The Essential White-Tailed Deer
"When Daniel Boone goes by, at night,
The phantom deer arise
And all lost, wild America Is burning in their eyes."
--Stephen Vincent Benét
Peering through the green leaves of the river bottom forest, the hunter searched the edge of the densely wooded hillside. The rain had stopped. Mist and low clouds moved rapidly south as a north wind pushed the summer storm ahead of it, rippling across grasses and wildflowers.
Water dripped occasionally from the massive hackberry tree under which he had taken refuge, threatening to dampen the priming in the lock of his muzzle loading rifle. Flipping back the frizzen, he quickly inspected the powder in the pan and then closed it again. The powder was dry and would ignite if he needed it.
Already the woods were coming to life after several hours of rain. A slight movement at the dark forest edge riveted his attention. A few moments later, he made out the doe's ocher-colored head as she flicked at the flies with her ear. When she stepped out into the open, he slowly raised his rifle...
This hunt could have taken place a few months ago, during the muzzleloader portion of the deer season, or 200 years ago, when the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled up the Missouri River. White-tailed deer were abundant then and are again abundant today.
The white-tailed deer was without a doubt the most important wild animal during the settlement of Missouri. For the first frontiersmen, as well as for tribes like the Sac, the Fox, the Osage and the Missouri's, the white-tailed deer meant survival.
Trappers and voyageurs also depended on the dried meat of deer for sustenance as they probed up every stream and river that fed into the immense Missouri river drainage. They made knife handles from the antlers of deer and wore moccasins of deer skin.
More than any other animal, white-tailed deer were the reason these hunters stalked the shadowy edges of the hardwood wilderness. They also hunted elk and buffalo and trapped beaver and otter, but deer skins were a valuable medium of exchange. So common was the known value of a skin (about one dollar) that it became synonymous with "buck."
The seasonal take of deer skins allowed the first Anglo-American hunters to pay off their notes of credit and re-supply their hunting parties with powder and ball, as well as shirts, rifles, knives, soap and other necessities.
As the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled up the Missouri River in 1804, hunters had no trouble keeping the party in fresh meat. Elk and black bears were mentioned frequently in the captains' journals, but white-tailed deer were their mainstay, feeding the expedition's 40-plus crew and allowing them to conserve supplies for leaner times ahead. On June 16th, 1804, near present day Saline county, Clark wrote,
"we Came to the Camp of our hunters, they had two Bear & two Deer..."
On June 24, near present day Jackson County, Clark noted,
"...The Countrey on each Side of the river is fine interspersed with Praries, in which imence herds of Deer is Seen, on the banks of the river we observe numbers of Deer watering and feeding on the young willow, Several Killed to day."
In the wake of Lewis and Clark, settlers pushed across the Mississippi and up the Missouri, building cabins and houses to replace the temporary camps and half-faced shelters of the woodsmen who had penetrated the frontier ahead of them and continued on in their nomadic pursuits.
Frontier farmers needed logs for cabin walls and rail fences, but they relied on deer for their food and clothing. As they cut clearings in the forest and plowed the sod, the farmer pioneers created perfect conditions for lush new growth favored by whitetails, and deer numbers flourished. Some herds reportedly contained hundreds of deer.
Deer were so numerous that in 1841, a saddle of venison could be bought in most of Missouri for between 75 cents and $1.
Relentless pressure from the guns of settlers, and from market hunters eventually took their toll, however. Deer populations around settlements like St. Genevieve and St. Louis began to decline dramatically. The few deer that remained were found in remote Ozark forests and in the prairies.
The mid-1800s brought steamboats and railroads and more rapid change. The human population swelled, and the impact on the land accelerated. Plows chewed at the prairies, and hungry rural people began to substitute beef for venison.
In 1841, Missouri passed its first game law. It restricted the taking of whitetails to five months of the year, but a lack of enforcement made the new law ineffective. Meanwhile, facing the challenges of free-ranging livestock, unregulated timber cutting and year-round hunting, deer numbers continued to spiral downward. By 1910, deer could be found only in one or two counties north of the Missouri river, and in the marshy Mississippi lowlands and the rugged Ozark hills.
According to most estimates, by 1925, there were fewer than 400 deer remaining in Missouri. The wild creature that had been so much a part of Missouri's heritage and that had been so crucial to its inhabitants for centuries had become only a memory in most of the state.
In 1936 the newly established Conservation Department directed its efforts to restoring white-tailed deer by trapping deer in the Ozarks and relocating them to other parts of the state. From 1937 to 1957, they moved 2,343 deer from refuge areas to 70 release sites in 54 counties.
Due to the diligent efforts of citizens and conservation employees, the deer has returned to its historic range. Today it is the most heavily hunted and abundant of all big game animals.
Deer hunters also add hundreds of millions of dollars to Missouri's economy each year. In 2002, for example, they contributed $711.5 million as they spent money on clothing, food, motels and campgrounds, vacations, guns, ammunition, bows and other hunting equipment. Still others bought land specifically to have a good place to hunt deer.
It's hard to imagine that the wild animal that provided sustenance for Indians, explorers like the Corps of Discovery and Missouri's first settlers could still have important cultural and economic impacts on our lives today and into the future.