The wilderness wasn’t safe in Medina County. Ferocious, ravenous beasts stalked the darkness, preying on the livestock of early settlers in Northeast Ohio.
Wolves, in particular, were a terrible nuisance during the early 19th century. In a single night, a pack of wolves killed more than 100 sheep at farms in Hinckley Township. No matter how secure the fences seemed before sunset, wolves found ways to slink inside before sunrise.
Western Reserve farmers awoke to frightening, blood-curdling sounds as wolves tore apart flocks. Residents grabbed their muskets, repelled the invaders as best as they could and waited until morning to survey the carnage.
The next evening, the cycle might repeat itself. Instead of wolves, though, it could be bears, which were also a deadly menace to livestock in Ohio.
In 1818, settlers finally had enough. They declared “a war of extermination” on the beasts in Hinckley, drew up battle plans and enlisted soldiers from across the state. The Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818 was a slaughter like no other.
Nearly 600 “able-bodied men and large boys” participated in the Dec. 24 hunt, which committees thoroughly mapped out and advertised for weeks. A $15 bounty was declared for every slain wolf.
According to an account by Charles Neil in History of Medina County and Ohio (1881): “The order was that the farmers gather by early daybreak, armed with rifles, guns, pitchforks, flails, clubs, and every available implement of war; form a continuous line on the four sides of the township, and, at a given signal, advance toward its center, killing, shooting and slaughtering all game that came within reach.”
Hinckley Township, named for Judge Samuel Hinckley of Northampton, Mass., contained more than 25 square miles of rugged woods. Hunters from Cleveland, Newburg and Royalton formed the north line while Richfield and Brecksville farmers advanced from the east. Bath and Granger settlers led the south line while Medina, Brunswick and Liverpool residents walked from the west.
“Soon after sunrise the commanding officer gave the words, ‘All ready!’ ” wrote Capt. Milton P. Peirce in an 1890 account in American Field magazine. “The words were loudly repeated around the lines to the right, and came round to the starting point in just forty seconds, showing a good organization.”
The men sounded bugles in the frosty air. Hunting dogs barked eagerly.
Fortified by whiskey, gun-toting hunters marched forward in the crunchy snow. The noose slowly tightened on the beasts of Hinckley. Not just wolves and bears — everything was fair game, including foxes, deer, turkeys and raccoons.
Almost immediately, gunfire erupted and bullets whizzed through the trees. Snarling, frightened animals fled deeper into the woods, but there was nowhere to hide. They were surrounded on all sides.
Bath Township resident William Coggswell, who participated in the hunt, left this account: “I soon came in contact with plenty of wolves and bears, and shot several of them, when I saw near the center a monstrous bear — I think the largest I ever saw of that species. We wounded him twice, so that he dropped each time, when he retreated toward the south line, and I followed in hot pursuit.”
Coggswell estimated that 100 guns were firing near him. He likened the sound of bullets to a hailstorm. He found the bear in an icy gulch and finished him off. To his amazement, all of the other hunters had missed the target.
The remaining animals were corralled into a half-mile square marked by blazed trees at the center of Hinckley. Hunters climbed up into the branches and fired down into a stream bed where the last remaining beasts had taken refuge.
The gunfire stopped by late afternoon. The Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818 was over.
Dividing the bounty
When the smoke cleared, the hunters took an inventory. They had killed 21 bears, 17 wolves, 300 deer and untold numbers of turkeys, foxes and raccoons.
Miraculously, only two hunters were wounded in the chaos of the day. One man was shot in the shoulder and another was struck in the leg. Neither was seriously hurt.
Giant fires were lit that night as families prepared to join the hunters in the woods for a Christmas feast. Rugged men drank whiskey, shared stories, sang merry songs and roasted meat as they camped out.
“Soon the fat was dripping copiously from the roasting bear, and one of the lively men, rendered extra frisky perhaps by the cheering nature of the supplies just partaken of, cut off a large chunk of the fat and run amuck through the crowd, oiling scores of faces in a hasty attempt to oil hair and whiskers,” Peirce wrote.
“Bears’ oil was known to be specially beneficial for both hair and whiskers, and several others who had already tested its efficacy for a few minutes also sliced off lumps of the fat and showed a willingness to let all share in the benefits of the high-toned unguent.”
People from miles away came to see the bounty on Christmas Day. No one would go hungry that winter. Organizers evenly divided the meat among the hunters and paid bounties for each wolf hide.
“After the proportionate shares had been allotted to the different companies, the journey homeward was commenced, some of the hunters living twenty and thirty miles away,” Neil wrote. “Many of the men who had congregated here on the wonderful occasion had been entire strangers to one another, but, after the night’s strange and unusual festivities, they had grown on terms of brotherly friendship.
“It had been a joy and a pleasure to all of these sturdy pioneers who were the first to unfold the beauties of the beautiful ‘Reserve,’ to meet so many of their kind here, isolated and alone as their days had to be spent then in battling with the forest and clearing their farms. The game was tied on sticks, and then away the hunters wandered up the hills and down the valley, north, east, west and south.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but wolves and bears eventually were driven to extinction in Northeast Ohio.
According to local lore, buzzards were attracted to the carcasses left behind in 1818. They roosted in the ledges of the township and returned every March in a spring pilgrimage. To this day, buzzards remain the proud symbol of Hinckley.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.