'The powder was straight'

Darrin McGrath
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Hunting the game the Beothuk called susut

The history of partridge hunting in Newfoundland is as old as the island's history itself.

For the Beothuk, who occupied Newfoundland from about 500 AD, the partridge was a food staple. The last known survivor of this nomadic race was a young woman named Shawnadithit who died in captivity in St. John's in 1829. Most of what we know about the Beothuk vocabulary was gathered from her, including the Beothuk word for partridge - susut -according to researcher and reverend John Clinch.

In "Newfoundland Birds: Exploitation, Study, Conservation" authors William Montevecchi and Leslie Tuck note the Beothuks "hunted birds extensively and manufactured pointed and bulbous arrows for large and small birds, respectively." And in her 1996 work, "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk," Ingeborg Marshall refers to Royal Navy Lieut. John Cartwright, who wrote in 1768 that the Beothuk took ptarmigan, "which were easy to catch in cold weather ... in winter these birds may have been a kind of domestic poultry to the Indians."

An unidentified hunter in a photo taken by Elsie Holloway. - Photo courtesy The Rooms Provincial Archives, No. A17-172

The history of partridge hunting in Newfoundland is as old as the island's history itself.

For the Beothuk, who occupied Newfoundland from about 500 AD, the partridge was a food staple. The last known survivor of this nomadic race was a young woman named Shawnadithit who died in captivity in St. John's in 1829. Most of what we know about the Beothuk vocabulary was gathered from her, including the Beothuk word for partridge - susut -according to researcher and reverend John Clinch.

In "Newfoundland Birds: Exploitation, Study, Conservation" authors William Montevecchi and Leslie Tuck note the Beothuks "hunted birds extensively and manufactured pointed and bulbous arrows for large and small birds, respectively." And in her 1996 work, "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk," Ingeborg Marshall refers to Royal Navy Lieut. John Cartwright, who wrote in 1768 that the Beothuk took ptarmigan, "which were easy to catch in cold weather ... in winter these birds may have been a kind of domestic poultry to the Indians."

Of course, the island's natives were not the only ones to take advantage of the abundent wildfowl.

William Epps Cormack and his native guide Joe Sylvester completed their epic trek across the island in 1822. They departed from Trinity Bay and Cormack's diary entry for Sept. 10 states, "We soon found that we were on a great granitic ridge, covered, not as the lower grounds are crowded with pines and green moss, but with scattered trees, and a variety of beautiful lichens or reindeer moss ... grouse, the indigenous game bird of the country, rose in coveys in every direction."

The colony of Newfoundland organized itself politically, attaining representative government in 1832. Montevecchi and Tuck note that one of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the Newfoundland Assembly and Gov. Sir Henry Harvey was "An Act for the Protection of the Breeding of Wild Fowl in this Colony." Section II of the act dealt specifically with partridge. The first hunting season was set.

"After the passing of this Act, no person shall, on any pretence whatsoever, kill, take, purchase, sell, or barter, any partridge, or take or destroy the eggs thereof, within this Colony or its dependencies from the 17th day of April until the 10th of August (both days inclusive) in any year."

Significantly, the early lawmakers of Newfoundland understood that game birds were an important part of the diet for fishing families trying to eke out a living from the sea under merchant capitalism. Thus, in Section IX of the act of 1845, lawmakers specified that "nothing in this Act shall extend ... to any poor settler, who shall kill any partridge, or any other wild fowl, for his own immediate consumption, or that of his family."

Lawmakers understood the practical importance of the native partridge as a food item for settlers, giving it precidence over the recognized need for conservation and protection of game birds.

New species

Newfoundland's native game bird was joined by a storied cousin on Oct. 23, 1886, when Robert L. Mare of St. John's released two male and 12 female Eurasian Black Grouse near Holyrood, say authors Harold Seymour Peters and Thomas D. Burleigh in "The Birds of Newfoundland." It wasn't long before the birds were making their presence known to local hunters.

