The Killing of the Doe on the Black River:
(A Sketch Book Tale That Never Was)
From Washington Irving’s 1803 Journal
In Summer 1803, twenty-year-old Washington Irving was asked by his employer, New York attorney Josiah Hoffman, to accompany him, his family, and several business associates on an extended business trip to Montreal. Irving — much more interested in adventure than law — eagerly agreed, and spent the better part of the next six weeks traveling through New York and Canada.
The trip was rough and, at times, hazardous, as the party wound their way over rugged, poorly marked and horribly maintained roads. They traveled by canoe, skiff, wagon, and on foot, braving biting insects, drunken wagoneers, driving rainstorms, and zero accommodations. But for the most part, Irving loved it.
Irving began keeping a journal during his Canadian excursion, keeping careful track of the mileage covered each day, the condition of the terrain, the mood of the party, and dutifully reporting any adventures that had taken place that day. One of the highlights of the trip is the story of a deer hunt gone awry — a mad pursuit straight out of a Marx Brothers movie.
Irving clearly enjoyed the story, for fourteen years later he considered expanding the story of the doe hunt for inclusion in The Sketch Book. While the final story never appeared — Irving progressed no further than cleaning up the punctuation in his original journal entry — the unexpurgated journal entry itself still gives us a look at a Sketch Book story that might have been:
We had two or three showers of rain in the course of the morning which made it very uncomfortable sailing.
In the afternoon it cleared off beautifully and we began to feel in better humour though the scow was still very wet.
On turning a point in the river we were surprised by loud shouting a head which proceeded from two or three canoes in violent motion, the people in them rowing with all their strength. A gun was soon after fired. On approaching a little nearer we perceived something swimming in the water which they were earnestly pursuing. This we soon found out to be a deer and we rowed with all our might to get in at the death.
A canoe in which was a man and woman at last came up with the animal and the woman hit it two or three times on the head with a paddle — in the eagerness of her exertion however she missed her aim and threw a somerset over into the river. While the man was busy getting her aboard and recovering her the deer got away from them and made towards that shore along which we were sailing.
We now exerted all our strength to come up with it (as perceved another canoe endeavoring the same). The animal made for shore and we ran ashore immediately & Mr Ogden & myself jumped out. We ran thro the woods along shore a little way when they called from the scow that the deer had taken again to the river. We stood ready & as it passed Mr Ogden fired and wounded it (it had also been wounded before).
The scow then set out in pursuit of it as it swam into the stream. It soon however turned towards the shore where we were stationed. I threw off my coat & prepared to swim after it. As it came near shore a man rushed thro the bushes and sprang into the water. The banks were very steep and he was over his head immediately. He floundered about with a large paddle in one hand which impeded his progress while Mr Ogden & myself ran along shore endeavoring to find clubs. Mr Ogden threw one at the Deer.
When the man who had contrived to get out of the water, sprang in once more & made a grasp at the animal he missed his aim, and I jumping after fell on his back and sunk him under the water at the same time I caught the deer by one ear and Mr Ogden seized I by a leg. We drew it ashore when the man immediately dispatched it with a knife. It turned out to be a fine doe. We claimed a haunch for our share permitting the man to keep all the rest. . . .
[I]n the evening [we] arrived at Babtists at the head of the long fall — a dirtier house was never seen, It is kept by French people and every different room has its peculiar atmosphere. We dubbed it ‘The temple of Dirt.” We contrived to have our venison cooked in a cleanly manner by Mr Ogdens servant and it made very fine Steaks which after two days living on crackers & gingerbread — were highly acceptable.
Interesting excerpt. Readers interested in other short bits by Irving might want to look at The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, edited by his nephew Pierre Irving. Even we few Irving fans may not have the strength to plow through WI’s whole correspondence, but Pierre offers some interesting morsels…