Wolves on all sides, 1850
'There was but a step between me and death'
I’m currently enjoying a book I’ve been meaning to read for, um, about 40 years now, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe, an adventure set in Roman Britain. In it, the protagonist tames a wolf cub, which set me wondering about human encounters with wolves. Here in Britain, they have long died out – in England and Wales, probably around the end of the 15th century, although the last recorded wolf in Scotland was in 1680 (and there were rumours after that) and in Ireland as late as 1786. But of course they are still very much alive in the wild across much of the world.
I couldn’t find any significant narratives of encounters with wolves in the British Isles, at least as first-hand accounts, but there are quite a few from North America as people spread deeper into the wilds during the 19th century. This week I give you a shortish but haunting one from 1850.
Our narrator is John Steele, who was born in Middleton County, New York, in 1832. His mother died when he was a baby and he was mostly raised by his grandparents in the countryside. Having shown educational prowess, by the age of 16 he was expecting to become a teacher – but then adventure called. Steele himself sets the scene:
During the winter of 1840-1850, when about seventeen years of age, I taught the district school at Gibraltar, West Point, Wisconsin. Bayard Taylor was then exploring the wilds of California, and his letters in the New York Tribune arrested my attention, gave me the “gold fever,” and I resolved that just as soon as my school closed I would start for California.
Along with his uncle and seven other men (plus three wagons and “twelve yoke of oxen”), he set off on 27th March 1850. The route was via Des Moines, then Forts Kearny, Laramie, Bridger and Hall, and ultimately to Sacramento. On the way he encountered Indians, stampeding buffalo, storms and deserts… and at the time he met wolves in Wyoming, a week after starting out, he was travelling alone. As you read his vivid account below, based on his diary but only published in the Lodi Valley News in 1899,1 remember that he was only 18 years old.
It was a long day’s journey from camp, how far I could only guess; tired, hungry and thirsty, having forgotten my canteen, and failed to find any good water during the day. I thought of shooting a buffalo, but since morning I had not seen sufficient wood to cook supper, and as the buffalo chips were wet, I gave it up. The sun was just disappearing, and its yellow light rested on the highest knolls as I lay down on the grass, having decided to take a night’s rest and then find the camp at my leisure.
Presently a large, whitish wolf made its appearance; then two more; their howls were answered by others, until the gulches echoed in one continuous roar. As the day faded they became more bold, coming nearer, until I found it would be impossible to keep them at bay during the night without a fire. It was a moonless night, but the stars shone out, and turning my back on the constellation of Ursa Major, I started for camp.
I cannot say that the wolves followed me; they were on all sides. The long, smooth howl of the large, white wolf, the sharp bark of the prairie wolf, and the shrill screech of the jackal, while at a distance seemed in unison, but the infernal chorus grew awfully discordant at a near approach. I would then fire my rifle and pistols among them, reloading as I ran. At the report they would scatter, and for awhile keep a greater distance; but always there was a bitter fight among them after a shot, and I believe that the wounded were at once devoured.
In the open ground it was not difficult to keep them at bay; but in the deep gullies as I looked up into their glaring eyes and saw how easily they might spring upon me, I realized that, like David, there was but a step between me and death. However, I kept in the open ground as much as possible; but at best, it was a terrible night, and O, how I longed for the morning.
Toward morning, while following a long, high ridge, most of my pursuers left me. Occasionally a few unanswered howls would roll off on the air; but for once I was glad at being deserted and left to pursue my way alone. Nearly exhausted, and suffering greatly with thirst, I descended into a deep basin among the sand hills; the grass grew tall, and the ground felt soft and wet. Stooping down and parting the grass and weeds, I drank freely, and, invigorated by the draught, traveled with greater ease. The stars at last faded, light streaks shot up from the eastern horizon, changing from white to rose, from rose to pink, and at last a livid crimson ushered in the day…
Steele wrote a second memoir, In Camp and Cabin (1901), about his time in gold rush California, but he had returned to teaching in 1853, this time in Missouri; he also served in the Civil War, before becoming a Methodist Episcopal preacher in 1867. He was a missionary in New Mexico before returning to Wisconsin, where he died in 1905.
I have tracked down a 1930 edition published as Across the Plains in 1850, edited with background info by Joseph Schafer (Caxton Club, Chicago).