Market Hunting in the San Joaquin Valley

Remember Passenger Pigeons? Probably not. The last one died in 1914, a casualty of mass deforestation and overhunting. An estimated three to five billion lived in North America when Europeans arrived, but their numbers plummeted over the next three centuries. Perpetuation of this once–numerous bird apparently wasn't a matter of high priority.

Duck hunter in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, ca. 1905.

Duck hunter in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, ca. 1905.

This attitude wasn't unique with Passenger Pigeons. Earlier this week, I came across four small account books in the Museum's collections that suggest similar views toward waterfowl in the San Joaquin Valley during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The author was Edward Alders (1877–1928), a son of Charles Milton Alders, the owner of Central Hotel, in Farmington, California. From an early age, Edward was a market hunter—much of the time in Merced County—shooting geese and ducks for sale in San Francisco. The proceeds eventually helped him purchase land of his own near Farmington.

At the end of one account book, Alders summarized his kills for four seasons at the beginning of the twentieth century. His total for 1901–1902 was 7,728, and for 1902–1903 5,218. The following season, the figure declined to 3,784, only to rise again to 6,627 during the years 1904–1905. Altogether, he claimed 23,367 kills all four seasons.

Alders didn't lack targets. According to his summary, the largest number of ducks he shot with one gun in a single shot during this period was 89, and with two 119. The corresponding numbers for geese were 65 and 90, respectively.

Our knowledge of Alders will always be limited. However, it certainly looks as though he valued personal gain over waterfowl conservation. I can't help wondering whether the possibility of eventual extinction—partly through his actions and those of likeminded hunters—ever entered his mind. But, of course, I'll never know.

Times have obviously changed. So have laws and organizations—like Ducks Unlimited—to prevent the extinction of waterfowl. These four little account books may raise unanswerable questions about their author, but they go far in explaining why those safeguards have come into existence.

1 comment to Market Hunting in the San Joaquin Valley

  • David Stuart

    Here are the recollections of California historian Rockwell D. Hunt (who married my great great aunt) on an ancestor about whom I’ve heard many family stories, my great great uncle, Doc Stuart:

    “Arthur (‘Doc’) Stuart…probably shot more wild geese in California than any other man. …Doc loved hunting from early boyhood. Later his home for many years was on Grand Island, across the river from Courtland. …

    “…[H]e kept alive twenty or more geese whose wings had been broken, but were all right otherwise—they, of course, could not fly. He kept them penned up on his farm…to be used as live decoys, surrounded by light ‘chicken-wire’ fence. In other ways—such as calls and whistles—he could draw flocks of geese within range…. What grand shooting that was! Geese fell by the dozen in a single day. One day, years ago, I asked Doc’s boy, ‘What kind of season did your dad have?’ ‘Not very good this year—they only got about 3,600 geese.’ ‘Only 3,600,’ I said: ‘What did he call a good season?’ ‘Oh, I’d say around 4,500 was about average.’”

    Rockwell D. Hunt, Boyhood Days of “Mr. California” (Idaho: Caxton, 1965).

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