Len Lisenbee: Hunting's heritage gives us plenty to be thankful for
What a year 2020 was. The Covid 19 pandemic was obviously the biggest and longest lasting news item, and the presidential and congressional election was, for many people, the most important.
But as for me personally, Thanksgiving Day was more important than any other news item.
Why is that? Because of two interrelated facts. First, it appears that more hunters went afield while hunting than in recent years, a factor that bodes well for all species of wildlife, not just deer and turkey. Wildlife management uses the funds derived from license sales to manage ecosystems where many more species can live.
And Thanksgiving is a time for me to reflect on our country's history. Why is that? It is because this day is an excellent time to remember the true origins of many of the traditions we celebrate.
The pilgrims nearly starved to death during their first winter, mainly because they did not understand exactly what was required of them for survival. What winter stores they brought with them on the Mayflower were rotted and inedible. That meant they were ill-provisioned from the very start, and ill-prepared for the rigors that awaited them.
It is hard for someone like myself, an avid hunter and angler, to understand how any group of people could come so close to starvation while being totally surrounded by a wilderness overflowing with wild game, fowl, fish and shellfish.
But those folks did not know how to hunt or fish, and nearly starved simply because of that ignorance. They could not figure out how to kill any of the wild game animals and birds that daily wandered through and around their tiny enclave.
It was only the timely intervention of the local Native Americans that saved their bacon. The natives shared their meager store of dried meats and vegetables, and they also hunted wild game for these strange, new neighbors. Their kindness and compassion was probably the single most important reason those early colonists managed to survive.
When the first spring finally arrived, those same Native Americans taught the settlers how to plant corn, beans and squash. They also taught the colonists how to gather nuts and berries.
And most importantly, the Indians showed these newcomers how to hunt and trap wild game using materials readily available throughout the unbroken forest. This act of teaching how to hunt and trap (and fish) broke the chains of dependence the colonists had for their tiny settlement. It encouraged some of them to travel into the forest to seek a portion of their sustenance.
Wild turkeys were, at that time, so numerous that warriors would not hunt them. There was no challenge in killing such dumb birds, so their hunting was left to the Native children. And because those children were good at this task the colonists had plenty of tasty wild turkey to eat.
In the beginning, the Natives made out pretty well, too. They traded furs and wild game for iron knives, hatchets, and other useful items like cloth. The settlers managed to fashion furs into warm winter garments, and the Natives could now use the cloth to make cooler summer clothing. Both sides benefited from their new neighborly relationship. In the beginning, at least.
The unbroken forest of old growth timber offered a vast wealth of useful products in addition to the obvious timber, firewood and wild game. There was honey free for the taking, and maple syrup aplenty once the sap had been tapped, collected and boiled down. The roofs of the newly constructed homes were covered with split cedar shingles and sealed with pine tar pitch.
Nearby marshes were filled with all sorts of wildfowl including swans, geese and ducks. And there were numerous other shore and water birds that proved to be tasty, too.
Nearby clam, scallop and oyster beds yielded a cornucopia of fresh shellfish, and the earliest fishermen soon discovered how to catch virtually unlimited numbers of lobsters as they set their nets for sturgeon, striped bass and dozens of other saltwater fish species. And marsh grass, cut as hay in the late summer, fed the livestock throughout the long New England winters.
According to the earliest records of American history, that first Thanksgiving feast actually did take place. According to the scribe who gave us his historic record, the colonists sat on the upwind side of the tables while the Natives, with their “unique” odors of rancid bear grease (used to ward off biting insects) sat on the downwind side. The table was heavy laden with the bounty of the settlement's gardens, the meats from the nearby forests, and the fish and other delicacies of the nearby ocean waters.
There were roasted turkeys on that table, joined by haunches of venison and many roasted wildfowl. There was corn bread, tarts (sweetened with honey and maple sugar), and wild berry puddings. The settlers were truly thankful for their survival, health, success, and the friendship of their red-skinned brothers.
There are many in today's society that do not believe that hunting should be allowed. They fervently wish for a society of enlightened idealists, just like themselves.
But, fortunately, there are those of us who remember our roots. Oh, our ancestors may not have come over on the Mayflower, but there is a good chance some of our ancestors did travel directly to the frontier of their day to begin their new lives, mainly because that was where the free land was.
And the chances are our ancestors relied on their hunting and trapping skills to survive, at least at first. We, the members of the modern day hunting, fishing and trapping fraternity, wish to maintain that important tie to our outdoor heritage that was such an important factor in our ancestor's survival and primitive lifestyles.
Hunters and trappers have a proud heritage. Every new colony survived by tapping the wild bounty surrounding it, at least during its earliest years. The first explorers set out from those colonies to hunt and trap, expanding the boundaries of the frontier ever westward as they traveled.
And the first goods exported back to England and Europe were furs and wild game and fish (salted and packed into barrels).
I hope every sportsman took a moment to remember their rich heritage. We do have a lot to be thankful for in this, the greatest nation on earth. The freedoms we enjoy as a birthright are far superior to those found anywhere else on earth.
And we can thank those early hunters and trappers, and the freedoms they enjoyed in the trackless wilderness of an infant nation, for getting it all started.
Len Lisenbee of Potter is the Outdoor Columnist for The Daily Messenger, a sister publication of The Chronicle-Express. Contact him at email@example.com