If you’ve roamed the hills and valleys of our state for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly wondered about the hunters and trappers who came before us. What must Penn’s Woods have been like in the 1820s or 1830s, before the Civil War, or as far back as the 1700s? Who among us has not longed to step back through time and space and visit a Pennsylvania two or more centuries past?
Like wet, pliant clay on a potter’s wheel, some of your thoughts might have been shaped from tales related by old-timers in hunting camp. Other impressions were probably sown by movies or books, such as The Last of the Mohicans or even from dog-eared pages of old Pennsylvania Game News magazines.
To help satisfy your curiosity about the past, remarkable accounts of hunting and trapping in Pennsylvania during the late 18th and early 19th centuries can be found in the pages of a little known book by Philip Tome. Pioneer Life or Thirty Years a Hunter was originally published by the author in 1854, and most recently in 1971 by the Lycoming County Genealogical Society.
In 1928, the book was reprinted for the first time. In the preface of that edition, Henry W. Shoemaker, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, writes: “The narrative is important in its relation to Pennsylvania history north and west. The late Theodore Roosevelt once said that no matter how thrilling a hunting narrative might be, it had no appeal to him if it was not good literature. To such an exacting standard Pioneer Life or Thirty Years a Hunter would meet the erudite faunal naturalist’s views exactly. As a work of literature, as well as of absorbing interest, this book by Philip Tome can be unhesitatingly recommended as the great, outstanding contemporary narrative of the Pennsylvania big game fields.”
Pioneer Life is packed with account after account of Tome’s outdoor experiences. Some are quite believable; others seem to lean more toward fiction. In the introduction in the original text, Tome writes: “In presenting the following incidents of my life, to the public, I do not intend to claim for its beauty of expression, for it is the production of one born in the wilderness, one who is more conversant with the howl of the wolf and the panther, and the whoop of the savage, than the tones of oratory, as heard in civilized life.
“It’s said that truth is often more strange than fiction, and those in pursuit of the marvelous will not be disappointed in perusing these pages, as they are full of scenes in border life, accidents, and hair-breadth escapes.
“The lover of the hunt will find faithfully portrayed the exciting scenes of the chase, the fight with the elk, the wolf and the panther, and herein be enabled to gather the experience of nearly half a century as to the best mode of securing every description of game to be found in our forests.
“The general reader will find it replete with scenes of wild, stirring and thrilling interest; it being the narrative of one who, in all the scenes of border life was never conquered by man or animal.”
Philip Tome was born on March 22, 1782, in Dauphin County, near where the city of Harrisburg now stands. In 1791, his father purchased land in the wilderness, about seventy miles up the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. According to Tome, “At that time game, such as bears, elk, deer and wild turkeys were very plenty in that section of the country.”
As evidenced by this narrative, in Tome’s time deer hunting was dramatically different than today. “The most successful mode of killing deer from the first of June to the last of September was to ‘fire hunt’ them, which was done in the following manner: The deer would come to the river after dark to eat vegetation that grew on the bottom, and collect together about the ripples, in groups from three to ten. The hunters would build a fire of yellow pitch in the middle of a canoe and station a man in the stern to steer, and one or two more in front to shoot at the deer. When there were no deer in sight, they could push and paddle the canoe along. When they came within sight of the deer the canoe was allowed to float down with the current, and the steersman laid it in a position the most advantageous for those who were in the bow with guns. If the night was favorable, from three to ten deer were killed in this manner.”
Many early accounts relate how dogs were frequently used to hunt deer. Tome goes well beyond, though, and describes how hunters used both dogs and wild timber wolves to secure venison. “Often, while we were dressing deer the wolves would stand within twenty rods, howling most discordantly. We finally obtained a gun and dogs, and turned our attention to hunting. We commenced about the first of July, and continued until November. The wolves and dogs hunting together, sometimes one and sometimes the other obtaining the deer, and if it fell into our hands we always left the wolves their portion to keep them near, for we considered them of great assistance to us in hunting. They often aided us to three or four deer in a week.”
A large portion of Tome’s book is devoted to accounts of how they hunted and captured elk alive. The first story took place in 1800 and involved a substantial bet between his father and Irving Stephenson, who owned a tavern at the mouth of Pine Creek. Tome writes, “It was then considered impossible to catch an elk alive, and all the old hunters said it was lost money.”
Using dogs to chase the elk, the hunt lasted several days and covered many miles over some of the state’s most rugged terrain. Finally, the elk was brought to bay on a large rock where Tome’s father successfully threw a noose over one of its antlers. With assistance from his hunting party, the rope was made fast to a tree and another rope was secured to its other antler. Alternately loosening one rope and keeping the other one taut, they drove the animal downhill from tree to tree. Eventually they reached Big Pine Creek where they rafted the elk to Stevenson’s tavern and placed their captive elk in a stable. According to Tome, “This was the first grown elk that was caught alive on the waters of the [Susquehannah]. It was 16 hands high; its horns were five and a half feet long, with eleven branches.”
His father’s exploits must have inspired young Philip because he went on to capture and sell many live elk during his hunting career. He captured his last elk in 1822 and sold it in Ellicottville, New York, for $110. “This was the last elk I ever caught, the low price obtained for him making the business so unprofitable that I abandoned it entirely.”
