- Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers: American Hilltop Fox Chasing
Thad Sitton has written several good books about various aspects of life in the southern backwoods during the first half of the twentieth century. His most recent, Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers, is about backwoods foxhunting. This is not the type of foxhunting that involves mounted men and women in red coats jumping Virginia fences. Sitton’s foxhunters wear windbreakers and billed caps, go to the hunt on foot or in pickup trucks, and do not chase the fox themselves but stay up all night by a campfire listening to their hounds chase it. The foxhunting Sitton writes about is not so much a sport as a nocturnal obsession, and Sitton, an oral historian with an anthropological bent, is as sensitive to its mystical aspects as he is to its techniques and rituals.
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that the point of the kind of foxhunting Sitton writes about—he prefers to call it by its traditional names, fox chasing or hilltopping—is not to catch and kill the fox but to listen to the dogs as they chase it in a wide circle and determine where they are by the sounds they make. He describes the process as “an intense conversion of auditory information into visual.” The chases always take place at night, and some can go on for ten or twelve hours and cover twenty or thirty miles. The best ones end with the fox circling back to his den, ready to run another day, and the dogs limping back to camp at dawn.
Sitton’s material is organized into five chapters and an epilogue. With the exception of chapter two, which deals with the history of foxhunting (the red-coat kind) in England and America and with the types of foxes (gray and red, thus the book’s title) and the breeds of dogs involved, most of his sources are gleaned from readers’ contributions to three foxhunting magazines, Red Ranger, Chase, and Hunter’s Horn. Sitton describes these contributions as “an outpouring of primary sources from forgotten men in nameless communities at the end of the county roads.” He makes excellent use of them.
The most interesting and most poignant chapter in this book is the penultimate one, in which Sitton describes the decline of fox chasing in the rural South after World War II. He attributes this to the reintroduction of deer into the countryside by state game and fish agencies, which led to regulated hunting, perimeter fences, and the erosion of traditional “hunters’ rights,” meaning the custom of running dogs across other people’s property in pursuit of foxes. Fox hounds cannot resist chasing deer, and this led to the “dog wars,” confrontations all over the rural South between fox chasers and landowners whose income derived from [End Page 305] deer-hunting leases. Some of the most intense were in East Texas, where this reviewer once saw a dog collar pinned up on a bulletin board in a general store on the edge of the Big Thicket, with a note under it that read, “I will pay $500 for the name of the man who killed this dog.” Eventually the fox chasers, tired of having their dogs shot, gave up.
If this book has a flaw, it is repetitiveness. A few of the stories Sitton garnered from his sources have slipped into the text twice. But who is to say that a good story should not be retold? This book will especially appeal to folklorists, anthropologists, historians, and anyone who savors being in the woods at night.