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Unit 7: Set 6: Bringing Back the Game: Hunting and Game Conservation in North Dakota- Game Animals in the Historic Record

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The earliest records of European visitors to the region that is now North Dakota demonstrate amazement at the quantity of large game animals. Bison were always the most exciting of the animals they viewed, but they also wrote of elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, wolves, and smaller animals such as badgers and prairie dogs. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their 1804 – 1806 expedition enjoyed looking at the herds that sometimes blackened the plains with their huge numbers, but also hunted the animals for fresh meat required by their crew. They were soon followed by fur traders and fur trappers who sought precious beaver pelts for international markets.

In the following quotations, goat refers to pronghorn or antelope. Deer are usually unidentified as to Whitetail or Mule deer.

From the letter of Pierre Gaultier deVarennes et de La Vérendrye
(see Unit 2 Document Set 2) in reporting his travels to the
Missouri River in 1738.

Game is to be found in great abundance.

From the Journals of Lewis and Clark

18th of October Thursday 1804 [on the Missouri River a few miles north of the mouth of the Cannonball River]

. . . Saw Great numbers of Goats on the S.S.[starboard side of
the boat] comeing to the river our hunters Killed 4 of them Some
run back and others crossed & proceded on their journey to the
Court Nou [Black Hills] passed a small creek on the L.S. [larboard
side of the boat] 1 mile above the last, and camped on a Sand bar
on the L.S. opposite to us we Saw a Gangue of Buffalow bulls
which we did not think worth while to kill. Our hunters killed 4
[G]oats 6 Deer 4 elk & a pelican & informs us that they Saw in
one gang: 248 Elk, . . .

20 of October Satturday 1804 [on the Missouri River between
the Heart River and the Knife River]

. . . I kild. 3 Deer . . . Great numbers of Buffalow Elk & Deer,
Goats. Our hunters killed 10 Deer & a Goat to day and wounded
a white Bear [Grizzly Bear] I saw several fresh tracks of those
animals which is 3 times as large as a mans track. . . .

Christian Hintz who settled near Hebron in 1880 remembered seeing pronghorn in the early days.

There were a great many antelope, often as many as 50 – 100 in
a herd. They used to come up to our yard in the mornings and
look on with curiosity.

Settlers who came to Dakota Territory in the late 19th century had a different experience. Most of them never saw a live bison, though they picked up the bones of these great animals and sold them to earn much needed cash. Except for the earliest arrivals, they seldom saw deer or antelope and considered it a great curiosity if one animal should happen to wander by.

On July 14, 1873, a Bismarck Tribune article welcomed a steamboat from Fort Benton Montana. The article helps explain why the numbers of wild animals began to fall. .

She had 9000 buffalo robes, 123 bales of wolf , 40 sacks of wool,
94 bales of deer [hides] and antelope, 18 tons of silver . . .

Another article from the Bismarck Tribune (April 15, 1874) reveals how technological changes in the North Dakota landscape might have affected game animals.

A five mile race between the train and two herds of antelope,
delighted the passengers on a late train from Fargo to Bismarck.
At first the animals gained on the train and kept ahead of it for
some time, and finally fell behind and were passed after running
about five miles.

Lillian Foell farmed with her husband south of Menoken in the 1930s. Her words indicate that deer were not a common sight around her farm.

I loved the quiet, the smell, the sound of the birds and the hope
that just maybe I would see a deer if I got out early enough.
(Lil’s Courage, p. 61)

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