Swine Story: A History of Feral Hogs in the U.S.
April 23, 2013
It's highly unlikely Martin Varner was the first person to hunt wild or feral hogs in Texas. After all, Spanish settlers brought hogs to Texas for decades before the 1830s. Pigs being pigs, it's likely some of them surely escaped over time, went feral and provided game for hunters.
Even so, pioneer Martin Varner is among the first people mentioned in Texas history concerning hog hunting. As an article published by Texas A&M AgriLife Research notes, historian "Noah Smithwick (1968) claimed in 1830 that 'Martin Varner (colonist) had a lot of wild hogs running in the bottom [lands of his property] and when he wanted pork he went out and shot one.'"
This was in the thickly wooded hills and ravines of East Texas, near Nacogdoches. The town was an important trading center between Texas colonists and people living across the Sabine River in bordering Louisiana. The area also had a sizeable interest in pigs — of the domestic variety — with 60,000 of the porkers living there per an 1834 census of the Nacogdoches settlement.
At the time, many farmers let their hogs essentially range freely over the countryside where they found their own forage. When it was time to slaughter or sell the hogs, the animals were usually gathered with the aid of dogs.
Of course, not all the pigs were found and some undoubtedly wandered away. According to the aforementioned article, "By the late 1800s wild hogs were numerous throughout the big thicket of east Texas and provided the most important game meat. Through the turn of the twentieth century, as settlement increased throughout Texas, the numbers of hogs allowed to range freely also increased. In the early 1900s [historian] Mearns noted that feral hogs were numerous in many parts of Texas along the Rio Grande."
The year 1539 is often given as the date hogs were introduced the North American continent. That's when Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his army landed at present-day Tampa Bay, Fla., bringing along with them a herd of hogs some estimate as high as 300 animals. However, hogs actually arrived in the New World several decades earlier, when Christopher Columbus introduced swine to the West Indies on his second voyage in 1493. Not surprisingly, hog hunting soon followed.
According to the book, Wild Pigs in the United States, "Thirteen years after Columbus introduced domestic swine to the West Indies, the Spanish colonists that settled on these islands found it necessary to hunt the now free-ranging descendants of these animals because they were killing cattle." The pigs also destroyed crops and even attacked people.
On the North American continent, explorer DeSoto and his army trekked from Florida to the west, crossing the Mississippi River into present-day Arkansas and Louisiana. Herds of live pigs came along to provide the soldiers with fresh meat. Some of the hogs were traded to native people, while others escaped.
By 1540, according to Wild Pigs in the United States, there were free-ranging swine in Desha County, Ark., that escaped from Desoto's expedition years earlier. Georgia had feral hogs since the 1540s when Spanish settled islands right off the Georgia Coast. Hogs got to California in the 1500s via Spanish colonists, too.
Early on, Native Americans saw the feral hogs as game animals. According to Dr. John Mayer, co-author of the aforementioned book, French colonists who arrived along the coast of northeastern Florida in the 1560s had a lot of trouble finding enough food to survive. Local native hunters helped out and brought these struggling colonists fresh, wild pork.
"So there were feral pig populations established in Florida by then, and the native people already considered them game animals," Mayer wrote.
Mayer is among the country's foremost experts on feral hogs, having studied and hunted them for over 40 years. He is currently a research scientist at the Savannah River National Laboratory, near Aiken, S.C. Mayer notes from European settlement of the continent and well past the Colonial Period, feral hogs weren't truly considered game animals by most people. Letting hogs, cattle and sheep range freely was a common practice among settlers well into the 19th century.
"Those animals, especially the pigs, had the ability to go wild," says Mayer. "Pigs actually go wild faster than any other livestock. Why that is, we don't know, but clearly they do."
These wild hogs were viewed as the property of the local farmers, not game for the taking (though this surely happened at times). When farmers wanted pork to eat or hogs to sell, they and their dogs went into the forest to catch hogs, often with the farmers riding on horseback. As an interesting aside, this is where American bay-and-catch hog dog hunting got its start. The hogs were then sold or fattened up to make ready for the table.
