Michael Bellesiles and Guns in the Early Republic

Guns, Violence, and Hunting Were Commonplace in Early America

Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’s Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture makes the claim that hunting with guns was rare in America before the 1830s.1 According to Bellesiles, few Americans hunted, few Americans wanted guns, and few Americans owned guns in the early Republic (the period from the American Revolution to 1846). What guns were present were often old, rusty, or otherwise wall hangers. Similarly, Bellesiles tells us that hunting until the 1840s was done almost entirely by a small number of professional market hunters or by Indians. Most Americans, even on the frontier, Bellesiles claims, did not hunt.2

As evidence for this claim, he reports, “an examination of eighty travel accounts written in America from 1750 to 1860 indicate that the travelers did not notice that they were surrounded by guns and violence.”3 In a previous article, I gave examples of four of these accounts, by Baynard Rush Hall, Anne Newport Royall, Ole Rynning, and Charles Augustus Murray, that Bellesiles misrepresented or distorted; all four reported guns and hunting as commonplace–in some cases, nearly universal–activities.4 The present article reports on eight more accounts that Bellesiles claims to have read–and that all portray an early Republic awash in guns and hunting.

One of those “eighty travel accounts” is William N. Blane’s An Excursion through the United States and Canada, during the Years 1822-3. Blane mentioned guns and hunting on at least 22 pages, and his remarks make it clear that these were not unusual occurrences. On the road across the Appalachians he described his first encounter with rifles in the hands of some hunters. “As one of them, an old man, was boasting of his skill as a marksman, I offered to put up a half-dollar at a distance of fifty yards, to be his if he could hit it. Accordingly, I stepped the distance, and placed the half-dollar in the cleft of a small stick, which I thrust into the ground. The hunter, slowly raising his rifle, fired, and to my great astonishment, struck the half-dollar.”5

Rifles were common in the backcountry. According to Blane, “Go to what house I might, the people were always ready to lend me a rifle, and were in general glad to accompany me when I went out hunting.”6 Blane described going squirrel hunting with an American on an island in the Ohio River, and how the Americans were engaged in a losing battle to exterminate these pests: “In parts of Ohio, the people attempted to destroy them by means of guns, dogs, and clubs. One party of hunters, in the course of a week, killed upwards of 19,000. . . . The people are very fond of the flesh of the squirrel, roasting it, and making it into pies, soups, &c. . . .”7

Blane’s description of the backwoodsmen of the United States observed: “Every boy, as soon as he can lift a rifle, is constantly practicing with it, and thus becomes an astonishingly expert marksman. Squirrel shooting is one of the favorite amusements of all the boys, and even of the men themselves.” Blane wrote an additional two pages about the impressive marksmanship skills of the backwoodsmen, remarking, “in these immense forests, where every tree is a fort, the backwoodsmen, the best sharp shooters in the world, constitute the most formidable military force imaginable.”8

Americans hunted birds as well, and Blane described the normal procedure by which Americans hunted the prairie grouse. “They are delicious eating, and are killed in great numbers by the unrivalled marksmen of this country. After driving up a flock of these birds, the hunter advances within fifteen or twenty yards, raises his long heavy rifle, and rarely misses striking the bird on the head.” After admitting that he was not as good a shot, and had to resort to shooting the prairie grouse through the body, “the Backwoodsmen regarded my unsportsmanlike shooting with as much contempt, as one of our country squires feels, when a cockney shoots at a covey of partridges on the ground.”9 Blane also described the astonishment when he informed Americans that British game laws prohibited hunting deer in public lands, and even limited hunting on one’s own land to the wealthy. “Such flagrant injustice appeared to them impossible. . . .”10

Western Journey

Bellesiles read Fortescue Cuming’s Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country, which described a journey through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky from 1807 to 1809, and claims that Cuming was one of these travelers who “did not notice that they were surrounded by guns and violence.” Throughout his journey Cuming mentioned, with no surprise, widespread use of guns for sport, subsistence hunting, and self-defense. Cuming also distinguished between subsistence hunting and hunting for market, yet he still suggested that subsistence hunting was common, not rare.11 In Kentucky, Cuming describes how abundant the wildlife of the area remained, even after settlement by reporting “that little or no bread was used, but that even the children were fed on game; the facility of gaining which prevented the progress of agriculture. . . .”12

Even though Cuming was a hunter,13 he expressed his admiration for the superior marksmanship of western Pennsylvanians and Virginians: “Apropos of the rifle. The inhabitants of this country in common with the Virginians, and all the back woods people, Indians as well as whites, are wonderfully expert in the use of it: thinking it a bad shot if they miss the very head of a squirrel, or a wild turkey, on the top of the highest forest tree with a single ball; though they generally load with a few grains of swan shot, with which they are equally sure of hitting the head of the bird or animal they fire at.”14