According to The Harbour Grace Standard of Sept. 24, 1887:

"The Scotch black game placed in the woods last fall by R.L. Mare, have been heard of several times. ... The chairman of the board of works and his son were shooting last week on the Flaky Downs, near Holyrood, when they started a brood of fine young birds. ... Reverend Father St. John of Salmonier ... informed ... that some of his parishioners had started a large covey of these magnificent birds on the barrens near Salmonier. Obviously, if left alone, the black grouse will, ere long, spread all over the island, and prove good sport and a handsome addition to the game bag. Mr. Mare deserves to be congratulated on the success of his patriotic efforts in this direction."

Despite this enthusiasm, the black grouse eventually disappeared. Peters and Burleigh conclude the introduction was a failure.

Honoured

How important was the ptarmigan to Newfoundland's culture? In 1897, the native partridge was depicted on a 12-cent stamp. According to the research of Dr. Thomas F. Nemec, this was part of the so-called Cabot issue, released on June 24, 1897 to celebrate 400 years since John Cabot's historic voyage. The stamps also commemorated the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign.

According to Nemec, the initial proposal for the stamp issue came from the well-known sportsman, author and judge, Daniel W. Prowse. The stamps were designed by R. Ostrander Smith and Sir Robert Bond - then colonial secretary - selected the final designs.

About this time, Capt. William R. Kennedy of the Royal Navy published his book, "Sport, Travel and Adventure in Newfoundland and the West Indies." Of his visit to Branch, St. Mary's Bay, Kennedy says "afternoon of our arrival we ascended the barrens and bagged 16 brace of grouse ... the birds were fairly plentiful, the dogs worked well and the powder was straight."

The fame of the partridge continued to attract media attention as the 20th century dawned. In 1911, St. John's newspaper editor Patrick Thomas McGrath published his volume, "Newfoundland in 1911."

"The partridge ... may be shot in large quantities at 40 different barrens within as many miles of St. John's and when the shooting season opens in September, every man about the city who can procure dog and gun starts for the grounds and usually does well. The birds sell in the city for 50 cents a brace. ... The poor of St. John's are thus able to enjoy game at low rates."

Protection

By 1906, a Game Preservation and Inland Fisheries Board was established and among its mandates was protecting game birds. In the board's 1910 report, it becomes clear the abundent bird may need better managing:

"The weather prevailing during the spring and summer months of last year was especially favorable to the young broods of willow grouse, commonly known as partridge. Coveys were exceptionally large and numerous and a very large number of birds were shot ... there was an unchecked and needless slaughter of these splendid birds and hundreds of brace in the early part of the season, whilst warm weather prevailed, became unfit for food and were destroyed. Some enormous bags were made by so-called 'sportsmen' who disposed of a large number of their birds by sale to dealers."

At this time, there was no daily bag limit legislated and no season limit. The board's report suggested that would change.

In 1907, sporting writer J.G. Millais published "Newfoundland and Its Untrodden Ways," and devoted space to discussing his partridge hunt, and the growing scarcity of the once-plentiful bird.

"I encountered a covey of six grouse, all of which I killed by blowing their heads off with the Mannlicher. Fortunately they were very tame, and only flew a short distance after I had killed the first two, when the remainder sat on a rock and stared within 10 yards before meeting their fate. Until recently, the willow grouse was very abundant in Newfoundland ... until 1903 excellent sport was to be had, as many as 20 and even 30 brace being killed in a day; but of recent years a great diminution has taken place amongst the birds."

The Game and Inland Fisheries Board remained responsible for partridge until the Commission of Government was established in 1934, when the Department of Natural Resources became responsible game birds. The season was set from Sept. 16 to Jan. 14, and a bag limit established of 12 partridge per day.

Montevecchi and Tuck say Newfoundland's first small game license was sold in 1941 at a cost of 55 cents. By 1972, the partridge license had increased to $2.

And to take part in today's hunt? Three bucks.

Organizations: Newfoundland Assembly, Game Preservation and Inland Fisheries Board, Royal Navy Commission of Government Department of Natural Resources

Geographic location: Newfoundland, St. John's, Trinity Bay Holyrood West Indies

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