There are conflicting accounts of when wolves disappeared from West Virginia. In a previous post, I wrote about an account of the purported “last wolf” that was killed in the high mountains near the border of Randolph and Webster Counties in 1897.
However, I came across these accounts of wolves in the Allegheny Mountains and the Allegheny Plateau region of West Virginia.
They can be found in The Border Settlers of Northwestern Virginia from 1768 to 1795 (1915) by Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, a largely self-educated historian and naturalist, who became a celebrated advocate for the Yakima people of Washington State.
McWhorter included accounts of his own time, as well as those that came from local lore. His accounts of late surviving wolves in West Virginia are mixed in with a few stories:
Of the carnivora of West Virginia, the common or Black Bear, the Grey or Timber Wolf and the Panther [cougar] were the principal: and the last two by far the most ferocious. Owing to the many game preserves established by the different sporting clubs in recent years, the first of these animals, which, more properly speaking, is omnivorous, have increased in such numbers as to become a menace to the domestic stock in their vicinity. The panther is still met with in certain remote regions, but the wolf is practically extinct. A few are said to haunt the more obscure wilds of the Alleghenies and the gloomy recesses of the Gauley Mountains in Pocahontas County, but their pack-howling has long since ceased to be a source of dread to the belated traveler. In September 1902, Mr. William E. Connelley heard them one dark night in the deep forest between Buffalo Creek and Gauley River, in Nicholas County. The last one seen on the waters of Hacker’s Creek, was about 1854, by Mr. Thomas Boram, on the farm where I was raised on Buckhannon Run. The last one killed in that section was by Mr. Thomas Hinzman, on the head of the right-hand fork of the same stream.
The settler pursued the wolf with rifle, trap and poison; but Doddridge claims that the rabies was the prime factor in their extermination. But some of them, at least, escaped all enemies and died of old age. When the Hurst family was residing on the Cheat River, the children going to the spring one morning found a wolf lying dead nearby with no visible marks of violence upon it. An examination revealed that it did not have a tooth in its head, and that it had succumbed to the ravages of hunger and senile decay.
Owing to the crafty nature of the wolf, comparatively few of them fell before the hunter’s aim. The strategy by which they secure their prey enabled them to flourish in vast numbers throughout this uninhabited wilderness teeming with game. Their cunning in this respect has always been proverbial; and today among the western Indians, the success of the most noted hunter is usually attributable to the skill or “power” obtained from the wolf through the occult. The young Indian whose tutelary is the wolf, will be sure to excel as a hunter.
Singly the wolf is cowardly, but when driven by extreme hunger it is then very bold. While my grandparents were living on McKinney’s Run, a wolf caught a sheep in daylight and throttled it against the corner of the house. My grandmother hearing the disturbance, ran out and chased the marauder away. When banded together in hunting packs, they are exceedingly fierce and dangerous. They overran the entire Trans-Allegheny. No one was safe alone in the woods at night, or at any time during the winter when the wolves were often in a starving condition.
Late one evening Henry Glaze was hunting on the righthand fork of Buckhannon Run, near the base of the mountain and not far from the trail which led from West’s Fort to the Buckhannon settlement; on land later owned by David Wilson, when he discovered fresh wolf sign. The State paid a bounty for the scalp of this animal, and with the view of decoying one or more of them within rifle shot, he uttered a howl so like that of the wolf that ere the echoes had ceased there came an answering cry from the woods. This was in tunn answered at intervals from several points in the forest. Elated with his success, the wily hunter repeated the cry and was answered at closer proximity. Each successive howl brought a response more numerous and from a rapidly narrowing circle. Before the hunter realized his danger he heard the swift patter of feet among the dry leaves, and hastily dropping his rifle, he had barely time to spring into the branches of a large dogwood bush. He was immediately surrounded by a cordon of hungry beasts, which, made fearless by numbers, surged and snarled at the root of the tree. Safely ensconced in the branches of the sturdy dogwood, the hunter gazed down into the green and baleful eyes of the hungry pack. The deadly fangs of a hundred froth-covered jaws gleamed and snapped in the fitful starlight. The sanguine hunter was now himself hunted. During the entire night the wolves growled and fought beneath him. Finally they began to leave, one by one. When the last wolf had slunk into the dark thickets the hunter descended and hurried to camp, content to return without wolf scalps.
At a later day, Mrs. Edmonds, who resided on McKinney’s Run, was coming home from Lost Creek late one evening, and just as she reached the brow of the ridge dividing those two streams, she was startled to find that she was being closely pursued by wolves. Escape by flight was impossible, so she took refuge in a beech tree. There she was held prisoner, until after dark, when her family, knowing the danger of the forest path, went in search of her with torches. At the approach of the lights the wolves vanished. Mrs. Edmonds then descended from her uncomfortable perch, and the party returned home in safety (pg 342-344).
McWhorter also writes about the last wolf killed in Gilmer County:
Aaron [Schoolcraft] settled in Gilmer County, (West) Virginia, and was a noted hunter. He killed the last wolf seen in that region. This wolf, a lonely survivor of his race, had taken refuge in a secluded retreat known as “The Devil’s Den,” and had succeeded in eluding the best hunters and dogs of the surrounding country. Schoolcraft eventually outwitted the wary animal and took his scalp (pg. 149).
Schoolcraft left Gilmer County in 1852, so the wolf had to have been killed before that decade. Gilmer County is not in the Allegheny Mountains. It’s in the Allegheny Plateau region, where settlements were more densely populated.
The wolf was probably killed in the 1840′s.
