Friday, October 09, 2020 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Modern discussions about the conservation of South Carolina’s natural wildlife tend to focus on the protection of animals and habitats that have declined over the generations as a result of human encroachment. In contrast, we hear less about the conservation of indigenous predators because so few now inhabit our fields and forests. The scarcity of wolves, panthers, bears, and bobcats in the Palmetto State is not recent development, however. Their absence is due to a century-long campaign of violence launched in the early days of the colony, when Carolina’s provincial government declared war against “beasts of prey.”

To understand the historical context for South Carolina’s sustained campaign against indigenous predators, it’s important to recall the invasive nature of the settlement that commenced here in 1670. European colonists found on this shore a landscape rich in natural resources and teaming with animal life. Rather than observing the lifestyles of the indigenous peoples and adapting to local conditions, however, the incoming settlers chose to disrupt the existing ecosystem by transplanting a new world order. European ideas about land use began to reshape the landscape, and the introduction of foreign crops and new domesticated animals disrupted delicate natural balances. As this invasive process spread and matured, the indigenous populations of people and animals either fled, adapted, or perished. Those that resisted or thwarted the expansion of colonial settlement faced dire consequences. In this context, South Carolina’s natural predators found themselves in the crosshairs of history.

 

In an effort to secure the natural landscape for colonial settlement, South Carolina’s early government enacted a series of laws between 1693 and 1790 to encourage the destruction of what they called “beasts of prey.” These laws offered cash bounties for the heads of “lions,” “tygers,” wolves, bears, and wildcats that menaced the spread of colonial habitations, animal husbandry, and plantation agriculture. The hunters participating in this activity included white settlers and Native American allies, as well as enslaved men of African descent. Their efforts commenced within the earliest European settlements along the Atlantic coastline and gradually spread westward to the Piedmont. By the end of the eighteenth century, hunters had successfully rid the state of its indigenous predators, who were hunted to extirpation, or local extinction.

South Carolina’s protracted war on wild predators targeted indigenous animals that preyed on imported domesticated livestock and whose presence in the wilderness discouraged planters from pushing westward into the interior of the colony and state. Although colonial-era planters sustained losses from a variety of native species, they consistently identified panthers, wolves, bears, and bobcats as the principal and most dangerous offenders. The vernacular terminology used to describe these beasts in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not as precise as modern biological taxonomy, however, and therefore leaves some room for interpretation.

Colonial-era descriptions of bears and wildcats in South Carolina, for example, no doubt point to the American black bear (Ursus americanus) and the common bobcat (Lynx rufus), while the identification of the wolf in question is less certain. None of the extant government records include descriptors that might facilitate a distinction between the common gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the southeastern red wolf (Canis lupus rufus). A Swiss immigrant living at New Windsor on the Savannah River in 1753 described the native wolf as being “not as large and strong as those in Europe,” which might point to the latter subspecies.[1] The lack of physical remains of these eighteenth-century animals, combined with their successful extirpation from the state before the nineteenth century, now render it difficult to settle the question conclusively.

More problematic is the identification of the larger member of the feline family. Between 1693 and 1744, the government of South Carolina consistently used the Old-World terms “lion” and “tiger” (also “tyger”) interchangeably to describe a New-World counterpart that we would now call a cougar or panther. The state’s final campaign against beasts of prey, enacted in 1786, employed the more accurate term “panther,” but the precise identity of the species in question remains unclear. As with the wolf, the lack of extant remains from the period before the nineteenth century renders it difficult to discern whether it was the common North American cougar (Puma concolor couguar) or perhaps a distinct and now forgotten subspecies, like the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi).

