published: January 13th 2017
by: Mike Cox
Texans still enjoy hunting deer and turkey in the fall and winter, especially around the holidays, but when it comes to harvesting game, that’s about the only similarity between today and yesterday.
In the late 19th century, those who saw themselves as equal to the “Deerslay-er’s” Natty Bumppo did not behave very sportingly, at least not by comparison to 21st century standards. Consider:
•Most hunters took to the field when the game did, paying no attention to the calendar or the clock.
•Neither did they see anything wrong with killing as many animals as they could, often just for the heck of it.
•Nor did they worry about how they did it, either hunting at night with lights, using dogs to chase down deer or blasting away with fowling pieces only slightly less powerful than a modern anti-aircraft battery.
Early settlers found plenty of game in Texas, which fed the notion that wildlife amounted to a constantly renewing resource. Most hunters saw no need to restrain themselves.
“Geese and ducks were innumerable,” J.W. Lock-hart wrote of the Texas he first saw in 1837, “deer by the thousands – sometimes we could count from 100 to 150 in a bunch.” Not only that, he continued, “…deer, turkey and other game were comparatively gentle and easy of ap-proach.”
Back then, having fresh meat on the table presented no greater challenge than stepping out the front door of your log cabin and sighting your rifle on the choicest deer or gobbler.
Denton County Judge T.D. Ferguson, who had ridden with the Texas Rangers in the early 1860s, recalled a hunt in what later became Archer County.
“I know that it’s pretty hard to believe in this day,” he said in 1896, “but around the camp those little post oaks were completely covered with wild turkeys. There were thousands, yes, ten of thousands of them…Every other kind of game was the same way. On the plains it looked as though it were one solid mass of buffaloes, while deer, wolves, antelope and the like were in great abundance and were tame to almost fearlessness.”
The abundance of game continued for decades. In the fall of 1887, the Dallas Morning News reported that a party from Chappell Hill in Washington County had recently returned from a hunt in the Big Thicket. They had killed 22 deer. (In many Texas counties today, the limit is only one buck per hunter per season.)
Earlier that year, out in West Texas a commercial hunting party sold 26 sets of venison hams in Pecos. One of the hunters reported that they also had killed “some wildcats, foxes, wolves and one bear.” A correspondent for the Dallas newspaper observ-ed: “The Davis Mountains should be set aside for a public hunting park. They are hard to beat.”
Twelve years later, noted Austin lawyer “Buck” Walton and seven others spent two weeks hunting in LaSalle County.
“Major Walton stated that up to the time he left the party had killed 25 deer, about 30 javelinas and innumerable partridges [a common, if incorrect, early description of quail],” the New reported. “We made our camp about 30 miles west of Cotulla,” Walton said. “We had fine sport hunting. It is a veritable sportsmen’s paradise.”
But over-hunting eventually took its toll. As Judge Ferguson said when interviewed shortly before the turn of the 20th century, “Those good old days are gone, never to return.”
Ferguson was right on the first count, wrong on the other.
By the 1880s, biologists and others who understand that wildlife in Texas had been under too much hunting pressure for too long prevailed on the legislature to pass the state’s first hunting law.
Getting used to the new law took some adjusting on the part of Texans, even Gov. James Hogg. Judging from a Feb. 27, 1894 account in the Dallas newspaper, he seems to have forgotten that February was not deer season. His lapse of memory or judgment came to the attention of the press, which led the Santa Fe New Mexican to editorialize that if Hogg had indeed shot a deer out of season “he is a law-breaker and he ought to be punished.”
Thanks to the establishment of seasons and limits, as well as the serious enforcement of those laws, by the early 1950s the Texas deer herd had come back. Once again, many rural Texans can shoot a deer from their doorway if they want – provided they have a license and it’s in season.
Rumor is a thing that can quickly get out of hand.
The Rev. John Wesley DeVilbiss found that out in 1846 in San Antonio.
DeVilbiss, born in Maryland in 1818 and raised in Ohio, came to Texas in December 1842. A circuit-riding Methodist preacher, he figured the new republic offered him ample opportunity for work. While the desire for salvation was not unheard of in Texas, sinfulness abounded. In fact, someone had warned him not to drink any water from the Sabine when he crossed into Texas “as it gave a person an inclination to steal.”
Like other pioneer Texas preachers, DeVilbiss traveled from one community to another, dodging hostile Indians and bandits while striving to redirect the inclinations of Texans who had, at least in the figurative sense, drunk from the Sabine.
When DeVilbiss conducted a camp meeting on McCoy’s Creek, a tributary of the Guadalupe near present day Cuero in South Texas, a detachment of Capt. Jack Hay’s Texas Rangers stood guard. The rough and tumble rangers impressed the preacher.
Like most of the early men of the cloth who came to Texas, DeVilbiss was a writer as well as an orator. He sent letters to the Western Christian Advo-cate from time to time with observations on his new home country. In one of those dispatches, he wrote about the Rangers.
By this time he had settled near San Antonio, where he preached and started a Sunday school.
Though some San Antonioans were pleased at the opportunity to learn more about the Bible, Sunday school started at the same time of day as the Sunday cockfight. Large crowds gathered for these violent rooster matches, and in addition to reducing the attendance of his missionary efforts, they made a lot of noise. Beyond that, the drinking, wagering and cursing attendant to the bloody sport conflicted totally with the Christian view of the Sabbath.
As if that were not enough for a preacher to worry about, a rumor got out that DeVilbiss had written some unflattering things about the Rangers.
Some of Hay’s men, having stood guard while DeVilbiss sought converts, found it annoying that the preacher would write something unfavorable about them. Of course, they hadn’t read the story. They were merely depending on rumor.
Word reached the preacher that a group of six rangers planned to “duck” him on Saturday night. (Accounts of this incident don’t explain exactly what “duck” meant in this particular context, but it might have had something to do with involuntary immersion in the San Antonio river.)
DeVilbiss sent a messenger to tell the offended rangers that if they would delay their planned visit with him until Sunday morning, when they were welcome at his service, he would explain the perceived insult.
Evidently willing to turn the other cheek at least on the short term, the rangers postponed the ducking, came to hear him preach, and left satisfied with his explanation of the writing in question.
It turned out that a number of the rangers had previously been regulars at the weekly cockfight, but were so impressed by DeVilbiss’ sermons, they started coming to his church instead.
Attendance eventually dropped off so much the chicken fighting stopped.
After nearly four decades of spreading the Gospel in Texas, DeVilbiss retired in 1880. He had a ranch on the Medina River near Oak Island, where he died on Jan. 31, 1885. `