19th-Century Deer in the Headlights

January 18, 2015

By Leo

Deer Hunting by Torchlight in Bark Canoes 1846-1848 by George Catlin (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Chequamegon History doesn’t usually deal with current events, preferring to stay in the 18th and 19th centuries, but I heard a radio program last week that prompted me to dig out some old sources related to a timely topic:  off-reservation deer hunting at night by the Lake Superior Chippewa bands.

The State of Wisconsin’s January 7th, 2015 decision to appeal a lower-court decision in favor of Chippewa off-reservation night hunting prompted an edition of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time on the topic that aired later that afternoon.  The Ojibwe case in favor of night hunting is briefly, but thoughtfully, presented by the hosts, by Brandon Thoms for the Lac du Flambeau Band and by Richard Monette, Director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center at UW-Madison.

Though Monette and Thoms touched briefly on the historical and ethical role in Ojibwe communities, the program wasn’t long enough for them to go into much depth.  Since night hunting is something that brings controversy, and with it misinformation, I am hoping these historical documents can help promote three points of understanding among those of us who live in the ceded territory of the 21st century.

1.  Ojibwe hunters used bright light as a means to harvest deer at night long before the creation of the current reservations.

2.  Hunting at night was historically an efficient and effective means of obtaining food.

3.  Controversy over the ethics of “shining” stems more from differences in historical and cultural hunting values than on real environmental values and sustainable practices.  


“Modern” Technology

In Northern Wisconsin, the idea of night-hunting deer is often associated with the term “shining.” Often used pejoratively, the word tends to conjure up the image of hunters shooting deer out the windows of mud-covered trucks equipped with high-powered electrical spotlights.  

Since deer tend to freeze in place when bright light is shone in their eyes, this makes it possible to get close enough to make an accurate shot in darkness.  I’ve heard the argument that “shining” relies on modern technology and therefore isn’t fair to the deer.

However, this argument isn’t true.  North American hunters used bright light as a means to harvest deer long before the invention of electric spotlights.  An 1804 journal entry from the British-Canadian fur-trader George Nelson explains how it worked.  Nelson, a teenager trading on the Chippewa River under Simon Charette for the XY Company, participated in such a hunt with his Ojibwe companions just south of Clam Lake.  This entry appears on page 158-160 of the 2002 Minnesota Historical Press Edition of the Nelson journals, edited by Laura Lynn Peers and Theresa Schenck:

Monday 29th [May 1804] Sorel & I go to get our small canoe that we left above in this small river not being able to bring it down with our fish upon our backs the river being too rapidous.  As soon as we arrived at our camp we set off & encamped at a small portage not very distant.  We had no sooner carried our things across the Portage, then I embarked with the indian to hunt deer to night with a Candle[*].  We ascended the river about 2 leagues further than our encampment where we seen a large Buck which we frightened away by sneezing – :  However at dusk we light our candle & about an hour after hearing something puddling in the water we let ourselves drift ’till within 8 or ten yards when we found it to be several deer, the indian wounded one & the others immediately run off – we debarked & seen much blood having our candle, dispairing however of finding it we reembarked – but misfortunately we upset our canoe just getting in, consequently our candle not being well secured fell over board & a terrible shower of rain falling just at this momment obliged us to shelter ourselves under a large pine (Epinette) ’till next morning when after some search we found the deer dead – We returned to our people [–& then continued our course up this same river]

At the end of this journal, Nelson added the following (in footnote on same pages of the published edition):

*(To Page 29 – May 29th) The indians from about the 15th of May ’till about the 20th of August kill a great number of deer every night by this means, the skins of which they gather & sell or trade them in the fall with the traders – The means they employ are these, they raise about 4 foot long of pine, elm, or any other strong bark which they double in such a manner as to make the lower part serve as a shelf & upon this the Candle rests, while the rest or upper part off the bark serves as a kind of screen behind which they set unperceived; for the candle that is upon the lower part of the shelf does not leave any part of the canoe visable for it is fastened to the bow of the canoe between the first bar & the curve – it is tied fast & high enough to put the Gun under below.  When there is any deer (for they never fail coming every night to the borders of the small lakes & rivers where they eat weeds & remain in the water on account of the muskatas that are no less numerous than troublesome) it is easily known; for indians in General have as sharp an ear as their sight; & can tell where to direct when he hears the least puddling in the water.  The deer whenever they see a light of this kind never stir but keep looking upon it ’till sometimes they are not more than three yards distant when the indian shoots them with shot, but if the least noise be made, by striking upon the canoe or its bars, sneezing, caughing, or even by touching your paddle upon a stone or stick in the bottom of the river they scamper off immediately…

And in a later consolidation of his journals, he added this to the account:

…At another place, a young indian & I went out to hunt deer.  We made a Candle by chewing tallow, of which we had plenty & wrapped over a piece of cotton shirt as a wick, & placed it conveniently in the bow of the Canoe, where a screen had been erected with a piece of Spruce bark so large as to completely cover the indian, yet so as he could see what was going on before.  We saw Several Deer.  At dark, we drifted down -frightened off one party of deer.  We soon found another, who attracted by the Candles, kept staring upon it alone: we drifted slowly only the lad shot one, & off the others ran…

Similar accounts can be found in other sources, and it seems this method of hunting was widespread and the most common way to hunt deer in spring and summer.  The practice almost certainly predates the arrival of whites in the Lake Superior country, and hopefully these journals can put to bed the idea that night-hunting only became possible with the advent of electricity.

