In the last blog we introduced an article titled “Erskine’s Death.” The story was an excerpt from a book written in the 1830s by Friedrich Gerstacker called, Wild Sports. The author detailed the death of his hunting companion, Erskine, an English hunter, who was killed after he fired his musket at a black bear being pursued by dogs in Arkansas. Soon after, the dogs bayed the bear on the ground. Seeing that several dogs had been hurt and killed, Erskine dove into the mix with his Bowie knife as he yelled, “Oh, save the dogs!”

clay newcomb searching for erskine's grave

At the head of the hurricane drainage in Franklin County, Arkansas. The author, his son Bear, Steve Schultz, and Moe Shepherd made three separate trips into the drainage in search of Erskine's grave.

            The rest of the story is, quite literally, history. We don’t know the medical particulars of the ensuing man-on-bear brawl that killed Erskine, but he probably died from a broken neck after being hit by a powerful swinging paw. In an excerpt from the book that you’ll read in this article, the author speaks in detail about how the Native Americans buried Erskine in a shallow, rock-covered grave near the “Hurricane River.”

            After reading the book I was intrigued because I had hunted spring turkeys in the area in which Erskine had died, and had never heard about the incident. I was amazed at how few people in the region knew of the book even though it had been in print for decades, and has been used by historians to take a peek into Arkansas life in mid 1800s.

The “Hurricane River” technically isn’t a river, but would be considered a good-sized creek for the region. The entirety of the Hurricane drainage measure nine miles from its headwaters to where it enters into the Mulberry River in Franklin County. The author, Gerstacker, cited a few prominent locations including Frog Bayou, Pilot Point and the Devil’s Stepping Path. The first two can be located on a USGS topographic map. The first time I read this I knew that I would someday head up an expedition to find Erskine’s grave.  I didn’t know how realistic it would be to find it, but I knew that I was going to try. Someone needed to pay homage to the old Arkansas bear hunter, why not me?

 

(Excerpt from pages 341-345, Wild Sports)

“The sun had gone down, and I had hoped that the other hunters might have heard our shots and the barking and howling of the dogs. It grew dark. No one came. I roared and shouted like mad; no one heard me. I tried to light a fire, but my left arm was so swelled that I gave up the attempt. But as it would have been certain death to pass the night under these circumstances without a fire, I tore away part of the back of my hunting shirt, the fore part being saturated with blood, sprinkled some powder on it, rubbed it well in, all with my right hand, shook a little powder into my rifle, and placing the muzzle on the rag, I fired, when it began to burn immediately. Blowing it up to a flame, I piled on dry leaves, twigs and succeeded in making a good fire, though with great pain and trouble. It was now dark. I went to my dead comrade, who was lying about five yards from the fire. He was already stiff, and it was with great difficulty that I could pull down his arms and lay him straight; nor could I keep his eyes closed, though I laid small stones on them.

“The dogs were very hungry, but it was impossible for me to break up the bear. I only ripped him up, and fed them his entrails. Bearsgrease, the dog, laid himself down by the corpse, looking steadfastly in its face, and went no more near the bear. In the hope of obtaining help, I loaded and fired twice, but nothing moved: the forest appeared one enormous grave.

Erskine's death in Arkansas

An artist's depiction of Erskine's Death taken from the book "Wild Sports" by Fredrich Gerstacker.

“I felt very ill, vomited several times, and my shoulder was excessively painful. Winding my blanket round me as well as I could, I laid myself down beside the fire and lost all consciousness of my wretched situation; whether I slept or fainted is more than I could tell, but I know that I dreamed I was at home, in bed, and my mother brought me some tea and laid her hand my breast; I heard the children in the street making a noise, and saw the snow on the roofs of the houses, and thought it must be very cold out of doors.

“Such an awakening as I had was worse than I could wish to my bitterest enemy. Bearsgrease had pressed close to my side, laying his head on my breast; the fire was almost out, I was shivering with cold, and the wolves were howling fearfully around the dead, keeping at a distance for fear of the living, but by no means disposed to lose their prey. I rose with difficulty, and laid more wood on the fire. As it burnt up, the face of the corpse seemed to brighten. I started, but found it was only an optical illusion. Louder and fiercer howled the wolves, and the dogs, of whom five were alive besides Bearsgrease, answered them; but the answer was by no means one of defiance – rather a lament for the dead. Partly to scare away the wolves, partly in the hope of finding help, I loaded and fired three times; my delight was inexpressible as I heard three shots return. I loaded and fired till all my powder was expended. As morning broke, I heard two shots, not far off, and soon after, a third. A shipwrecked mariner, hanging to a single plank, could not raise his voice more lustily to hail a passing ship, than I did then – and, joy upon joy, I heard a human voice in answer. The bark of the dogs announced a stranger, and Wachiga advanced out of the brush.

