PRESIDENT BENJAMIN HARRISON, THE LIFE OF A SPORTSMAN
On President Benjamin Harrison’s fraternal and maternal side of his family, the blood of sportsmen ran thick through his veins, and through them he inherited his love of sport from a long line of noted Virginians. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather lived on several of the finest and most historic plantations in old Virginia, which was situated on the banks of the James River. In those days, every planter was an enthusiastic sportsman.
As the twenty-third president (1889-1893) and the grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, he loved cigars and waterfowling as he was an excellent shot at snipe and ducks and a mean performer with the heavy eight- and ten-bore side by side, but mostly with a 12 gauge. He was one of only two presidents that were avid waterfowlers, as it was said that “he had a penchant for duck hunting that had no bounds.”
He hunted the entire eastern seaboard, both north and south. When he needed to get away for relaxation from the presidency, it was as a hunter of waterfowl. He was happiest when he was down on the Potomac or the Chesapeake blasting away late in the fall or in the cypress swamps of the James River wetlands. Like President Cleveland, he left Washington D.C. surreptitiously in the hope of keeping where he was going from the press. As he said, “if it is announced where I am going on a shooting trip, the consequence is that about ten thousand other sportsmen would select the same time and place f
or their own sport.”
After his win over Grover Cleveland in November 1888, that December he escaped to his ancestral stomping ground on the James River, whose 2.5mile James River frontage was known for its waterfowl hunting. Arriving on a Friday, the next morning, the President was up before 6 o’clock. While the others went quail hunting, Harrison hunted ducks in one of the river’s tributaries, just he and a black pusher in an “old weather-beaten boat.” He managed to shoot only one duck.
The same grounds Cleveland duck hunted on when he became president were the same grounds President Harrison hunted on. It constituted what was termed the “Great Presidential Preserve,” which laid south of Washington and took in the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. From the beginning of government, according to the New York Sun, presidents had used these grounds for their outings with rod and gun.
About his farmhouse at the confluence of the Ohio and Miami Rivers at North Bend, Ohio, where he was born, Harrison grew up hunting squirrels, wild pigeons, quail, prairie chickens, snipe, and waterfowl, and at such game he became an expert. But his favorites were quail hunting and waterfowling, which, when he became ex-president, duck hunting carried him frequently into Illinois, where days were spent over decoys on the Illinois River, and up into the prolific Kankakee marshes in northern Indiana when he lived in Indianapolis. He visited the Kankakee for the first time to duck hunt in 1873 and visited again as the president-elect in 1888 for four days of duck hunting. He returned several times a year after his term ended to hunt with the Rockville, Terre Haute and Indianapolis Hunt Club.
In March 1890, Harrison hunted on a bar with decoys at the Bengies Ducking Club on the Chesapeake Bay, hunting with his Nichols and Lefever, 12-bore double and did fair on redheads, along with some canvasbacks and widgeons, about 40 ducks in all. They voted him an honorary member, which gave him the privilege of hunting whenever he desired.
How a hunt was reported in the newspaper depended on the political persuasion of the newspaper. A Republican newspaper reported on the President’s Bengies Ducking Club hunt that “the President brought down a pair of plump redheads with his first shot, and afterward several fat canvasbacks.” A Democratic paper “averred he banged away all day without doing much harm to the ducks, though he frightened some away.”
During the third year of his term, he hunted again March 1891 at Bengies in a blind accompanied by the club’s old Chesapeake Bay Retriever named “Cleveland,” named after President Glover Cleveland, who also hunted at Bengie’s. The club was noted as one of the best ducking grounds on the Chesapeake and also noted for its exclusiveness, not inviting many guests. For the day, he shot “12 redheads, two black heads and a bald pate.” The April 18, 1891 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper featured Harrison on the cover as the feature article showing him in front of the clubhouse with the 15 ducks displayed behind him while he is shown with his Lefever Optimus, 12 gauge side by side.
The Lefever was the handsomest one that many had ever seen. It was described in a newspaper: “The beautiful Lefever, 12-bore, which the President has never used before at Bengies is a beauty and must have cost a pretty price. It is gold-chased, and a fine piece.” After receiving it in the spring of 1891, he used it for the very first time at the Bengies Ducking Club.
