The Winter of the Wolves

As I write this I can see snow by my window. It’s been falling all morning and is just starting to cover the street. It looks like it’ll probably keep going for most of the day and then its supposed to get real cold and everything will turn to ice. So, what better to do than talk about an even colder and snowier Pennsylvania winter?!

I recently bought a copy of “Black Forest Souvenirs Collected in Northern Pennsylvania” by Henry Shoemaker (1914) and have been slowly reading the folktales and reminisces in its pages. Shoemaker collected each story from informants living in the Black Forest, a section of Clinton, Potter, McKean, and Lycoming Counties so dense with trees the ground was perpetually dark. So far I haven’t found a story I didn’t like, but one about a band of fur trappers who end up in a dangerous trap themselves has been my favorite.

My copy of “Black Forest Souvenirs” has an inscription from Shoemaker on the first page!

Below you’ll find the full text of “The Winter of the Wolves,” a story of a Polish storekeeper living in Philadelphia who leads an expedition into the Black Forest to kill 500 wolves, enough to make a handsome profit on their pelts. Though he and his team were ultimately successful, it seems the forces of nature itself conspire to make the trip as dangerous as possible. Heavy snowfall, avalanches, and attacks by a fierce pack of wolves make for a thrilling tale that I’m honestly surprised hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Any Hollywood folks reading this…take notes.

Shoemaker was a folklorist, politician, and all-around Pennsylvania booster active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Infected with the progressive zeal that touched so many at that time, he sought to protect Pennsylvania’s cultural and natural heritage by preserving its history and folklore. He was particularly distressed by the rampant industrialization that was destroying many natural parts of the state and this book was one of several he published to preserve the stories of the people who lived there before they disappeared.

Like many other chapters in the book, you’ll find romanticized descriptions of wild animals and “nature untouched” in this story. Historian Simon Bronner once wrote “Shoemaker was more concerned about the picturesqueness and the political impact of his material than whether it qualified as genuine folklore.” So don’t read this as totally authentic, but instead think about what Shoemaker wanted to tell us about Pennsylvania and its past.

I suspect part of his reason for including this story was to decry overhunting and the extinction of great Pennsylvania animals. Like the elk, panther, and buffalo, wolves were utterly killed off by the early 20th century and have only been reintroduced in recent decades. Shoemaker was highly critical of the deforestation (he called loggers “despoilers”), unchecked hunting, urbanization, and industrialization that were hallmarks of Pennsylvania at the time. Though he presents the trappers in this story as brave and heroic, the fact still remains that they killed scores of animals that were already endangered at that time. What do you make of this story of brave hunters and unrestrained destruction of nature?

One last quick note before I leave you with this story: Shoemaker, like pretty much any other white writer of the time, uses racial slurs and stereotypes throughout this story when he talks about the Native trappers that are part of the expedition. Though I strongly condemn Shoemaker for writing like this (I don’t believe he was simply a “product of his time,” there were plenty of writers in the early 20th century who did not belittle and harm Native people with their words and Shoemaker could have easily told this story with other words), I am going to leave the story in its original form.

The Winter of the Wolves (A Story of Windfall Run)

During Indian days wolves were never over-prevalent in the Black Forest. The redmen were a safety valve which kept their numbers within bounds. They hunted the animals persistently for their hides, but at the same time, would never have thought of exterminating them; they had an eye for the future, a sense of responsibility for the generations to come. There must be sport and fur for these.

It was in the brief period after the redskins had withdrawn from the Black Forest, and the white settlers had not arrived in great numbers, that the wolves threatened to become a menace. Unmolested, they increased rapidly, driving the elks and deer into more settled regions, west and south where they fell easy victims to the rifles of the pioneers. When the white men began making clearings in the forest, they found the wolves ready to devour their sheep, and they cried loudly for a county and then a state bounty to encourage their destruction.

The legislators at Harrisburg, always eager to vote away the tax-payers’ money, fixed the bounty rate to high that it became more profitable to hunt wolves than to raise sheep. Many respectable settlers abandoned farming and stock-raising altogether, and became professional wolfers. The effect was demoralizing to the proper opening of a new country, and agriculture was given a backset from which it took half a century to recover. In some sections it never recovered. Everyone enjoyed hunting, it was easy money; even after the wolves, panthers, catamounts and other proscribed animals disappeared, the professional bounty-chasers were loath to go back to the plow and grubbing hoe.

