Rufus Ward: Lions and Tygers and Bears

April 24, 2010 9:56:00 PM

Rufus Ward - rufushistory@aol.com

 

First during deer season and now during turkey season radio talk shows and hunters are all discussing black panthers and if they are really found in Mississippi. Naturalists all agree that the black panther is not to be found in North America. However, Mississippi is within the traditional range of the Florida panther and within the last two years a deer feeder''s game camera recorded a night photo of a panther in central Louisiana. 

 

I have been asked several times if there is any historical record of wildlife the first settlers in this area encountered. There actually are old accounts and they hold some surprises. 

 

Wolf Road, now sometimes called Wolfe Road, in northeast Lowndes County, received its name because of the large number of wolves in the area when it was settled during the early 1820s. White''s Slough, on the island by the Columbus-Lowndes Port, was a favorite hunting ground for both the Choctaws and the first Euro-American settlers in Columbus. In an 1870 interview, Peter Pitchlynn recalled bear hunting when he resided on Redbud Creek (southwest of Artesia/southeast of Starkville) during the 1820s. Today there are believed to be just over 100 bears in Mississippi. 

 

One of the most interesting accounts is the notebook of George Rapalji which is at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Rapalji was a trapper and fur trader along the Big Black River (it flows from Webster County to the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg) between 1786 and 1797. He recorded the following skins being traded: deer, otter, bear, racoon, fox, beaver, cat, wildcat and tyger. Over the course of his nine years of trapping and trading on the Big Black, Rapalji only reported one tyger skin as having been taken. That skin was taken in 1794 and was possibly a jaguar. 

 

Until the late 1700s, the range of the jaguar, which was then known as the "tyger," "el tigre" or "American tiger," extended to the Red River in eastern Texas and Louisiana. There are also several accounts of it being seen east of the Mississippi River. Peter Matthiessen in Wildlife in America quotes a 1711 account from coastal Carolina as saying: "tygers ... are more to the westward." Additionally he refers to a 1737 sighting of a tyger in Carolina. The three different types of cat skins taken in Mississippi during the 1790s by Rapalji may well represent bobcat, Florida panther and a jaguar. 

 

As to the black panther, I have my own idea. While deer hunting near Artesia, around 1980, I watched a pair of panther cross the edge of a field late one afternoon. One was tawny colored and the other was brownish. I watched them for about five minutes and as the light faded the brown one began to appear to be black.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.