Businessmen gave it to him for supporting protectionist tariff trade policies. It featured a gold-inlaid eagle on the blued trigger guard with a banner in its mouth inscribed with the phrase “Protection of American Industry,” as well as gold-inlaid letters “BH” on the push-button release. The inscription came from the policy of “Protection to American industries,” a theme of the 1888 Harrison campaign.
The Optimus grade Lefever was an 8-pound, hammerless 12-gauge with exquisite 30-inch, “Whitworth” fluid-steel barrels. The triggers and guard were of pure gold, while rich engravings adorned the piece all over. The blued trigger guard featured a gold inlaid eagle with a banner in its mouth inscribed with the phrase “Protection of American Industry,” as well as gold-inlaid letters “BH” on the forend release button. The engraving is signed by Spangler under the left engraved dog scene. A. E. Spangler was a noted American engraver of high-grade shotguns, along with his brother Wilton, both being engravers for both Lefever and L.C. Smith shotguns.
An acknowledgment from Harrison, dated December 14, 1894, which was used for many years in Lefever’s advertisements, read: “The gun made for me by the Lefever Arms Co. several years ago is still in perfect condition. I have shot it a good deal and with most satisfactory results.”
He hunted four days for snipe during the first week of April 1891 on the North Carolina coast where snipes were reported as plentiful. In August, he went on a gunning expedition for snipe in New Jersey. On September 5, 1891, while being poled by a pusher through the brackish rice marshes, he bagged 14 railbirds in the Manumuskin meadows of New Jersey, while hunting with four other hunters who totaled out at 41. On September 11, 1891, he bagged 16 railbirds in the Maurice River meadows of Delaware Bay in New Jersey, being one of four hunters who bagged 29 railbirds. In April 1892, Harrison snipe hunted for two-day in the Accomac County, Virginia marshes. With several members of the Eastern Shore Hunting Club, they killed an “abundance of snipe.”
After he became ex-president during the spring of 1893, a reporter remarked, “No President I can remember ever left the White House so suddenly and disappeared.” The reporter found him days later waterfowling at Burkhart Lake, Mason County, on a secluded bayou of the Illinois River near Liverpool, Illinois. Here he stayed on a houseboat named Marion, owned by the Indianapolis Sportsmen’s Club, on which stood a crude and primitive cabin that had a room with four bunk beds, and, in that part of the world, it was known as a “bumboat.” He also hunted at Thompson’s Lake and Spring Lake near Liverpool. Here he was quartered on the steamer City of Peoria. In all, he spent ten days waterfowling, using his 12-gauge, Lefever breechloader. It was said, “He uses one of the latest improved styles of breechloaders and is well acquainted with its use.”
It was during his 1893 spring trip that he used smokeless powder for the first time. His shells were obtained from Oscar Hesse, of Red Bank, New Jersey, who was the sole agent for the distribution of Walsrode smokeless powder in the U.S., a German company. He was so pleased with the powder that he recommended it to friends.
He always kept several substantial serviceable shotguns. In his will, he bequeathed to his grandson two shotguns, his Lefever and his Daly, and one rifle.
Another favorite breechloading double of Harrison was a Parker AH, 12 gauge, hammerless with Damascus barrels, which he used on quail, and he was never without a well-trained pointer. It was later bequeathed to his brother. The gold pistol grip cap bore the inscription “Presented to J. Scott Harrison by Benjamin Harrison 1891.”
He was what was known as a “snap shot,” but even during his elderly years his draw was surprisingly quick; his aim remarkably true. An avid sportsman, he never hunted to just make “a bag,” but simply to supply himself with a reasonable number of birds, even if more could have been shot.
From Liverpool, he went March 22, 1893 to his Indianapolis’ home in his special railcar, “Wildwood,” being greeted with cheers and applauses from 5,000 people. He said, “I left you with but one certainty four years ago and I return with the same certainty that I have no other motive in my heart than the honor of the flag, the sacredness of the constitution, and the prosperity of all our people.” When asked by a reporter what his plans were, he said, “I have no plans for the immediate future except I will first go duck hunting in the Kankakee and then return home and wait until fall. Then I will go to the Stanford University for two months and deliver law lectures.”
In March1894, Harrison headed to California for some duck hunting where he used his 12-gauge, Lefever breechloader.
While president, he also hunted with the Ragged Island Club at Currituck in North Carolina, although the members were politically opposed to him. All it took was a letter from the president of the club stating: “An invitation for the President to shoot,” and off he went in 1892. He expressed a wish to be in a blind as early as possible in the morning, and to be left only with a retriever, saying he would hunt as the others hunted. He wanted no special attention and declared he did not mind exposure and could stand anything the rest could.
