Article and most photos by Clay Newcomb
Originally published in the Mar/April 2014 issue of Bear Hunting Magazine
Epic, dangerous hunts were fairly commonplace in the unregulated wilderness of pre-settlement North America. Though not many are well known or even documented, these hunts laid a subconscious foundation in our hunting culture that loves excitement, risk and “controllable” danger. I think that true wilderness is something is something most hunters want to experience.
A few years ago I picked up an old, tattered book written in the 1840s by Friedrick Gerstacker, a young German immigrant hunter. To me, this book epitomizes a spirit of true hunters-grit and tells of some very exciting bear hunts.
Fredrich Gerstacker was from Germany, but traveled to the United States in 1837 at age 21 to hunt and explore the New World.
A professor at the University of Arkansas advised that I read this book because of the bear hunts that took place in the region of Arkansas where I am from. For some years I neglected to read the 170-year old writings of the 21-year-old author. However, in 2011, as I began to read the pages of the Gerstacker’s book, Wild Sports, I was deeply impacted. The book is a collection of Gerstacker’s journal entries, primarily from his hunting escapades in the pre-settlement Ozark wilderness of Arkansas. I will forever be branded by the adventures that were revealed in his writings and the adventures that took place over the next two years as I continued to find a point of connection with the author (look for part two of this blog next week)
The young Gerstacker arrived on the East Coast of the United States in July 1837. He was well-educated but not well funded. He traveled west looking for adventure primarily in the form of hunting. His journey took him as far “west” as Arkansas, which at that time was well off the beaten path for a person of Gerstacker’s upbringing. Arkansas attracted the poor looking for cheap land, outlaws running from the law, market hunters and, like Gerstacker, adventure seekers. He departed America on a boat in 1844 out of the Gulf of Mexico and headed back to Germany, completing a 6 ½-year journey highlighted by more adventures than a baker’s dozen of today’s woodsmen’s entire lifetimes.
Gerstacker’s colorful writing style is deeply engaging and littered with detailed descriptions of the land, witty humor, epic hunts and the daily routines of his wilderness life. His love for the hunt is clear, but it is tempered with insight into the wasteful degradation of the American wilderness by European settlers, even though he also participated in the hey-day of slaughter of so many species.
Gerstacker spent a good deal of time in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. This photo was take in an area that Gerstacker knew well and documented in his writings - the Hurricane Creek Drainage in Franklin County.
Gerstacker arrived in America in traditional European hunting clothing, but quickly changed to the American-style deerskin pants and shirts that he tanned and made for himself. He drank wild honey from a “deer’s leg.” (The tanned hide of a whitetail’s leg was used as a container for all kinds of goods.) He roasted wild game over open fires and seasoned his meat with gunpowder. However, the most unique thing that set him apart from the untold thousands just like him was his writing. Gerstacker was methodical and consistent in his reporting and would send his journal entries to his mother back in Germany when he came back to civilization. Unbeknownst to him, his mother was publishing his stories in the local newspaper. When he arrived back in Germany, after being gone nearly seven years, he had become a national hero!
Any hunter who reads this book will quickly find ways to identify with the young hunter. Gerstacker was as gritty as any hunter that has ever walked the earth. He crawled inside bear dens with only his single shot musket, a bowie knife, and a lit “kindler” (a firebrand used for light). He was harpooning alligators in the Louisiana swamps long before the present-day television show, “Swamp People,” made it seem cool. He often went for days without food, enduring sickness and cold weather. He hunted bears, cougars, whitetails and woodland buffaloes, often along with the Native Americans. And as you’ll see in the excerpt from his book, he watched his hunting companion die by the paw of an Arkansas black bear. And like most American hunting characters, Gerstacker had a faithful dog, Beargrease, that he was forced to leave behind when he returned home to Germany.
Perhaps the regional connection between Gerstacker and me was what I first found so intriguing. However, even more exciting were his countless stories of bear encounters and hunts. A native Arkansan, I know there isn’t a lot of historical fiction that accurately details the methods of hunting in this part of the country during the 1800s. Perhaps the histories of other regions are better documented, but I was excited to be reading about some of the very places I have hunted. The geographical landmarks that he describes are accurate, adding to the authenticity of his historical journal. I quickly realized that the author and I, though separated by nearly two centuries, shared a deep appreciation for the region’s wild places.