The Sport in Shining

Sir Edward Robert Sullivan, 5th Baronet, as depicted by Carlo Pelligrini for Vanity Fair in 1885 (National Portrait Gallery; London)

Some criticism of night hunting comes from the idea that it is too easy, and therefore, not sporting or fair to the deer.  An 1850 account from the St. Croix River near present-day Gordon shows some of this sentiment. Sir Edward Robert Sullivan Bart., an English noble came here during a trip throughout the Americas described in the 1852 work, Rambles and Scrambles in North and South America.  Although it comes two years before Carl Scherzer’s account of La Pointe  (translated into English for the time first here on Chequamegon History) the Brule and the St. Croix, Rambles and Scrambles is not nearly as interesting as the German work.  Sullivan took the same route to Stillwater, and even engaged the same La Pointe voyageur (Souverain Denis) as a guide, but the work is generally disappointing.  Rather than Scherzer’s curiosity and deep ethnographic detail, Sullivan’s text is largely filled with the haughty superiority one might expect from the most stereotypical Victorian gentleman colonialist.    

pg. 76

pg. 77

This account of Ojibwe hunting contrasts humorously with Sullivan’s earlier account from the lakeshore (probably near Sand Bay) of his own attempt at hunting the Northwoods:

pg. 67

pg. 68

The image of the pompous British gentleman hunter walking in panicked circles, is made all the more hilarious by the fact that one of his companions would do the exact same thing the next evening at Iron River.  One imagines the thoughts going through the minds of the Ojibwe-French mix-blood guides as they had to rescue two mighty Zhaaganash sportsmen out of the woods in two days.

And that brings me to my point.  As hard as it may be to admit, much of the prevailing American conservation ethic comes from this British notion of hunting for sport.  This comes from a time in Europe when hunting was forbidden to the common people.  A peasant might be arrested for poaching a deer to feed his family, while the gamekeepers kept the forests preserved so men like Sullivan could bring home trophies.  In such a viewpoint, something like shining might be condemned for being too easy, effective, and unromantic.

On the other hand, the Ojibwe husband and wife on the St. Croix were not looking for a splendid evening of recreation.  They needed venison to feed the village.  It didn’t matter if it was summer and the buck’s antlers weren’t as impressive as they might get in November.  Hunting was necessary work for survival, and it was done using the most efficient and effective means possible.  In describing the Ojibwe idea of the afterlife five years later in 1855, the German ethnographer Johann Kohl writes:

…But, even if we wished to represent the buffalo-covered prairies as a paradise for the hunter, it is still questionable to me whether hunting forms a material feature of the Indian paradise.  To us Europeans hunting is more or less an amusement, but to the Indian it is a toil, and frequently a most fatiguing mode of life.  In many Indian dialects the words “hunter” and “hunting” are synonymous with “work” and “working.”  A good hunter is a clever and industrious workman.  As, then, the idea entertained by most nations of paradise is, that it will be without toil or labour, it is to me more than doubtful whether they regard the chase as an element of their paradisiac existence.  Among the Ojibbeways I never heard that they held such a view.  I once asked a man of their tribe, who was describing paradise to me, and did not at all allude to hunting, “And then you will go every day to hunt and kill a countless number of animals?”  “Oh no!” he replied, dryly, “there is no hunting or labour in paradise (212-13).”

I would argue that most deer hunters in Northern Wisconsin today, both Native and non-Native, derive food, pleasure, and a sense of tradition from hunting.  However, the relative importance of each can vary greatly from hunter to hunter in both communities.  

I know many white hunters who hunt mainly to fill the freezer rather rather than for sport, and with it, there is a certain conservation ethic that has descended from those peasant poachers.  In this viewpoint, you respect and value the lives of animals because they gave their lives to keep you alive, not because you came up with some convoluted “sporting” method of harvesting them.  The ethics that would have you break the law to keep and eat a dying undersized fish aren’t the same ethics of the Teddy Roosevelts and Ernest Hemingways of the world, but they are conservation ethics nonetheless.  

