The Europeans stepped into a New World loaded with a fabulous abundance of game, probably the largest concentration of game that ever existed since the last ice age had receded, for the indigenous population had been decimated by Old World diseases brought to this country, especially smallpox, first by the Vikings in the eleventh century in Newfoundland. Prior to European contact, the indigenous peoples had their own involvement and affect in maintaining or reducing the population of wildfowl and big and small game. With the decimation of the indigenous peoples over time, the population of game and wildfowl exploded. The sound of the wings of waterfowl was said to be “like a great storm coming over the water.”

On the basis of information garnered from the early Viking voyages to Newfoundland and points beyond around 1000, the Basque from northwestern Spain and parts of France ventured here, whaling and fishing for cod in 1372, followed by English and Portuguese vessels, which came to the fishing grounds off of Newfoundland even before the official discovery of Newfoundland by John Cabot in 1497, five years after Columbus had first stumbled across the Caribbean.

Then came Cabeza de Vaca in 1528 and Hernando de Soto in 1539 to Florida. De Vaca recorded, “Geese in great numbers. Ducks, mallards, royal-ducks, fly-catchers, night-herons and partridges abound. We saw many falcons, gerfalcons, sparrow-hawks, merlins, and numerous other fowl” Mallards and probably Northern Bobwhites as recorded by de Vaca was probably the earliest known report of these birds in eastern North America. Then came Hernando de Soto in 1539. From his visit, it was written, “There are . . . in Florida . . . numerous wild fowl, as large as pea-fowl, small partridges, like those of Africa, and cranes, ducks, pigeons, thrushes, and sparrows.”

Soon, fishers and merchants from the European Atlantic kingdoms developed a seasonal inshore fishery producing for southern European markets. In this ‘dry” fishery, crews split, salted, and dried the cod on shore over the summer before returning to Europe. Beginning around 1550, the French pioneered the “wet” or “green” fishery, heavily salting the cod and returning home directly. By the 1570s, hundreds of vessels and thousands of men were active in the two fisheries. All this spread deadly diseases to the indigenous population in breathtaking speed within a few generations.

With the conquistadors rambling in South America, the first recorded smallpox epidemic was in 1518. From there, it spread to Mexico in 1520. The Indian peoples saw their world changing before their eyes.

Captain John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown Colony of Virginia, said in 1607, “And now the winter approaching, the rivers became so covered with swans, geese, duckes and cranes, that we daily feasted.” He goes on to say, “In winter, there are great plenty of swans.” He spent Christmas of 1608 among Pamunkee Indians where “we were never more merry, nor fed on more plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread.” Leaving the Indians and while camping out, he avowed that he, Anthony Bagnail, and Seregent Pising killed 148 “foules“ with “three shots.” Smith viewed the land and Chesapeake Bay as a natural resource filled with marketable commodities, but they would need food until they could clear and drain the land and start producing food. Consequently, they would need time to learn how to hunt, something they weren’t allowed to do in their native lands except to poach. Furthermore, they would need time to learn how to farm as many of them had come from cities or towns in Europe with markets. So many of the colonists had never farmed or gardened before coming to the New World.

That same year, colonist George Percy looked skyward near Jamestown and observed an “abundance of Fowles of all kindes, they flew over our heads as thick as drops of hail; besides they made such a noise that we were not able to hear one another speak.” John Hammond’s description of 1656 Virginia tells us that “Water-fowl of all sorts are . . . plentiful and easy to be killed.” Robert Beverley’s 1705 description of Virginia described how “I am but a small Sports-man, yet with a Fowling-Piece, have kill’d about Twenty [wild fowl] at a Shot.”

Sailing into this New World, the Dutch founded the New Netherland in 1609 in what would become an embryo game emporium of the western world. Within a few years of living in America, the ‘land of abundance” astounded them with its limitless resources. They learned to appreciate what a hunter’s paradise they had found. Seasonally, it provided them with an abundance of waterfowl, as well as a “great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison” and other game.