“Wah!” he exclaimed, starting at the shocking spectacle. He felt poor Erskine, and shook him mournfully. He then turned to me. I showed him my swollen arm, which he examined attentively, without speaking. Forming a hollow with his two hands, and placing them to his lips, he gave a loud piercing shout. The answer came from no great distance, and in a few minutes my dear old Conwell, and most of the Indians, were at my side. I grasped Conwell’s hand sorrowfully and told him in a few words how it had all happened.

“The old man scolded me and said it served us right; there was no great danger in sticking a knife into a bear’s paunch, when he is falling, with the dogs upon him, but if he has been thrown, and then catches sight of his greatest enemy, man, he exerts all his force to attack him, and woe to him who comes within reach of his paws. It was all very well talking; he had not been present, and seen one dog after another knocked over never to rise again; five minutes more, and not one would have been saved, and who knows whether the enraged beast would not have attacked us, then.

“Meantime, the Indians had been digging a grave with their tomahawks. Wrapping the body in a blanket, they laid Erskine in it, and covered him with earth and heavy stones. Conwell cut down some young stems, and made a fence round the solitary grave. I could not avoid a shudder at the quiet coolness of the whole proceeding, as the thought struck me, that the same persons, under the same circumstances, would have treated me in the same cool way had I fallen instead of Erskine. Like me, he was a lonely stranger in a foreign land, having left England some years before, and his friends and relations will probably never know what has become of him. Thousand perish in this way in America, of whom nothing more is heard, and perhaps in a few months the remembrance of them has entirely passed away.

“After Erskine's body was quietly laid in the grave, Wachiga came with an elderly Indian to look at my arm. Wachiga moved it, while the other looked steadfastly in my face; the pain was enough to drive me mad, but I would not utter a sound. Next the old Indian took hold of my arm, laying his left hand on my shoulder, and while Wachiga suddenly seized me round the body from behind, the other pulled with all his force. The pain at first was so great that I almost fainted; but it gradually diminished; in spite of my resolve to show no signs of it, I could not suppress a shriek.  Conwell soon after asked if I could ride. On my answering, “Yes,” he helped me on a horse; then throwing the bear’s skin and some meat on his own, we moved slowly towards home­.”

 

Our Search for Erskine’s Grave

 

Moe Shepherd, Steve Schultz and I made three trips into the Hurricane drainage in search for Erskine’s grave in 2011 and 2012. Growing up at the head of the Hurricane, Moe would be our local connection and guide. Amazingly, the story wasn’t common knowledge even in the tight-knit rural community near where Erskine had died. Using a topographic map and the locations that Gerstacker sited in his writings, we located the area that we felt was a reasonable starting point.

Our greatest resource, however, was an article written in the Arkansas Historic Quarterly in the 1960s titled, “The Search for Erskine’s Grave.” A team of research students from a university in Oklahoma had studied the book and maps and had narrowed their search down to a small region of the Hurricane drainage.  Interestingly, they enlisted the help of young local that had found some markings on a rock while hunting that region in the 1950s. The young man’s name was Oree Province. The team believed these markings were connected to Erskine’s grave.

Oree, now 86 years old, is still alive and was able to direct us to the exact location of the markings. As a matter of fact, 50 years earlier, Oree had led the university search team from Oklahoma into the area. In the article, they cited the odd markings on the rock and claimed to have found the grave very near them. They claimed they actually exhumed part of the grave to confirm that it was in fact a human grave.

Erskine's death in Arkansas

 Oree Province found these markings while deer hunting in the 1950s. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma had Oree lead them to the markings in an expedition in the 1960s recorded in the Arkansas Historic Quarterly.

             We made three different trips into the Hurricane drainage and located the markings. On each trip we widened our search in hopes of finding a pile of rocks that might indicate a shallow grave. One could only speculate if it would even be recognizable after 170 years. Unfortunately, we were never able to find a legitimate rock pile that appeared to be a grave. The region is very rocky and rock piles are everywhere. Did the team from Oklahoma disrupt the site so much that it is now unrecognizable? Did others come in after them and disturb the grave?

No one will ever know.

            The search for Erskine’s grave, more than anything, has been and still is an intriguing adventure. I can scarcely imagine the lifestyle that Gerstacker and Erskine lived in the 1840s in these once wilder lands. The story of Erskine’s death has become larger than life to my young family. In the last three years I have told the story uncountable times to my children as they lay in bed. Each time they listen as if it was the first. And each time I tell it like I have never told it before – the story has taken on a life of its own. I was able to take my middle son with me on two of the trips. I can only imagine the epic stories he will tell his children of searching for the old bear hunter’s grave with his father and grandfather (Steve Schultz). One can only speculate.

            I do not know that we will ever locate the grave, but I do know that we will back again in the Hurricane drainage looking for Erskine’s grave. We certainly will keep you posted.

clay newcomb searching for erskine's grave Moe Shepherd

Moe Shepherd, Bear Newcomb, and the author with the hand-made bowie built in honor of Erskine's death while seated near the mysterious engraving.