South Carolina’s colonial campaign to drive natural predators away from domestic farming was shaped by a unique set of local conditions, but the concept behind it was not new. The practice of systematically hunting beasts of prey to extirpation was part of an ancient defensive strategy extending back to the dawn of civilization. From the Classical world of ancient Greece and Rome to the Middle Ages across Europe, a number of principalities and kingdoms offered hunters bounty money to destroy wolves that harassed flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Driven by incentives offered in statute laws, hunters eradicated wolves from England, Scotland, and Ireland, in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, respectively. The importation of domesticated animals into Virginia in the early 1600s prompted early settlers there to commence an active campaign against the region’s indigenous predators. The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first North American law offering wolf bounties in 1630, followed shortly thereafter by the Virginia legislature in 1632.[2]

South Carolina’s intermittent war against beasts of prey occupied approximately fifty-five years of activity between 1693 and 1790, during which time the provincial and state General Assemblies ratified eight contrasting statutes that were both extended and curtailed by a number of other legislative acts. The surviving manuscript records of this government activity, now preserved at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, form a sizeable body of evidence to illuminate a forgotten chapter in the state’s environmental history. Although incomplete and spread across a long chronology, the extant materials are sufficient to facilitate a modest narrative of the long campaign against indigenous predators.

The earliest-known discussion of a government-sanctioned effort to destroy beasts of prey in South Carolina began in September 1693. At the commencement of a new legislative session, Governor Thomas Smith asked the provincial Commons House of Assembly to consider the creation of an act “to oblidge all the Indians . . . to pay into the Receiver Generall for the Country [that is, the public treasurer] such number of wolfes tigers or beare skinns as by yor house or the Councill shall be appoynted bv them for ye publique use.” Smith suggested that the Indians should make such contributions “in lew of the dutys laid on white persons for their protection,” referring to the ordinary taxes paid by the settlers but not the indigenous peoples. Any tribe’s “non complyance” with this proposed requirement, said the governor, would render that tribe “out of the protection of the government.”

Whether Governor Smith’s suggested plan amounted to a reasonable form of frontier taxation or form of colonial extortion is a matter of perspective, but the provincial Commons House followed through on his advice. A bill for destroying “beasts of prey” received its first reading two days later, and on September 18th, 1693, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified “An Act for ye Distroying beasts of prey and for appoynting Magistrates for ye Heareing and Determining of all Causes and Controversies between White Man and Indian and Indian & Indian.”[3]

The text of this 1693 law does not survive in any form, but it was probably nearly identical to that of a similar law ratified in the spring of 1695/6. On March 16th of that year, the South Carolina legislature ratified an updated version of “An Act for Destroying Beasts of Prey” that survives in both manuscript and printed form. The text of the 1696 statute begins with a condescending preamble that outlines the purpose of the law. The Indian nations of South Carolina have “for several years past been furnished with clothes and all sorts of tools necessary for making their provisions,” and have from time to time, “as often as they have had need thereof, been protected and defended from their enemies, at our trouble, expences of time and charges and by our forces.” Because the Indians have not been “any ways useful or serviceable, or contributing to the inhabitants of this province more than they have been particularly and specially rewarded for,” the leaders of the nations of “Sante Helena, Causa, Wimbehe, Combehe, Edistoe, Stonoe, Kiaway, Itwan, Sewee, Santee, Cussoes, have freely and voluntarily offered and consented to be obliged” to deliver the skins of beasts of prey as an annual tribute to the government.

The law required that by November 25th, 1696, “and soe yearly for ever,” “every Indian bowman, capable to kill deere” should deliver to an appointed representative in Charleston “one woolfes skinn, or one tigers skinn, or one beare skinn, or two catt skinns.” If any bowman neglected to deliver his required skin, the casique or leader of his tribe was obliged to deliver the defaulter to Charleston by December 26th, 1696, “and so yearly forever.” In urban Charleston, the defaulter would be “upon his bare back severely whipped in sight of the inhabitants of the saide towne.” Tribes neglecting to deliver their required skins, or neglecting to deliver defaulters to Charleston for punishment, would be “declared to be out of the protection of this Government, and shall not designedly receive any benefit thereby.” Bowmen delivering more than the required annual tribute, however, could earn “one pound of good powder and thirty bullets” for each additional “skinn and head brought in greene.”[4]

The patronizing text of the 1696 law did not specify any expiration date for the requirement of annual Indian tributes to the provincial government, but merely said it should continue “for ever.” Records of the payment of such skins do not survive, rendering it impossible to determine the effectiveness of the law and its impact on the relationship between the colonial government and the rapidly declining indigenous population of the South Carolina Lowcountry. The appearance of a major revision of the law in 1701 suggests, however, that the both planters and legislators were disappointed by their Indian neighbors and sought to address the persistent problem of dangerous beasts with more proactive methods.

