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|Natchez settler's account of when big cats attacked|
In 1787, 13-year-old John Hutchins of Natchez country was attacked by a panther and later defended a young woman being attacked by a wildcat on the banks of Coles Creek.
On the wild frontier of Natchez, panthers (or cougars), wild cats and bears were common but attacks, even then, were rare. Wildlife was so plentiful that during one winter hunting season one small group of hunters, including Hutchins, killed 107 bear and so many deer and wild turkey that they didn't keep count.
William Dunbar, whose Forest Plantation was located six miles south of Natchez, said a panther was once spotted in southern Wilkinson County that was three feet in height and measured about eight feet "from the tip of the nose to the extremity of the tail." A panther, he said, was deep chested, shorted legged and had a paw "equal in breadth to the palm of a man's hand," along with a "monstrous head and fangs...formed like those of a cat."
Settlers knew that a panther or bear were "great destroyers of calves, colts, sheep, hogs..." and could carry them off "with great ease." Dunbar, who settled in Natchez country in 1792, almost two decades after the Hutchins', also warned that a panther in defense of either its prey or young, or "when famished with hunger" would without hesitation attack a man.
John Hutchins was born in the wilderness of Natchez in 1774 -- two years before the American Revolution -- just a few months after his pioneering father Anthony Hutchins brought his family from South Carolina to settle a British land grant. John's father selected a home site along Second Creek three miles from Ellis' Cliffs on the Mississippi, about 12 miles below Natchez, on a site known as White Apple Village, formerly occupied by the Natchez Indians.
After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the British took possession of Natchez country from the French, who waged a devastating war against the Natchez Indians decades earlier in which only a few of the Natchez survived. Jim Barnett, author of a book on the tribe, said the Paris treaty made it "safe for the first time in over thirty years for Natchez Indians to reveal their identity in their old homeland."
When an old man, John Hutchins wrote about his pioneering experiences as a gift for his grandchildren, a gift that we benefit from today. Historian John Q. Anderson later edited Hutchins' narrative.
Hutchins wrote: "Natchez was a wilderness, a canebrake, a hunting ground of the Indians and the white man, where the buffalo, the bear, the panther and the wolf had their hiding places, indeed the whole country was a thicket of timber and cane in tangled masses, there was not a footprint of a man on land, not a survey made of a single tract of land, not an ear of corn with the exception of an acre here and there planted by the hands of savages for present use...Our houses were very rude and rough, built and covered without nail or hammer...Very few farm utensils were brought by the emigrants. In consequence we opened the land slowly and were many years without bread, living on the wild roots and on the wild animals of the forest, which were in vast numbers..."
Every boy of seven or eight, said Hutchins, "was raised with a gun in his hand, which he commenced using before he was strong enough to hold it in position." The young hunter "carried in one hand a stick, one end of which had a sharp point to stick in the ground, a fork at the other to rest the gun on."
The stick not only helped ease the weight of John Hutchins' Kentucky rifle, which weighed about 11 pounds, it also helped him steady his aim. Resting the weapon on moss atop a log or the side of a tree was a method commonly used. A true frontiersman was a marksman and John could claim that title.
The Hutchins' had two small tobacco plantations, about a mile apart, and young John managed both by the time he was 13. The family's nearest neighbors were four miles away.
One evening, John and his father, who were on the eastern farm, went to bed shortly after supper. Before he fell asleep, John remembered that he had failed to tell the hands at the other farm their duties for the next day.
'HOW TERRIBLE WAS ITS EYES'
"I quietly got up," he said, "put on my moccasins and clothes, but having left my gun and dogs with the men at the other place, I hesitated going unarmed and without protection or means of defense thru the wilderness of tall cane with only a narrow road filled with stumps and cane stubble...and the night as dark as pitch." The cane was so tall and heavy on both sides of the road that the tops leaned into one another forming a canopy so tight that not even a star shimmered through.
He stepped in the cabin where the cook was staying and "took from the embers an oaken chunk" so that he would have "a brand of fire" to provide him light and hopefully drive "off wild animals."
John walked out of the cabin, crossed a fence and 100 steps later heard "a shrill scream behind me." He turned around "and shook the fire brand. It threw off many sparks which discovered to me the glaring eyes of a panther in a crouching position."
