In colonial British America, the sons of gentry were painted with deer pets, while their elders often built reserves to protect & nurture deer. A deer park was a large enclosed natural area of wood & field on the pleasure grounds near a dwelling. It served as a refuge in which to keep & preserve natural & imported deer. A park is nature bounded, preserved, and protected for a wide range of uses & values.
Initially, deer were kept to be eaten. As economic stability increased & the industrial revolution began making inroads on rural life, the focus of the deer park changed from keeping deer for food and the pleasure of the hunt to keeping deer nearby in a natural setting to inspire & renew the owner's family & guests' social & psychological well-being.
Venison & buckskin became staples of the British American colonial economy with the first landings at Jamestown, & Plymouth. Deer were hunted by both the settlers & the native Americans. Once the natives learned that a venison haunch was worth a yard of fabric or a trade axe; they trapped, snared, & killed deer with impunity. By 1630, many coastal tribes had access to European firearms; and one Indian hunter with a gun could kill 5 or 6 deer in a day.
Deer declined rapidly along the Atlantic seaboard throughout the 17C. As early as 1639, authorities in Newport, Rhode Island recognized the danger of deer depletion and established the first closed season on deer hunting in the colonies. In 1646, the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, followed suit ordering a closed season on deer hunting “from the first of May till the first of November; and if any shall shoot a deere within that time he shall forfeit five pounds …” The ordinance set a pattern for laws adopted by most of the colonies by 1720.
The preamble of the Connecticut law reflected concern over the future of native deer, "The killing of deer at unseasonable times of the year hath been found very much to the prediudice of the Colonie, great numbers of them having been hunted and destroyed in deep snowes when they are very poor and big with young, the flesh and skins of very little value, and the increase greatly hindered."
In 1705, the General Assembly at Newport, Rhode Island, noted that it, "hath been informed that great quantities of deer hath been destroyed in this Collony out of season … and may prove much to the damage of this Collony for the future, and … to the whole country, if not prevented." And in 1705, New York passed a law to protect deer.
In 1727, Virginia's Governor William Gooch decided that he could turn the large deer park at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg "to better use I think than Deer."
Deer laws varied from colony to colony, calling for closed seasons, sometimes terms of years, to the prohibition of using hounds; killing does; export & sale of deer skins; hunting with fire at night; & hunting on Sundays. The goal of these laws was to protect the food resource represented by deer.
Laws protecting deer were loosely enforced. There were only scattered convictions; and by 1750, there were relatively few deer left to protect near towns & larger rural communities. Frontier settlers still lived off the land and killed for venison & hides, when they needed them. Along the edges of the retreating American wilderness, natives & European market hunters still combed the thickets for game in all seasons, far from the reach of any local “deer reeve” or "deer warden." (In New England, these were the mid 18th-century government officers appointed to track down poachers.)
Poachers were dealt with much less seriously in the British American colonies than they were in mother England. In fact, Pennsylvania & Vermont allowed fishing & hunting on all open lands in their colonies. The 1696 Frame of Government of Pennsylvania stated, "That the inhabitants of this province and territories thereof, shall have liberty to fish and hunt, upon the lands they hold, or all other lands therein, not inclosed, and to fish in all waters in the said lands."
Peter Kalm, the Swedish-Finnish explorer and naturalist who traveled through North America from 1748 - 1751, published an account of his travels in a journal entitled En Resa til Norra America, which was translated into German, Dutch, French, and English. Kalm noted that “The American deer can likewise be tamed. A farmer in New Jersey had one in his possession, which he caught when it was very young; at present, it is so tame that in the daytime it runs into the woods for its food, and towards night returns home, frequently bringing a wild deer out of the woods, giving its master an opportunity to hunt at his very door.”
Deer parks certainly existed in the New York area during this period. Rev Andrew Burnaby described a deer park in New Jersey in 1760, "I went down two miles further to the park and gardens of...Peter Schuyler...in the park I saw several American and English deer, and three or four elks or moose-deer."
In 1764, the commandant at Fort Pitt near Pittsburg, Capt. Simeon Ecuyer, was in the midst of fencing the fort's gardens, when he commented on the fort's, "deer park, the little garden and the bowling green, I am just now making into one garding, it will be extremely pretty and very useful to this garrison, the King's Garden will be put in proper order in due time we want seeds very much and we have no potatoes at all."
About 17 miles from Annapolis, Bel-Air, the estate of Marylander Benjamin Tasker, was advertised for sale in the 1761 Pennsylvania Gazette. The 2,200 acres contained a 100 acre deer park "well inclosed and stocked with English Deer."
In 1774, at the late John Smith estate in New Jersey, 5 miles from Burlington on the Anococus River, there was a deer park containg 375 acres in which there were 30-40 deer. The area was surrounded by 20,000 cedar rails in different fences according to the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Many gentry families did not worry about hunting meat for their tables. They simply raised their own supply. Edward Lloyd IV (1744–1796) was a planter from Talbot County, Maryland. He rebuilt the family home called Wye House in the 1780s. The house was then surrounded by 12,000 acres & tended by over 300 slaves.