Isaac Weld’s account of his travels in North America between 1795 and 1797 is another of those that Bellesiles claims shows an “absence of discussion about guns.”15 Weld’s account described how rifles worked for his British audience, who would have been unfamiliar with rifled weapons. Weld told how:

An experienced marksman, with one of these guns, will hit an object not larger than a crown piece, to a certainty, at the distance of one hundred yards. Two men belonging to the Virginia rifle regiment, a large division of which was quartered in this town during the war, had such a dependence on each other’s dexterity, that the one would hold a piece of board, not more than nine inches square, between his knees, whilst the other shot at it with a ball at the distance of one hundred paces. This they used to do alternately, for the amusement of the town’s people, as often as they were called upon. Numbers of people in Lancaster can vouch for the truth of this fact. Were I, however, to tell you all the stories that I have heard of the performance of riflemen, you would think the people were most abominably addicted to lying.16

Weld also discussed rifle manufacturing, the use of rifles for hunting,17 and how in the backcountry, “The people all travel on horseback, with pistols and swords. . . .”18

While discussing hunting, Weld compared Canadian hunters to their American counterparts: “The people here, as in the back parts of the United States, devote a very great part of their time to hunting, and they are well skilled in the pursuit of game of every description. They shoot almost universally with the rifle gun, and are as dexterous at the use of it as any men can be.”19 The difference between Americans and Canadians, according to Weld, was that Canadians imported their rifles from England, and preferred larger caliber hunting weapons.

Another of Bellesiles’s “eighty travel accounts” is Francis Baily’s Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 & 1797. Yet Baily’s account is full of guns and hunting, including not only his own, but also those of the Americans whom he met. Baily portrayed boys hunting-with guns-in what were to become the main streets of the nation’s capital,20 and described both Fredericktown and Hagerstown, Maryland, as centers of rifle manufacturing and sales. He bought rifles in Hagerstown.21

Like Cuming, Baily spoke of the Kentuckians as living largely “upon deer and turkeys, which they shoot wild in the woods. . . .”22 He also described Kentuckians’ hunting black bears with rifles.23 Baily was surrounded by guns and by hunting. At no point did Baily give any indication that either was unusual.

Sunday Gunning

Bellesiles also cites Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home-Who’ll Follow? as one of his sources for this gunless America. Yet Kirkland’s account gives many indications that guns and sports involving guns were widespread. Discussing the problems of church attendance, “Preachers belonging to various denominations have, from the beginning, occasionally called meetings in the little log school-house, and many of the neighbours always make a point of being present, although a far greater proportion reserve the Sunday for fishing and gunning.”24

Kirkland mentions long guns, pistols, and hunting in a manner that suggests that they were normal enough parts of frontier life.25 The only gun described as old or rusty in Kirkland’s book belonged to her “neighbour, long Sam Jennings, the slowest talker in Michigan, [who] came sauntering across the yard with his rusty fowling-piece on his shoulder. . . .” It would appear, from the fact that Kirkland described him as heading into the woods with this rusty gun, that it was still functional.26

Kirkland mentioned hunting as unremarkable, commenting on a neighbor whose husband’s love of hunting left her alone and neglected.27 She also reported that in the woods, “The division of labour is almost unknown” and “in absolutely savage life, each man is of necessity his own tailor, tent-maker, carpenter, cook, huntsman, and fisherman. . . .”28

Bellesiles included naturalist John James Audubon’s Delineations of American Scenery and Character on his list of travel accounts, and this is perhaps the most disturbing example of Bellesiles misreading of a source. On page 3 Audubon described traveling along the Ohio River: “The margins of the shores and of the river were at this season amply supplied with game. A Wild Turkey, a Grouse, or a Blue-winged Teal, could be procured in a few moments; and we fared well, for, whenever we pleased, we landed, struck up a fire, and provided as we were with the necessary utensils, procured a good repast.”29

Not surrounded by guns? Audubon described his preparations for a trip in the forests of Pennsylvania, including “25 pounds of shot, some flints . . . my gun Tear-jacket.”30 (It would appear that everywhere that Audubon went, his gun was sure to follow.31) His trip included hunting in the forest with a friend: “The juicy venison, excellent bear flesh . . . that daily formed my food, methinks I can still enjoy.”32 He depicted what this area must have been like before settlement: “Bears and the Common Deer must have been plentiful, as, at the moment when I write, many of both kinds are seen and killed by the resident hunters.”33 Audubon described an incident in which eight bears wandered into a clearing, driving away the woodsmen. “Down they all rushed from the mountain; the noise spread quickly; rifles were soon procured and shouldered; but when the spot was reached, no bears were to be found. . . .”34

