In the summer of 1820, a party of transatlantic sportsmen and adventurers made their way through the rocky scrubland of the Arkansas country’s Ozark Mountains on a passenger pigeon hunt. The plentiful birds roosted thick in the canopy of the forest, and on the first day of the expedition, the party of English gentlemen and their backwoods American guides killed over 600 with their shotguns and fowling pieces. That evening, they made camp in a valley and filled their bellies with the New World’s most plentiful bird to celebrate man’s triumph over nature. Not long after dark, however, eerie screams began to echo from the surrounding hillsides and the confidence of the men “commenced to waiver.” The sources of such horrendous caterwauling seemed to lay just beyond the fire’s glow, and in the darkness, the sleepless Englishmen strained to catch a glimpse of green eyes behind trees. One of the scouts, a man called “Old Ike” by his companions, informed the group that the cries came from “painters,” the “tyrants of the wilderness,” and while these beasts were extremely dangerous, they were preoccupied with their own pigeon hunt and need not be feared that night.
Panthers, or “painters” as Old Ike called them, have haunted the forests, swamps, and mountains of American history. They were the most feared of wild beasts, more sinister than wolves or bears and harder to hunt. “Killing a panther was no everyday adventure,” Mayne Reid, an accomplished outdoorsman and hunter, noted in 1856. Pioneers throughout the Southeast, from the Ozarks to the Appalachians, might go their whole lives without seeing one of these big cats, but they lived in constant awareness of their lurking presence. At night, settlers could hear their cries in the woods, and many farmers woke to livestock slaughtered by panthers. As early as 1682 Thomas Ash had written from Carolina that his fellow colonists “often must share their hogs” with the prowling cats.
The name of the cat, like the creature itself, remained elusive throughout early America. Thomas Ash, for instance, referred to his swine-hungry felines as “tygers” whereas Old Ike, Mayne Reid, and many others used various derivations of “panther.” Catamount, lion, and even “pard” (a bastardization of leopard) were also common along with scores of localized names. In most instances, it seems that early settlers used this vast arsenal of terminology to identify the eastern cougar, a subspecies of the mountain lion, or American cougar (Puma concolor) that historically ranged from the forests of New England south to the Everglades and points west. Cougars are mostly solitary and hunt nocturnally. A 1795 article in the New York Magazine noted that “at the approach of civilisation it betakes itself to the remoter parts of the forest. Hence the cougar, although found in all of the United States, is a rare animal everywhere, and seen only at long intervals in the mountain-valleys, or in other difficult places of the forest.” The cougar’s ecological niche as an apex predator meant that they were never common, and their stealthy nature only added to their perceived mysteriousness among early Americans as they sought to understand the strange ecology of their new continent.
Because of their elusive nature, some early colonists questioned the very existence of large cats in America. Writing to patrons back in England from the Virginia colony, William Strachey cautioned that “Lyons I will not positively affirme that the Country hath, synce our people never yet saw any,” though he did report seeing both “skynnes” and “clawes” among the local Indians that looked to be from some sort of large cat. Over a century later, European settlers remained unsure of the panthers lurking in their woods. William Byrd, another Virginian, warned his readers in 1728 that “some authors who have given accounts of the Southern part of the Continent of America wou’d make the world believe there are lyons, when in all likelihood they were mistaken.” Since he had never seen either a living specimen or hides, he refused to believe accounts from the interior of predatory cats.
Those who encountered panthers in the Southeastern woodland remained unclear of what they saw. Some of this correlated with terminology, but descriptions often varied widely. When Old Ike the Arkansas hunter shared his stories of panthers with his English comrades, he reported seeing both “catamounts” and “painters” during his hunts, though he failed to make clear what the distinction between the two beasts might be. Elsewhere along the frontier, Kentucky settlers worried over “dark-colored” panthers that lurked in the trees and might pounce on a man and horse in transit, and in Spanish Florida, cattlemen dreaded losing stock to “silver lions.” While regional variation in cougar appearance accounts for some of this variety, fear could also be at play. As humans met the dangers of the wilderness, sudden encounters with a large cat, often at night, struck terror in the hearts of frontier folk and scrambled any clairvoyant description of the beasts.
Even accounting for such jumbled descriptions, however, some reports went beyond the cougar and indicate the presence of North America’s other big cat in the Southeastern backcountry. The 1795 New York article noted that “some naturalists speak of spotted cougars” farther to the west. Earlier explorers had described both lions and “spotted leopards” along the Florida coast, and Carolina colonists distinguished between the tan “panthers” that match today’s cougar, and a rarer “American tyger” that was variously yellow and black. Such reports seem to point towards the jaguar, which is now only associated with the jungles of South and Central America. However, archeological and ethnographic evidence suggests that solitary males of the species may have occasionally roamed as far east as Florida’s swamps and north to Tennessee and Kentucky in the pre-Columbian and early contact eras.