The abundance of wildlife in North America was the subject of wonder by the colonists. Settlers like William Wood on the New England frontier during the 1600s described the abundance of fowl, and how hunters killed the game in excited amazement. He told about hunting the incredible number of waterfowl with hesitancy for fearing not to be believed. He reported, “If I should tell you how some have killed a hundred geese in a week, fifty ducks at a shot, forty teals at another, it may be counted impossible though nothing is more certain.”

In 1614, Dutch merchants and investors set up the New Netherland Company to exploit riches of the Americas. In 1621, the Dutch government granted its successor, the West India Company, a monopoly on the fur-trade in the area. In 1624, the first permanent settlement was established at Fort Orange. Later, the principal settlement was New Amsterdam (later New York City) at the southern end of Manhattan Island, which was purchased from Native Americans in 1626. The first military garrison was established in New Amsterdam in 1633.

When a foreign dignitary or a new governor arrived, he was greeted with a booming military salute of four barrels of gun powder. Then that night a great dinner was served consisting of “venison, turkey, goose, wild pigeon, duck, and other game, along with mutton, beef, lamb, veal, and pork, with pudding, pastry, cakes and choicest of wines.”

The game was bought “at easie rate” from the Indians as were skins. “For wilde Beasts there is Deer, Bear, Wolves, Foxes, Racoons, Otters, Musquashes and Skunks. Wild Fowl, there is great store of Turkies, Heath-Hens, Quailes, Partridges, Pidgeons, Cranes, Geese of several sorts, Brants, Ducks, Widgeon, Teal, and divers others.” In an address from the Indians to the ambassadors of Governor Kieft, they said, “When you first arrived on our shores, you were often in want of food,” so the Indians supplied it.

“Mighty flocks of geese and brant and wild ducks innumerable” wintered about New Amsterdam. Wild turkeys, “the most important fowl of the country,” were found in flocks of 20 to 40 in all wooded parts of the land and were bought of the Indians by the New Netherlands colonists for 10 stivers each. Bobwhites and ruffed grouse were even more plentiful and were regarded as too insignificant to spend powder and shot on.

The first colonists in America found the coasts and inland waters teeming with waterfowl during the migration period; the forests were filled with deer, elk, wild turkeys, grouse, and smaller game; and the meadows and plains were swarming with prairie chickens and buffalo. Accustomed to restrictive hunting laws back home, the abundant wildfowl in the New World not only helped them survive but became a symbol of independence.

Dutchman 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.” He continued, “This healthfulness is accompanied with much plenty both of fish and fowl every day in the year, as I know no place in the world that can match it.”

New England hunter, fur trader, and lawyer Thomas Morton, who had immigrated to Plymouth in 1624, was amazed by the wealth of the land and sea and at what an abundant country it was so much so that he labeled the new colony “Nature’s Master-peece.” He reported that the profit from one week’s take of feathers alone paid for an entire year’s supply of powder and shot. Speaking of swans, he said, “The flesh is not much desired of the inhabitants, but the skinnes may be accompted [accounted] a commodity fit for divers uses, both for fethers and quiles.”

Settled on the south shore of Massachusetts Bay, it was he who furnished long fowling pieces to the Indian realizing that it would benefit his fur-trading enterprise. He went about the business of teaching them the techniques of using them, and before long they became proficient in the use of the long fowling piece. In a short time, they had their own arsenal recognizing the superiority of firearms over bow and arrows. Doing so, they soon became trading partners and market hunters in their own rights.

And Morton wasn’t the only one trading guns with the Indians. The French and Dutch dealers saw no harm in trading firearms to the Indians, and the Dutch even manufactured light, short, durable guns specifically for the Native American market. The old saying that “civilization follows the plow” should be that “civilization follows the firearm.” It was a necessity as much as were food and clothing. The firearm was the mighty predecessor of American civilization and what led to our hunting heritage.

Emmanuel Altham’s 1623 description of Plymouth Colony described how large the flocks of overhead birds were by telling us that, “here are eagles of many sorts, pigeons, innumerable turkeys, geese, swans, duck, teal, partridge divers sorts, and many others fowl, that one man at six shoots hath killed 400.”

Edward Winslow, a future leader of the Plymouth Colony, stressed that anyone coming to New England should bring “a musket or fowling piece . . . long in the barrel, and fear not the weight of it, for most of our shooting is from stands . . . let your shot be most for big fowls.”

