Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Deer Parks in the18C American Landscape

c. 1730-1735 Gerardus Duyckinck (American artist, 1695-1746). De Peyster Boy with a deer.

In colonial British America, the sons of gentry occasionally were painted with deer pets, while many of their elders built reserves to protect & nurture deer & and display their wealth & power to neighbors & passers-by.  Deer parks generally belonged to wealthy landowners who had enough meat to eat but who were eager to exhibit their prominent status. 

A deer park was a large enclosed natural area of wood & field on the pleasure grounds near a dwelling. It was a refuge in which to keep & preserve natural & imported deer. Initially, deer were kept to be eaten. British landscape manuals advised deer park owners not to approach the deer, so that they would remain wild. 

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.

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."

Virginia Lt. Gov. William Gooch (1681-1751) describing the 1727 Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, VA “... an handsome garden, an orchard full of fruit, & a very large Park. (He intended to turn the park) to better use I think than Deer...”
1730s Gerardus Duyckinck (American artist, 1695-1746) Boy with a Deer - John Van Cortlandt (1718-1747) Note: The Brooklyn Museum, which owns this painting, relates that the artists (for this painting & the image above) employed a popular British mezzotint portrait print as the source for this composition & for details such as the fawn, the tree, the masonry wall, & the pilaster, as well as the curved stone step before the figure.

As economic stability increased and international & local trade and commerce began making inroads on the self-sufficient 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.

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." American poet, journalist, & editor of the New York Evening Post. William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) in 1821 wrote a letter to his wife, Frances F. Bryant, describing the Vale, estate of Theodore Lyman, Waltham, MA “He took me to the seat of Mr. Lyman. . . It is a perfect paradise. . . North of the house was a park, with a few American deer in it & a large herd of spotted deer-a beautiful animal imported from Bengal.”

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.”

English immigrant Williamsburg tavern & store keeper Daniel Fisher kept a rather unhappy journal from 1750 to 1755. (Louise Pecquet du Bellet published a bit of it in her 1907, Some Prominent Virginia Families.) His May 25, 1755 diary entry of the Proprietor’s Garden, Philadelphia noted “. . . descending from the House is a neat little Park tho’ I am told there are no Deer in it.”

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.  English clergyman Andrew Burnaby (1732-1812), wrote in his Travels Through the Middle Settlements in North America, In the Years 1759 & 1760, which was published in 1775, describing a park & garden near the Passaic River, NJ “I went down two miles farther to the park & gardens of. . . colonel Peter Schuyler. In the gardens is a very large collection of citrons, oranges, limes, lemons, balsams of Peru, aloes, pomegranates, & other tropical plants; & in the park I saw several American & English deer, & three or four elks or moose-deer.”

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."

British Capt. Simeon Ecuyer, the Swiss-born commander of Fort Pitt, April 1764, was in the midst of fencing the fort's gardens, when he commented on the Fort in Pittsburgh, PA “. . . the deer park, the little garden, & the bowling green, I am just now making into one garden, it will be extremely pretty & 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."

In 1774, at the late John Smith estate in New Jersey, 5 miles from Burlington on the Anococus River, there was a deer park containing 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 (1748–1815), came to America in 1798 & returned to England in 1800. Before he sailed back to England, he 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.
1745 Artist Frederick Tellschaw. Reproduction Thomas Lodge with deer.

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.”

Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) in his 1789 American Geography described Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, Fairfax County, VA “A small park on the margin of the river, where the English fallow-deer, & the American wild-deer are seen through the thickets, alternately with the vessels as they are sailing along, add a romantic & picturesque appearance to the whole scenery.” 

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.”

In his 1830s Recollections of John Mason (1766-1849) described 18C Gunston Hall, seat of George Mason (1725-1792), Mason Neck, VA (Gunston Hall Archives) “On this front you descended directly into an extensive Garden-touching the house... opposite to & in full view from the Garden was was a Deer park studded with Trees kept well fenced & 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 the President's 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."
Anonymous, Hunting Scene, c 1800 at Winterthur

Maryland-born American artist Charles Willson Peale (1741-1829) noted Wye House, the estate of Col. Edward Lloyd, Talbot County, MD, “The Col. is possessed of immence property, he had 400 Ars. of land in a park to keep Deer, round which was a fence of 20 rails high, Maise were planted within for sustenance of his deer.”

In his 1799 Travels, Isaac Weld (1774-1856) wrote of Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, VA “The ground in the rear of the house is also laid out in a lawn, & the declivity of the Mount, towards the water, in a deer park.”

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."
Sophie Madeleine du Pont, Deer house at Eleutherian Mills, c. 1824. Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Del. 

I could find no portraits of people attending deer, until I saw this wonderful image. It is not American, but will have to make do.
1775 Agostino Brunias (1728 - 1796) (Italian, active in Britain (1758-1770; 1777-1780s) Servants Washing a Deer

I find few American paintings of deer with women except for the hunt scenes & there the deer are quite distant.  I do have one mid-18C needlework depicting a women & 3 deer.
Mehitable Starkey (b 1739) Embroidered in Boston c 1758 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC. The top scene shows 3 people harvesting grain; a woman at the center holds a sickle aloft, while a man at her right cuts the wheat & a man at her left bundles it. The lower scene depicts a landscape with 2 reclining deer flanking a leaping deer. 

See
Dunbar, Gary S.. “Deer-Keeping in Early South Carolina,” Agricultural History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1962)