Shortly after the departure of most of the native Indians, of the Black Forest, it was in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, fur traders were attracted to the region by tales of plentitude of wolves and fur-bearing animals in general. Among these was a Polish refugee named John Wallize who had settled in Philadelphia as a shop-keeper, but who was glad to go back to his early calling of wolf-hunter, when he learned that similar animals abounded in parts of Northern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania wolf hides shown him were remarkably like wolf hides from Poland and Russia. He sold his notion shop, and devoted the proceeds to fitting out an expedition to be gone an entire winter, so as to get the hides in prime condition.

This diorama of grey wolves near Colton Point, Tioga County PA is the center-piece of the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s “Mammal Hall.”

He boated his supplies from Harrisburg to Jersey Shore, where he engaged pack-horses to take him into the big forests to the North. In Jersey Shore he also found a number of Indians who offered their services as wolfers, who knew the country well. He was recommended to hire Tallchief, then a youth of eighteen or twenty, and a fine, six-foot savage he was, Little Canoe, a short Indian, but well versed in woodcraft, and Jack Berry, an excellent cook and general handy man on the trap-line or in the shanty.

These Indians said that from all reports wolves would be unusually prevalent- that it would be a regular winter of the wolves. Wallize explained to them that he wished to secure at lease five hundred prime wolf hides, one hundred black bear skins, one hundred back fox skins, and other hides, else it would not pay him to start on such a costly expedition. The Indians assured him that a catch of that size would be possible, and offered their services free in case a smaller number of hides were secured.

This seemed like a good guarantee for results, so preparations were completed. Tallchief, although the youngest of the party, seemed to be the most experienced wolfer, so he was appealed to for the selection of the camp-site or headquarters. He said that he had once spent a winter on Windfall Run, in what is now Potter County, that wolves bred in the rocks all along the creek, and that they gathered in the mountains there by the hundreds.

1817 Map of Pennsylvania, the red dot shows the approximate location of Windfall Run. NARA.

It was before the days of the Coudersport Pike, so the pack-horses had to follow a narrow trail through the forest. These beasts were owned by Zack Banghart, who carried on a profitable packing business through the unsettled mountainous regions. It was arranged that he would come for the campers again on or about April first, if the snow was gone sufficiently, by that time; the start was made the first week in December. The weather was unusually cold for that time of the year, but that was rather pleasing to Wallize; it meant finer furs, he said. At least, it was that way in the old country.

It was a journey of several days over range after range of black forested mountains and across scores of swift streams, until the Windfall Run region was reached. This creek is a tributary of the Cross Fork of Kettle Creek, and flows through a narrow, rocky valley. Here, centuries before, panthers and wolves had fought for the undisputed possession of the caverns, the wolves coming out victorious. The Indians trapped and shot many wolves in this vicinity, but not enough to make the animals abandon the region. It was an ideal breeding and feeding ground, it would take a general crusade to drive them out.

Wallize was delighted with the appearance of the valley. Already covered with snow, wolf tracks were everywhere. Windfalls had thrown the giant hemlocks which grew in abundance against the face of the cliffs, and concealed the wolf dens from view. One could not guess the proximity or number of wolves in the valley, unless seeing their tracks after a snowfall. As they had not learned the habit from imitating dogs, the primitive wolves of the Windfall Run seldom barked. All their time was spent foraging; they had no time for barking antics. Wallize purposely brought no dogs along, as these animals only excited the wolves, and kept them constantly moving. Wolf-hunting with dogs worked very well on the steppes or plains in the old country, but not in hilly regions. He wished to trap quietly, in the old-fashioned Indian style and the wolves would be scarcely aware of his efforts to capture them, so stealthily would he pursue his purpose. He brought a number of iron traps modelled after the kind used so successfully in Europe at the time, but he also planned to use the pitfalls and snares, which Indian trappers assured him worked very well. He would try three or four methods, one after another, at first, then devote his whole time to the best method thereafter.

Camp was pitched on the small clearning which Tallchief and his brothers had used when wolfing in the valley three winters before. A waterfall ran out of the rocks close at hand, which flowed into a pebbly bowl, admirable for washinn or drinking purposes. A log cabin was quickly constructed, its read wall abutting against the steep mountain side, and close to where the cascade poured out of the rocks. It seemed an ideal situation, and Wallize could not help but loudly express his gratification. The Indians laid out the traps along the wolves’ favorite paths, the European method was to be tried first. An especial effort was made to set out bear traps, as these animals were soon due to den up for the winter.

