“They Steal Our Deer and Land”: Contested Hunting Grounds in the Trans-Appalachian West
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“They Steal Our Deer and Land”:
Contested Hunting Grounds in the Trans-Appalachian West

Late in December 1769, Daniel Boone and his brother-in-law, John Stewart, were surprised by a band of Shawnee Indians returning from their Green River hunting grounds to their homes at Chillicothe. Boone and five other North Carolinian “long hunters” had crossed into Kentucky in early summer to accumulate pelts, especially deer-skins, to sell in the southeastern commercial hide market. The Indians, however, resented the intrusion on lands the Shawnee claimed as their own. Considering the deerskin hunters as trespassers, Will Emery, the leader of the Shawnee band, confiscated the pair’s guns, plundered their cache of pelts, and warned them never to return. This place was, he declared, “the Indians’ hunting ground, and all the animals, skins, and furs are ours.” If Boone, Stewart, and other white poachers were “so foolish as to venture here again,” Emery promised, they could “be sure the wasps and yellow-jackets will sting you severely.”1 [End Page 303]

Earlier that same year, at the Overhill village of Toquah, Cherokee leaders confronted a different John Stuart—this one, the British superintendent of Indian affairs for the southern district—with a similar complaint about the American trespassers and poachers who violated Cherokee boundaries. After a cursory survey of their territories, the Cherokees were certain that many colonists had “settled the Land a great way on this side of the Line” that divided their territory from English settlements and were “hunting in the middle of our Hunting Grounds.” They demanded that Stuart “order his People to remove within the [proclamation] line” and prohibit them from hunting on the Cherokees’ Tennessee River lands. The chiefs angrily observed that, while colonial officials told Cherokee warriors not to “steal any Thing belonging to the white People,” the Americans would “not listen to any Body,” and instead did “as they please[d].” “They steal our Deer and Land,” the Indians’ statement continued, “which if not soon alter’d will be of bad consequence,” for the young men were “very angry to see their Hunting Grounds taken from them.”2

The contemporaneous Shawnee and Cherokee protests showed their mounting frustrations over the inability, or unwillingness, of colonial authorities to restrain white encroachment on lands west of the Appalachians—the lands various Indian groups identified as their hunting grounds. Over these territories, tribes asserted possession of both the land and, more important, the wild animals that lived there, especially the economically valuable white-tailed deer. Colonizers, for their part, found such claims difficult to assess since they did not fit preexisting legal categories of Anglo-American ownership. Consequently, these Revolutionary-era conflicts between Indians and Euro-Americans over hunting grounds in the southern Appalachians provoked critical questions about both the legal dispossession of Native peoples and the place of wild animals in the English colonizing project. [End Page 304]

Encounters between deer, Native Americans, and colonists in the southern Appalachians produced new understandings of colonial possession in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The white-tailed deer drew colonists westward across the Appalachians, turning them from settlers into pioneers. As deer hunters, colonists adapted to their prey, adopting roving behaviors that pulled them to the margins of more “civilized” English society. Pioneers valued wild creatures, particularly the deer that sustained their frontier independence, over the kinds of improvement that legitimated English ownership. They became the armed and mobile forces spearheading Indian dispossession in the West—a dispossession that Native peoples resisted with their own claims of proprietorship over the deer and the land.3

From these conflicts came two competing conceptions of hunting grounds. These were new kinds of possession claims—claims that had no analogs in English law—that directly linked property rights to the wild deer that roamed western frontiers. One understanding emerged from the “debatable grounds” of Kentucky. There, southern backwoodsmen envisaged a hunting ground as a colonial hunting commons offering frontier settlers free access to unowned wild creatures. Farther south, in the western Carolinas, Tennessee, and northern Georgia, Native Americans and colonial authorities developed a different construction of a hunting ground as a racially based, legally...