Audubon’s chapter on “Navigation of the Mississippi” described how boatmen would stop along the way when logs blocked their path. “The time is not altogether lost, as most of the men, being provided with rifles, betake themselves to the woods, and search for the deer, the bears, or the turkeys, that are generally abundant there.”35

Audubon described the flood stage of the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, and how “Bears, Cougars, Lynxes, and all other quadrupeds that can ascend the trees” were trapped at the top. “Fatigued by the exertions which they have made in reaching the dry land, they will there stand the hunter’s fire, as if to die by a ball were better than to perish amid the waste waters. On occasions like this, all these animals are shot by hundreds.”36

How common was hunting? Audubon described a squatter’s cabin, and how squatters, “like most of those adventurous settlers in the uncultivated tracts of our frontier districts . . . [are] well versed in the chase, and acquainted with the habits of some of the larger species of quadrupeds and birds.” Audubon then wrote about going cougar hunting with a party of squatters. “Each hunter now moved with caution, holding his gun ready. . . .”37

Audubon told of a young couple’s home in the backwoods, and while he emphasized how their clothes and furniture were “homespun” and “of domestic manufacture,” a “fine rifle ornamented the chimney-piece.”38 Audubon described another family in the Louisiana bayous, but in this case, runaway slaves. Their food supply came from wild plants and deer. “One day, while in search of wild fruits, he found a bear dead before the muzzle of a gun that had been set for that purpose. . . . His friends at the plantation managed to supply him with some ammunition. . . .”39

Burning Forest

A chapter about how the burning of forests changed the nature of the trees that grew there described an immense forest fire in Maine, and how the settlers responded to the fire that awakened them one night. “We were sound asleep one night, in a cabin about a hundred miles from this, when about two hours before day, the snorting of the horses and lowing of the cattle which I had ranging in the woods suddenly awakened us. I took yon rifle, and went to the door to see what beast had caused the hubbub. . . .”40

A chapter on Kentucky sports described how Virginians moved into the Kentucky frontier. “An axe, a couple of horses, and a heavy rifle, with store of ammunition, were all that were considered necessary. . . .”41 Kentucky sports included target shooting with rifles, and Audubon spent four pages describing practices quite similar to Gosse’s account of “driving the nail” in 1830s Alabama.42 This form of target-shooting was apparently not a new practice, nor specific to the New World. Mourt’s Relation concerning Plymouth Colony and published in 1622, used this target-shooting practice as a metaphor for his writing: “though through my slender judgment I should miss the mark, and not strike the nail on the head. . . .”43

Audubon was clearly a gun enthusiast. When a new acquaintance offered to show him the new percussion cap method of firing a gun, Audubon was anxious to see it. His friend demonstrated that it could fire under water by loading and firing it in a basin of water-inside the house.44

Guns were a fundamental part of how Audubon was able to produce his beautiful works on natural history. “I drew and noted the habits of every thing which I procured, and my collection was daily augmenting, as every individual who carried a gun always sent me such birds or quadrupeds as he thought might prove useful to me.”45

Hunting? Audubon devoted a whole chapter to “Deer Hunting” with rifles, distinguishing “still hunting” from “firelight hunting,” and “driving.” “Still Hunting is followed as a kind of trade by most of our frontier men. To be practiced with success, it requires great activity, an expert management of the rifle, and a thorough knowledge of the forest. . . .”46 Another section described alligator hunting: “A rifle bullet was now and then sent through the eye of one of the largest. . . .”47 Audubon devoted an entire chapter to “The Moose Hunt” in 1833 Maine, and of course, the hunt was with guns.48 Similarly, an entire chapter is devoted to “A Racoon [sic] Hunt in Kentucky,” which was carried out with rifles; it includes a detailed and picturesque description of rifle loading.49 Violence, much of it involving guns in offense or defense, is also not in short supply in Audubon’s book.50

Bellesiles might have made the case that Audubon’s travels and experiences were atypical, but to list this book by Audubon as an account that shows “the travelers did not notice that they were surrounded by guns and violence” defies explanation.

Bellesiles also cites a travel account by Charles Dickens to prove his claim, and yet Dickens’s account, like Audubon’s, is awash in guns and gun violence.51 (Space precludes a discussion of gun violence that Bellesiles seems to have missed in his travel accounts.)

Of the 80 accounts Bellesiles claims to have read, I have read 12: Audubon, Baily, Blane, Cuming, Dickens, Hall, Kirkland, Maryatt, Murray, Royall, Rynning, and Weld. Bellesiles quotes selectively and out of context from some, and misreads others. He apparently skipped whole sections of Baily, Blane, Cuming, Murray, and Hall’s books, and nearly all of Audubon’s.