The result of the first twenty-four hours’ trapping was startingly sucessful. Twenty-five wolves and four black bears were brought into camp, all captured within a radius of one mile of the headquarters. Wallize was overjoyed. He examined the wolf hides carefully, remarking that they compared favorably with any taken in the coldest parts of Russia. There were grey wolves, and some of then weighed in life close to a hundred pounts. The first week of trapping by the European method brough in one hundred and ten wolves, and eight black bears. These numbers were greater than the Pole had anticipated, so he concluded to make this his standard method during the winter. There were more snowfalls, yet the trapping continued good. The first day traps were set within one mile of camp, gradually this radius was widened to four miles by the eigth day. A ten-mile radius was the greatest territory to be “set,” unless luck would materially change for the worse.

The wolves seemed very tame, and easily fooled into involving themselves with the traps. The bear traps did not do so well, but the Indians said that the heavy snow had hurried the sluggish creatures into winter quarters. But if they did not get the expected number of bear hides it looked as ig they would obtain at least a thousand wolves, and there were prospects that a big number of otters would be speared through the ice in various nearby streams.

Wallize made no complaint, it was much better than he had anticipated. During the second week in camp there was a snowstorm every day. The gradual accretion was becoming considerable as there were no thaws. It banked about the cabin clear to the bottom of the windows; on the level ground it measured four and a half feet on Christmas Eve. During these daily blizzards trapping came to a temporary standstill. The traps were buried in the drifts, the wolves and other animals remained in their fastness. In the second week only twenty-four wolves and one black bear were brought into camp. But Wallize did not complain; he knew he was in a country rich in fur-bearing animals; when the snow went off wholesale trapping would resume.

Shoemaker used this image to illustrate another story about wolf hunting in the Kinzua Valley. “Extinct Pennsylvania Animals,” page 57.

On Christmas Eve a mammoth panther, a rare animal in the valley, visited the cabin. It was evidently hunger crazed, for it leaped from the mountain side on the shanty roof. It tore at the bark roof so savagely that Little Canoe, fearing it would rip a hole and fall in on the trappers seized his rifle and shot in the direction from whence the sounds came. The shot was a good one, for the brute uttered a howl of pain and sprang into space, landing in the snow twenty feet in front of the shack. The trappers went out and found that it had been shot through the heart. It was very old, as it was practically toothless, even its claws were worn almost down to the quick. Wallize measured it, according to his expert methods. Before skinning, the monster was ten feet five inches from tip to tip, or the length of the largest African lion on record. After skinning it stretched ten feet ten and one half inches. Many sporting writers and naturalists state that Pennsylvania panthers could not have been so big as the old hunters claimed, but there are a number of authentic instances showing that the animals were much larger than modern hunters, used only to measuring woodchucks and foxes, believed them to be.

On Christmas morning the snow began in earnest. It looked as if the veritable “down mattress” was being dumped from the heavens. Little Canoe and Jack Berry spend the morning preparing a grand mid-day feast, with panther steak and wolf fore-quarters, the pieces de resistance. The cooking meat, in the great, open fireplace, gave out a savory odor, and turned the mind of the trappers from the dreary aspect outside. When the dinner began, the snow banked half way to the tops of the windows, and still was coming down.

“A Bark Peeler’s Home, Windfall Run,” c. 1890. Pennsylvania State Archives.

“It ought to quit by night,” said Tall Chief, who young as he was, had been looked to as the weather prophet of the party. When night closed in, the snow was level with the tops of the windows. It had been so dark for hours before, that the only way in which time could be figured was by Wallize’s silver watch. It was one of the first ones that the Indians had seen, and they were fascinated by its mechanism and neatness. When the watch told the trappers that morning had arrived, they found that the snow was packed so solidly about the cabin that they could not get out. They estimated that the drifts were as high as the roof. They would have smothered to death had it not been for the tall stone chimney which proved to be an admirable ventilator. Judging from the amount of snow which fell down the chimney, the storm was still in progress. It had now apparently gone on without a break of over thirty-six hours, and there seemed to be no signs of its letting up. During the day the snow diminished, but a wind of high velocity arose. Even in the sheltered valley, it howled and whistled around the rocks, trees, and gullies.

“Storm King in Winter,” 1933, Harry Newman Wickey. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There was nothing for the trappers to do but to be patient, and as they thought they were well provisioned, they viewed the situation with nonchalance. For the next there were more snowstorms, and several more terrific windstorms. By the awful noises outside, many big trees were being blown over. The supply of fresh meat, mostly bear steaks, on which they had feasted at first, ran out, and they found that the rest of their provisions were of a kind unfitted to sustain four strong, healthy men in a long captivity. The air in the shanty was becoming close and unwholesome from constant breathing, to say nothing of the proximity of so many animal hides. The chimney was all right enough for a few days, but the volume of impure air proved too great for its capacity in time. The man made a desperate effort to get out. They lifted the door from its hinges, finding a wall of snow, higher than the shanty in front of them. This they attacked with picks and shovels, but they found that they were getting nowhere. While they worked the snow was falling and the wind drifted it wherever they made slight headway in clearing a path.