Tome, his brother, and others who lived in the wilds of Pennsylvania were market hunters. Their livelihoods depended on their hunting prowess. They hunted animals for their meat, their skins, for bounties, and, in the case of bears, for oil rendered from their fat. Evidently his brother was the better hunter of the two. “My brother killed from 25 to 30 elk and 20 to 25 bears each year. I did not kill as many. I usually killed from 10 to 20 bears, and one season I killed 35 elk. During one season my brother killed of bears, elk and deer, nearly 200. The greatest number that I killed, in any one season, of the same kind of animals, was about 130.”
Because wolves and mountain lions roamed the same woods where he hunted, Tome had some interesting, sometimes harrowing experiences with these predators. On a six-week elk hunt in October 1800, Tome separated from his hunting party and followed a set of elk tracks until dark. It was too late for him to return to camp so he encamped on the elk track and spent the most dismal night he’d ever experienced. “The wolves flocked around me in droves, and their unearthly howling, mingled with the dismal screeching of owls overhead made a concert of sounds that banished sleep from my eyes the greater part of the night. I sat in my shanty, with my gun in one hand, a tomahawk in the other, and a knife by my side. When the wolves became unusually [uproarious], I would send the dog out to drive them away, and if they drove him in, I would fire in among them.”
Mountain lions were prominent in the days of Philip Tome. “When the first snows of winter come, they (panthers) seek the rocky hills and sheltered places, where they remain until driven forth by hunger, when they frequently visit the farmyards of the settlers, and help themselves to any sheep or fowl that is within their reach.”
Not surprisingly, Tome hunted panthers, too. “I have twice found elk, which had been killed by panthers; one of them so recently that it was yet warm, and I killed the panther within a short distance. I have attacked a panther with eight dogs, for which it proved more than a match, driving them all from the field.”
When it came to mountain lions, Tome suggested that hunters sometimes became the hunted. During one successful bear hunt, he was overcome by darkness and prepared to spend the night beneath a projecting boulder. “About nine o’clock two panthers made their appearance, and finding what was perhaps their usual quarters invaded, they set up a screaming that would have sent the blood to the stoutest heart. I took my gun in one hand, my tomahawk in the other, while my dog stood near me, and I resolved, if they should attack me, to give them a warm reception. They kept up their fearful serenade until midnight, when they withdrew, and I heard no more of them.”
Col. Henry W. Shoemaker, in Extinct Pennsylvania Animals, 1917, writes, “Philip Tome, in his Thirty Years a Hunter, tells of Rice Hamlin killing a panther on the Tiadaghton weighing 200 pounds. About 175 pounds was a good average weight for a mature mountain lion. He (Tome) was a sportsman as well as a hunter, never killing recklessly. Though he makes no recapitulation of panthers that fell to his unerring bullets, his descendants estimate that he killed at least 500 of these noble animals.” Perhaps Tome’s ancestors inherited the great hunter’s tendencies for exaggeration.
Most of Tome’s hunting and fishing stories are plausible and believable. Where he seems to stray is when he writes about snakes. Of rattlesnakes he writes, “I have seen 40 of them sunning themselves upon one rock, and have heard others tell of seeing 300 together.” About snakes in general: “Besides rattlesnakes, the country east of he Allegheny mountains was infested by copperheads, blowing vipers, blacksnakes, racers and hoop, or horn snakes. I was in contact with a racer, eleven feet long, standing nearly erect, and darting his forked tongue, not more than a foot from my head.”
His snake stories become even more fanciful when he writes about hoop snakes. “The hoop snake or horn snake is very rare. Its tail terminates in a black horn, four or five inches in length, and very sharp at the point. When preparing to make an attack, it bends itself into a circular form, and rolls over the ground like a hoop, striking its spike, with great force into the object of its attack. So deadly is the venom contained in the spike or horn, that it is fatal even to trees. In one instance with which I was cognizant, one of these snakes rolled at a man, who avoided it, by stepping to one side, and the snake, being under such velocity that it could not turn, struck it horn into an elm tree with such force that it could not extricate it. The snake died, hanging there, in two weeks, and the tree was lifeless at the end of a month.”
Beyond the skills of a great hunter, for some fifteen years Philip Tome acted as interpreter to Cornplanter, the most powerful and influential chief of the Six Nations of the Seneca. Tome was sought out by some of the most prominent businessmen and hunters of his time to lead expeditions for the likes of Colonel Parker, Major Isaac Lyman, and George Ayres, men whose reputations still run deep in northcentral Pennsylvania.
People whose feats transcend the ordinary often gain insight and appreciation not afforded the common man; so it must have been with Philip Tome. In an era when the need for dominance over wild places and wild things prevailed, the notion of conservation was foreign to most hunters. Perhaps because of his hunting success, or in spite of it, Tome writes, “I never wantonly killed an animal, when I could gain nothing by its destruction. With a true hunter it is not the destruction of life that affords the pleasure of the chase; it is the excitement attendant upon the very uncertainty of it which induces men to leave luxurious homes and expose themselves to the hardships and perils of the wilderness. Even after when, after a weary chase, the game is brought down, he cannot, after the first thrill of triumph, look without a pang of remorse, upon the form which was so beautifully adapted to its situation, and which his hand has reduced to a mere lump of flesh.”
Philip Tome, a hunter of extraordinary skill and a man of uncommon vision, died in Corydon (Warren County) on April 30, 1855, at the age of seventy-three. Nearly 160 years later, through the words of his colorful book, his indomitable spirit lives on.