By Philip R. Devlin
(September 7, 2023) — Recent reports of cougars in Connecticut and numerous black bear sightings made me wonder what kind of animal threats faced the early settlers of the Nutmeg State.
Historian W. Storrs Lee addressed that topic in chapter one of his 1957 book entitled The Yankees of Connecticut. The top two dangers during colonial times seemed to have been wolves and rattlesnakes. Despite bounties being placed upon the rattler, the snake was so common then “that it often crept through cracks of loosely framed houses and was encountered in kitchens, bedrooms, and cellars.” They seemed to be such a problem in Norwich that allegedly a Pied Piper with a violin “decoyed them to Waweekus Hill.”
As a result of their perceived prevalence, the land in that area had “little value” for many years. Frances Caulkins, in her history of Norwich, says that between 1720 and 1735 in Norwich bounties were paid for more than 1,100 snake carcasses. Evidence of the once-omnipresent rattler in Connecticut can be found in place names throughout the state: Rattlesnake Mountain (aka Kongscut Mountain) in East Glastonbury, Rattlesnake Brook in Windsor Locks, and Rattlesnake Ledges in Chester. Meshomasic Forest (in parts of East Hampton, Portland, Glastonbury, Marlborough, and Hebron) gets its name from an Indian word that translates as “land of many snakes.” Acquired in 1903 for $105, it is the oldest state forest in New England and the second oldest state forest in the country. It remains the primary home of the majority of the remaining Timber rattlesnakes (crotalus horridus) in Connecticut.
(Above image, a wolf den in Mashomoquet Brook State Park in Pomfret)
Wolves were such a problem in colonial Connecticut that heavy slabs called “wolf stones” had to be placed over graves in Stonington and other communities to protect them from marauding. Community wolf hunts were common. The most famous wolf hunt featured Israel Putnam – one of the state’s most famous Revolutionary War heroes.
“Ol’ Put’” claimed that one night a wolf killed 70 of his sheep and goats and maimed many more. With four other neighbors, Putnam tracked the wolf night and day until cornering it in a cave that was about 15 to 20 feet deep. They unsuccessfully tried smoking the wolf out. Then Putnam sent dogs in to make the kill. They all emerged injured. The intrepid Putnam then tied a rope around his ankles and, carrying a torch, entered the cave. He soon encountered the wolf and kicked the rope around his ankles as a signal for pulling him out:
“The people at the mouth of the den…hearing the growl of the wolf, and supposing their friend to be in the most imminent danger, drew him forth with such celerity that his shirt was stripped over his head and his skin severely lacerated. After he…loaded his gun with nine buckshot, holding a torch in one hand and the musket in the other, he descended the second time. When he drew nearer than before, the wolf, assuming a still more fierce and terrible appearance, howling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping her head between her legs, was…on the point of springing on him. At this critical instant he leveled and fired at her head.”
After being pulled out of the cave again, Putnam settled himself and re-entered a third time. The wolf was dead, and Putnam pulled it out by its ears. The town rejoiced. Some say that Putnam was even more famous for taking out this wolf than he was for his exploits in the Revolutionary War. Once abundant, wolf packs haven’t lived in Connecticut for nearly two centuries.
Since colonial settlements invariably intersected game runs for wolves, bears, and cougars, encounters between the animals and humans were inevitable. Cougars roamed throughout the colony taking down livestock and occasionally having encounters with humans. Even a long-populated town like Windsor had incidents involving cougars. In 1767, for example, William Phelps earned a bounty of five pounds for taking down a big cat half-a-mile from his house, after it had killed nine of his sheep.
According to Lee, bears were more common, “particularly along the seacoast.” Nathan Bradley, “the ranking huntsman of Madison,” shot hundreds of deer and “bears by the score.” In the vicinity of New Haven, “bears were still exerting their claim of winter passage to fishing areas on the seacoast” as late as 1766.
One clever marauder paused enroute at Bethany long enough to wrench six tenpenny nails out of the hinges on a door guarding a young calf. The bear got the calf…killed sheep, mangled a dog, and destroyed a hive of bees.
After raiding the dairy’s drinking milk and cream, the bear was confronted by a Bethany farmer who killed it with a gunshot.
A word about the coyote: the omnipresence of the coyote in Connecticut these days is a fairly recent historical development. They get virtually no mention in older publications. Generally shy, coyotes rarely will attack an adult human being. They can run short distances at over 40 mph – faster than a racehorse! They tend to focus on rabbits, squirrels, mice, and woodchucks; however, domestic pets such as cats and small dogs can be targeted as well. Packs of coyotes can easily prey on deer as well. In 2010 coyotes attacked two children in two separate incidents in New York state. Both survived. However, a coyote attack proved fatal to a 19-year old hiker in Nova Scotia in 2009. It is best to avoid them.
Although capable of fatal attacks upon humans, wolves, cougars, timber rattlers, black bears, and coyotes rarely have killed people in Connecticut either in colonial times or in modern times. Clearly, the threat that these creatures presented to livestock and to pets was the principal reason for their being hunted so aggressively. Additionally, the fear of the potential danger that these creatures pose for human beings has contributed to their demise.
Peaceful co-existence seems to be the best way to deal with predators. Practice avoidance, keep control of pets (especially at night), keep your trash and your grills covered, don’t leave food outside, and consider not feeding the birds in warm weather, as they can fend for themselves when plants and insects are abundant.
There have been no fatal bear attacks on humans in Connecticut for more than 100 years; however, since 2000, at least three Connecticut residents have been struck and killed by lightning. Even more dangerous, however, is your automobile. In 2006 alone, 301 Connecticut residents were killed in auto crashes in the state – that’s six per week.
Finally, most Connecticut residents would not consider the moose a threat to their safety; however, the U.S. Air Force tell their personnel stationed in Alaska that there are more fatal moose attacks upon people in Alaska annually than fatalities caused by wolf or bear attacks! Furthermore, a car crash involving a moose is 60 times more likely to kill a person than a car crash with a deer! Due to its longer legs, the heavier body of a moose is much more likely to penetrate a windshield and crush a human. There were more than 160 sightings of moose in Connecticut recently – beware the non-predatory moose!
Public Domain photo from Wikipedia, provided by Philip Devlin