The New York Times reported June 6, 1897 that during a February outing he hunted alone all day in freezing weather in a blind at the Ragged Island Club and bagged “two dozen ducks, mostly canvasbacks” and that he was the last to return, returning long after dark. A member who watched his shooting remarked, “The President was as good a shot as any in the club.” The next day, he bagged 40 canvasbacks, one swan, and several geese. His shotgun was a heavy, thick breeched, 10-gauge double, shooting from a blind with 50 wooden and live decoys. At dinner, he was voted an honorary member of the club.
In September 1897, the ex-president traveled to California once again to hunt geese with Ed Plant, Abe Crump, and Claude Kagee, three experienced market hunters and the “most skillful callers of waterfowl in the State,” the latter two being members of a great goose-calling team of market hunters known as the “Doc Stuart Outfit.” The hunt occurred on the Glade Ranch north of Rio Vista. That morning, Plant “raised geese from distant fields and had them circling above the ex-president, who killed 77 honkers, seldom missing his bird.” He stated that “although he had enjoyed fine goose shooting east of the Rockies, he had never seen anything to compare with it. The sport and the system connected with it, so far as I know, have nothing like them elsewhere.”
He also hunted in the San Joaquin Valley. The pit where he hunted during a two-day goose hunt became famous and was named the “Harrison Hole.” Here he and four others killed over 400 geese, mostly snows. A “Hole” was a pit dug into the ground for shooting, surrounded by decoys, both live and artificial.
Harrison was one canvasback aficionado who loved nothing better than to get up very early on a brisk morning and sit in a duck blind in the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay to wait for canvasbacks to appear.
During later years, he didn’t have many opportunities to hunt, and when he did, he confined himself to quail hunting almost exclusively with a well-trained bird dog, no longer able to withstand the cold weather required for waterfowling.
An avid conservationist, he strenuously condemned the wanton slaughter of any kind of game, and was a staunch advocate of the all game protection movements. In 1890, he signed into law bills creating three national parks: Sequoia, Yosemite, and General Grant. In March 1891, working with the Boone and Crockett Club, he issued a Presidential Proclamation setting aside 1,500 square miles on the south and east of the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming as the nation’s first forest reserve, the first unit in what eventually became the National Forest system.
A year later, he issued an Executive Proclamation setting aside a tract in Alaska as a forest and fish culture reservation, known as the Afognax Forest and Fish Culture Reserve, thus creating what was in effect, if not in name, the first federally managed national wildlife refuge. By the time he left office in 1893, Harrison had protected 13.5 million acres of forest reserves.
For waterfowl conservation, Harrison is acknowledged to have been the earliest known sitting president and the highest officed individual to have been involved with migratory birds. On official presidential White House letterhead, Harrison responded to an October 1891 letter written to him by W.M. Elder, a member of the Chatham Fish and Game Protective Association, of Chatham, New Jersey, in which the Association was asking for a closed season for migratory birds. The president’s response in a personally penned letter is among the earliest known acknowledgements from the federal level of the wisdom behind protecting game birds:
I have your letter in which you discuss the necessity of a closed season for migratory game birds. I do not doubt the adoption of legislation by the States, prohibiting spring shooting of these classes of game birds, would greatly tend to increase their numbers, and I have sometimes thought that it was essential to the preservation of some of these species. Very Truly Yours, Benjamin Harrison.
Historians have paid little attention to Harrison and credit Teddy Roosevelt with the birth of conservation, as most government records cite 1903 and Pelican Island in Florida as the year and place for the first national wildlife refuge. However, it was Harrison, who on December 24, 1892, established the Afognak Reserve mentioned above. This refuge was more revolutionary in concept than any at the time realized. For while intended to protect the island’s salmon and marine mammal resources, the bill, also, defined Afognak as a “wilderness” area.
Over 15 years, Harrison (1889-1893), Grover Cleveland (1893-1897), William McKinley (1897-1901), and Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) set aside more than 94 million acres as forest reserve, renamed national forests in 1907. Forest reserves were set apart by Harrison in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, California, and Washington, and the then territories of New Mexico, Alaska, and Arizona. These and, in a sense, all the forest reserves of the U.S. established after that time constitute a great natural memorial to Benjamin Harrison.