Who's Afraid of Virginia's Wolves?

By Dan Gill, Ethno-Gastronomist


When Europeans first came to this country, there was a healthy balance between predator and prey populations. Other than man, the native wolf was the alpha predator at the top of the food chain. There were no natural enemies of the wolf prior to settlement by Europeans; populations were kept in check by the abundance and condition of prey populations, such as deer, rabbits and rodents. Predators kept prey populations healthy and in check by removing the slow, weak and infirm; in turn, the health and abundance of prey regulated predator populations. Native Americans respected the wolf: They had a semi-tame relationship with some and used them on hunts for wild turkey and small game.




Described as being about the same size as the English fox, the wolf encountered by early settlers was probably the red wolf (Canis rufus), though the original range of the larger gray, or timber wolf included all of Virginia.



Photo by Greg Koch



Europeans brought with them a deep-seated fear and mistrust of the wolf, even an irrational hatred. In the “Old World”, wolves had been hunted and persecuted for centuries. Think, for a moment, of all of the old folk tales, nursery rhymes and superstitions that disparage the Big Bad Wolf; from "the Boy who Cried Wolf" to the "Three Little Pigs" to "Little Red Riding Hood"! It is no wonder that Europeans considered the wolf as a threat to themselves and their livestock.


Settlers soon changed the natural balance as they introduced better prey: they brought in hogs and cattle and turned them loose to forage on the abundant mast of the forest: acorns, chestnuts and wild plants. They tried sheep, which are even better prey. The result was wild population swings. First, the hogs greatly increased in numbers followed by a dramatic increase in wolf numbers in response to the increased availability of food (see the classic writings of Malthus: a population will increase exponentially within the limits of its food supply). It was reported that they (wolves) became so numerous that they were "constantly heard at night in the vicinity of Jamestown as they hunted like packs of yelping beagles in the neighboring woods; and it was difficult for the planter, overtaken in the forest by darkness, and compelled to go into camp until morning, to save his frightened horse from their devouring jaws."


Feral hogs became so scarce due to predation, that in 1632, a law was passed prohibiting settlers from killing "swyne" beyond the boundaries of their own property. If, however, a wolf's head was brought in, settlers were entitled to kill a wild hog for their own use. Thus began the bounty system that eventually spread throughout the country (actually, the first bounty was established in the Massachusetts colony in 1630). Every few years thereafter, the law was changed to encourage the killing of wolves. Counties were initially required to pay 100 pounds of tobacco, to be levied on the general population, for each wolfs head brought in. Then, a few years later, counties could pay as much as they thought fit, generally 200 pounds of tobacco per head. In 1668, York County disbursed 2200 pounds of tobacco for 11 heads. In 1675, Middlesex levied the population for 4 wolves heads and in 1681 for 5 heads.


The red wolf once ranged throughout the southeastern United States from areas north of Virginia to Texas. By 1980 it was determined to be extinct in the wild.  Starting in 1987, red wolves have been successfully re-introduced on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in coastal North Carolina.


Photo by Barron Crawford


Counties with many small farmers and poor people protested that the general levy was burdensome on people not likely to benefit, so the levy was based on the number of horses as a measure of wealth. This solution was short lived because there were not many horses in frontier counties, but plenty of wolves, so the levy was burdensome on just a few planters. Next, Indians were recruited to help eradicate the wolf, but since it was unlawful to sell firearms to natives, they had to resort to traps. The wolf trap was a hole in the ground covered with thin sticks and leaves with meat suspended over as bait. The wolf would jump for the meat and fall through the cover and into the pit. In 1700, Henrico County authorized a bounty of 200 pounds of tobacco per head if the wolf was shot but 300 pounds if it was trapped. Wolf carcasses were of no particular value, shot or trapped, except for the bounty. Only the head was brought in and the ears were cropped so that it could not be reclaimed: So why, then, would a trapped wolf be more valuable than a shot wolf except as an extra incentive for Indians? These pit traps are the origin of place names such as Wolf Pit in Henrico and Wolf Trap Farm, home of the Center for the Performing Arts, in Northern Virginia.


In Chesapeake Bay country, the most familiar wolf trap is located over two miles from shore, where no four-legged wolf has roamed since the end of the last ice age, or about twelve thousand years ago. Off Mathews County, between the mouths of the Rappahannock and York rivers, shoal waters extend far into the bay ready to strand any unwary captain and destroy his ship. In 1691, the Wolfe, a privately owned ship engaged by the British Admiralty to battle pirates and privateers in the Chesapeake Bay, was “trapped” on these shoals. The ensuing misadventures of the Wolfe is another story entirely, was published in Pleasant Living Summer Solstice issue in 2008 and is available online at http://pine3.info/Wolf%20Trap.htm


© Dan Gill  -  Published in Pleasant Living March – April ’10

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