On March 1st, 1700/1, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified “An Act for the Encouragement of Killing and Destroying Beasts of Prey and Birds.” The preamble of the new law noted that “the planters of this province do yearly suffer considerable damage by birds and beasts of prey in their stocks and crops, whereby notwithstanding their continuall [sic] care, they are impoverished and discouraged.” To prevent such problems in the future, the legislature offered two distinct sets of bounty money, one for birds and one for mammals.

The government paid one half-royal (a small English coin) for every dozen “small black birds and rice birds,” but one and a half royals for every dozen crows, jackdaws, and larks (the latter two being European species not present in South Carolina). The law instructed hunters to deliver the heads of the birds to the nearest justice of the peace, who would give them a voucher to receive payment directly from the public treasurer in Charleston.

The statute of 1701 also offered a fixed bounty of ten shillings for every “wolf, tyger, wildcatt, or bear” killed by a white man, but only five shillings to Native American hunters who performed the same service. Hunters were required to deliver the heads of such beasts to the nearest justice of the peace, or magistrate, who was obliged to pay the bounty directly to the hunter and later apply to the provincial treasurer for reimbursement. To prevent unscrupulous men from exhibiting the same heads to different officials to collect multiple bounties, the law required every magistrate receiving such heads to ensure that they were “burnt or their ears cutt off, in the presence of them that brings the same.”[5]

The beast bounty statute of March 1701 was designed to be in force for a period of two years, but the provincial legislature formally repealed it in September 1702.[6] No explanation for this action survives, but it was likely motivated by complications in the execution of the new law. Magistrates might have been overwhelmed by hunters bringing to them a profusion of birds’ heads, which they were obliged to identify and differentiate based on the statute’s poorly worded descriptions. Furthermore, justices had to pay the bounty money on beasts of prey out of their own pockets and later seek compensation from the treasurer through a lengthy bureaucratic process. The flawed bounty law of 1701 merited repeal in 1702, but the continued danger posed by indigenous predators provoked the creation of a revised statute the following year.

On May 8th, 1703, the South Carolina General Assembly adopted a simplified bounty law titled “An Act for the Encouragement of Killing and Destroying Beasts of Prey.” Like its predecessor, the preamble to the statute of 1703 noted that “the planters of this province doe yearly suffer considerable damage by beasts of prey.” To prevent further losses, the legislature offered a revised schedule of incentives to a slightly larger group of hunters. For every wolf, “tyger,” and bear killed by a “white person by himself or slave,” the government offered ten shillings, but now only five shillings for every “wild catt.” Like the 1701 statute, the 1703 law paid half of these sums to Native American hunters for performing the same services. Justices of the peace receiving the heads of such animals were still required to burn them or at least cut off their ears to prevent fraud. Rather than paying the bounty money directly to the hunters, the 1703 law instructed justices to provide “a note” in their own handwriting which hunters could present to the public treasurer in Charleston to receive their bounty payments.[7]

After a decade of statutory experimentation, South Carolina’s beast bounty law of May 1703 provided a reasonably satisfactory remedy to the dangers facing the expansion of domestic agriculture in the young province. Its most noteworthy addition was the acknowledgment that white planters were enlisting the assistance of enslaved hunters of African descent to pacify the Lowcountry’s natural landscape. Details about their activities, their use of firearms, and the extent of their free movement across the terrain are now sparse, but such topics certainly merit further historical enquiry. The concerted efforts of white, black, and Native hunters continued through the early years of the eighteenth century and beyond the destructive Yemasee War that convulsed South Carolina in the years 1715–1717. Although the law regarding beasts of prey was designed to be in force for a period of just two years, successive assemblies extended its duration, by way of a number of legal extensions, into the early 1720s.[8]

