Marietta’s first settlers had to provide their own food. There were no convenience stores, supermarkets, or vending machines – only what the trees, soil, and rivers could provide. Some foodstuffs could be brought in from the east but not enough to survive on. Fortunately, there was a wealth of fish and wild game in the new territory. Compared to today, it was a hunting and fishing paradise.
Colonel Joseph Barker’s journals provide fascinating details regarding fishing and hunting. Colonel Barker was a native of New Hampshire who moved to Marietta in 1789 with his wife and father-in-law Captain William Dana. Col. Barker was an accomplished carpenter, boat builder, militia member, and judge. He kept detailed journals about life in Marietta in the early days.
There were ample fish in the rivers – catfish, pike, salmon, sturgeon, buffalo, perch, and sucker. Barker reports that Judge Gilbert Devol of Waterford fished with gig poles. The rivers then were not dredged and had shallows and pools. He found deep pools of water in the river and by randomly striking downward with the gig pole could soon fill his canoe with fish.
Barker declared the pike “the king of fish in our waters.” Judge Devol caught a pike weighing 96 pounds using his gig pole. The fish dragged on the ground when hung from the shoulder high gig pole. It was cooked for the Fourth of July community dinner which featured an oration by Judge Varnum for local residents, including General Harmar and the garrison at Fort Harmar. The pike was caught by a practice which was common on area rivers. Large fish were attracted by chum (chopped up bait and fish refuse) dumped in the water. Once spotted, the fishermen chased the target fish in a canoe up and down the river, maneuvering to keep it in the shallows, until it tired. They then landed it with gig poles or a spear. This pike was pursued by Judge Devol and his son from the mouth of the Muskingum upriver past Campus Martius then back down river where it was caught.
In 1790 James Patterson, who fished for a living, caught a 96 lb catfish. He had set out a trotline in the evening, then anchored the canoe and slept. The fish hooked itself and managed to drag the anchored canoe into deep water near an island – where Patterson found himself upon waking.
Wild game was unbelievably plentiful in the early years – until Indians and overhunting reduced the game population. Deer, turkeys, squirrels, and buffaloes were seen in large numbers. Bears, wolves, and panther were present, though in smaller numbers away from the settlements. Large numbers of game were killed to supply food for locals and trapped for pelts which were in demand in the east.
Hamilton Kerr, who hunted to provide wild meat for the garrison at Fort Harmar, would often kill 15 deer in a single day. One hunting party in 1792-3 brought in 45 deer. Kerr was a fascinating character – an accomplished backwoodsman, hunter, trapper, and fisherman – and a fearsome Indian fighter. In one encounter during a night fishing outing, he effectively brandished his barbed fishing spear to keep attacking Indians at bay. Kerr had no formal education but acquired formidable physical skills. He was considered by his peers to possess superior intellect and reasoning ability and was often a natural leader in emergency situations. He earned considerable income from hunting and trapping. In a single hunting season alone, he earned enough to by a share in the Ohio Company.
Joseph Buell, a soldier stationed at Fort Harmar, reported a buffalo kill in his journal. On March 27, 1787, he reported that hunters brought in a buffalo that was “eighteen hands high (about 6 feet) and weighed one thousand pounds.”
Some of the wildlife was too plentiful and became pests which threatened crops and livestock. A prevalence of beech trees attracted turkeys in such large numbers that they damaged corn, wheat, and oats. To protect their crops, locals killed so many turkeys that their market value as a food source became worthless. One man killed 40 in a day.
Barker was surprised at the multitude of squirrels and their ferocity in attacking crops. He reports that squirrels swarmed “by the millions…like the locust of Africa” and attacked crops of corn and hemp. Often the crops had to be harvested early to protect them from the squirrels.
Yet in an ironic twist, Samuel Hildreth reports in “Pioneer History” that the wild game “pests” helped break a food shortage experienced by settlers. Despite the abundance of fish and game, food became scarce in the spring of 1790. The weather and delays in planting meant meager harvests from crops that year. Indians chased off or killed much of the wild game in the area. The settlers had few other sources of food. There were plenty of fish but few knew how to fish.
That summer one family in Belpre had been without meat for several days. The man in the family, not a hunter and using a weapon normally used in New England for bird hunting, went into the woods not expecting success. He happened upon a fawn which he killed. At that moment he was struck with a overwhelming sense gratitude for God’s providing food for his family. That fall, an excellent crop harvest brought back deer and turkey in such numbers that this family was gratefully reminded of God’s provision of quail to the Israelites. Thereafter the supply of food for area residents was not a problem. Wild game and fish in great abundance continued to supplement crops and livestock raised by the settlers.