HUNTING IN THE WESTERN MOUNTAINS.
Near the end of the French and Indian War, to wit, in the year 1762, one of the families that moved into Rockingham from Pennsylvania was the Custer family. The head of this family was Paul Custer; and he had a young son Richard, born in Pennsylvania some five years before: that is , on June 1st, 1757. The Custers (or Kusters) settled in or near Brock’s Gap, where Nature called in stirring echoes from the wooded heights, and Diana no less than Mars claimed many a rugged glen. Small wonder, therefore, that soldiers and hunters should spring from the Custer line.
Even to-day the mountains of western Rockingham often sound to the huntsman’s horn, and echo to the deep baying of his dogs or the sharp crack of his rifle. Enough of the past is with us yet to make a chapter of hunting stories both interesting and appropriate; they form an integral part in the history of this great county where once the buffalo stalked the plains while the deer, bears, wolves and panthers sheltered in the hills and mountains; and we are peculiarly fortunate in having this chapter mainly from the pen of a living member of that same Custer family. The line of genealogy maybe briefly indicated thus: Paul Custer, Richard Custer (1757-1837), Richard Custer (1790-1858), Jacob Custer (1817-1892), Samuel Custer (1842- ), Milo Custer (1880- ).
Milo Custer is custodian of the McLean County Historical Society, with offices in the city of Bloomington, Illinois; but when he heard that a history of Rockingham County, Virginia, - the prolific land of his ancestors, - was being prepared, he had his father, Mr. Samuel Custer, to recount the hunting stories given below, that he might write them down and contribute them to this work.(1)
(1) Early in the year 1781 Richard Custer Sr., enlisted in the Virginia
Tradition has it that Paul Custer, founder of the Custer family in Rockingham, once shot a buffalo at one of the salt licks in the adjacent mountains. His great-grandson, Jacob Custer, was a mighty hunter. From 1830 to 1850 he frequently
troops under Col. Nall for service against the British in the war of the Revolution. He served as a private soldier three months under Capt. George Huston, and three months under Capt. Anthony Rader. He was in the skirmishes at Williamsburg, Va., and Hot Water Creek. In 1788 he married Jane, the 17-year-old daughter of Conrad Humble. They were the parents of Richard Custer, Jr., Mrs. Sarah Fulk, Susan Custer, Gabriel Custer, Mrs. Johannah Wevner Strawder Custer, and George Custer.
Richard Custer, Sr., received a pension for his service in the Revolution, and his widow also drew a pension after his death. He died February 14, 1837. The date of his wife’s death is not known; but she was still living in Rockingham and drawing a widow’s pension as late as 1841.
Richard Custer, Jr., was born on his father’s farm in Rockingham about 1790. This farm lies about 4 miles north of Cootes’ Store. He was by trade a gunsmith, but also farmed to some extent, and operated a sawmill. The latter was on the farm of his son-in-law Isaac Ween, and was situated about 13 miles nw. of Cootes’ Store, in the valley of Dry River. His wife, whom he married March 28, 1810, was Elizabeth Trumbo, born August 21, 1791. The Trumbos and Custers, as well as the Hesses and others in the vicinity, were of Pennsylvania-German stock. This Richard Custer served from August 29, 1814, to December 8, 1814, in the war of 1812, as a member of Capt. Thomas Hopkins’ company of Virginia militia. He and his wife, who lived till 1871, are buried on the old Custer homestead, 4 miles north of Cootes’ store. This farm is now owned and occupied by their son-in-law, Abram Hess.
Jacob Custer, son of Richard Custer, Jr., married Isabella Miller in 1838, who bore him five children. In 1852 he moved to McLean County, Ill, where he died in 1892. In writing of him his grandson (Milo Custer) says:
“His early life was spent among the mountains of his native county, and was in may respects typical of that rugged locality. . . . He lived upon his farm (near the Pendleton mountain) about fifteen years. Most of his land was covered with a fine growth of pine and poplar timber. Some of the trees were over a hundred feet high, and logs 60 feet long and entirely clear of limbs were cut from many of them. In the fall of the year 1852 he sold his farm to Anthony Rhodes for $800, and moved with his family to McLean County, Ill. He also owned one Negro slave, a young man named Wesley, whom he sold to Samuel Cootes, the founder of Cootes’ Store, for $200.”
ranged the mountains in the northwestern portions of the county, a terror to the fierce no less than to the fleet. The killing of deer and bears was a favorite occupation with him.