In the midst of a protracted and contentious transition from Proprietary to Royal status in the 1720s, South Carolina’s colonial government revisited the topic of beasts of prey in the spring of 1727 and adopted a revision of the earlier statute on March 11th. The preamble to the new law complained that the inhabitants of the province continued to sustain “considerable damage” every year from “the mischief done by beasts of prey,” and “due encouragement” should be given to their destruction. A larger bounty of twenty shillings “current money” was offered for each wolf, “tyger,” and bear, but only ten shillings for each “wild cat.” These sums were offered to “any white person or persons, by themselves or slaves,” but now Native American hunters received the same compensation as their colonial neighbors. The procedure for collecting the bounty was similar to that authorized in 1703, but now white hunters presenting animal heads to magistrates were required to declare under oath that they or their enslaved property had “killed the same.” As before, and in all subsequent revisions, the magistrates receiving bounty animals were obliged to burn the heads of the beasts in question or cut off their ears before returning them to the hunters.[9]

The beast bounty act of 1727 included no expiration date, but it was revised and replaced by a new statute on June 7th, 1733. The new preamble noted that the “increase of stock” was very much in the “general interest of this province,” but “the encouragement heretofore allowed by the public was not sufficient to induce people industriously to endeavour to destroy such beasts of prey as very much discourage the inhabitants to go upon stock.” Switching monetary references from provincial currency to a more stable form of calculation, the 1733 law offered ten shillings “proclamation money” [£0.7.6 sterling, or £ 2.12.0 S.C. currency], for “whoever shall, in any settled part of this province, kill a tyger or woolf.” The bounty paid to “whoever shall kill a bear or wild cat” was half that amount. Notably absent from this revision was any reference to Indian hunters, who may or may not have continued to participate in the public war against beasts of prey.

The 1733 statute placed increased emphasis on the certification of the kill. Hunters were now asked to bring in “the skin of the head with the ears,” not the entire head. The law constrained hunters to apply to a justice of the peace within “the county where they [the animals] were killed,” who was empowered to interrogate the hunters at his discretion to determine “where those beasts of prey . . . were killed and by whom.” If the said justice was satisfied by the report of the party or parties presenting the skins, he would “grant an order upon the public treasurer to pay the parties after the respective rates herein before mentioned.”[10]

The bounty act of 1733 did not contain a clear expiration date, but it was apparently intended to continue in force for a period of five years. As the expiration date drew near in 1738, the provincial legislature considered the law and drafted a bill for its extension, but ultimately decided not to renew it.[11] South Carolina’s provincial government was at that moment already paying generous bounties to incoming “poor Protestants” who were recruited to settle a network of new townships across the interior of the colony. This settlements plan, which commenced in the mid-1730s, drained money from the local treasury, but it also sparked fresh encounters between man and beast across the provincial frontier. In response to the renewed dangers, the legislature ratified a new beast bounty law on May 29th, 1744.[12]

The preamble to the new statute noted that “it is become necessary to give some encouragement to have beasts of prey destroyed, which of late have been very destructive to the stocks of cattle, sheep and hogs, in this province.” For the first time since the beginning of the war on native predators, the 1744 bounty statute specified the geographic range of the hunting in question. It offered bounties to “all and every person and persons whoever, that shall hereafter kill in this province, within one hundred and fifty miles of Charlestown, or within the Welsh Tract upon Pedee [sic], any of the beasts of prey hereinafter mentioned.” A revised schedule of bounties, again rendered in “proclamation money,” more clearly articulated the government’s priorities. For a “tiger,” the government offered eight shillings (6 shillings sterling, or £2.2.0 S.C. currency); for a wolf, six shillings (£.0.4.6 sterling, or £1.11.6 S.C. currency); and for a bear or wild cat, four shillings (£0.3.0 sterling, or £1.1.0 S.C. currency). Like the previous statute, the 1744 law directed hunters to “carry the scalp with the two ears of such beast of prey, fresh,” to a justice of the peace and “give sufficient proof” that the said animals were “killed within the limits aforesaid.” The magistrates were empowered to give hunters the customary certificate to be presented to the public treasurer in Charleston, who would provide payment.[13]