When night set in, no actual progress had been made. About nine o’clock in the evening, the wind attained a greater velocity than ever before. If the cabin had not been hedged in by immense snowdrifts, it would have been blown to pieces. A number of stones were blown off the chimney, reducing its height to the level of the drifts. There was a constant boom, hand, crash of falling trees and of rocks rolling from the sides of the steep mountains.

“If a big rock from above us should fall on our roof it would be an end to us,” said Jack Berry. The rest of the party accepted his views in silence. They knew what he said was only too true.

About midnight they heard a terrific rumbling and ripping far up on the mountain above the cabin. The wind kept on sweeping in dreadful gales, so cold it penetrated the sheltered hut. Since the upper stones of the chimney had been knocked off the fire would not draw well, and the men who became half frozen, as well as overcome by impure air, huddled under the piles of wolf hides, which now were most useful as coverings.

It was not long until the wind shook loose a group of giant hemlocks which grew on the face of the mountain, a quarter of a mile straight up from the cabin. With their roots gripping heavy rocks, earth, and ice, they started downward with a road like the end of the world. It was the most terrible sound that any of the trappers had ever heard. They thought that their hour had come.

“Winter Chaos, Blizzard,” c. 1909, Marsden Hartley. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Down the mountain the avalanche came carrying everything with it. As it neared the shanty, it sent its immense volume over the roof, completely burying it under tons of debris. The fact that the mass of matter swept over the cabin, and did not fall straight on it, prevents its complete annihilation. As it was, it was little short of a miracle that cabin and inmates escaped. But their situation was one of grave danger. Even if the snowstorms ceased, it would take days of work for the captives to dig themselves out. The provisions, such as they had, were sure to run out, for without fresh meat, they would quickly finish the goods on hand.

There seemed to be some opening which let in ventilation through the chimney, but not much. The captives surveyed the situation and resolved to dig out at any cost. The giant trees which were loosened by the tornado had slid down the mountain butts forward. The huge roots, in which were matted rocks, earth, ice and snow, had lodged directly in front of the cabin, where the doors and two small windows were located. This cut off that direction as an avenue of escape. The only way to get out would be to knock a hole in the house on one of the other sides. The side opposite the entrance abutted against the mountain, on the other side the chimney was almost the width of the structure.

There was one way to escape, and on that side the trappers commenced pulling off the log-walls. When they had made an opening sufficiently large, they began their attack on the snow. To their intense dissapointment, they found that part of the landslide had engulfed that side of the cabin also, and the spring had frozen the entire debris into a solid mass. They not began to calculate that the hut was entirely buried beneath the avalanche.

The wolf-hunters were as securely trapped as any of the fur-bearers had been. But they determined to continue their efforts for escape, although the faint ventilation received was barely enough to keep them alive. They threw themselves down on the piles of furs, distressed in body and spirit. But sometimes hope appears at the darkest moment.

Wallize, who was resting on the side of the cabin nearest to the big chimney, fancied he heard a scraping noise outside. At first, he put his hand to his fevered brow, imagining that it was some hallucination to a disordered intellect. He felt sure, as time wore on that the sound was outside, and not from within his head. He listened intently; it was not as near to the structure as he thought at first. It wounded like dogs digging at a woodchuck’s hole, only much louder. The three Indians became deathly ill from lack of air, and rolled about on the furs, as if seasick, oblivious to everything.

The sound of something moving outside had a reviving effect on Wallize. Some living force was coming to the rescue of the unfortunate trappers. Yet it could not be human aid, not possibly. Yet what could it be? He feared to tell the others lest it subside, and cause a greater depression of spirits among the Indians than before. He had read and been told of the stolidity of the redskins, but in this instance, he, the pale face, was facing death with more equanimity than the Indian stoics. He kept listening’ the scraping grew louder and louder. All the day it continued; how much longer it had been at work he knew not.

At nightfall, a snapping and snarling like savage dogs was added to the scraping sound. This the Indians heard; pale as corpses and tottering they were on their feet in an instant.

“The wolves are outside, the wolves are outside,” shouted Little Canoe, in a delirious ecstasy.

“Take your axes, boys, and cut away that wall,” shouted Wallize.

The noise was too loud to be far off now. The weakened savages began slashing at the logs beside the chimney great chips flying all over the disordered room. Working all at once, and crazed with excitement, their axe-bits often struck together with sonorous music. Soon the wall was demolished, and but two feet of snow remained between the trappers and the pack of wolves.

The beasts were crazed with hunger, and were working as fast as the trappers. The snow was brushed away, and the faces of a pack of lean, hideous looking beasts peered in on the human captives. The smell of living beings and food inflamed the starving creatures, and they pressed one another forward into the breach. The Indians allowed the first dozen to get into the room, then they began splitting their skulls with the axes. The impact of those behind forced the others forward and they kept appearing at the opening, where they were met by the subtle trappers.

With the wolves came a gust of fresh air, which added to the ardor of the home-defenders. The battle with the wolves must have kept up for hours. Every wolf in Windfall Valley seemed to be a participant. But if so, not a single one escaped with his life.

The “grandfather” wolf, a veritable giant which usually let the pack was the last to appear, and the hardest to brain. He insisted on forcing himself into the room, tough his skull had been cleaved at the door. With remarkable vitality, he leaped about the room, snapping furiously. He buried his fangs in Little Canoe’s hip before he was chopped to death.

With a free opening to outdoors, the released captives made for the open through the tunnel dug by the wolves. They did not wait to count the dead wolves. Once outside in the snowdrifts, with the clear moonlight shining down on them, they offered up a prayer of thanksgiving. Wallize, who was a renegade Roman Catholic and hardened free-thinker, experienced a genuine repentance. The Indians danced hysterically, singing buts of hymns and rhapsodies they had learned from the celebrated missionary Jemima Wilkinson.

Then they became hungry and persuaded Wallize to re-enter the cabin, and help them drag the cooking utensils outside, to prepare for a feast. By the moonlight it could be seen that the cabin had been completely engulfed by hundreds of tons of earth and timber, and had it not been for the wolves then men would have been slowly starved and smothered to death.

“What a shame it was to kill those wolves, our deliverers,” said Wallize, as he was helping Little Canoe skin a young wolf- apparently the fattest of a very lean pack.

“It was wrong, especially as we Indians belong to the clan whose patron saint is the wolf,” replied the limping little Indian, “but what were we to do? The wolves dug us out, not because they wanted to save us, but because they wanted to eat us.”

Meanwhile Tallchief emerged from the tunnel, clapping his hands.

“Mister Wallize,” he said, “I have happy news for you, there are nearly three hundred dead wolves in there; those with the hides we had before bring the number to five hundred, the amount you wanted. The wolves saved our lives, and made us keep our promise to you. They have surely blessed us.”

Wallize smiled, and said, “That is good news, but I would have been satisfied with less wolves this winter; it was hard to kill our saviors.”

By this time the hind-quarters of the young wolf had been roasted to a turn, and an enjoyable feast began. All agreed that they had never enjoyed a meal as much before in all their lives. After earing, they sang religious songs. Then they all set to skinning the dead wolves, Wallize shouting for joy every time one was pulled from the pile, which was as high as the rood of the cabin, declaring them to be finer than the best Siberian pelts. After many perils, all was ending well. With the last hide peeled off, the men lay down for a much deserved nap. They forgot to close the door to the tunnel, but if there were more wolves nigh, none bothered them.

When they awoke, perfectly refreshed, Wallize said that he was ready to set out his traps again, he would stay in camp until he got his required number of hides and until Zack Banghart, the trapper, returned in April.

The Indians had another joyous scene among themselves. “You are a real man, you are not soft, we like to work for your kind,” they said in chorus.

The wolf hides on hand were then counted. They numbered four hundred and one.

“That extra one must be the old ‘grandfather’ that bit you so badly,” said Wallize, turning to Little Canoe, who laughed loudly as he limped about the hut. The trapping went on unmarred by disagreeable incidents for the balance of the winter, and when Banghart and his horses appeared, true to agreement, the first week of April, there were nearly a thousand wolf pelts, and the furs of a thousand other animals, bears, otters, beavers, all kinds of foxes, fishers, martens, and wolverines to be packed to Jersey Shore. These Wallize sold to good advantage in Philadelphia.

Shortly afterwards, he removed to the foot of the Blue Mountains, in Schuylkill COunty, where he opened a general store. He had shown pluck in fighting down all obstacles in the Black Forest, but he did not desire to trap again. Providence had seen him through, he would not risk it more. He was well over eighty when he died, leaving many descendants, to all of whom he delighted on cold evenings before a blazing fire describe his remarkable story of the winter of the wolves.

“A Snowy Night,” 1939, George Sotter. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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