Throwback Thursday: Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818

posted on March 9, 2017

Ohio, the Buckeye State, was admitted to the Union in 1803, but even 15 years later it remained a very wild place. Too wild in the opinions of some settlers, and they determined to do something about the situation.

In Hinckley Township, in the northeast corner of the state, large predators—mainly black bears and timber wolves—were killing livestock almost nightly. Writing in 1890 in The American Field, one of the early outdoor magazines, a Captain Milton B. Pierce said that the settlers were “seriously embarrassed” by the many wolves ravaging their sheep. In one incident alone wolves slaughtered a total of 100 sheep over several wilderness farms. In addition, bears would often raid hog pens.

To put an end to the depredation once and for all, the pioneers came up with the idea of conducting a grand hunt, one that would encompass the entire township. Committees were soon formed and plans made, the word spread for 20 miles around. Manpower would not be a problem, as the War of 1812 had ended just three years earlier and there were plenty of experienced outdoorsmen who knew how to organize and command large groups in the field.   

At dawn on the day before Christmas, 1818, some 600 men and boys surrounded Hinckley Township. Most of the men carried a firearm, probably a musket, with a hatchet, knife or steel tomahawk in their belt. The boys were armed with either bayonets or large butcher knives mounted on long poles; or they carried axes.

Once everyone was in position, the signal was finally shouted down the line to begin moving forward slowly, toward the center of the circle miles away. Upon reaching a line of previously blazed trees a half-mile from the center of the township, a general halt was called. Dogs were then released into the closing circle, driving the game animals and predators within range of the shooters. 

White-tailed deer began bounding from cover in high arching leaps, tails erect; wolves ran in confused circles, searching for an escape route; bears lumbered toward the hunters in such numbers as they had never seen before; and above the melee flew flocks of wild turkeys, trying to make their escape over the line of firing hunters. 

Once the gunners had killed what they could from that distance, the line of men and boys was again ordered forward. The animals that remained had taken refuge in a ravine, a frozen stream with high banks. The hunters, nearly shoulder to shoulder now, closed ranks and marched up to the edge of the ravine, killing everything that remained. 

Taken in the hunt were more than 300 deer, 21 bears, 17 wolves and untold numbers of turkeys, foxes and raccoons. The game animals—deer and turkeys—were divided equally, many no doubt consumed the next day as Christmas dinners. The predators were skinned for their pelts. By nightfall a large black bear had been barbecued for the hunters who had not yet returned home, and an ample supply of “honest” whiskey is said to have contributed to the all-night festivities.    

Known as a “circle hunt,” the Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818 was the largest of its kind ever held in Ohio. From a 21st Century viewpoint, the settlers might be criticized for their actions by some, but this was not sport hunting as we know it today. The settlers had a problem that was affecting their livelihood and consequently their families; and they took care of it, frontier style.

The small town of Hinckley, Ohio, is today famous for one thing: buzzards, also called turkey vultures. Officials of the town used to claim that the vultures returned to Hinckley and the surrounding area from their migration trip south each winter on precisely March 15. It’s a myth, of course. During some years of mild weather the birds return weeks earlier. But hey, it’s an excuse for a party, and the town makes a little money for student scholarships from tourists arriving to see the birds.        

Hinckley’s Buzzard Day celebration this spring is set for Sunday, March 19, and there is a tie-in to the Great Hinckley Hunt. Legend has it that vultures were first attracted to the area by the carcasses left behind from the 1818 hunt. That, too, is myth.  urkey vultures return to Hinckley each year—then and now—to take advantage of the high rock ledges in the area on which they nest.


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