Article for November - December 2006
by John Culler
photography by Phillip Jones and Ted Borg
Challenged by years of over-hunting, white-tailed deer in South Carolina moved deep into river swamps where humans rarely followed, emerging as small farms changed to new-growth forests and law enforcement extended a net of protection over their struggling populations.
In looking at the history of deer hunting in South Carolina, one finds clearly demonstrated the two most important factors that limit the numbers of any wildlife populations. Both are concerned directly with man—the use of the land and indiscriminate slaughter without regard for age, sex or season.
Before the white man came into the area that is now South Carolina, the Indians coexisted not only with deer but with all wildlife species in a manner which seemingly worked out well for everything concerned—they took only what was needed.
The Indians used the whitetail for food, clothing, tools made from bones, some forms of housing, rawhide for sewing and binding and a hundred other miscellaneous uses. They even practiced a crude form of wildlife management by burning—probably to drive game from cover—which opened the forest for new growth, thus benefiting the deer herds. It seems to have been an ideal system.
When Europeans arrived, this country was indeed the land of opportunity. One early writer, in 1682, commented on the number of deer. "There is such infinite herds that the whole country seems but one continued park," he wrote, but his “infinite herds” were not to last long. Whereas the Indian took only what he needed for his family’s immediate needs, the settler looked upon deer as a medium of trade, and thousands upon thousands of deer hides began showing up on the docks of Charles Town and Savannah, destined for the factories of Europe.
Of course the settlers were also busy clearing the forests so they could grow their crops, and the combination of loss of habitat and unrestricted slaughter played a heavy toll on the deer herds of South Carolina.
In a country with little or no actual money, deer hides became the medium of exchange. Even today we refer to a dollar as a "buck," a holdover from Colonial days. From 1755 to 1773 the hides from 600,000 deer were shipped to Europe from Savannah, but the port of Charles Town was much busier, and between 1739 and 1762 the port shipped 131,000 to 335,000 pounds of deer hides annually, averaging more than 100,000 hides a year. These figures include only the deer hides shipped out of the country, and not the many thousands of deer killed for home use.
By 1836, another writer, commenting on the abundant deer of earlier times and the constant flooding of Europe with deer hides from the Southern part of the United States, wrote: "These exports represent a great slaughter and the '‘infinite herds' of the late seventeenth century must have been seriously diminished, particularly in parts of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida."
The settlers didn’t need any writer to tell them the deer herds were fast disappearing. Even as early as 1700, in an effort to save as many deer as possible for themselves, they passed laws providing for a ten shilling bounty to be paid "for the killings of a wolf, tiger, bear or bobcat." Interestingly enough, if the claim was made by an Indian, he was to get only five shillings.
But it wasn’t the predators that were taking the deer, and the herds continued to decline. In 1752 an act was passed that prohibited betting on hunting. Groups and individuals, cocksure of their hunting prowess, would make wagers they could kill a certain number of deer, ducks, rabbits and so forth, in a given amount of time. "Large sums of money have been lost following this deceitful practice," was the comment.
Although the two earlier laws did concern hunting, it wasn’t until 1769 that a law was on the books that came close to regulating deer hunting. It was called "an act for the preservation of deer, and to prevent the mischiefs arising from hunting at unreasonable times." This act established some first ground rules for deer hunting. It set a particular time that deer could be killed—no doe or fawn could be shot between January first and the last day of July, no buck could be shot between September first and the last Friday in October, or between March first and the end of April.
If one were to kill deer out of season, he was required to forfeit two pounds for each one killed. The second stipulation provided that any person could kill a deer for food, as long as that person did not try to sell the skin. The third provision was applicable to the Indians and provided that nothing in the act was meant to deprive "friendly" Indians of any right or privilege to which they were entitled. A penalty of four pounds was imposed for night deer-hunting, and no person was allowed to hunt any farther than seven miles from his or her place of residence.
During the late 1800s, market hunting, which had begun years earlier as the cities along our coast began to grow and many of their inhabitants did not have time to hunt for themselves, was at its peak in South Carolina, and deer numbers had reached an extremely low point.
Relatively unrestricted deer hunting continued in the state some years after the turn of the century. In many areas hunting with dogs was common all year long, and all deer were killed, regardless of age or sex. The few deer that were left were all confined to the most remote and inaccessible habitat types—hardwood bottomland swamps and mountainous terrain. Fortunately, South Carolina is blessed with perhaps the greatest swamps of any state, and later they were to provide the deer that repopulated the entire state.
In 1908 an Audubon Society was formed in South Carolina, empowered by the Legislature with the same authority later given the Game and Fish Department. The Society had fourteen wardens but paid a commission only. In fact, the only thing furnished was a badge.
