Nature Bulletin No. 208-A November 27, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
In October, 1621, the Pilgrims decreed a harvest festival -- a holiday
so that all might "after a more special manner, rejoice together". They
had a good yield from the 20 acres of "Indian corn" which Squanto,
the friendly Patuxet redskin had showed them how to plant in little
mounds properly spaced and tended -- each fertilized with three
herring placed like the spokes of a wheel, with the heads toward the
center. They invited Massasoit, chief of the neighboring tribes, but
when he arrived with 90 hungry braves, it was necessary for some of
these to go out and kill five deer.
Then, for three days, between games of skill and chance, and a
military review staged by Captain Myles Standish, the Pilgrims and
their guests gorged themselves on venison, roasted wild ducks and
geese, eels, clams, "sallet herbes" such as wild leeks and watercress,
wild plums and berries -- all washed down with wild grape wine "very
sweet and strong". There is no mention, in their chronicle, of the wild
"Turkies" nor of cranberries, both abundant there. Venison was the
main dish at the first Thanksgiving feast.
At that time, the White-tailed Deer, or Virginia Deer, was common or
extremely abundant in this country from the Atlantic Coast to the
Rocky Mountains. Venison was staple food for the Indian, and he used
every part of the animal: buckskin for clothing, bedding, and to cover
his teepee; sinews for fish lines, sewing, and stitching together his
bark canoes; deer brains for bleaching and tanning hides; bones for
needles, awls, scrapers and ornaments.
Deer were equally important to the early white men, especially to the
explorers, trappers and pioneer settlers, both for food and clothing.
From colonial times until long after the Civil War, venison was sold in
public markets. Even in 1880, buckskin was still a common article of
commerce. Most of the expert riflemen of the Continental Army and
the War of 1812 acquired their woodcraft and their skill as marksmen
while hunting deer.
The deer continues to be our most important large game animal.
Today, approximately 375,000 are killed each year by hunters and the
meat alone is valued at more than 11 million dollars. But they
continue to increase. In some states, notably Pennsylvania, Michigan
and Wisconsin, there are so many deer that there is not enough winter
food and many thousands die of starvation. Never a creature of the big
forests, the removal of millions of acres of the original forests,
followed by a mixed second growth, created ideal conditions for the
white-tailed deer. Many years of absolute protection permitted them to
increase enormously, partly because the yearling doe bears one, and
the older does usually two fawns -- frequently three -- each May or
June. These she hides, each in a separate place, returning 5 or 6 times
daily to nurse them. By winter they are weaned and have changed their
white-spotted reddish-brown coats. When yearlings, they are almost
The bucks have antlers -- not horns -- solid, bony projections which
are shed each winter and grow again during the following spring and
summer. This is true of other male members of the deer family which
includes the Mule Deer and Black-tailed Deer of the far west, the elk
and the moose. Most of the millions of stately antlers shed each year
are eaten by rodents such as porcupines, squirrels, rabbits and mice, or
weathered away by sunshine and rain.
"Squanto, we thank thee for our corn. "
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Update: June 2012