The Decoys, Guides, Clubs, and Places, 1870s to 1970s
Texas holds a prominent place in the history of America’s waterfowl market and recreational hunting industries. Aboriginal Indians followed by the Spanish, French, and Mexicans harvested waterfowl for sustenance or barter long before arrival of the Anglo-Americans. The Anglo’s were, however, the first to look upon nature as a commodity, finding a place for it initially in local then later national economies. Those who made their living by killing and selling waterfowl for profit were at first called huntsmen, and later market hunters.
The foundation of Texas market hunting was laid by privateer Jean Lafitte in the late 1810s and Stephen F. Austin’s colonists in the early 1820s, their survival, in part, dependent on oysters, fish, native game, and migratory flocks of ducks, geese, swans, and cranes. Waterfowl also fed armies, from the Texas Revolution to the Civil War. Post-Civil War railroad expansion allowed Texas entry into the national, and even global, trade in wild game during the late 1870s. The numbers of birds harvested for the market were not carefully preserved but were likely in the millions.
With the late 19th century came recognition that many of America’s game animals and birds were disappearing, and the market hunter came to be viewed as a major cause. Sportsmen, whose tenure afield paralleled market hunters throughout the late 1800s, were among the most vocal opponents to the market hunter’s trade. Joined by naturalists and agricultural interests, they formed a forceful coalition that brought game protection and conservation to the forefront of America’s law-making near the turn of the 20th century.
Recreational hunting reached a far wider Texas audience than market hunting and certainly had a larger economic impact. Sport hunters, from the 1870s to today, developed a significant outdoor industry that provided income to farmers, boat captains, restaurateurs, and hotels. Guides, the men who delivered their charges safely to and from the field, were the backbone of the recreational industry. Many guides had been market hunters whose livelihood was curtailed by game laws between 1903 and 1918. By the second half of the 20th century, Texas had many renowned guides who were regularly featured in national sporting journals, their names often more famous than many of the day’s politicians.
The tools of both market and sport hunters are somewhat unique to Texas history, and include locally designed and built hunting boats, hand-carved decoys, and swivel and punt guns. Like the rich, pristine prairie and coastal habits that once held uncountable numbers of migratory birds, they have mostly disappeared. They live briefly again, at least in part, in R.K. Sawyer’s first two books: A Hundred Years of Texas Waterfowl Hunting and Texas Market Hunting.