So there were at least 50 or 60 years between when the last wolves killed in the lower elevations and the last “outlaws” were still running the ridges of the High Alleghenies.
Wolves certainly were a major problem for people wanting to graze livestock on the frontier, but they were definitely a problem for hunters and their dogs.
McWhorter writes about Isaac Reger, whose favorite boyhood past time was coonhunting with a motley assortment of dogs. Born in 1782, Reger would have been hunting raccoons in the region at a time when it was still very much a wilderness area. The date of this account would have been in the 1790′s in what is now northern Upshur County:
When a boy, he [Isaac Reger] went coon-hunting one night, accompanied by two hounds, a cur, and a small fice [feist]. Most hunters kept a fice in their pack, as they proved most efficient in bear fighting. They would tree a bear when the larger dogs could not. The fice will invariably attack in the rear, and then get away before the bear can turn or seize it. Bruin can not long endure this mode of warfare, and will soon “tree.” The noisy fice also excelled in treeing the dreaded panther [cougar].
On the night in question, Isaac’s dogs were attacked by wolves, and getting the worst of it, they fled to their master for protection. The wolves pursued, fighting the dogs within a few feet of the boy, who stood with rifle ready to fire, had there been sufficient light to distinguish wolf from dog. Emboldened by the presence of their master, the dogs turned upon the wolves, and drove them a short distance, only to be forced back in turn. Thus the battle raged, the wolves often coming near, and with such violence that the dry leaves were thrown about Isaac’s feet. Finally, the dogs, badly hurt and exhausted, gave up the fight. The hounds crawled into a nearby sink-hole, where their enemies dared not follow. The cur remained close to the boy, but the fice had disappeared. The wolves hung close around, and the boy, disdaining to abandon his hounds, remained on guard until the first rays of dawn, when the wolves fled. Isaac, with much coaxing, induced the hounds to come from their subterranean retreat. The fice was never heard of afterwards, evidently having been devoured by the wolves (pg. 305-306).
Modern houndsmen often lose dogs when then they let them run in wolf country.
It was also an issue in the late eighteenth century in what was then northwestern Virginia.
McWhorter writes of an early settler of Gilmer County named John Hurst who had so many problems with wolves he couldn’t keep sheep. Hurst would later lose a dog to a pack of hog-killing wolves:
Wolves were numerous, and Hurst, for years, could keep no sheep because of their depredations. One night a band of four of them attacked his hogs and in turn were set upon by the dog. As Hurst opened the door, a powerful wolf threw the dog at his feet. The light from the open fireplace streaming through the doorway frightened the pack away. The next morning Hurst went in pursuit and trailing them about half a mile, he discovered a single wolf standing in the brush, and fired. The animal fell, when another one leaped from the thicket and ran down the hill. Reloading his gun, Hurst howled and was answered in the distance. Repeating the call, he soon had the wolf within rifle range, when it, too, was killed. In this way he dispatched a third one and then went in search of the one he saw running. He was surprised to come upon its dead body. Unawares to him, it had stood in line and beyond the wolf first killed, and the bullet had slain them both. Four wolves with three shots before breakfast was no mean achievement even in that early day (329-330).
Hurst would become famous in the region as a wolf hunter, and he liked to collect the bounty on them.
However, he knew that wolves were starting to become scarce, so he occasionally would let a bitch wolf whelp near him in order to kill her puppies, which McWhorter describes as a very common practice on the frontier:
Hurst found a cavern in which a mother wolf had her young. He did not disturb them, but just before the puppies were old enough to leave the nest, he captured them, letting the old wolf escape. This he did for three or four consecutive seasons, realizing eight dollars a scalp, the bounty paid by the state. Later, as the number of wolves grew decimated, and the injury to the live stock industry decreased, the bounty was reduced to four dollars. It was not unusual for settlers to “breed” wolves for bounty money as did Hurst; nor was it regarded as illegitimate gain. There was a large hollow chestnut tree on the farm where I was raised, from which for two years young wolves were secured by Thomas C. Hinzeman, a local hunter. This was at a later day and when the animal was nearing extinction (pg 330).
McWhorter describes the wolves of the region as being “huge timber wolves” that were gray in color.
From that description we can surmise that the native subspecies of wolf was Canis lupus lycaon, and its behavior toward domestic dogs was very similar to modern many modern Canis lupus packs. They considered dogs to be competitors for territory, and they were not above killing them.
Nothing in the descriptions of their behavior suggests that these animals were coyotes or coyote-like animals, such as the so-called “red wolf.”
Everything suggests that they were larger Canis lupus wolves that were probably quite adept at hunting the large herds of elk and bison that were once common to this part of North America.
It’s a shame that these wolves became extinct.
Except for the treeing incidents, McWhorter mentions nothing that would resemble a wolf attacking a person. And as far as I know, there were never any fatalities.
But they certainly would have been a problem for people wanting to keep livestock and large numbers of hunting dogs on the frontier.
So they were killed off.
And the land became “civilized.”
But as the agricultural economy declined in the twentieth century, West Virginia’s pasture and cropland became forest once again.
White-tailed deer bolt among the undergrowth, busily chomping it away.
The Eastern coyote– now sporting a little bit of wolf genes– is now the ersatz wolf.
The land is wild again.
But it’s not like it was before.
Maybe in a half century or so, wolves will work their way down from Canada or from the Great Lakes states and repopulate this region.
This might sound a bit fanciful, but just last year, a wolf was killed in Northwest Missouri. DNA tests revealed that it was from the Great Lakes wolf population and may have wandered down from Minnesota.
So it’s possible they could come back.
It just might take a while.