Prior to the year 1852 he owned 400 acres of land, on which he resided, at the head of Dry River, near the Pendleton Mountain. On one occasion, while at work clearing a part of his land, he heard a sharp squeal from one of his hogs. Looking up, he saw a large black bear seize one of his best brood sows in its huge arms, rear upon its hind legs, and walk away. Being some distance from his house, without his gun, and knowing he would not have time to get it, he called his dogs, seized his axe, and started after the bear. Incredible as it may seem, the bear, although hampered with the burden of the sow, whose weight was upwards of 250 pounds, could still walk about as fast as the man. The bear had seized the sow from behind; and as it walked along would gnaw her back, actually eating her alive. Custer and his dogs followed the bear up the steep sides of the mountain for nearly a mile, and finally compelled it to release the sow. The latter was able to return home, but died next day. The bear had eaten away nearly all the flesh from her back.
Each fall, during the hunting season, Mr. Custer would kill from fifteen to twenty deer. His family was always well supplied with venison. Many times he would return from a hunting trip with a deer weighing upwards of 175 pounds slung over his shoulders. He was very stoutly built, and in his younger days was a man of great physical endurance. He and his neighbors would frequently take their rifles and hunting dogs, and “run” deer on Pendleton Mountain. This mountain was then covered with heavy timber, and was a favorite haunt of wild animals.
The deer when pursued had a peculiar way of running at a gradual angle down the mountain side to the valley, and if not overtaken they would cross the Valley, swimming the stream, and then run up the side of the next mountain, taking the same gradual course as they ran. They would
sometimes run as much as ten miles before they were overtaken and killed.
On one particular occasion Jacob Custer, in company with his brother Conrad, went up on the mountain to run deer. Conrad took up his station near the foot of the mountain, on the east side, to watch, and to shoot the deer as they ran by; while Jacob took the dogs and went up into the timber to chase them out. He soon started a fine buck, got him headed toward the east, the dogs giving chase; he himself followed them on the run, down the mountain side, some three or four miles. The buck soon came within the range of Conrad’s rifle, and fell. Jacob, who was following, reached the animal before it ceased kicking, so closely had he followed the entire distance.
On another occasion Jacob Custer came near losing his life on one of these hunting trips. His two dogs had chased a large buck into a stream of water, and the one of them that was in the lead had overtaken and seized him. Mr. Custer coming up laid down his gun and, with his knife in hand, ran into the water and seized the deer, intending to cut his throat. But no sooner had he laid hold of the animal than the dog let go. In less time than one may tell it the enraged buck turned, dropped his head and savagely pushed Mr. Custer against the bank of the stream. Holding the animal by the horns, between the prongs of which he was pinned fast, the man pitted his strength against that of the infuriated beast. It was a life and death struggle. In the nick of time the second dog came up and seized the buck, thus turning the scale in his master’s favor. Many years later, when he was an old man of more than seventy, Mr. Custer stood before the gate of the deer pasture at Miller Park in Bloomington, and told the park keeper, who was somewhat timid about coming near a fractious buck, how he had killed many a larger deer in his early days, back in the mountains of Old Virginia.
One of the well known early hunters of Rockingham was Frederick Kiester. An account of his many hunting exploits
and thrilling encounters with wild animals, and a list of the number of bears and deer he had killed, was published in the Rockingham Register about the year 1855. He was out hunting once some where in the mountains of Rockingham, when he was attacked by a panther. The animal had hidden upon the limb of a tree which overhung the path, and had dropped down upon him as he passed underneath. Had it not been for his dogs, Kiester would have been killed. Their attack upon the panther caused it to turn its attention toward them, and give the man a chance to shoot it. As it was, he was badly injured. His clothing was torn to shreds; his body was covered with blood. The beast’s claws had cut his back and the calves of his legs like knives. He bore the marks of this encounter during the remainder of his life.