In my mind, these two viewpoints on the role and purpose of hunting are central to the debate over “shining,” and I think examination of history might find Ojibwe and non-Ojibwe residents of the ceded territory having more in common with each other than they do with Scott Walker and his Deer Czar.        

Environmental Impact of Night Hunting

While on the subject of conservation, it is worth looking at whether or not night hunting is bad for the environment.  Let’s put aside for a minute the fact that the off-reservation night harvest would be minuscule compared to the regular Wisconsin deer hunt or the amount of deer who die at night after being inadvertently “shined” on the highways.  And let’s forget for a minute how “divide and conquer” politicians in the eighties used the environment as red herring to turn whites and Indians against each other over the issue of spearfishing or how the walleye populations in the ceded territory are kept up in large part by tribal conservation efforts.  Finally, let’s stop puzzling over how Native people managed to survive on this continent for tens of thousands of years before whites came to teach them how to manage resources.  Yes, let’s forget about those things and go back to the historical record.

If Nelson’s journals show that hunting out of a canoe by torchlight was well established at the outset of the 1800s, and Sullivan’s Rambles and Scrambles, show it being used at mid-century, we can close out the 19th century with an account from Minnesota.  

Reverend Joseph Gillfillan, was a Christian missionary to the Ojibwe people in the areas around Red, Cass, and Leech lakes.  In an 1895 letter to the Minnesota Forestry Department and a subsequent article, The Ojibways in Minnesota, presented in 1896 and published in 1901, we hear a familiar story.

Gillfillan doesn’t describe the Lake Superior Chippewa cessions, specifically, but it shows that Ojibwe hunters continued to night at hunt, by canoe, on off-reservation ceded territory: 

pg. 100

This account, well into the reservation period, is highly critical of Ojibwe hunting techniques. In it, we see parallels to the earlier elite European hunting ethic and today’s concerns over shining.   However, we must remember that the goal of Christian missionaries at that time was not only spreading Christianity but also the assimilation of Native people into white culture.  Gillfillan sees success at hunting as an impediment to the settled agricultural life he desires.  “The Great Spirit always provid[ing] for their wants,” is a direct threat to his mission.  So, rather than admit that maybe the increasing deer population was due to sustainable hunting practices, he tries to come up with outside explanations while condemning the hunt as wasteful.  

Changing the Narrative

In presenting these historical documents, I’m not necessarily trying to convince people to change their views on off-reservation night hunting.  However, I do want people to have their facts straight.  The use of bright lights at the bow of a canoe was a traditional Ojibwe technique for hunting deer long before the land was ceded, and it continues to be to this day.  

In my opinion, whether it is a wooden torch or a battery-powered flashlight shining at the deer is immaterial.   It serves the same ends.  

I don’t expect this to end the conversation on night hunting.  I didn’t bring up the safety argument, which is a key part of the State’s opposition (though the DNR has sanctioned other types of night hunting with firearms).  I will say, however, that despite its widespread use, I haven’t found any examples of the torch technique being dangerous (unless you count George Nelson capsizing his canoe).  I will post one if I come across it.  

So, as the ethics of “shining” continue to be debated, I call on those of both sides of this argument to examine where their personal conservation ethics come from.  Is hunting primarily for sport or food?  How traditional is night hunting, and how sustainable is it?  Finally, how have those in power used similar issues in the past to divide different groups of hunters and fishermen, and what motives do they have for doing so?

Think about it.



While I can’t promise this post will lead to more writing from Leo anytime soon, Chequamegon History will keep producing!  Amorin Mello has agreed to contribute a series of articles related to the original land claims, frauds, and mining operations in the Penokee Mountains.  For a fascinating preview of what’s coming, check out 0:37-1:24 of this video clip from Indian Country Television’s coverage of the recent Penokee conference at Legendary Waters in Red Cliff.  Thank you Amorin for this outstanding research, for the upcoming posts, and for giving Chequamegon History its first mention on TV!  

Gilfillan, Rev. Joseph A. The Ojibways in Minnesota, Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. 9 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1901) 72. 
Kohl, J. G. Kitchi-Gami: Life among the Lake Superior Ojibway. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1985. Print.
Minnesota. Forestry Commissioner. Forestry. Annual Report. N.p.: n.p., 1895. Print.
Nelson, George, Laura L. Peers, and Theresa M. Schenck. My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 2002. Print.
Sullivan, Edward Robert. Rambles and Scrambles in North and South America. London: R. Bentley, 1852. Print.

3 Responses to “19th-Century Deer in the Headlights”

  1. Fred Josephson said

    Thanks, Leo. Good work!

  2. Thomas Mackie said

    Very good article on hunting by torchlight. I have read Nelsons Journals. He did work with my 3rd great Grandfather Simon Choret at Lac Du Flambeau.

  3. What about safety. Night hunting puts at risk anyone who may happen to be down range. And deer/game eyes are not the only things that reflect light.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: