Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

September 1, 1918. Forest and Stream 87(9): 522-523. Includes a portrait of the author.

The Missouri Slope Fifty Years Ago

No Place in the United States Then Afforded Such Opportunities for Wildfowl Shooting as the Number of Ducks and Geese Ran Well Into Billions

By Charles H. Babbitt

  • "How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood
  • When fond recollection presents them to view."

In these opening lines of "The Old Oaken Bucket," Samuel Woodworth has expressed a sentiment entertained by almost every civilized person.

My earliest recollection carries me back to the days of infancy, in a little log cabin on the west (right) bank of the Des Moines River in what afterward became Marion County, Iowa, at about the middle of the lifetime of the territorial form of government of that now great and prosperous commonwealth.

There lived my father with his family-wife, daughter and son-three miles from the nearest white neighbors and, to all intents and purposes, among the Sac and Fox Indians. We were on most intimate terms with these noble red men from whom we received many visits. Frequently as many as a dozen of them, paddling up or down the river in their big basswood canoes, would land at our door, come in and say "How!" and partake of the corn bread, bacon and beans which, supplemented by the game meats procured by the handy rifleman of the house and vegetables from the garden, constituted our commissary.

My father (Lysander W. Babbitt) was a native of New York State; was brought up on the "Old Ridge Road" not far from where roll the waves of Lake Ontario. He learned the trade of gunsmith at Lockport and, upon completing his apprenticeship, anticipated Horace Greeley's advice-"Go West, young man"-by removing to Cleveland, Ohio, where he set up his shop. After a brief sojourn in the lakeside city he hied him onward to the little town of Flint Hills, on the west (right) bank of the Mississippi (now Burlington, Iowa), and established himself in business.

This little hamlet soon became too metropolitan for him, however, and he sought relief in the wilds. Leaving his shop and his family in the care of friends, accompanied by two adventurous companions, he went on expeditions of explorations to the headwaters of the River Des Moines-away up into the unceded Indian country where few white men had been before, and for two winters engaged in hunting and trapping with St. Louis as the market for the products. It was in this manner that he became acquainted with and learned to speak the language of the Sacs and Foxes and laid the foundation of the friendship heretofore mentioned.

When the lower Des Moines country was opened to settlement he trekked westward and built the little log cabin upon a site which he had much admired during the visits to the section. he carried his tools with him and frequently used them in jobs of ordinary blacksmithing as well as in repairing the firearms of the pioneers.

We removed from the cabin to a point selected as the site for the seat of justice for the proposed near county (presently named Knoxville), where for a time he plied his trade but soon became interested in merchandising, milling and manufacturing, though he never lost his love for the gun. He was one of the best rifle shots in the region and frequently killed ducks, wild pigeons and other feathered game in flight. The double shotgun was than an unknown weapon in that locality. The old flintlock army musket, the heavy smoothbore, and an occasional bell-mouthed yager were the guns most commonly in use.

While living in the cabin on the Des Moines River, out of touch with other people, there was little to occupy my father's leisure moments; so he amused himself by hunting and practicing target shooting with rifle. Before I was two years old he used to aim the piece for me, tell me when to pull the trigger, and compliment me on my marksmanship. My first shot at a living object was in the early part of 1845. An old jim crow, upon a dry limb not far from our cabin, was "caw, caw, cawing" himself hoarse when, taking down the rifle my father called me and said:

"Now, Boy, let's kill that fellow."

Carefully sighting the gun he told me to pull. I pulled, and the crow departed in great haste.

"Ah, we missed him," said my father.

"Yes," I said, "but we made him quit the place."

Afterward "made him quit the place" became a sort of by-phrase in our family whenever occasion arose where it might be aptly used. With such a daddy and such training it was but natural that I should become devoted to the gun and a lover of all out doors.

After a few years at Knoxville we again moved westward over the beautiful rolling prairie land, flecked with the flowers of May, to the Mormon town of Kanesville, on the Missouri River, within the recently vacated "Pottawattamie Indian Country," the name of which had a few months before been decreed to be Council Bluffs City.

There, at a little more than ten years of age, I became the proud owner of a double shotgun and was carefully instructed in regard to handling it. It was not until three years later, however, that I was allowed to go hunting unless accompanied by my father, though in the meantime I had become a fairly expert wing shot.

Western Iowa or, as we called it, the "Missouri Slope," was a great natural habitat for wild animals and birds of game and other species. In the northern part elk (wapiti) were found in herds in the winter; the common red deer was plentiful the year round; rabbits and squirrels were there in numbers beyond reasonable requirement; wild turkeys bred by thousands; prairie chickens (pinnated grouse) covered the entire open country: but the ruffed grouse was unknown. During twenty years of gunning in that region I never saw one of the latter nor heard of one being killed there, though they were common in other parts of the State. Quail were as numerous as they were toothsome, and the wood pigeon was there in great flocks. We had some black bear; many wild (bob) cats; new and then a panther (puma, cougar or mountain lion, choose your own name for him); occasionally an ordinary lynx, and wolves of several varieties (mostly coyotes) more numerous than desirably. The streams and lakes abounded with fish and afforded homes for beaver, otter, mink and muskrats, while the ring-tailed racoon was omnipresent.

I think that it may be said without fear of successful contradiction that, except in the more northerly breeding grounds or the far southern winter quarters, no place in the United States then afforded such opportunities for wild-fowl shooting as did the Missouri River valley. Even now, when we are so accustomed to talk in billions, it would be folly to attempt to say what numbers of geese (including the several families of brant); ducks of many species; swan, pelican, sand-hill cranes, and other migratory water birds passed up and down that stream in their semi-annual travels. They were absolutely innumerable. Early western gunners paid no attention to woodcock, jack-snipe, or any of the plover family, though their number was beyond computation.

The city of Council Bluffs, now extending widely over the Missouri River bottom lands, developed from a Mormon settlement made in 1846 and originally known as Miller's Hollow, later officially christened Kanesville by the "Saints," located in a small valley among rugged bluffs that rise to heights of from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet on either side of the little stream called Indian creek. At distances ranging from one mile to two and one half miles from the original settlement Mosquito Creek half encircled the site, on the east and south, flowing through a valley, varying in width from a few hundred yards to upward of a mile, on each side of which arose bluffs or hills similar to those among which the old town nestled, and passed out to the river bottom through a narrow opening about a mile from the center of the town.

The winter of 1856-57 was the most severe experienced by the pioneer settlers in that region and it has not been equalled since. Snow fell early in the season and accumulated from month to month until it reached an average level depth of from two feet to thirty inches, drifting in many prices to such heights that one might drive over the tops of farm fences without knowledge of their existence. Cold rains, sleet, and continuous freezing temperatures formed a heavy crust on the snow of such strength that, save in spots where the hazel bushes or other growth came near the surface, one might safely walk up on it without the aid of snow shoes. Throughout the entire Missouri Slope this was known among the people for many years as "the winter of the deep snow." The result, insofar as wild life was concerned, was the practical annihilation of the quail and almost total destruction of the wild turkeys and the deer. The latter, unable to escape their enemies, because of plunging through the ice crust when attempting to run, became easy victims to the coyotes and other carnivorous animals as well as of brutal men who run them down and, in many instances, slew them with knives, hatches and axes. They were so starved and emaciated as to be almost useless for food purposes; yet men killed them for the mere enjoyment of the killing; and, after extracting the least bad portions either left the carcass where they fell threw them to the hogs or fed them to their yellow dogs.

This mantle of ice and snow remained until late in the spring (a very unusual occurrence in that locality), and was suddenly removed by soft southern winds and warm rain torrential in character, resulting in therefore unheard-of high freshets in all of the streams. The Mosquito valley was submerged from hill to hill for many miles along its course and thousands of bushels of corn, which had been left standing in the valley fields in shocks, as was the custom among the early farmers, were swept down the stream, spread over the valley bottoms and deposited among the silt as the waters receded. This occurred at the very time when the northward flight of the migratory waterfowl was at its height.

The excellent feeding ground thus created was soon discovered by the birds, especially the ducks, and they swarmed to and fro, into and out of the valley, from the little lakes dotted over the Missouri River bottoms and the sand bars in the river, where their nights were spent. One continuous stream coming and going from early dawn to dewy eve, all passing through the narrow gorge where the creek debauched upon the plain, at such low elevation that there was no time-probably not one minute-during the live-long day when a gunner stationed near the creek, for half a mile or more above the gorge, had not birds within his range. The whirring of the wings was like the roar of a wind storm. So numerous were the ducks, and so closely packed in flight were they, cover for the shooter was of no consequence.

Spring shooting was not then taboo (more's the pity) and those pioneers knew no better than to kill as many birds as they could, each striving to out do the other. They had no thought, and would not have believed had suggestion to such effect been made, that the apparently inexhaustible supply of ducks could ever become extinguished. As one of the sinners I offer this poor apology, lame as it may appear to those who may be unable to comprehend the situation as I have tried to present it.

The wonderful flight, so unsatisfactorily described because of lack of vocabulary to adequately present the facts, continued for something like a week during which there were many gunners upon the ground. There were no breech-loading shotguns in that section then. A few bad double barrels; some old-fashioned English angle fowling pieces; others heavy smooth bores, or discarded Harper's Ferry flintlock musket altered to percussion fire, which latter was described in a fine article recently published as "about as shapely as a crowbar; almost as heavy, and only a little more deadly at twenty yards." Some of the best equipped and most expert among the gunners participating in the massacre herein mentioned made a daily average bag of more than a hundred birds each daring the period of the flight

One morning at about eight o'clock, when the opportunity for murder at the maximum, my father and I washed over the hills from our home, a little more than a mile from the upper end of the shooting ground, to participate in the sport (?) of which we bad received glowing accounts. We found a number of shooters already there; so, selecting the most desirable unoccupied stands, we began firing into the passing throng of innocents. By eleven o'clock our supply of ammunition was exhausted and we were compelled to retire. Our little raid resulted and we were compelled to retire. Our little raid resulted in a joint bag of nearly one hundred ducks, chiefly redheads, of which number, it is perhaps superfluous to say, father was responsible for the greater share.

Among those engaged in killing that morning were Wicks M-- and Shep McF--; the former a crack shot and the latter one of those who always carried a loaded flask on gunning trips-(and used it). M-- was scoring at nearly every shot while McF-- was missing with a regularity remarkable. After an hour or so, as one of M--'s birds was falling near McF--, the latter fired at it right and left.

"Here," cried M--, "Shep, why in the devil are you shooting at my dead bird?"

"Well, begad," explained McF--, "I've been shooting here all morning and haven't got a d--d thing, and I wanted to hear something drap after I shot."

A mile or more below the point where the Mosquito emerged from the hills Pony Creek spread at the foot of the bluffs forming a small lake and great marsh wherein grew wild rice, celery and other delectable foods for aquatic birds, and this was a famous resort of wild geese and brant in ye olden time. I bagged six Canada geese there in less than one hour one late October morning.

On the hillsides above the little lake the new grass shoots of early spring were tempting morsels for the birds, especially white brand I have seen more than one hundred acres of this upland, blackened as it was by late prairie fires, so covered by white brant on a late afternoon in spring as to suggest, when viewed at a distance, that a recent snow storm bad visited the spot. How many birds there were to the acre would be difficult to estimate; perhaps forty thousand would not be an exaggeration. The flesh of these birds was inferior, but they made an easy target and came down with a thud pleasing to the ear of the ruthless slayer, and were far less wary of the gunner than their great and wise gray cousins who "honk, honk," from high in the air, comes like a cheerful bugle call causing a tingle in the blood of the lover of shooting when first heard at the beginning of the season.

It must not be assumed that all of the birds slaughtered as herein described were mere victims to the lust for killing. It was usual among the hunters of that early day to distribute a portion of each day's bag among non-shooting neighbors. Much of the flesh was put in pickle and preserved for winter use, and the feathers were conserved and built into that old-fashioned family comfort known as the feather bed. The wings from the larger birds afforded material for and excellently served the purpose of dusters about the home, occupying a place now supplied by bristle brushes manufactured at great expense and requiring costly transportation.

From my own shooting during several seasons, in the early sixties (before and after marriage), were made a large feather bed and several bolsters and pillows such as our daddies used, and some of those feathers are still doing duty in my home in the form of pillows, cushions, etc. My wife says that, in memory, she can yet feel the sore fingers acquired by the plucking.