Two other hunters, whose names the writer’s father does not remember, once had a thrilling experience with a she-bear. One of these hunters found a couple of bear cubs, and promptly shot them. One of them made an outcry which was heard by the mother bear. She came rushing to the assistance of her young, and attacked the man before he could reload his rifle. Using his gun as a club, he managed for a while to beat her off, calling at the same time for help. His partner, who was with the dogs some distance away, was deaf and could not hear him; but the dogs heard him, came to his rescue, and held the bear at bay until the other man, who had followed the dogs, came up and shot the bear. The stock of the gun which the first man had used as a club against the bear was badly broken, and the weapon was almost ruined. He said that the bear had stood up on her hind legs and struck at him with her great fore paws, warding off his blows like a man. He was a large well-built man, and managed to get in a few terrific blows upon the animal’s head and fore arms; but he said that after she was killed and skinned the places where his blows had fallen were not discolored, and seemed hardly bruised. When we take into consideration the fact that most of the guns used by those early hunters were flintlocks, which could not be loaded excep [sic]
at the expense of several minutes of time, we can readily understand how those men were exposed to risks such as are not shared by huntsmen of the present day.
Richard Custer, Jr., the father of Jacob Custer, was a gunsmith, as elsewhere noted; and the site of his gun shop is still pointed out as one of the old landmarks near Cootes’ Store.
Sometimes a deer that was started in Pendleton County would be chased across the mountains into Rockingham, the hunters who started it not caring to follow it so far. Under such conditions the animal might be shot by some Rockingham party; and vice versa. Occasionally the dogs would follow the deer long after their masters had given it up, and would be fed and cared for by strangers, some not getting back home for several days.
Many a hunter of those early days valued his dogs as highly as his horses. There were two classes of hunters; one class that hunted with dogs; the other without. The latter were known as “private hunters.” They were much opposed to running deer with dogs, and sometimes resorted to extreme measures – destroying dogs with poison. Such proceedings of course led to much hard feeling between the two classes. The dogs that Jacob Custer prized very highly fell victims to some “private hunter’s “ poison. Long afterwards, when his anger had perceptibly cooled, Custer by mere chance learned the name of the poisoner. Meeting the man one day he accused him of killing the dogs. Reluctantly the guilt was admitted. “Well,” said Custer, “it is past and gone now; but if I had known it was you, then, I’d have shot you.”(2)
The foregoing stories are not only true of the particular incidents recounted, but are also typical of their class, and enable us to realize vividly what the actual and frequent experiences of the mountain hunters were in days long past. Now and then a bear or deer is still found in these mountains; and
(2) I am indebted to Mr. Milo Custer for much other interesting matter, which is withheld here only for lack of space.
now and then, it may be at increasing intervals, the huntsman’s horn still is heard:
‘Sweet and far from cliff and scar,
Like horns of Elfland faintly blowing.’
But the sounds to-day are mostly echoes.
In connection with the foregoing paragraphs the following incidents have appropriate significance. They give specific information of various beasts and birds found or seen in Rockingham at various times.
The two incidents first given are related by Messrs. J. R. Shipman and S. H. W. Byrd of Bridgewater.
About 1794, when St. Michael’s Church above Bridgewater was building, a young girl, later the grandmother of Mr. Jacob H. Wynant, was employed carrying dinner each day to the workman. One day, in going from Bridgewater to the church – a distance of only 2 ½ or 3 miles – she saw seven deer.
About 1850, Mr. Wynant’s mother, a daughter of Rev. John Brown of the Reformed Church, found a panther in the cow stable, and narrowly escaped with her life – the beast so nearly catching her as he sprang that he tore off part of her clothing.