In his first report to the legislature, the society’s president, B.F. Taylor, emphasized the plight of the deer in the state: "With respect to deer," he wrote, "I have no hesitancy in saying that, taking the state as a whole, deer are rapidly diminishing. In some small areas sedulously protected by wardens, there is said to be an increase, but the slaughter by the populace is especially heavy when the rivers are in freshet, and the does, great with young, lie along the shore to rest. Here they are shot down ruthlessly, with no regard to the humanity which ought to be called forth by their conditions. The laws should forbid the killings of does at any time of the year."
It was the beginning of the long, hard effort to restore the white-tailed deer to South Carolina, an effort which was to result in the bloody deaths of several wardens and law violators alike, which has continued to the present.
Most of the wardens then were reluctant to arrest their friends, and since they were not being paid anyway, it didn't make much difference. There were a few individuals, however, who took their jobs seriously. One was Warden L.P. Reeves, who was murdered from ambush in 1909, "after he had set out the word that he was determined to enforce the law." The incident occurred near Reevesville, and as far as I can find, was the first death in the line of duty by a wildlife officer in South Carolina.
We must remember that in those days, and to a lesser extent even today, many people regarded the killing of game as their God-given right, and they didn’t feel obligated by game laws or seasons.
By 1913, the Audubon Society was no longer charged with enforcing the law. Now it was the South Carolina Game and Fish Department and A.A. Richardson, chief game warden, that again asked the Legislature to pass a "bucks only" law. "I have found from personal observation," Richardson wrote the lawmakers, "that in Berkeley County, where the lands are owned by resident clubs, that this rule is followed by club members, and only deer with horns are shot, and the result has been that deer are more plentiful now than they ever have been, whilst, on the other hand, in Hampton County, where at one time there were more deer than in Berkeley, they have been shooting regardless of sex, there are hardly any deer left at all in comparison to ten years ago. I am requesting this law in response to sportsmen of both counties."
It's interesting to look through these old reports. Small tidbits that lead the present-day reader a little closer to the prevalent thought of those days are on almost every page. In the 1913 report, the cases brought to court for the year are also listed, and I was puzzled by one "killed deer out of season" case that bore no fine. The asterisk at the bottom of the page cleared it up: "Confederate veteran who has no money."
Two boys in violation of the law were also released without a fine, the report stated, when the boys' father "showed up and gave them a sound thrashing." I’ll bet it wouldn't be hard for most of us to find our fathers, uncles and granddads on some of those lists, either.
The blood and resentment continued to flow against those who were trying to enforce game laws, and in his report of 1914, Chief Richardson stated: "About three-fourths of the people in South Carolina favor the game and fish laws, and are friendly to the department. These constitute the better element of our people, who realize the value of the work that we are trying to accomplish. The remaining one-fourth of our people do not in any way conceive the value of our wildlife, and may be classed as unfriendly. A portion of them are not only unfriendly to the law and the department, but are deadly enemies of the birds and animals, and mortal foes of all game wardens."
"The records will show," Richardson continued, "that one South Carolina game warden was foully murdered by unknown assassins. The year 1914 has by no means been one of peace and harmony for our forces, and in three instances the price paid by the warden who did his duty was in blood.
"A warden in Aiken County was badly beaten while making an arrest, another in Dorchester was seriously shot in a battle with eight men, and the chief game warden was cut and stabbed nearly to death while fighting for his life in Barnwell County."
In the ensuing years, the efforts to improve enforcement of the game laws in the state continued, but it was a long, slow process. The changes in habitat continued, and with the destruction of the last remnant of our forest we almost lost the wood duck, a species dependent on den trees.
The great depression came and went, but the plight of the whitetail changed very little. In fact, it wasn’t until after World War II that things really began to improve for deer, and it was the change in land use, coupled with a good law enforcement effort at last, that brought it about.
As industry moved into South Carolina and the patterns of life changed, many marginal farms were shut down, and the sons of farmers looked to other occupations for their livelihoods. This "leaving the land" didn’t just occur in South Carolina; in fact, between 1945 and 1953, ten million acres of farmland in the South reverted to forests. The great cotton fields of the Piedmont were now playing host to a "second-growth forest"—ideal deer habitat.
By 1949 every Southern state except South Carolina had a deer restoration program. However, the next year the first big step was made in this state; nine deer were trapped in the Francis Marion National Forest and released in Edgefield County. Deer weren't the only wildlife species being moved, as 160 raccoons and 13 turkeys were also relocated to the western piedmont.
By September of 1952 twenty-eight deer had been released in the Sumter National Forest and the program was really under way. There were high hopes among game managers that one day South Carolina would again have a large and thriving deer population, and in 1958, when the screwworm was eliminated and the deer herds began to expand their range naturally, these hopes were assured.
Today we have an open season in every single county, and the longest season and most liberal bag limit in the United States. It hasn’t been easy, but we were blessed with some great swamps that saved a remnant population, a change in land use and some dedicated individuals who were willing to give their lives to see deer thriving in South Carolina once again.
This article was first printed in the September-October issue of South Carolina Wildlife in 1976, when John Culler was the magazine’s editor and deer hunting had just begun to enjoy the popularity it does today.
© 2006 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine - www.scwildlife.com