The story of the death of his hunting companion took place in the Hurricane Creek drainage in northern Crawford County, Arkansas. Gerstacker, his dear friend Conwell and a young Englishman by the name of Erskine were bear hunting with a group of Native Americans. They were running bears with dogs in a rugged section of the Ozark Mountains when a terrible accident happened. Below is an excerpt from page 355 of his book. You’ll hear the story in Gerstacker’s own words as he details of his eerie night when “the forest appeared one enormous grave.”
The Ozark Mountains that Fredrich Gerstacker explored.
The Death of Erskine
An excerpt from the Book "Wild Sports of the Far West" by Fredrich Gerstacker
“So we were off again before noon, gained the source of the Hurricane, rode across the “Devil’s Stepping Path,” a narrow rock with a precipice on each side, left the Pilot Rock on our left, and came towards evening into the pine forests, where we were sure of finding some kindlers. Descending the steep side of a mountain, we observed a column of thin blue smoke by the side of a stream, showing that some hunters were encamped there. We went straight towards it, and found it to be an Indian camp, and our former acquaintance, young Erskine, among them. They were Cherokees with three young Choctaws, these two tribes being on good terms. Like ourselves, they were out bear hunting, but had had better luck. A quantity of bear meat was hanging about the camp, and even the dogs could eat no more. Casting ourselves down by the fire, one of the squaws – for there were several women in the camp – immediately cooked some bear for us, with which we duly regaled ourselves.
“Night came on, and soon all were sunk in deep repose. I was not inclined to sleep, and Beargrease, who had tired himself with chasing a gang of turkeys, which escaped at last by flying across a ravine, lay close to me, with his head on my left arm. Soon he began to dream, scrambling with his feet as if running, and barking in a low voice.
“Watching him brought to mind a story which was told me by an old bear killer, to the effect that if a man lays his pocket-handkerchief over the head of a dreaming dog, letting it stay till the dream is out, then lays it under his own head and falls asleep, he will have the same dream the dog had. A pocket-handkerchief was a luxury I had dispensed with, but I laid my Scotch cap on my dog’s head, under which he went on dreaming, and when he awoke I laid it under my own head, and was soon asleep. It was perhaps owing to the idea under which I fell asleep, although in general I can never dream for what I wish, but, be that as it may, I soon found myself running desperately after turkeys, and never stopped till I had chased them into a tree, when I stood looking up at them without thinking of shooting.
“Just then my dog gave a loud bark, and I jumped up. One of the Indians had risen to look at the fire, and Beargrease thought it rather suspicious. My beautiful dream was gone, and I could no longer recollect whether I barked or not. I fell asleep again, but the dream never returned.
“Early in the morning we began to move, dividing into two parties, for the better chance of finding game. Conwell went with some of the Indians, amongst whom he had found an old acquaintance, to make a circuit round the Pilot Rock, while Erskine and I, with three Cherokees, proceeded to the sources of the Frog Bayou.
About ten o’clock we came to a cave, which seemed worth examining. We made torches, there being plenty of strips of pine lying about. It was settled that I should try my luck, along with one of the Indians. Erskine remained with the two others by the fire, saying he had searched so many caves within the last four days without finding anything that he was tired of it. The entrance was rather small, but it became gradually larger, and we went a long way in. There were evidences of its having been tried before, as we found moccasin marks and pieces of burnt wood. An unexpected sight suddenly arrested our progress; the skeletons of a man and of a bear, lying peaceably within three feet of each other! A rifle, thickly covered with rust, and a corroded knife, lay by the side of the first, as well as some glass beads, which convinced us that it was the skeleton of an Indian who had bravely attacked the bear single-handedly, and had fallen in the struggle. The skeleton of the bear proved that he had sold his life dearly.
“The skeletons were perfect, except some of the small bones, which rats or snakes might have carried off. The Indian pointed in silence to the upper bone of the right arm, which was broken, and the knife lying on the left side.
“The sight of these remains of a human being, which may have lain there for years, while his footsteps were still fresh in the moist earth, was deeply affecting. As I sat about to pass on, the Indian laid his hand on my arm, and shook his head, saying, in broken English, “The Spirit of the red man is in the cave, and Wachiga goes no further.” Nothing could induce him to go on. All my persuasions were fruitless. Pointing to the bones, he said, “The bones of the red man belonged to a great chief; the bear seeks no bed where the hunter sleeps.”
“As this last remark seemed well founded, and as the sight had shaken me too much for me to go alone, we turned back without touching the remains.
