Two hundred and fifty years ago, hunting was one of Louisiana’s most lucrative occupations. Known as “chase hunters,” professionals in the business spent as much as a year in the deep woods pursuing deer, buffalo, and bear. Skins and meat were in high demand, and hunting became an important part of Louisiana’s economy. By the 1730s, hunters working out of Natchitoches were collecting more than twenty thousand deerskins every few months.
Much of the hunting focused on the upper Ouachita River—what the French called the Black River. The Ouachita Valley was in the Natchitoches district, so merchants there often became partners with the chase hunters. A 1764 contract between Natchitoches resident Andre Rambin and hunter Joseph Gallien reflects a typical arrangement: Gallien was heading to the Ouachita River with a black man and Indian woman to hunt buffalo, bear, and deer for an entire year. Rambin agreed to furnish Gallien twenty-five pounds of powder, fifty pounds of musket balls, a flintlock musket, one hogshead of salt, a copper cauldron, twelve butcher knives, fifty gun flints, twelve ramrods, two axes, an adz, a mosquito bar, fifteen pots of rum, fifty pounds of flour, twelve pounds of sugar, twelve pounds of rice, three barrels of corn, eight pots of bear oil, and three hundred livres to pay the black man. After the hunt, Gallien was to take all of the skins, bear oil, buffalo liver and tongue, and salted meat to New Orleans, where he would divide it with Rambin.
Bear oil was one of the most valuable commodities sought by the chase hunters. It was collected by boiling bear meat in a large pot of water and then skimming off the oil as it rose to the top like cream. The oil was used as lamp fuel, cooking oil, a lubricant, hair and moustache wax, a substitute for olive oil on salads, a leather softener, and body ointment. It was particularly popular in hot, humid Louisiana because it did not turn rancid in the summer like other animal fats. Bear oil was even used as a form of currency. The oldest document in the Natchitoches court house is a 1722 contract between a settler and a carpenter. The settler hired the carpenter to build a house and agreed to pay him partially in bear oil. Another contract shows that a settler sold a house for bear oil.
Hunting was so important to Spain’s economy after it took control of Louisiana, in 1763, that the governor dispatched Capt. Jean Baptiste Filhiol up the Ouachita River to gather the hunters’ families into settlements so they could be protected against roaming bands of Osage and Choctaw Indians. Filhiol, his wife, and a few companions paddled canoes from New Orleans to the Ouachita River. Upon arrival, Filhiol was horrified at the chase hunters’ lifestyle.
He claimed they took no precautions against going hungry, simply living from hand-to-mouth on animal meat and some produce that grew haphazardly around their crude lean-to shelters. Starvation was so prevalent that mothers fastened belts tightly around their crying babies to help stifle the hunger pains. (Filhiol never explained why professional hunters in a hunting paradise were constantly hungry.)
Mothers also had a peculiar way of keeping their toddlers occupied while they went about their work. Filhiol claimed they tied a short piece of string to a chunk of bear fat and fastened the other end to the baby’s big toe. The child was then left on the ground, where he was content to gnaw on the bear fat for hours. When the baby inevitably swallowed the greasy meat and began to choke, he would instinctively kick and the string attached to the toe would pop the meat out of his throat.
Filhiol reported that the hunters lived a life “of the greatest independence, placing work in horror, knowing hardly if they were Christian, who will, whenever they find occasion, make joy out of incest, of whom perjury, intoxication, and adultery pass as niceness …”
Filhiol eventually established the Poste du Ouachita on an open prairie known to the locals as Prairie of the Canoes because hunters often gathered there. When the Indians continued to threaten the people, Filhiol built Fort Miro, in 1791, and it became the seat of government for the Ouachita district. The settlement at Fort Miro was renamed Monroe, in 1819, to honor the James Monroe, the first steamboat to travel up the Ouachita River.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who has received numerous awards for his books and outdoor articles.