Noted Sullivan County artist Francis W. Davis'
depiction of the wild hog hunt in Rockland.
(from the Sullivan County Historical Society)
by John Conway
November 29, 2013
OF HUNTERS AND HUNTING
Hunting has long been a way of life in Sullivan County and has been chronicled in literature for nearly 200 years.
Well-known historians, writers and poets have devoted time to the sport, and to the men who have braved Sullivan County’s rugged and wild terrain to pursue it. Perhaps n one of these treatments is as poignant as that penned by Monticello's Alfred B. Street in the early 19th century:
An antlered dweller of the wild
Had met his eager gaze,
And far his wandering steps beguiled
Within an unknown maze;
Stream, rock, and runway he had crossed,
Unheeding, 'til the signs were lost
That guided once his roam;
And now, deep swamp and wild ravine,
And rugged mountain were between
The Hunter and his home.
Street's tragic tale "The Lost Hunter" provides a haunting look at big-game hunting and the danger it presented, at least back then. It is a danger to which James Eldridge Quinlan alludes in his "History of Sullivan County":
"No sport is enjoyed more by men in robust health than hunting and trapping. It is full of excitement and adventure, and at certain seasons is not free from peril. No person in Sullivan has been fatally injured by wild beasts, but several have perished while in pursuit of them."
Quinlan, of course, relates dozens of tales of early Sullivan settlers pursuing various species of game, including cougars and bears. Perhaps the most unusual hunting expedition ever conducted in Sullivan County involved John and Samuel Darbee and Peter Stewart of the Town of Rockland.
By way of prelude, Quinlan tells us that 1820 was "the great beech-nut year" in Rockland, and that "an enterprising individual, hearing that a hog, if driven into the forests of that town, would increase five dollars in value in one hundred days" bought hundreds of swine and drove them into the woods of Rockland, where they "throve and fattened amazingly."
Unfortunately, a frigid night caused the hogs to collect together and "pile upon one another in such a way that nearly all were smothered and killed."
Still, a few of the hogs ran wild, setting up the hunt by the Darbees and Stewart a few years later.
The hunters discovered the tracks of the beasts in the snow, and tracked them with dogs for three days. The dogs finally brought the hog to bay, and when the hunters came within sight of the quarry, they perceived "the dogs and the hog chasing each other alternately. The game was very ferocious, and soon tore open the body of one of its assailants. Darbee attempted to assist the remaining dogs when the hog rushed at him in such a fearful manner that he took refuge in a tree. Almost immediately afterwards, the dogs caught the hog by each of its ears, and held fast. This enabled Darbee to give it a fatal wound with his hunting knife. This is probably the only wild-hog hunt ever enjoyed in our county."
Perhaps in Quinlan’s time, but the writer Stephen Crane wrote in 1891 that several local men — including his brother, Judge William Howe Crane — hunted wild hogs that had escaped from a private park owned by wealthy New York banker Otto Plock in the Neversink Valley near Hartwood.
These hogs, Crane wrote, had been imported from Europe and were "the most wily and cunning of animals. They are very fleet of foot and make great speed through exceedingly rough country. The Sullivan County hunters say that when one of these animals 'strikes a line' for a certain point they will not stop for obstructions that would make a bear turn out."
In another of the newspaper articles he wrote that year, titled "The Way In Sullivan County," Crane wrote that "a county famous for its hunting and its hunters is naturally prolific of liars. Wherever the wild deer boundeth and the shaggy bear waddleth, there does the liar thrive and multiply."
Crane writes that "in a shooting country, no man should tell just exactly what he did. He should tell what he would have liked to do or what he expected to do, just as if he had accomplished it." The hunting yarn, Crane maintains, is an inevitable evolution of the sport that creates "great liars."
Crane took great relish in recounting in his "The Last Panther" Quinlan's stories of the hunting escapades of Nelson Crocker, who once came upon seven panthers (cougars) at the same time; of Cyrus Dodge, who shot four panthers at one time after being chased by them into Long Pond; and of Calvin Bush, "the prince of panther-killers."
No Sullivan County hunter was ever quite as successful, or as colorful, as Johnny Caesar Cicero Darling. The legendary Darling lived in the hills of Shandalee, and according to his biographer, M. Jagendorf, once brought home a deer caught with his bare hands.
The deer had been trapped in the deep, early snows of Shandalee, and Darling had come upon it on a rare occasion he was without his trusty rifle, Nevermiss. Not to lose out on the catch, "he leaped over the stone fence into the snow and lifted the deer by his antlers, though the deer was a full five hundred pounds. For you must know, though Johnny was a little man, he was mighty as Samson in the Bible and quicker than a panther in the woods. He swung the animal round and round and round his head and then brought it down with a mighty crash, and it was ready for skinning."
Those familiar with Johnny Darling's exploits will recall that he once put Nevermiss across his knee and bent the barrel into "a fine curveturn, kind of a half-loop like. The kind I used for rafting colts down the river, only not so much curved," so he could shoot a fox that was running around him in a circle near Purvis.
In the conclusion to his book, Jagendorf writes that he has related these stories of Johnny Darling exactly as they were told to him. The result is just one more vivid illustration of what Crane called "the way in Sullivan County."
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and an adjunct professor of history at SUNY -Sullivan. Visit his website, sullivanretrospect.com and e-mail him at email@example.com