“We found Erskine alone, and told him what we had seen, but he did not seem at all inclined to visit the remains. We found three other caves, but no bear; Erskine and the Indians tried the first two, Erskine and I the last. The cave separated into two passages; Erskine took the right, I the left, and as I proceeded I found plenty of marks. The cave was so small that I was obligated to leave everything but a torch and my knife; I could not even turn myself from one side to the other to change my attitude. I had taken off my hunting shirt, and had on nothing but a cotton shirt and leggings, and was on, inch by inch, with tolerable certainty of finding a bear. The passage was quite round, and in many places as smooth as glass from being rubbed by wild beasts. In one place I found the skin of a rattlesnake.
“At length I got so completely jammed in that I could neither move backwards nor forwards. The perspiration burst from every pore, and for a minute or two I lay motionless; then I again exerted all my efforts to force myself backwards, and, to my indescribable satisfaction, at length succeeded, leaving, however, the greater part of my shirt behind me; and my delight may be imagined when I again inhaled the fresh air. My hair stood on end at the fearful thought of sticking fast in such a hole, buried alive, and dying of hunger.
“Night found us far from camp, so we made one for ourselves where we were. Wachiga, who had become pensive, sat smoking his tomahawk and staring at the fire. Notwithstanding that he had been converted to Christianity, he had still some remains of the old superstition. Erskine was in high good humour, and told one droll story after another.
“On the next morning, February 1, we had hardly started ere we heard the dogs. Wachiga declared instantly that they were his brother’s, and disappeared behind the rocks without another word. As we stood listening, the sound seemed to take a different direction. We ascended the mountain as fast as we could to cut off the chase, but found that we must have been mistaken, for in a few minutes all was silent as the grave. Once we thought we heard a shot, but could not be certain. We ascended to the highest terrace and walked slowly on, looking out for fresh signs, and listening to catch the sound of the dogs. Below, amongst the broken masses of rock, they might be near without being heard, while on the mountain tops they are audible at a great distance.
“It may have been about two in the afternoon, and we had hitherto seen nothing, when Beargrease raised his nose in the air, remained for an instant or two in a fixed position, and then giving a short smothered howl, dashed down the mountain side. Listening attentively, we heard the chase coming down the Hurricane River. “Erksine called out triumphantly, “We shall have plenty of bear this evening,” and dashed after the dog. I was soon by his side. I must observe, by the way, that we were both very hungry. Presently a bear broke through the bushes. A projecting rock stopped him for an instant, when Erskine saluted him with a ball. He received mine as he rushed past and disappeared. The dogs, encouraged to greater efforts by our shots and the stronger scent, followed him out, Beargrease, who was quite fresh, leading the van. They soon came up with him and stopped the bear.
“We rushed to the spot without waiting to reload, and arrived in time to the see the beast, excited to the greatest fury, kill four of our best dogs with as many blows of his paws; but the others only threw themselves on him with greater animosity, and if our rifles has been loaded we could not have used them.
“Just as a large, powerful brown dog which had furiously attacked the bear was knocked over bleeding and howling, Erskine called out, “Oh, save the dogs.”
"He threw down his rifle, and rushed on with his knife among the furious group; I followed on the instant. When the bear saw us coming, he exerted still more force to beat off the dogs and meet us."
“Seizing his opportunity, my comrade ran his steel into the bear’s side. The bear turned on him like lightning and seized him. Erskine uttered a shrill, piercing shriek. Driven to desperation by the sight, I plunged my knife three times into the monster’s body with all my force, without thinking of jumping back. At the third thrust the bear turned upon me. Seeing his paw coming, I attempted to evade the blow, felt a sharp pang, and sank, senseless, to the ground.
“When I recovered my senses, Beargrease was licking blood from my face. On attempting to rise, I felt a severe pain in my left side, and was unable to move my left arm. On making a fresh effort to rise, I succeeded in sitting up. The bear was close to me, and less than three feet from me lay Erskine, stiff and cold.
“I sprang up with a cry of horror and rushed towards him. It was too true. Erskine was bathed in blood, his face torn to pieces, his right shoulder almost wrenched away from his body, and five of the best dogs ripped up with broken limbs lying beside him. The bear was so covered in blood that his colour was hardly discernible. My left arm appeared to be out of its socket, but I could feel that no bones were broken.”
In an attempt to recreate the scene of Erskine's death, the author drew this depiction of the epic scene from the 1840s in Arkansas. According to Gerstacker's writings, five dogs, the bear, and Erskine were killed in a matter of moments.
We will continue with part two of this story in the next blog. Erskine was buried on the spot in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas after his death. The second part of the series is titled, “The Search for Erskine’s Grave.” The author went looking for it....