Today we think of Ragged Mountain’s small population of black bears as an important sign of vestigial wildness, part of what keeps Andover a very special place. In the early nineteenth century, however, as the surrounding countryside became increasingly settled and agricultural, bears were regarded as marauding varmints, a bane especially to the sheep that were increasingly being pastured on the mountain’s slopes.
Occasionally farmers and townspeople would organize large, region wide bear hunts in an effort to eliminate the bears in their vicinity, or at least sharply reduce their numbers. The strategy was a simple one: surround a hill or mountain with a ring of hundreds of people, drive the bears uphill, and shoot them when they were enclosed on the peak or when they tried to break through the line. I have come across accounts of such mass hunts on Ragged Mountain, Mount Kearsarge, and Mount Wachusett (in Massachusetts).
It takes a remarkably large number of people to surround a mountain even very thinly, of course; and this basic fact, not to mention the steep, often rocky, and heavily wooded mountain terrain, made mass bear hunts much less effective, as a rule, than their plans suggested they should be. They could be dangerous for people as well as bears. The only fatality in the Wachusett hunt was a hunter, but – and doubtless, above all – they could also be fun, as an entire countryside organized for a manly outing.
The great bear hunt on Ragged Mountain took place on June 22, 1833. As the New Hampshire Patriot reported in its July 1 issue, on that day: “Ragged Mountain was surrounded by three hundred men for the purpose of destroying the bears that have for some time past been making great ravages among the numerous flocks that feed thereon. While proceeding from the base to the summit of the Mountain, seven bears were discovered, only one of which was killed; the remaining six escaped for want of more men and better order. The bear that was taken was brought down to the Franklin House in Andover, followed by two hundred and fifty persons…”
Many of the assembled hunters and beaters then began making grand, or grandiose, plans for a follow-up hunt on July 4, “to destroy the remainder of those voracious animals that inhabit said Mountain.” They chose a Chairman and Secretary, and selected twelve commanding “officers of the line” to supervise various segments of the planned ring around the mountain.
The citizens of the towns all around the mountain were “invited to attend equipped with Guns, Sounding Horns, &c. &c. to form a line round said Mountain and assist in the Chase.” They were to assemble at 9 AM that morning at six different points around the base of the mountain (Searle’s Starch Factory, Clarke’s and Walker’s Taverns, Taunton Hill, Thomas R. White’s Store, and so forth). The officers were asked to appear on horseback and to form their line of men in sections of ten each. Each officer would also appoint an additional five gunners (there would have been sixty in all, then) who were to station themselves (along with a “Colour bearer”) at the summit of Ragged (which one, we can only wonder) at 8 AM.
Samuel Butterfield, the Andover lawyer (and jack of many other trades as well) who, as Secretary of the planned hunt, was responsible for the Patriot news item, played up the recreational and festive aspect of the outing for all it was worth. Having a sad weakness for doggerel, he even began his report with an epigraph:
Now if you dare to hunt the Bear,
Report yourselves at nine,
A chase so rare you’ll seldom share
With prospects half so fine.
Nevertheless, nothing seems to have come of this elaborate plan; the follow-up hunt, for whatever reason, did not take place. A later July 22 news story in the Patriot reported only the relative ineffectiveness of the original, June 22 hunt, due to the hunters’ failing to keep their line orderly. But the editor, caught up at a distance (the Patriot was published in Concord) by the spirit of Butterfield’s call to arms, interjected a personal response: “Make another attempt. We should like to try our hand at bear hunting.”