English agricultural writer Richard Parkinson visited Wye House and wrote, "I then was introduced to Ed. Lloyd, Esq. at Why-House, a man of very extensive possessions...His house and gardens are what may be termed elegant: and the land appeared the best I ever saw in any one spot in America. He had a deer-park, which is a very rare thing there: I saw but two in the country; this, and another belonging to Colonel Mercer. These parks are but small—not above fifty acres each. I could scarcely tell what the deer lived on. There were only some of those small rushes growing in this park which bear the name of grass, and leaves of trees." When Lloyd died in 1796, his deer park contained 61 deer.
Parkinson was probably referring to Virginia-born John Francis Mercer (1759-1821) as the other gentleman who had a deer park. In 1785, he married Sophia Sprigg, the daughter of Richard & Margaret Sprigg of Maryland, following which he took up residence at "Cedar Park" on West River not far from Annapolis, the estate inherited by his wife from her father. He was elected Governor of Maryland in 1801, and was buried in the graveyard at the foot of the garden on his grounds. He left an estate valued at $16,978.75, including 73 slaves. Reportedly the English-style deer park was in a virgin stand of trees, including cedars, from which the estate took its name.
George Washington wrote in 1792, "I have about a dozen deer (some of which are the common sort) which are no longer confined in the Paddock which was made for them but range in all my woods and often pass my exterior fence" Washington received gifts of deer from friends & well wishers, as he did rare plants.
Early deer parks included those at the Waltham, Massachusettes estate of Theodore Lyman and at the Robinson Estate, built in 1750, opposite the present West Point Academy on the Hudson River. Deer in the landscape made the pleasure grounds surrounding these seats seem more "natural."
Historian Gary S Dunbar surveyed South Carolina records for mentions of tame deer. Here are a few of his findings from newspaper advertisements from Charleston,
(1732) “Stray’d out of Mr. Saxby’s Pasture up the Path, two tame Deer about a Year old."
(1751) “Wanted, some Doe Fawns, or young Does, for breeders.”
(1760) “Jumped over from on board the Samuel & Robert, a young deer, with a piece of red cloth round his neck…three pounds reward.”
(1761) “The Owner of a strayed Deer may hear where there is one, applying to the Printer hereof, and paying for this Advertisement.”
(1767) “Two tame Deer, a Buck and a Doe, to be sold by Francis Nicholson, in King-street.”
(1768) “Josiah Smith, junior…is in immediate want of …a couple of Tame Deer.”
(1770) “Stolen or Strayed out of my Yard this Morning, a Young Deer, his Horns just coming out, and is stiff in his hind legs, by being crampt in the Waggen which brought him to Town…Charles Crouch.”
(1772) “Wanted to Purchase. Four Deer, each about Three Years old.”
(1772) “Wanted immediately…Two Tame Deer.”
(1781) “A Tame Deer, Came to my garden about twelve days ago. The owner, on proving his property, and paying charges, shall have it again, by applying to Elizabeth Lamb, Near the Saluting Battery.”
By the late 18C, it seems that deer-keeping was in decline in Charleston. A visitor remarked in 1782, that “the deer formerly ran about the streets, with collars round their necks, like dogs, but at this latter visit, I do not remember to have seen one.”
Jedidiah Morse wrote in his 1789 Geography of the deer at Mount Vernon, Virginia, "A small park on the margin of the river, where the English fallow-deer, and American wild-deer are seen through the thickets."
Isaac Weld also commented in 1794, of the deer park at Mount Vernon, "The ground in the rear of the house is also laid out in a lawn, and the declivity of the Mount, towards the water, in a deer park."
George Mason's (1725-1792) son General John Mason (1766-1849) described the deer park at 18C Gunston Hall, Virginia, which sat on the Potomac River near Mount Vernon. "On this plain adjoining the margin of the hill, opposite to and in full view from the garden, was a deer park, studded with trees, kept well fenced and stocked with native deer domesticated."
In a description borrowing from Morse's 1789 depiction of George Washington's Mount Vernon in the Pennsylvania Gazette shortly after his death, his deer park was described. "A small park on the margin of the river, where the English fallow deer and the American wild deer are seen through the thickets alternately, with the vessels as they are sailing along, add a romantic and picturesque appearance to the whole scenery."
One noted deer owner of the period was Revolutionary War veteran Dr. Benjamin Jones. Born in Virginia in 1752, Jones eventually purchased a large tract of land in Henry County, where he built a park and “kept over a hundred deer to amuse his children and grandchildren. A little bell he used on a pet deer is owned by one of his descendants.”
The number of deer parks dwindled in the Early Republic. Many pleasure gardeners were not convinced of the romantic & picturesque aesthetic potential of deer in the new republic and became exasperated with the local destructive deer population.
Rosalie Steir Calvert (1778–1821) wrote from her home Riversdale just outside of Washington DC in Prince George's County, Maryland, "I haven’t been able to enjoy the tulips because the deer come and eat them every night. We have eleven of these beautiful animals, so tame that they come all around the house...However, they do a lot of damage to the young fruit trees, and I am afraid we shall have to kill all of them this fall."
I could find no portraits of people attending deer, until I saw this wonderful image.
It has been nearly impossible to find American paintings of deer with women. I do have one mid-18C needlework depicting a women & 3 deer.
Dunbar, Gary S.. “Deer-Keeping in Early South Carolina,” Agricultural History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1962)