The Great Moose Massacre

Moose _CrossSouthern Connecticut is not exactly moose country. So I had to hide my disbelief when one day my boss claimed that he sat in traffic after a car hit a moose on the Merritt Parkway. How lost would a moose have to be to find itself in suburban Connecticut? Turns out, my boss told the truth. I welcomed any distraction from that boring summer job and followed this story pretty intently. It was a sad story—the moose had to be put down after the accident—but also a memorable one. I thought so at least. (Anytime I give someone directions to take the Merritt, I still warn them to watch for moose). The accident received a bit of coverage in local newspapers, while some outlets reprinted the AP coverage.[1] Every so often a reporter discovers the story when they learn that Connecticut is home to a sizable moose population.[2]  Mostly, though, the story is forgotten.

A few years later while reading colonial newspapers I came across another tragic moose story, this one from the late winter of 1767. While hunting near his Deerfield, New Hampshire home, Joseph Prescott “spy’d a MOOSE at about a hundred Yards Distance.” He “immediately fir’d at her and shot her down dead.” Then things got weird. Two more moose appeared “at a little farther Distance.” Prescott “immediately charg’d his Gun again, and shot down the second.” In heartbreaking detail, the article described that “while the other was smelling of his Mate,” Prescott “charg’d again, and shot down the third.” Moose in the area obviously could not take a hint. As Prescott reloaded, “a fourth came up towards the others” and suffered the same fate. The moose ranged in size from about ten-feet long and ten-feet tall, to six-feet long and eight-feet tall. Prescott’s “extraordinary Exploit” did not end there. Walking home with a friend, they encountered “a wild Cat,” which “they also killed.” To convince incredulous readers, the report ended by declaring that “This is Fact.”

What really stuck out to me was that this New Hampshire hunting tale was published in the Georgia Gazette.[3] In a moment of profound historical analysis, I thought “hey, this got much wider coverage than that Merritt Parkway moose.” I found the Prescott story while working on a final paper for an early American graduate readings course that I took during my senior of college. The assignment was simple: choose a single colonial newspaper and read a sample of issues that covered about a ten-year stretch. Then write a paper about whatever seemed interesting. It was one of the most fun and useful assignments I have ever done. My paper focused on what the Gazette could reveal about Georgians’ relationship to the rest of North America. I used the Prescott story as a closing anecdote to draw some fairly naïve conclusions about the emergence of proto-national print communities during the imperial crisis.

For the assignment I read the newspaper on microcard. I did not have time to track the story in other papers, and that would not have fit the assignment anyway. But after deciding to write this post, I ran a keyword search in the Readex Early American Newspaper database. Prescott’s story basically went viral, eighteenth-century style. So far as I can tell it appeared in three newspapers in both Boston and New York, as well as in papers in Newport and New Haven before it reached Savannah. But no newspaper between New York and Georgia seems to have reprinted it, at least based on my cursory search.[4]

The search also revealed that Prescott was not the only moose slayer to get a lot of press in the late 1760s.  In September of 1767, a man in Brookfield, Massachusetts reported that he went out “to take care of his fat Oxen” and “discovered with his Cattle a MOOSE.” He retrieved his gun and “instantly Killed” the intruder. This was “remarkable,” apparently, because almost exactly two years earlier another moose was killed in town, the first “of that Kind of Creature seen in that Part of the Country for 40 Years before.”[5] The area around Brookfield and New Braintree, Massachusetts was fast becoming a hotbed of moose activity. In 1769, one New Braintree man went to shoo two horses off his land. As he got closer, he realized they were actually moose. He grabbed his gun and chased them down, killing one of the trespassers and wounding the other.[6]

Unlike Prescott’s story, none of these reached Georgia.  But like Prescott’s story, they circulated throughout New England, appearing in newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. The circulation followed a regional logic.

The most improbable instance occurred in September of 1769, when Brookfield residents found yet another moose lurking in a cornfield. They pursued the moose “from thence into a Swamp in New Braintree,” but “the People in their haste took no Fire Arms with them.” Undeterred, and in something straight out of a bad Mel Gibson period piece, “one of them by throwing an Ax cut one of the Veins in his Neck, and by that means they overcame” the moose.[7]

I figured this story would have generated even more interest than Prescott’s. But like all of the moose stories besides Prescott’s—including, even, the 2007 Merritt Parkway story—this did not appear in Georgia. This story circulated more narrowly than any of the other stories.  New York newspapers had covered all the others, but skipped this one.[8] Perhaps colonists—not unlike you, dear readers—had grown tired of long-winded accounts of deadly moose encounters.

If my original conclusion about proto-national print communities was wrong, I think the basic nugget was on target.[9] Strange, mundane, and seemingly unimportant stories pervaded colonial newspapers alongside debates about politics and economics, and ads for consumer goods. We might learn a lot, then, from considering stories like Prescott’s in our discussions of colonial print culture.

________________________

[1] The AP story was reprinted here as“Motorist injured when car strikes moose on Merritt Parkway,” The News-Times (Danbury, CT), June 4, 2007.  For some local coverage, see “In Our Towns,” Hartford Courant, June 6, 2007.

[2] Peter Applebome, “Moose Alert! It’s Funny, Till You Hit One,” New York Times, June 2, 2010; Jim Shay, “Moose, deer breeding season a danger for drivers,” The News Desk, Sept. 25, 2014.

 [3] Georgia Gazette, Feb. 17, 1768.

[4] Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser, Dec. 21, 1767; Boston Evening-Post, Dec. 21, 1767; Massachusetts Gazette, Dec. 24, 1767; Newport Mercury, Dec. 21-28, 1767; New-York Journal, Jan. 7, 1768; Connecticut Journal, And New-Haven Post-Boy, Jan. 8, 1768; New-York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy, Jan. 11, 1768; New York Mercury, Jan. 11, 1768; Georgia Gazette Feb. 17, 1768.

[5] Printed in both the Boston Post-Boy and Advertiser and Boston Evening-Post, Sept. 21, 1767.  Reprinted in New-London Gazette, Sept. 25, 1767; Providence Gazette; and Country Journal, (Sept. 26, 1767; Connecticut Courant (Hartford) Sept. 28, 1767; Newport Mercury, Sept. 28, 1767; New York Gazette, Sept. 28, 1767; New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy, Oct. 1, 1767.  I haven’t located any reports on the 1765 story.

[6] Boston Post Boy, July 3, 1769.  Reprinted in Essex Gazette (Salem MA), July 4, 1769; Connecticut Journal, And New-Haven Post-Boy, July 7, 1769; Providence Gazette; and Country Journal, July 8, 1769; New-York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy, July 10, 1769.

[7] Boston Evening Post, Sept. 25, 1769.

[8] Reprinted in Essex Gazette Sept. 19-26, 1769; Supplement to the Massachusetts-Gazette and Boston News-Letter, Sept. 28, 1769; New-Hampshire Gazette, and Historical Chronicle, Nov. 3, 1769.

[9] I couldn’t resist.

One comment on “The Great Moose Massacre

  1. David J. McRae says:

    Very interesting read. Well done, sir.

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