Leave No Trace

Thoughts On The Great Hunts Of Chautauqua

According to some accounts, this may be the oldest house in the county, circa 1810, on Route 380 at the Sinclairville Road bend and across from the Kabob Swamp Road. Photos by Sandy Robison

Once, a long time ago in Chautauqua County, gray wolves ran wild in the Town of Stockton way out by the Kabob Swamp, south of Cassadaga, west of Sinclairville. Though our early history of the county is spotty, we find reputable evidence that those wolves terrified residents (and consumed their livestock) so much that people did not venture out at night without weapons and light of some kind. Because of that the wolves of Chautauqua County were ultimately hunted down and killed to the last one. The same fate was true of the “panthers” or big cats resembling mountain lions, of the county as well. And though we see an occasional black bear here, they too have been hunted out.

Just over 200 years ago, white settlers began to take up residence in what later would be Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties. Many were drawn to the Chadakoin River outlet of Lake Chautauqua for its manufacturing possibilities, but others chose the settlements of Ashville and Panama, South Stockton and the areas named above. I read in one historical volume that the white house at the bend of Route 380 just across from the road to Sinclairville, is the oldest structure in the county, built 1810. It still looks strong, commanding the curve. It may have been the school house for that area (there are conflicting reports on that). Whoever built it did a quality job, and it has been cared for two centuries now.

What must it have been like, to settle here, in 1810? Imagine the vast forests, the forbidding swamps, the huge hills, the non-existent roads. The Kabob Swamp is a wild place still, just past the curve and location noted above, between Route 380 as it wends its way to Stockton and the Kabob Road, which leads directly to the Village of Cassadaga.

Those people who settled our area were stalwart, brave, gutsy folks who had the vision to see a future in a virtually uncharted land. They braved elements we still face here like violent, frigid weather and vicious blizzards but did so without comforts we take for granted. The Native American tribes who hunted here and once lived here were all gone by 1810. The Iroquois had divided into various tribes and settled to our east in Cattaraugus and south into Pennsylvania all along the Allegany River. It was the Nation of the Cat, the Erie tribes, who once loved this county best and lived throughout it, building their mighty forts, cultivating the land, and celebrating their dead with massive burial mounds still visible in some places. Reportedly, great mounds were once visible on Townline Road in Fluvanna, east of the Lake Road in Bemus Point, and outlying the villages Gerry and Sinclairville.

Though a peaceful people for the most part, the Erie did their share of marauding too, burning a Seneca village in the mid-1600s’s, a mistake that sealed their fate.Not just once but several times, Iroquois nation warriors attacked Erie villages from Lake Erie to south of Bemus Point and across the lake all the way into Pennsylvania via the Brokenstraw Creek. Ultimately, the Iroquois drove them all out–the Erie were killed outright or adopted into Iroquois tribes. I’ve written of the great hunt where the Seneca chased an Erie tribe of about 300 souls across the Ellery hills, across the lake near Bemus, into the swamp near Niobe where most where dispatched, men, women, children, all.

The majestic view from the great Ellery hills. This view is from the top of Townline Road, looking down the hill to Red Bird Creek and the landfill area as well as north towards Fredonia and Lake Erie.

My point is, this was a fierce land, and it took fearless souls to inhabit it. Peoples and creatures flourished and then were wiped out by deliberate, structured hunts. The one in the Kabob Swamp involved hundreds of men with weapons surrounding the swamp on four sides and a signal of some kind, walking into the swamp at once, surrounding creatures of all kinds — deer, birds, squirrels, bear, and wolves. They shot everything that moved, according to the records. They shot until no creature remained. What a thunderous sky that day. Even the usually hard fact historical records note the terror of the animals as they heard the shots and felt the impending doom.

Two hundred years later, the same land sits calm and protected. Fifteen miles north of Jamestown off the Waterman Road, the Kabob State Wildlife Area occupies 38 acres of New York State environmentally protected land. Its purpose, according to the NYS website is “wildlife management, wildlife habitat management, and wildlife-dependent recreation.” Adjacent is the Stockton State Forest, established by the CCC in the 1930s, almost 1000 acres of protected and environmentally sensitive land. Admission is free in both areas, and the rule of thumb is “leave no trace” of human trespass. That people of Western New York have in their way repaid the debt of the great wolf hunt that killed hundreds of animals, perhaps thousands. The count seems largely under-reported and varies from report to report.

Now there are no more wolves. The gray wolf, according to the NYS EPA, has been “eradicated” except for the occasional canis lupus as has the once prolific lynx. The legendary panthers (also known as pumas and mountain lions) have long disappeared though if you are from this area, some neighbor will inevitably tell you a story of seeing a lone panther in the field at dusk once. In the dense Ellery hills and woods, we hear no wolves on a full moon night, we hear no bobcats screaming. We might in a lifetime encounter one bear or see bear tracks in the wild. For the most part, all but the gentle creatures are gone. We humans know how to eradicate whole species from our living space. We do it ruthlessly. We feel entitled.

One of my uncles used to say with a headshake, beaver are destructive creatures. I laugh to think of that now. It’s we humans who are the most destructive creatures. We kill ruthlessly. We wipe out entire species. We seem to do so without mercy. We have dominion after all over all land and animals. But on reflection, dominion means we are the caretakers. We may need to reconsider our position to the land, the air, and to the wild things.

So as we drive the snowplowed highways of the vast Ellery hills in our warm vehicles and listen to music, or call someone on a cellphone, or pass by the Kabob Swamp, for one, let us recall what this place is, where we live, what we owe it, how we treat it.

The vast swamplands of Kabob, populated by a multitude of creatures once again, under a wan sky.