In the winter and spring of 1865-6, James Steele and his associates killed in Rockingham County 17 red foxes and one gray fox.
In February, 1866, Mr. Geo. W. Rosenberger, who lived on Smith’s Creek below Tenth Legion, shot and killed a bald eagle that measured 6 feet 8 inches from tip to tip, of wings.
In December, 1867, Mr. Derrick Pennybacker killed a black eagle, measuring 6 feet 8 inches from tip to tip, on Linville Creek.
In January, 1870, William Minnick of Broadway reported that he had been in at the death of no less than 33 deer in the mountains of Brock’s Gap and Rawley Springs during the past season, October 1 to January 1.
In March, 1876, a large black eagle was committing various depredations between Harrisonburg and Dayton.
In June of the same year a black bear was killed in the vicinity of Cross Keys, and two cranes were killed elsewhere in the county.
Not always, however, were the Nimrods of Cross Keys so successful. In January, 1891, the near presence of a bear was reported at Yager’s store, and there was instant commotion. The hunters sallied forth, fierce and fast. There was “racing and chasing” o’er woodland and lea; but, as in the hunt for the lost bride of Netherby, the object of dear desire ne’er did they see. The incident was made the subject of a really fine set of humorous verses by J. W. Tyler, and published in the Register of January 30, 1891.
In the Register of October 18, 1877, appeared the following paragraph:
A few days since a gentleman in Brock’s Gap went out squirrel hunting, and taking his seat upon a log, killed one hundred squirrels without moving from the spot. He says at least five hundred more passed by where he was sitting, during the day. It was not a first class day for squirrels, either. They all seemed running eastward.
In the same paper, issue of November 29, 1877, was printed a sketch of James Todd, lately deceased, who lived at or near the southwest corner of Rockingham. One paragraph of this sketch is given herewith:
He was the most remarkable hunter in the Valley of Virginia, having killed over 2700 deer up to 1860, with one old muzzle-loading rifle, which had been bored so often that you could get your thumb in it. He had killed bears without number. He was a dead shot, and could perform the feat of putting a bullet through a hat on the opposite side of a tree every time, by placing an axe blade for the ball to glance.
From June 30, 1878, to June 26, 1879, sheep were killed in the county to the number of 165, and were paid for at the rate of $3.50 each. During the same period the county paid $129 for 86 red fox scalps, $72 for 90 gray fox scalps, and $50 for 20 wild cats scalps; not a cent, so far as reported, for the scalps of worthless dogs.
March 31, 1879, Jacob Fawley caught the “boss otter” of Brock’s Gap, the said otter weighing 15 pounds, and measuring 3 feet 10 inches from end of nose to end of tail.
In 1879 a big crane was killed in the county.
In February, 1880, seven bears were killed in Peaked Mountain.
In January, 1881, Samuel Smith and his two sons killed the “daddy bear” in West Rockingham. He weighed 300 pounds dressed. In the following February a 160-pound bear was killed by Geo. W. Long in Dayton. The next month a large bear was killed near Rawley Springs.
In 1882 deer were frequently seen in the vicinity of Mt. Clinton. One was killed not ten feet from the kitchen window of one home, and another in a nearby field.
In January 1891, it was reported that Wallace B. Minnick of Broadway had killed, during the past season, 13 bears, several of them weighing over 300 pounds each.
In February, 1891, Messrs. Wittig & Son, of Dovesville, were said to have shipped to Washington 1643 rabbits, from November to January, inclusive.
The same year Robt. Higgs shot an eagle, near Lacey Springs, which measured 5 feet 7 inches from tip to tip of wings.
During the winter of 1892-3 A. M. Turner of West Rockingham killed 10 black bears, ranging in weight from 100 to 500 pounds. The skins were sold at an average of $20 each.
In March, 1893, a gray fox attacked a child, then a woman, near McGaheysville. The woman finally killed it with a piece of scantling.
In 1897 J. C. Funkhouser shot a bald eagle near Keezletown. It weighed 9 ½ pounds, and measured 6 feet 10 inches from tip to tip.