"They were certainly wild pigs at that point," says Mayer. "But they were still seen as personal property. Now, there are accounts of people in places like New York State in the early- and mid-1800s coming upon large wild boars, ferals, and shooting them. But, by and large, people hunted game animals — and wild pigs were seen as belonging to someone."
Some exceptions to this included Tehama County, Calif., where domestic pigs arrived via Spanish settlers in 1840s. By the 1880s settlers hunted feral hogs in the foothills of the county northeast of Red Bluff in what is now the Dye Creek Ranch. Native Americans on California's Santa Rosa Island hunted free-ranging ferals much sooner, as early as 1820 to 1840.
The present-day perception of feral hogs as game animals began forming shortly before the start of the 20th Century. Many Southern and Eastern states changed their free-range livestock laws, so farm animals could no longer run loose legally. A feral hog was — by legal definition in many places — now free for the taking.
Wealthy hunters helped change perceptions by introducing pure Eurasian wild boars in the 1890s to several places in the United States. These initial introductions were in fenced hunting preserves in places like Corbin's Park, N.H., and Litchfield Park, N.Y.
Before WWI, George Gordon Moore of New York created a hunting club near Hooper Bald, N.C. As told in the book, Pigs, From Cave to Corn Belt, "A vast tract was enclosed by a high fence, and a clubhouse and other buildings were erected. Here fifteen wild swine of both sexes, imported from the Hartz Mountains in Germany, were released. For eight or ten years they were not molested, which gave them ample opportunity to propagate and multiply."
"In 1920 a little group of huntsmen, mounted on local nags and armed with spears, rode into the enclosure, each bent on bagging a boar. But the strong and cagey tuskers had no intention of being captured or slain by a pack of novices riding reluctant and inexperienced mounts. At least one hundred of them made a mockery of their prison walls, charging and breaking through the stout wire enclosure like so many machine-gun bullets riddling a piece of cheesecloth. And that was the end of horse-and-spear hunting in America'¦ It also marked the demise of the promoter's ambitious hunt club."
After the hunt club closed, the wild boars went out into the North Carolina countryside and multiplied, providing hunters with a new game animal. Hunt preserve escapes happened in other parts of the nation, too, and Euro boar bloodlines got added to the feral livestock mix.
From 1900 to 1950 feral hog became wild, huntable game in the eyes of many people, as well as the government. Some states began to regulate them as game animals and required licenses. California was one such state, and today is one of the few states that actually still requires hunters to have a pig tag.
From the 1950s on, pig populations started on a strong growth curve — one that has never stopped. These ferals have been reported in 47 states with established populations in at least 38 states. Today, North America is home to an estimated 4 to 5 million feral hogs. In many ways pigs have multiplied so successfully because of genetics: Pigs are capable of bearing three litters of piglets per year in warmer Southern states. In addition, many of these areas have few or no natural predators to limit expansive populations.
Pigs continued to escape from game farms and livestock operations. Hunters are frequently blamed for moving hogs around the nation and releasing them to create new hunting opportunities. The practice was and is illegal, but it has definitely been done.
At the same time, though, some game agencies have helped the pigs expand their range. As Wild Pigs in America reveals, the Florida Game and Freshwater Commission started a program in the 1950s that relocated nuisance feral hogs to state public hunting lands. "Between 1960 and 1976, for example, 2,848 feral hogs were stocked into the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, Palm Beach County, from other localities around the state."
By the 1990s, "You had a population explosion in feral pigs. The Pig Bomb! Plus, you had a lot of media exposure about hog hunting with the Internet and cable television shows and magazines. That got a lot of hunters looking at hogs. To the point that, by the mid-1990's the hog was and is the second most popular big game animal in North America, by the number of animals taken, second only to the whitetailed deer."
From imported livestock to our second most popular big game animal, the wild hog is now a huge part of the American hunting landscape.