There is a story in south-eastern New England told to most children/youngsters about one of the great pioneers of the area and his bold courage, and as its being in New England, ends with a bizarre twist. The story is of Israel Putnam, a brave fighter and national hero and a wolf defending its life. I believe it to be one of the most amazing accounts I’ve heard in recent years of researching the history of southern New England. Especially the “wolf jubilee” that was held afterward. Here is the full story as is known….
“Israel Putnam moved to Connecticut from Massachusetts in 1740 at the age of 22. He had been living upon his farm two or more years when an incident occurred which was destined to be always closely associated with his name. This was the wolf hunt in the winter of 1742-43. A she-wolf caused Putnam and some of the other settlers great loss by preying upon their sheepfolds. She had repeatedly eluded the hunters, although they were successful in killing most of her young. She frequently returned from the woods in the west and once barely escaped from a steel trap by tearing her paw from her claws which were caught in it. One night when prowling over Putnam’s farm, she killed seventy of his sheep and goats, and lacerated many of the lambs and kids. In this exigency he and five Pomfret men arranged a continuous pursuit by agreeing to hunt alternately in pairs. Fortunately a light snow had fallen and the course of the wolf could be easily traced. The tracks showed one foot to be shorter than the other paws. This was proof that the animal was the same which had previously lost some of her claws in the trap. On reaching the Connecticut River, the hunters found that the wolf had turned in the opposite direction. Following the trail back toward Pomfret and traveling all night, they arrived within about three miles of Putnam’s farmhouse at ten o’clock in the morning, when John Sharp, a lad of seventeen years of age, who had outstripped the other pursuers, discovered the den into which the wolf had been driven by the bloodhounds. The news of the location of her lair spread rapidly, and many persons, armed with guns and supplied with material for smoking her out, hastened to the place, which was among the granite boulders on the side of a steep, craggy hill.
The whole day was spent by Putnam and his neighbours in attempting to dislodge the animal, but the dogs – one of them Putnam’s own hound – which were sent into the den returned frightened and badly wounded and would not go in again. Straw and sulfer were burned within the entrance, but without compelling the wolf to quit her hiding place. Twelve unsuccessful hours passed away. It was already ten o’clock at night, yet Putnam felt the importance of continuing the efforts in the emergency. His servent being unwilling to enter the den and attempt to shoot the wolf, Putnam himself, notwithstanding the remonstrances of his neighbours against so perilous a venture, made ready to undertake it.
He took off his coat and waistcoat; then he tied a long rope around his legs in order that he could be pulled back by it when he kicked it as a signal; he lighted the torch which he had improvised from some strips of birch bark and, holding it in his hand, crawled into the cave. The entrance was about two feet square and very slippery on account of the ice. The den descended obliquely fifteen feet, then ran horizontally about ten feet more and ascended gradually sixteen feet to the end of the opening. It was not more than a yard wide in any part and it was so low overhead that in no place could a person raise himself from his hands and knees.
Crawling slowly down to the level part and continuing until he reached the gradual ascent, Putnam saw the fiery eyes of the wolf as she crouched at the end of the dark cave, gnashing her teeth and growling at him. He gave the signal which he had arranged, but the excited people, hearing the savage sound and thinking that he had been attacked, dragged him out with such solicitous but ill-judged energy that his shirt was stripped over his head and his skin severly scratched. He prepared himself to enter again, this time taking his gun, which he had loaded with nine buckshot. Holding it in one hand and a torch in the other, he advanced farther than before into the den and found the wolf even fiercer, howling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping her head between her legs. He fired at her just as she was evidently about to spring upon him. Being instantly pulled out, he refreshed himself and waited for the smoke to disappear out of the den. He then made a third venture. When he approached the wolf this time he heard nothing from her and touching her nose with his torch, found that she was dead. He grasped her ears, kicked the rope and was drawn out, dragging his victim into the presence of the astonished and exultant people.
Up the ragged and icy face of the hill and through the wild woodland the wolf was carried to a house a mile distant and suspended from a beam into which an iron spike had been driven. Then at that midnight hour a sort of “wolf jubilee” was held and, for several succeeding days, people came from different directions to see the animal.
The text on the plaque in front of the cave is as follows….
PUTNAM and THE WOLFFOLLOWING HER TRACKS THROUGH ONE DAY AND NIGHT IN THE EARLY SNOW OF DECEMBER 1742 TO THE CONNECTICUT RIVER AND BACK, THE EARLY SETTLERS OF THIS REGION HERE DISCOVERED THE DEN OF THE SHE WOLF THAT HAD FOR YEARS DEVASTATED THEIR FLOCKS AND HAD SO FAR ELUDED ALL ATTEMPTS AT CAPTURE AFTER ALL OTHER METHODS HAD FAILED. WHEN BOTH SERVANT AND DOG HELD BACK. ISRAEL PUTNAM, OF WHOSE SHEEP HAD BEEN SLAUGHTERED, AT 10 O’CLOCK AT NIGHT, WITH A ROPE TIED TO HIS FEET, FIRST WITH A TORCH, AGAIN WITH A MUSKET, ENTERED THIS CAVE, AND BY THE LIGHT OF HER ANGRY EYES, SHOT AND KILLED THE MARAUDER, AND ENTERING – A THIRD TIME, DRAGGED FORTH THE BODY OF THE LAST WOLF IN CONNECTICUT.
THIS TABLET IS PRESENTED TO THE ELIZABETH-PORTER PUTNAM CHAPTER OF THE DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, BY COLONEL DANIEL PUTNAM ASSOCIATION INC., AND THEIR FRIENDS TO PRESERVE THE MEMORY OF AN ACT OF COURAGE AND OF PUBLIC SERVICE BY A YOUNG FARMER, WHO WAS IN LATER YEARS TO WIN FAME AS A WISE LEADER, A BRAVE FIGHTER, AND A NATIONAL HERO.
“HE DARED TO LEAD WHERE OTHERS DARED TO FOLLOW”
People wishing to visit the actual wolf’s den can plot out a course to Mashamoquet State Park in northeast Connecticut. There will be signs upon arriving. The hike is short to the den. Happy hiking!
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