Like its immediate predecessor, the 1744 statute was designed to be in force for at least five years. Near the end of its life, the provincial legislature considered its fate along with other laws nearing expiration. Some members considered the bounty law “fit to be continued,” but the majority disagreed. A bill to extend the law for a further term of years found some initial support, but died in the Commons House in March 1750. The law did not expire immediately, however; it continued in force until the end of the sitting legislative assembly. When that body adjourned in the spring of 1751, the South Carolina Gazette advised magistrates across the province to take note “that the act to encourage the destroying beasts of prey, expired on Saturday the first day of June.”[14]

After the American Revolution, planters and farmers across South Carolina repaired their property and continued the state’s westward expansion into the Piedmont region that was formerly reserved to the Cherokee Nation. The incursion of natural predators into settlements new and old soon inspired the revival of the colonial bounty system. On March 11th, 1786, the state legislature ratified a new version of the familiar statute “to encourage the destroying beasts of prey.” Its preamble explained that such encouragement was necessary because the customary predators had recently “been very mischievous to some of the interior parts of the state.” To address their unwelcome predations, the state government offered to “every person and persons whatever” ten shillings (sterling) for each wolf and each “panther or tiger,” but only five shillings for a “wildcat.” For reasons not explained at the time, bears no longer appeared on the bounty list.

The method of paying the bounty in 1786 was similar to that prescribed in 1733 and 1744, but now less geographically restrictive. It required hunters to present “the scalp with the two ears of such beasts of prey fresh” to “any one justice of the peace within the state” and to provide sufficient proof “that such beast was killed within this state.” As customary, the magistrate was empowered to create a certificate that the hunter could present to the state treasurer. As a new feature, the statue of 1786 stated that such certificate for bounty money “shall be discountable for the public taxes of this state with the collector thereof.” In other words, hunters could pay some or all of their annual state taxes by destroying beasts of prey anywhere within the state.[15]

The statute of 1786 was designed to continue in force for at least five years. Less than four years after its adoption, however, the legislature repealed the bounty law in January 1790 without recording an explanation for such action.[16] Either the vigilance and industry of upcountry hunters succeeded in decimating the remaining population of predatory beasts in short order, or the scarcity of the offending creatures rendered the government incentive moot. In either case, South Carolina’s long campaign against beasts of prey reached a quiet conclusion near the end of the eighteenth century. The intermittent war had commenced within the swamps and savannas of the coastal plain at the beginning of the century, migrated to the new interior townships during the 1730s and 1740s, and finally concluded on the rolling hills of the western Piedmont. By 1790, wolves, panthers, bears, and bobcats were effectively extirpated from the Palmetto State.

The surviving records of South Carolina’s provincial and state governments in the eighteenth century contain many references to bounty payments for beasts of prey, but the incomplete nature of these materials precludes the formation of accurate quantitative conclusions. The extant documents contain numerous summaries of annual appropriations to cover the bounties on beasts of prey, but none of these summaries provide any details about the numbers of different species or the identities of the various hunters.

The fragmentary nature of the earliest bounty records, combined with the summary nature of the later records, now render it extremely difficult to estimate the total number of beasts of prey destroyed during the period 1693 to 1790. Based on my own study of the surviving financial records of annual appropriations during that long era, however, I feel confident in stating that South Carolina hunters destroyed at least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 beasts of prey over the course of the eighteenth century.[17]

The early settlers of South Carolina used every means at their disposal to rid the landscape of animals that threatened their colonial endeavors. The success of those efforts, which officially ended more than two centuries ago, still reverberates across the ages to the present. The absence or paucity of indigenous predators in our fields and forests is an enduring testament to that long campaign. Regardless of modern attitudes towards ancient hunting practices, the forgotten war against beasts of prey merits a place in our collective memory. That violent history forms part of the background to modern conversations about conservation and biodiversity in the state, past, present and future.