Several accounts placed big spotted cats in Appalachian forests as late as the eighteenth century. A 1711 summation from the southeastern mountains, shared by John Lawson in his History of North Carolina, notes that “Tygers . . . are more to the Westward. . . . I once saw one that was larger than a Panther, and seemed to be a very bold Creature. . . . It seems to differ from the Tyger of Asia and Africa.” Another writer of the same period insisted that jaguars were encountered in the mountains of North Carolina as late as 1737. Richard Harlan, a contemporary of the famed naturalist James Audubon, wrote that jaguars were seen east of the Mississippi into the early 1800s, while the French naturalist Constantine Rafinesque made similar claims during the early national period about “the large wandering Tygers or Jaguars of the United States.” According to records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Rafinesque claimed that he saw jaguar skins nailed to the walls of barns along the frontier and spoke with hunters that claimed they had killed jaguars in Kentucky, Ohio, and the Lake Erie region of New York. The Frenchman theorized that the cats migrated north and east in summer months, retreating south during winter.
Whatever their human-imposed species identification, the ambiguous cats prowling the frontier exemplified the mysterious nature of America’s “wilderness” to the west. In early America, as European regimes sought to colonize the continent, big cats stymied enlightenment projects to identify and chart the species of the New World. Big cats stalking beyond the reach of enlightenment taxonomy or imperial understanding continued to enliven the fears and imagination of pioneers facing the challenging new ecology of the American frontier.
Even after American Independence, the panther remained an elusive embodiment of a frontier environment that proved difficult to conquer. Lewis and Clark, while trying to record the flora and fauna of the Louisiana Purchase, found the “panther” particularly challenging to capture or categorize. William Clark noted in a letter back to Thomas Jefferson that “this animal is Scerce in the Country where they exist and are So remarkable Shye and watchfull that it is extreamly dificuelt to kill them.” It would take until the middle of the nineteenth century for scientists to actually confirm the species distinctions of cougars, jaguars, ocelots, lynx, and other New World cats, and still longer for those living and probing into the frontiers of the continent to begin distinguishing between the dangerous “panthers” they faced in their new environments.
As the United States continued to advance into its western frontier, confusion over the continent’s large cats persisted. John James Barralet sketched a scene in 1812, for instance, depicting a pioneer couple trapping and shooting three large spotted “panthers” in the pine forested country around Niagara Falls. Other nineteenth century illustrators and artists suffered from other conflations. In the autobiography of David Crockett, for instance, the artist portrays the famous frontiersman battling a black panther in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle. Later in the century, a sketch in Kit Carson’s biography followed a similar trope as the trapper and guide is shown rolling on the forest floor, locked in mortal combat with a dark-colored “Mexican Lion.” Uncertainty of the “panther” continues even into the modern day, as state and wildlife officials receive hundreds of reports a year describing large cats that range from tawny cougars, to spotted jaguars, and even imaginary black panthers, sighted from California and Washington State to the leafy suburbs of the east coast. While many of these reports no doubt document the expanding range of the American cougar, others remain shrouded in fear and uncertainty.
Such confusions over America’s mysterious big cats in history reveal more about our own animal instincts than they do about extirpated cougars, elusive jaguars, or mythic panthers. Biologists who study animal behavior have noted that mice, rabbits, sheep, and other laboratory specimens cognitively group other organisms into three basic categories, regardless of species: threat, food, or neutral. Our own ambiguity when defining the big cats of our wilderness and imagination is very similar to this basic animal instinct. A frontier farmer, living in the backcountry of North Carolina in the eighteenth century, did not much care what species of cat was preying on his herds; he was simply concerned that some creature was destroying his livelihood. A hunter lost in the woods of Arkansas could care less about the color of the “painter’s” hide; he was just hoping to avoid an apex predator pouncing on him in the dark of the night.
While big cats remained intangible through early America, they inspired fear and uncertainty among settlers who viewed the panther as a threat, and cared little about specifics. As Reverend John Flavel lamented in 1770, “If we might understand the panther better, we would fear them less.” Understanding, however, rarely went beyond identifying big cats as a danger, spotted or tanned. Taxonomic designations and scientific names for species are only a very recent development for humans. The vagueness of our relationship with American panthers, whatever their species, drives home how superficial such designations can be. Black cats, spotted jaguars, and drab cougars terrified and mystified settlers across the Southeastern frontier. Their collective presence as America’s panther in frontier history reveals a much older relationship between man and beast—that vague, unidentified creature lurking just beyond the firelight.
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