One of the earliest recognized bird report from South Carolina came from William Hilton’s exploration in 1663. Along the coast from Port Royal to the Edisto River, Hilton wrote:

The Country abounds with Deer, Conies [rabbits], Turkeys, Quails, Curlues, Plovers, Teile, Herons; and as the Indians say, in Winter, with Swans, Geese, Cranes, Duck and Mallard, and innumerable of other water-Fowls.” In the same account, he reported, “Deer and Turkies every where; we never going on shoar, but saw of each also Partridges great store, Cranes abundance . . . Also in the River we saw great store of Ducks, Teile, Widgeon . . . we kill’d of wild-fowl, four Swans, ten Geese, twenty nine Cranes, ten Turkies, forty Duck and Mallard, three dozen Parakeets, and six or seven dozen of other small Fowls, as Curlues and Plovers, &c.

As time went along, the colonists relied less and less on the Indians for food. However, they just didn’t go away overnight, for Samuel Wilson, secretary to the Earl of Craven, wrote in 1682 that South Carolinian planters too busy to hunt had “an Indian hunter which they hire for less than twenty shillings a year, and one hunter will very well feed a Family of thirty people with as much Venison and Foul, as they can eat.”

Dutchman Adriean van der Donck arrived in the New World as a lawyer in 1641 and became a large landowner in the New Netherland. He wrote:

Among other subjects wherewith the New Netherlands is abundantly provided are the fowls that keep to the waters, which we find there principally in the spring and fall of the year. At other seasons they are not as plenty. But at those seasons, the waters by their movements appears to be alive with the water fowls; and the people who reside near the water are frequently disturbed in their rest at night by the noise of the water fowls, particularly by the swans, which in their seasons are so plenty, that the bays and shores where they resort appear as if they were dressed in white drapery. There are also three kinds of wild geese. The first and best kind are the grey geese, which are larger than the Netherlands geese, but not so large as the swans. Those fowls do much damage to the wheat fields which are sown near the places to which they resort. A great many of those fowls are shot, and they are esteemed before the other kinds for the table. I have known a gunner named Henry de Backer, who killed eleven grey geese out of a large flock at one shot from his gun. The other kinds are the black geese, and the white heads. Some of the latter kinds are almost white, like unto our tame geese. Those kinds, in cold weather, frequent and resort to places near the seashores in great numbers, where many are killed, often eight or ten at one shot. A Virginia planter of my acquaintance has killed sixteen geese at a shot, which he got, while several which he wounded escaped. There also are several kinds of ducks, with widgeons, teal, brant, and many species of diving fowls, such as bluebills, whistlers, coots, eel-shovellers, and pelicans, with many strange fowls, for which we have no names, being of less importance; but which to persons who understand the art of preserving birds, might afford them a profitable business, as they are plenty and cheap.

Another Dutch visitor, Johannes Megapolenis, Jr., wrote of the abundant wildlife and hunting practices in the Hudson and Mohawk valleys. This is an excerpt from 1644:

In the forests here there are also many partridges, heath-hens and pigeons that fly together in thousands, and sometimes ten, twenty, thirty and even forty or fifty are killed at one shot. We have here, too, a great many of all kinds of fowl, swans, geese, ducks, widgeons, teal, brant, which sport upon the river in the thousands in the spring of the year, and again in autumn fly away in flocks, so that in the morning and evening anyone may stand ready with his gun before his house and shoot them as they fly past.

George Alsop wrote in 1666, “Fowls of all sorts and varieties dwell at their several times and seasons here in Mary-Land. The Swans, the Geese and Ducks (with other Water-Fowl) derogate in this point of settled residence; for they arrive in millionous multitudes in Mary-Land about the middle of September and take their winged farewell about the midst of March.”

From the Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, 1679-1680, a Dutchman from Holland, he recorded about his journeys from then New York into Maryland. He recorded December 12 on crossing the Sassafras River in Kent County:

I must not forget to mention the great number of wild geese we saw here on the river. They rose not in flocks of ten or twelve, or twenty or thirty, but continuously, wherever we pushed our way; and as they made room for us, there was such an incessant clattering made with their wings upon the water where they rose, and such a noise of those flying higher up, that it was as if we were all the time surrounded by a whirlwind or a storm. This proceeded not only from geese, but from ducks and other water fowl; and it is not peculiar to this place alone, but it occurred on all the creeks and rivers we crossed, though they were most numerous in the morning and evening when they are most easily shot.