 

 

[1] Walter L. Robbins, trans. and ed. “John Tobler’s Description of South Carolina (1753),” South Carolina Historical Magazine 71 (July 1970): 159 of 141–61.

[2] For more information about the long history of wolf bounties, see Rick McIntyre, War Against the Wolf: America’s Campaign to Exterminate the Wolf (Stillwater, Minn.: Voyageur Press, 1995); and Luigi Boitani, “Wolf Conservation and Recovery,” in L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani, eds., Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 317–40.

[3] This 1693 law is not mentioned in any published compilation of South Carolina’s Statutes at Large, and its full text is not now found. The introduction and ratification of the bill are described in A. S. Salley, Jr., ed., Journals of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina for the Four Sessions of 1693 (Columbia, S.C.: The State Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1907), 27–28, 33–34. I have reproduced the original flawed spelling of the text.

[4] The introduction and ratification of the bill are mentioned in A. S. Salley, Jr., ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina For the Session Beginning January 30, 1696, and Ending March 17, 1696 (Columbia: The State Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1908), 20–21, 23, 35, 46–47; the full text of Act No. 128, “An Act for Destroying Beasts of Prey, and for Appoynting [sic] Magistrates for the Hearing and Determining of all Causes and Controversies between White Man and Indian, and Indian and Indian,” ratified appears in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 2 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1837), 108–10. I have reproduced the original flawed spelling of the text.

[5] The introduction and ratification of the bill are mentioned in A. S. Salley, Jr., ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina For the Session Beginning February 4, 1701 and Ending March 1, 1701 (Columbia: The State Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1925), 6–7, 10; the full text of the statute appears in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 179–80.

[6] See section 5 of Act No. 199, “A Continueing [sic], Reviveing [sic] and Repealing Act, ratified on 10 September 1702, in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 190–91.

[7] Act No. 211, “An Act for the Encouragement of Killing and Destroying Beasts of Prey,” ratified on 8 May 1703, in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 215–16.

[8] The successive statutes that extended the life of the 1703 law will be discussed in a longer version of this essay, to be published in a forthcoming book.

[9] Act No. 521, “An Act for the Encouragement of Killing and Destroying [of] Beasts of Prey,” ratified on 11 March 1726/7, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 3 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1838), 271.

[10] Act No. 550, “An Act to Encourage the Destroying of Beasts of Prey,” ratified on 7 June 1733, in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 3: 351–52.

[11] J. H. Easterby, ed., The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, November 10, 1736–June 7, 1739 (Columbia: State Commercial Printing Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1951), 67–68, 502.

[12] For more information about the township scheme of the 1730s, see Robert L. Meriwether, The Expansion of South Carolina 1729–1765 (Kingsport, Tenn.: Southern Publishers, 1940).

[13] Act No. 714, “An Act to Encourage the Destroying [of] Beasts of Prey,” ratified on 29 May 1744, in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 3: 632–33.

[14] J. H. Easterby and Ruth S. Green, eds., The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, March 28, 1749–March 19, 1750 (Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1958), 446, 453; South Carolina Gazette, 27 May–3 June 1751.

[15] Act No. 1308, “An Act to Encourage the Destroying Beasts of Prey,” ratified on 11 March 1786, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 4 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1838), 726.

[16] See section 9 of Act No. 1487, “An Act for Raising Supplies for the year of our Lord one Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety,” ratified on 20 January 1790, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 5 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1839), 149–52.

[17] This broad numerical range is based on a collection of data from a variety of eighteenth-century government manuscripts held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, including legislative journals and statutes ratified by the provincial and state General Assemblies. In a longer version of this essay, to be published in a forthcoming book, I will explicate this material in greater detail and identify the relevant sources and methodology behind my estimate.

 

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