“Beasts of Prey” in Colonial South Carolina

A Kiawah Island Bobcat at S.C. Wildlife Magazine

A Kiawah Island Bobcat
(S.C. Wildlife Magazine)

The early colonists who settled South Carolina found here a bountiful ecosystem, complete with the natural hierarchy of predators and prey. Many historians have correctly noted that the trade in pelts—primarily of deer and beaver—was a significant part of this colony’s early economy, but far less historical attention has been paid to the natural predators of South Carolina. Although we rarely hear about such creatures invading our modern lives, South Carolina’s early colonists saw the indigenous “beasts of prey” as a significant threat to their efforts to raise crops and to husband domesticated animals. In fact, the scarcity of carnivorous mammals in modern South Carolina is directly linked to a government-sponsored policy of systematic extermination that successfully rid the Lowcountry of “beasts of prey” by the year 1750.

Between 1696 and 1744, the South Carolina General Assembly enacted a series of laws offering bounties to encourage the killing of “beasts of prey”: wolves, bears, wildcats, and “tigers.” That’s right, “tigers,” by which the early colonists undoubtedly meant the cougar or panther or puma (depending on which common name you prefer for “puma concolor“). The early colonists perceived these animals as a threat to their lives, as well as a danger to their livestock and the large numbers of Africans being imported into the colony. To protect themselves and their investments, our legislature first struck a bargain with the Native American tribes of the Lowcountry, requiring them to deliver an annual quota of carnivore skins as a kind of duty on their deliveries of profitable deer skins. As the colony matured, and the population of Indian tribes diminished, the legislature shifted their eradication incentives to the white settlers, offering outright bounties for each scalp (“with two ears”) they delivered to their local Justice of the Peace.

We can look around our communities today and bear witness to the success of these early hunting efforts. South Carolina’s population of red wolves, black bears, bobcats, and cougars has been so diminished that in recent years our Department of Natural Resources has initiated programs to boost their tiny numbers. Twentieth-century hunting, trapping, and development are usually named as the causes for the extirpation of such species, but let us not forget about our colonial government’s contribution to this story. It was the systematic efforts of early Lowcountry hunters, motivated by government incentives, that initiated the decline of “beasts of prey” in South Carolina more than three centuries ago.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, please join me for an illustrated program titled:

“Hunting ‘Beasts of Prey’ in

Colonial South Carolina”

Wednesday, November 5th at 6 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.