How to catch a moose, 1663
… but avoid the Squnck!
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The poor Creature groans, and walks on heavily, for a space, then sinks and falls down like a ruined building, making the Earth to quake…
Over the last two weeks, we’ve followed the 17th century English traveller John Josselyn (c.1608–c.1700?), on the first of his voyages (in 1638) to North America, where he met some interesting wildlife and heard some tall tales. If you’ll indulge me one last time, this week I’m going to present a dramatic scene from his second trip.
This journey, recorded in his 1674 collection Two Voyages to New-England, took place more than 20 years after the first, in 1663, and this time he stayed for several years, again to be with his older brother Henry, a colonial agent. Although I’ve enjoyed teasing him for his credulity, John was a very observant visitor, and recorded great swathes of detail about the flora and fauna of the youthful United States, and its people. Indeed, the Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine was founded in 1895 in his honour and was still going in the 1990s. Henry David Thoreau was also a fan, and wrote in his own journal of 1855:
What a strong and healthy, but reckless, hit-or-miss style had some of those early writers of New England, like Josselyn and Wood1 and others elsewhere in those days; as if they spoke with a relish, smacking their lips like a coach-whip, caring more to speak heartily than scientifically true. They are not to be caught napping by wonders of Nature in a new country…
We know little of John’s life in England, but the intervening years between his voyages encompassed both the inescapable upheaval of the English Civil War and the subsequent Restoration of the monarchy. Henry’s life across the Pond had seen its fair share of turmoil, too: now chief justice of Maine, he became involved in various local political and legal battles, as well as losing his estates to a Puritan businessman. John himself was no fan of the Puritans – he occasionally rails against their hypocrisy, and on three occasions during this extended stay in Maine, he was fined for failing to attend church. He appears to have been keen to curry favour with the Crown, and drops a hint that he received royal patronage when he returned to his homeland.
His account of this second visit is much more extensive than the first. Around 10% is devoted to detailing the plants he found in New England, and another quarter to the animals of land and sea. Here’s one of my favourite passages:
The Squnck is almost as big as a Racoon, perfect black and white or pye-bald, with bush-tail like a Fox, an offensive Carion; the Urine of this Creature is of so strong a scent, that if it light upon any thing, there is no abiding of it, it will make a man smell… and so sharp if he do but whisk his bush which he pisseth upon in the face of a dogg hunting of him, and that any of it light in his eyes it will make him almost mad with the smart thereof.
With typical colonial arrogance, he then proceeds to describe the Native Americans in the same appraising fashion, although he does provide a fascinating amount of detail about their homes, diet and culture, before his book continues with a gazetteer of North American settlements.
This week, then, here’s Josselyn’s visitor’s view of an Indian moose hunt, told in his usual breathless style (I’ve added a few paragraph breaks to aid reading)…
Their exercises are hunting and fishing, in both they will take abundance of pains. When the snow will bear them, the young and lustie Indians, (leaving their papouses and old people at home) go forth to hunt Moose, Deere, Bear and Beaver, Thirty or forty miles up into the Countrey.
When they light upon a Moose they run him down, which is sometimes in half a day, sometimes a whole day, but never give him over till they have tyred him, the snow being usually four foot deep, and the Beast very heavie he sinks every step, and as he runs sometimes bears down Arms of Trees that hang in his way, with his horns, as big as a mans thigh; other whiles, if any of their dogs (which are but small) come near, jerking out his heels (for he strikes like a horse) if a small Tree be in the way he breaks it quite asunder with one stroak, at last they get up to him on each side and transpierce him with their Lances, which formerly were no other but a staff of a yard and half pointed with a Fishes bone made sharp at the end, but since they put on pieces of sword-blades which they purchase of the French, and having a strap of leather fastned to the but end of the staff which they bring down to the midst of it, they dart it into his sides…
The poor Creature groans, and walks on heavily, for a space, then sinks and falls down like a ruined building, making the Earth to quake; then presently in come the Victors, who having cut the throat of the slain take off his skin, their young webbs by this time are walking towards them with heavie bags and kettles at their backs, who laying down their burdens fall to work upon the Carkass, take out the heart, and from that the bone, cut off the left foot behind, draw out the sinews, and cut out his tongue &c. and as much of the Venison as will serve to satiate the hungry mawes of the Company.
Mean while the men pitch upon a place near some spring, and with their snow shoos shovel the snow away to the bare Earth in a circle, making round about a wall of snow; in the midst they make their Vulcan or fire near to a great Tree, upon the snags whereof they hang their kettes fil'd with the Venison; whilst that boils, the men after they have refresht themselves with a pipe of Tobacco dispose themselves to sleep. The women tend the Cookerie, some of them scrape the slime and fat from the skin, cleanse the sinews, and stretch them and the like, when the venison is boiled the men awake, and opening of their bags take out as much Indian meal as will serve their turns for the present.
They eat their broth with spoons, and their flesh they divide into gobbets, eating now and then with it as much meal as they can hold betwixt three fingers, their drink they fetch from the spring, and were not acquainted with other, untill the French and English traded with that cursed liquor called Rum, Rum-bullion, or kill-Devil, which is stronger than spirit of Wine, and is drawn from the dross of Sugar and Sugar Canes, this they love dearly, and will part with all they have to their bare skins for it, being perpetually drunk with it, as long as it is to be had, it hath killed many of them, especially old women who have dyed when dead drunk. This instead of bringing of them to the knowledge of Christianitie, we have taught them to commit the beastly and crying sins of our Nation, for a little profit.
When the Indians have stuft their paunches, if it be fair weather and about midday they venture forth again, but if it be foul and far spent, they betake themselves to their field-bed at the sign of the Star, expecting the opening of the Eastern window, which if it promise serenity, they truss up their fardles, and away for another Moose, this course they continue for six weeks or two moneths, making their Webbs their Mules to carry their luggage, they do not trouble themselves with the horns of Moose or other Deer, unless it be near an English plantation; because they are weighty & cumbersome…
When the Indians are gone, there gathers to the Carkass of the Moose thousands of Mattrises,2 of which there are but few or none near the Sea-coasts to be seen, these devour the remainder in a quarter of the time that they were hunting of it.
Josselyn concludes his book with a short account of his return to Britain in 1671: “The year being now well spent, and the Government of the province turned topsiturvy, being heartily weary and expecting the approach of winter, I took my leave…” And there we shall do the same.