He "shook the fire" again, then slowly moved sideways, watching the panther while trying not to trip over stubble or stumps knowing "if I fell that the animal would be immediately upon me."
Cautiously, he moved away but had "not gone far...before it gave several hideous screams and came bounding at me as though it would tear me to pieces. I shouted aloud and shook my fire with violence, when again it assumed its couchant position. It was so near me that I could see every part of it. Oh! how terrible was its eyes and gnashing teeth and the movement of its tail, giving indication of its spring on me.
"I sweated like a horse. Every hair on my head appeared to rise, but still I shook the fire and again began to move slowly, when of a sudden it bounded thru the cane and placed itself in front of me. I was now almost filled with despair. If I turned back there was my aged father and an old African woman without weapons. I at once determined to make an effort to reach my gun and dogs, and with this forced resolution I made a rush at the panther. It sprang from the road. I passed it on, it did not stop there.
"It followed me up and at twenty or thirty steps would spring at me as it did at first. At length when we came to within one hundred yards of the Negro cabins, it then appeared to venture on a nearer approach, when I threw the fire brand in its face."
Then John ran "with my best speed" to a cabin where he burst open the door and slammed it shut behind him. Almost immediately he felt "the stroke of its paws against the door, against which I placed my back holding it fast and at the same time calling to all in the house to secure the doors telling them that a large panther was in the yard."
But the house was empty -- the men were out hunting raccoons and possums. A short time later John heard the dogs and the men returning from the hunt. John and the men followed the dogs in pursuit of the panther, which John said was found "near the spot where I threw the fire in its face...in a thicket of cane and brushwood among which was a large hollow popular tree that had fallen. It was about five feet in diameter and was hollow. In this hollow my panther had crept, the tree was open at one end only."
Believing the panther had young in the log, and that she would fight to the death, the men stuffed the open end with "rails and poles" and wedged them tight with axes.
"We lit up several torches of dry cane and with an ax we cut small holes in the top of the log, through which we introduced lighted torches. As soon as the light were introduced she would spring at them and extinguish them. You could hear her crunching the cane as a dog would a tender bone."
Soon the men set the log afire and a short time later could hear the screams of the panther as she attempted to free herself and her young from the log. A short while later, the screaming stopped. The next day the men found the skeletons of the panther and one of her young in the ashes of the log.
BIG CAT 'TASTED HER PURE BLOOD'
In May 1789, when John was almost 15, he witnessed yet another attack, this one by a feline identified as a "wild cat" by historian Anderson. This attack was on the north fork of Coles Creek where John had "cleared timber from several acres of land" and built cabins for his labor and himself.
About that time, he invited "a few select young ladies" to a fish fry at a spot a quarter mile from the house he had built for himself. After some light refreshments, the group walked "to the fishing grounds" along a path that went through "a beautiful shady grove of ash and elms. The company consisted of several young ladies, four lads from 12 to 14 years old. I was the only male adult in the company, excepting one stranger, a person uninvited."
The lines were hooked and baited for the ladies who took "their positions along a smooth beach ten or fifteen feet apart part." All were cheerful and enjoying a conversation when one lady caught "a large sunfish."
At that very moment, said John, an animal he identified as a "large tiger cat" sprung "on her shoulder and commenced to the work of destruction. He had tasted her pure blood and to beat him off was no easy matter. I ran to the rescue with no better weapon than a piece of drift wood which I picked up. I drove him from the prey."
Quickly, John led the group toward his cabin when the cat sprung again, this time landing on a lady he identified as Miss P and began "tearing" into her shoulder.
"I beat him off again," said John, placed himself between the panther and Miss P and picked up "a sounder stick (and) was able by frequent blows to keep him off." He also pointed out that during the whole time not once did the "uninvited" male adult "stranger" lift a finger to help.
The animal "would jump over me to get at her, his eyes were like balls of fire and his large sharp teeth would chatter and strike against each other, like the panther when about to jump on her prey."
Finally, the party got inside the cabin and heard the cat creeping under the floor. John grabbed his hatchet, "prized two planks apart far enough to allow him to get his head thru, when with one blow I sank it into his brain."
Miss P., he said, was "badly lacerated about her neck and face" and disfigured for life, the only one in the party to be injured.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|