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|Panther attacks & hunters on the Ouachita|
In the wilderness of the American frontier, a man seized any opportunity for a free meal.
That opportunity presented itself to the Ouachita River Expedition in present day Catahoula Parish on Sunday, October 28, 1804.
Writing in his journal, Dr. George Hunter reported that the expedition's crew "found on the bank a young Fawn just killed by a Panther, the throat being tore very much...we took it on board & made a hearty meal of it..." around the camp fire that night.
The find came a few miles north of Harrisonburg where the Beouf River enters the Ouachita, which is sandwiched between the Sicily Island hills on the east bank, the Chalk Hills on the west.
A Philadelphia chemist and land speculator, Hunter and William Dunbar of Natchez, a scientist, planter and surveyor, were leading a crew of a dozen and a half men to explore and map the Ouachita River from its mouth at present day Jonesville to the hot springs in Arkansas.
This was one of four expeditions chosen to explore the Louisiana Territory, which became a U.S. possession in 1803. Dunbar and Hunter's journals of the Ouachita journey provide descriptions of landmarks along the river, some of which survive.
The expedition had just spent three days grounded on the Catahoula Shoals before getting past the rapids the day before. On day 13 of their journey, the day they discovered the freshly-killed fawn, the morning had dawned foggy and cold -- about 40 degrees with a northwest wind and clear sky.
"High lands and a large Savannah seen on the right in the morning and passed a rocky hill soon after and 'Bayou aux boeufs' (Beouf River) on the right about 4 leagues (12 miles) from rapids," Dunbar wrote in his journal.
A sounding revealed that the river was about nine feet deep during a period of low water.
Hunter's story about the panther killing the fawn had more significance than Hunter realized. Apparently the panther population in the hills was growing and for reasons unclear, they began to attack humans.
Three years later, in 1807, along Bird's Creek at Harrisonburg, the Rev. Jacob Young, a Methodist circuit rider, stayed a few days in the home of Rezin Bowie. At the time, Rezin's soon-to-be famous son, frontiersmen Jim Bowie, who would die in 1836 at the Alamo, was just 11 years old.
Young wrote about his circuit riding experiences in a book. When departing the Bowie's home, he crossed the Ouachita and traversed the Sicily Island hills, which were famous in the 19th century for its large and menacing panther population.
"I was now in the land of the tigers, as they called them," Young wrote, "but I called them panthers; and the region was infested with wolves."
In 1852, in an article in the Southern periodical DeBow's Review, Concordia resident Dr. A.R. Kilpatrick, a planter on Black River, wrote that panthers "were at one time quite numerous, but of late years have been thinned and chased off. Even a few years ago, as many as eight were killed in one season on the island (Sicily Island)."
In fact, Kilpatrick reported four examples of panther attacks that occurred during the early 1800s:
• While moving from Red River to Sicily Island, pioneer John Lovelace was attacked by a panther while in camp. His slave, Jupiter, shot and killed the animal, saving Lovelace's life. (Lovelace was also lucky to survive a blow to the head from a club swung by a female slave who was attempting to kill the panther, which ducked just in time.)
• A panther killed a horse in the woods in the Sicily Island hills.
• A traveler camping there in 1838 heard his horses making a commotion, looked up and saw the predator on top of one of the animals. The man shot and killed the panther.
• After hearing screams, a group of Indians came upon the grizzly site of a panther eating the carcass of its fresh kill, which happened to be one of their comrades.
Wolves in the 1850s, however, "are very numerous all through the pine hills," Kilpatrick wrote, "but there are more in the wild ravines of the island than anywhere else, and sometimes are very troublesome and destructive to young lambs and pigs. Even this fall, they are very numerous, and citizens have to set poison for them. They are of as many different colors as the domesticated dog."
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