, and I preserved his tail. It is only an inch in diameter at the base and twenty-three inches long. We returned to the house about nine o'clock, having taken over sixty pounds of fish.
The next morning, December 11th, we stepped on board the "Sea Bird." Mr. and Mrs. Griffith, Jack, my wife and , I sailed for Manatee, where we were to take the steamer for Cedar Key. We got into the Mangroves at low tide, about noon, and had considerable difficulty in getting through them. Jack had to wade ashore and get a skiff, with which we transferred our freight and passengers over the worst portions until the boat was light enough to pass the shoals. We got through about five o'clock, and from there we had a smooth voyage. We sailed all night, Jack and Mr. Griffith taking turns at the helm. About ten o'clock we spread our blankets on the deck, laid down, and slept soundly with the canopy of heaven as our only covering. The ladies made no complaint at this rough fare, but on the contrary really enjoyed the novelty and romance of it. At six o'clock in the morning we landed, made coffee, and ate a hearty breakfast of cold turkey, biscuits, etc., with some delicious bananas fresh from Mr. Griffith's grove, for desert.
We landed at Manatee at two P.M., just as the steamer "Valley City" hove in sight. Here we were compelled to say the sad words "good-bye " to our friends, Mr. and Mrs. G., and Jack. We boarded the steamer and were soon under way for Cedar Key, where we arrived early the next morning. At night we went out on a small schooner to take the Havana steamer which lay at anchor at the mouth or the harbor, eight miles out, for New Orleans. But soon after we left the wharf a storm came on, and it grew so dark and the water so rough that the pilot said he could not follow the channel, and was obliged to cast anchor.
So we were compelled to lay here all night, cooped up in the hold of this little vessel, with no room to lie down and scarcely room to sit down. It rained in torrents nearly all night, and blew in upon us every time the hatch was opened, which seemed to be about every ten minutes. When daylight came, we found that the tide had gone out and left us aground "high and dry." We waited patiently until about eleven o'clock A.M., when it kindly came in again and took us off the bar. The storm having abated, we were now enabled to go on our way rejoicing, and reached the steamer about noon. Having been cooped up on the little schooner eighteen hours without food, drink, or a place to lay our heads, we were truly grateful when we entered the commodious and handsome cabin of the good steamer "Chase," and when a few moments later we were called to a sumptuous and palatable dinner, Captain Baker's order to us to help ourselves was obeyed as promptly and vigorously as was any command he ever gave his obedient and well-disciplined crew. We had rough weather all the way across the Gulf, and were glad when we entered the mouth of the Mississippi river and the vessel ceased her uneasy rolling and tossing. We passed the Eads jetties just after daylight on the third morning after leaving Cedar Key, and had a pleasant and interesting trip, up the river, arriving at New Orleans late at night.
The original copy of this book, published about 1880, is housed at the Gulf Coast Heritage Association at Spanish Point, Osprey, Florida. We are most grateful for their allowing us to display this chapter of an old, fragile book so many students of Florida history can read a primary source.
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