All 12 show that guns, violence, or hunting were either common or unremarkable, exactly opposite to Bellesiles’s claims. It would be interesting to read the other 68 travel accounts to see how many others Bellesiles read so carelessly-but why bother? These 12 clearly demonstrate that the travelers knew that guns, violence, hunting, and combinations of the three surrounded them. You don’t have to bite into every chocolate in the box when 12 of the first 12 you pick have worms in them.

When Aaron Burr was tried for his criminal conspiracy in a plot to detach the Southwest into its own country, one of the pieces of evidence used against him was a meeting of one Harmen Blannerhassett with a number of other conspirators–all of them armed. Burr’s defense attorney’s argument is completely contrary to Bellesiles’s claim about the early Republic:

If there were evidence of a merely friendly meeting, it would be the same as if there were no assemblage. If they were to give evidence that Blannerhassett and some of those with him were in possession of arms, as people in this country usually are, it would not be sufficient of itself, to prove that the meeting was military.

Arms are not necessarily military weapons. Rifles, shot guns and fowling pieces are used commonly by the people of this country in hunting and for domestic purposes; they are generally in the habit of pursuing game. In the upper country every man has a gun; a majority of the people have guns everywhere, for peaceful purposes. Rifles and shot guns are no more evidence of military weapons than pistols or dirks used for personal defence, or common fowling pieces kept for the amusement of taking game. It is lawful for every man in this country to keep such weapons.52

It is certainly possible that Burr’s defense attorney was mistaken in his characterization of the level of gun ownership and hunting in America. It seems most unlikely, however, that he would make such claims if he did not believe that this argument would be persuasive.

To persuade us that early Americans did not commonly own and use guns, Bellesiles would need powerful evidence of widespread self-delusion. Perhaps Bellesiles is right and dozens of eyewitnesses are wrong. Somehow, I don’t think so.


  1. . Michael A. Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), pp. 320-23.
  2. . Ibid., pp. 320-23.
  3. . Ibid., p. 306.
  4. . Clayton E. Cramer, “Arming America,” American Rifleman, January 2001.
  5. . William N. Blane, An Excursion through the United States and Canada, during the Years 1822-3 (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969 [1824]), p. 88.
  6. . Ibid., p. 145.
  7. . Ibid., pp. 95-96.
  8. . Ibid., p. 95.
  9. . Ibid., pp. 173-74.
  10. . Ibid., p. 175.
  11. . Fortescue Cuming, Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country Through the States of Ohio and Kentucky; A Voyage Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers . . . (Pittsburgh, 1810), pp. 30, 42, 114, 118, 135.
  12. . Ibid., p. 156.
  13. . Ibid., p. 42.
  14. . Ibid., p. 30.
  15. . Bellesiles, p. 306.
  16. . Isaac Weld, Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (London: John Stockdale, 1807), 1:118-19.
  17. . Ibid., 1:117-19.
  18. . Ibid., 1:234.
  19. . Ibid., 2:150.
  20. . Francis Baily, Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 & 1797, ed. Jack D.L. Holmes (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University, 1969), pp. 39-40.
  21. . Ibid., pp. 41-43.
  22. . Ibid., 91.
  23. . Ibid., pp. 97-98.
  24. . Caroline Matilda Kirkland, A New Home-Who’ll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (New York: C. S. Francis, 1839), pp. 215-16; http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Eaf240.html.
  25. . Ibid., pp. 13, 45, 126, 130, 201, 253.
  26. . Ibid., p. 192.
  27. . Ibid., pp. 108-109, 209.
  28. . Ibid., p. 123.
  29. . John James Audubon, Delineations of American Scenery and Character (New York: G. A. Baker & Co., 1926), p. 3.
  30. . Ibid., p. 6.
  31. . Ibid., pp. 8, 14, 76, 117.
  32. . Ibid., pp. 7-9.
  33. . Ibid., p. 11.
  34. . Ibid., p. 12.
  35. . Ibid., p. 26.
  36. . Ibid., p. 33.
  37. . Ibid., pp. 41-47.
  38. . Ibid., p. 82.
  39. . Ibid., p. 122.
  40. . Ibid., p. 206.
  41. . Ibid., p. 57.
  42. . Philip Gosse, Letters from Alabama (London: Morgan & Chase, 1859), pp. 130-31, 59-63.
  43. . Dwight B. Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Press, 1963), p. 88.
  44. . Audubon, p. 88.
  45. . Ibid., p. 93.
  46. . Ibid., pp. 68-75.
  47. . Ibid., pp. 177.
  48. . Ibid., pp. 210-16.
  49. . Ibid., pp. 281-6.
  50. . Ibid., pp. 16-22.
  51. . Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (London: 1842), pp. 185-86, 215, 275-82, at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DicAmer.html, lists dozens of murders, largely committed with guns.
  52. 52. David Robertson, Reports of the Trials of Colonel Aaron Burr (New York: Da Capo Press, 1969 [1808]), 1:582.

Clayton Cramer is the author of Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999).