Plains Folk

Roosevelt Wolf Hunt

I’m trying to imagine some other twentieth-century president doing this, but I cannot. Theodore Roosevelt was one of a kind. In April of 1905, the same year he won election to the presidency in his own right, TR took a few days off to chase coyotes in present-day southwestern Oklahoma.

At that time it was the Indian Territory, the southwestern corner of which was known as the Big Pasture, Indian land leased by white cattlemen. After attending a Roughrider reunion in San Antonio, Roosevelt brought several of his old soldier friends with him to Frederick, Indian Territory, where he also picked up Comanche chief Quanah Parker before heading out on the chase.

The coyote hunt was hosted by rancher Burk Burnett, whose 6666 spread lay just across the Red River, and for whom the town of Burkburnett is named. His chuck wagon fed the hunting outfit. He also drove a buggy that conveyed retired Lieutenant General S.M.B. Young, who evidently was not up to riding. The other hunters, including Roughrider veterans, ranchers, cowhands, and the professional hunters who furnished the dogs, rode cow ponies.

Roosevelt wrote up the expedition in his manly, breezy style for Scribner’sMagazine. The country he describes was pretty desolate–one prairie dog town after another, heavily populated with rattlesnakes. I suspect the cattlemen had grazed the dickens out of this leased land.

The mode of hunting operations was to ride out of a morning trailed by packs of greyhounds, jogging leisurely until a coyote was spotted. Then the hounds stretched out, the riders spurred, and the chase was on. Whether the hounds might catch the coyote depended on three things: how far ahead the coyote was at the jump, how tired the dogs were, and whether there was broken country nearby into which the coyote might escape.

Roosevelt notes that it would have been better to haul the hounds around in a cart and release them only when a chase was in the offing, so they would have been rested. As it was, they took out different dog packs morning and evening.

In the automotive age, recreational coyote hunters would transport their dogs in rattletrap vehicles known as coyote wagons. I have talked to old hunters in North Dakota, though, who in fact did what TR suggested in 1905–put their dogs into cages on horse-drawn carts, then released them only after a coyote was spotted.

The star of the 1905 coyote hunt (called a “wolf hunt” in the magazine title) was the master hunter John Abernathy, whom TR later would appoint a federal marshal. When the hounds closed on a coyote, Abernathy would leap from his horse, retaining the reins in one hand while he drove his other (gloved) hand down the throat of the still-feisty coyote, gripping its lower jaw behind the canines so that it could not bite. Then he would carry the beast off alive, why I don’t know.

Roosevelt closes his tale for Scribner’s with recollections of wolves on the cattle ranges of the Little Missouri and Cannonball river valleys, where he ranched during the 1880s and returned for visits in the 1890s. He notes how wolves were pretty much eradicated at the same time as the buffalo, hunters killing them with cyanide for their fur. Wolves came back with a vengeance, on livestock, in the 1890s, only to be knocked down again by traps, poison, and the chase.

Friends in the same parts of the country, mostly sheep ranchers, tell me the wolves arereturning once again

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