Two days before this he recorded:

I have nowhere seen so many ducks together as were in the creek in front of this house. The water was so black with them that it seemed when you looked from the land below upon the water, as if it were a mass of filth or turf, and when they flew up there was a rushing and vibration of the air like a great storm coming through the trees, and even like the rumbling of distant thunder, while the sky over the whole creek was filled with them like a cloud, or as the starlings fly at harvest time in the Fatherland. There was a boy about twelve years old who took aim at them from the shore, not being able to get within good shooting distance of them, but nevertheless shot loosely before they flew away, and hit only three or four, complained of his shot, as they are accustomed to shoot from six to twelve and even eighteen and more at one shot.

The Fly market was situated in Maiden Lane, on the East River in the City of New York in 1706. Game and waterfowl were brought to the market from Long Island in wagons and oxcarts to a ferry, then unloaded on ferryboats, which came direct to the market. The boats were propelled either by a fair wind or rowed across, usually three or four trips a day.

Such was the inducement offered in the following notice of the sale of “Little Bern Island, at public auction in 1776, “belonging to the estate of Mr. St. George Talbot, deceased, situated opposite New Harlem Church, containing upwards of one hundred acres of land and meadows. It abounds with wild fowl, as ducks, geese, pidgeons, quails, etc.”

Being near New York, produce could be “brought to the Fly Market with the tide of ebb, and the flood will waft the craft home.” Others brought their game and produce to the market by a “tow” from some of the larger sailing vessels,” from New Jersey.

On August 24, 1763, a committee selected by the “freemen and freeholders” of New York to “assize” market prices of meats and provisions, published the following schedule of the prices for game:

  • Venison (maximum price) per lb., 5 pence;
  • Pigeons per doz., 18 pence;
  • Quail each, 13 pence;
  • Heath hens each, 15 pence;
  • Partridges each, 1 shilling;
  • Black and other large ducks each, 1 shilling;
  • Teal and other small ducks each, 6 pence;
  • Turkey cock each, 5 shillings; Turkey hen, 3 shillings, 6 pence; Turkey cock (poult), 2 shilling, 3 pence; Turkey hen (poult ), 1 shilling, 9 pence;
  • Wild goose, 2 shillings; Wild goose (immature ), 18 pence;
  • Brant, 15 pence each;
  • Snipe (large) per doz., 15 pence; Snipe (medium), 12 pence; Snipe (small), 6 pence;
  • Other small birds, 6 pence.

The line of advancing settlement required one hundred and sixty-one years to extend from the coast of Virginia into Kentucky (1606 to 1767). During this time, game decreased and prices rose. By 1763 game had been so reduced, especially along the Atlantic coast, that, although a short distance inland there was an apparently limitless supply, the growing scarcity had begun to manifest itself in the markets. Advancing westward over the years brought the same results, a wealth of wildlife ever-obtainable, ever-replenished, ever-useful, ever-salable, or so they thought.

Searching for the reason why there was an immense decrease in the game of the country, we have not far to look. The early colonists were thoughtless in destroying the game that filled this land to overflowing, even though such wasteful methods were usual in a new country. During the course of colonial development, the white settlers cleared land for farming, cut forests for ship building, and hunted and trapped for European markets. As early as 1650, beavers had been nearly eliminated from the entire East Coast.

They selected haunches of venison and left the rest of the carcass to the dogs and beasts of prey and gave wild geese to their dogs, while burning canebrakes, thus destroying the haunts of many game animals and birds, merely to secure a day’s kill. Such practices continued to prevail on the border line of settlement as it advanced westward, with the settlers doing much the same.

Mentioned earlier, Van der Donck was the first to ever warn of the consequences of overharvesting of our natural resources. In the case of waterfowl, he wrote, “After the increase of our population, the fowls will diminish. Even feathers are now considered of little value or importance.”