Chapter 15 -- Part 8

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Once a seasonal occupation, then a sport, and now largely extinct, gunning for marsh and sea fowl was a popular Hampton pastime until the middle of this century. In the nineteenth century, most gunners combined that activity with fishing and clamming. As the Reverend Roland Sawyer explained, "Prior to 1900 anyone could go down one of the rivers, at low tide, dig clams from the flats, catch flounder, sculpins and other fish, get a mess of lobsters and go home well laden. No questions were asked, no licenses were required. And if one were a gunner he took along his shot gun and took home a mess of peep, grass-birds and yellow-legs, from which he could make a stew superior to any dish I have ever eaten."

It will be recalled that when Daniel Lamprey built his house at Great Boar's Head in 1806, he placed it below the summit so he would not frighten the flights of sea fowl that at that early date made the Head a popular gunning area. Gunning for sea fowl involves rowing a dory a short way offshore, then setting out decoys to attract the wild birds that migrate through the region during spring and fall. As Sawyer explained, men would row out before first light, positioning themselves a double gunshot apart. "Off Hampton Beach, a clear morning with wind from the north west would bring down along the coast flocks of loons, clappers, flocks of ducks and yellow-legs. Ten-gauge breechloaders were coming in at 1885 but for the most part it was the old large bore muzzle loader that was used. Such charges and how they would kick, shooting with them was no job for a child or a light weight man."

Judge Thomas Leavitt, who grew up at Boar's Head, wrote a series of articles in the Exeter News-Letter describing life at Hampton Beach in the 1840s. About gunning he said, "At the beginning of September sea fowl commenced coasting south and continued till about the middle of November. The sea fowl were coasting every day more or less, were quite tame, and large numbers of them were shot every fall off Boar's Head. In the storms which came in October immense flocks of them could be seen sweeping past the head all day long, flying close to the water, just high enough to clear the waves." Leavitt said some flocks were a half mile long.

"In the spring, in the latter part of April and the first part of May, coots and old-wives would gather in great numbers in the coves on the north and south sides of Boar's Head and feed for three weeks. I have seen a flock of old-wives gather so until they would cover an acre of the surface of the sea; their soft, sonorous note kept up by so many was music to the ear. These feeding birds were never disturbed on their feeding grounds by the Hampton gunners, for there was an unwritten law that none should shoot them except in the morning off the head as they flew from one cove to the other."

The hunting prowess of the hunters was often the subject of newspaper items. In December 1883, the News-Letter's Hampton correspondent wrote, "Charles Perkins of Hampton recently shot seven wild geese in one flock, bringing four down with one barrel of his gun, and three with the other." Commenting on the popular sport, the newspaper said in 1891, "Gunners are more plenty along our coast than are the birds." In 1897, a Portsmouth reporter said some 21 boats of gunners were seen off the Head.

Loons were also regular targets, Sawyer proclaiming that shooting one of the fast-flying, 10-to-iS-pound birds was a highlight for the gunner. In October 1895, the newspaper said, "Offshore shooting is quite good. Mr. Oscar Jenkins, who for the past two years had killed the first loon, has today 29 loons to his credit for this season and will content himself with his thirtieth. Eugene Nudd yesterday killed 21 sea fowl." Ironically, gunner Jenkins was nearly killed by a loon in October 1899. He shot the bird but it did not fall until hit again by another hunter. "It then came down with frightful velocity and missing Mr. Jenkins' head by an ace, struck the boat, splitting it open. Mr. Jenkins was helped out of his predicament by nearby sportsmen." By November, when the newspaper reported that flocks numbering more than 100 sea fowl were seen off Boar's Head, Irving Lamprey had killed 270 birds during the fall migration season.

A 1900 news item reported, "Monday was remarkable for the great flight of brant geese by the beach. One reliable observer saw from Boar's Head 75 flocks, all numbering 100 or more, and another says that during the morning they came in perfect droves, whose numbers could not be counted. Had the sea been less turbulent, it would have been a gala day for sea fowl shooters.

Writing in the Hampton Union in October 1938, William D. Cram described a more recent day of gunning: "From Boar's Head extending out to sea southeasterly were a line of boats with gunners, from Hampton River mouth extending northeasterly was another line of scattered boats of gunners while running up and down the beach were power boats with fishing parties and lobster boats. Inside this line were scattered groups of sea fowl and straggling lines which had from 50 to 150 birds all intently feeding while occasionally a flock would pass high in the air. The brisk firing of the shot guns grew slower as morning passed and gunner after gunner reached his limit of ten birds and left." The sport was not without hazard. In 1898, Walter Campbell, a clerk at the Surf House, was standing on the hotel piazza and about to shoot at a bird flying offshore when three men passed in front of him. Not wishing to shoot over their heads, Campbell lowered his gun and it discharged, hitting him in the leg. In 1947, two Seabrook men were gunning two miles offshore when their dory capsized and one of the two was drowned before they could be rescued.

Gunning was also popular in the marshes. Judge Leavitt described this style of shooting: "... from the 25th of July till September, the marshes teemed with game. Yellow legs, brown backs, grass birds, curlew and peeps -- the latter almost as thick as flies -- stopped and fed there till September. While on the beaches were great flocks of sand peeps, so tame that one could walk right up to them and shoot them, when they would fly a little way and then come down again. In the year 1844, I remember my father telling his man-of-all-work that there was to be a bird supper that night and that he must get three dozen birds. At about half-past three in the afternoon, Jack and I went to the Glade and sat down. By sunset we were at home with forty yellow-legs. As I acted as the retriever to bring in the birds as he shot, he did not leave his seat till we started for home. At any time except about two hours in the middle of the day, a gunner could kill his two or three dozen birds. A bird supper then meant broiled birds, dry toast, fried potato chips, and a bottle of champagne at each plate, and it was served at eleven o'clock at night. From the middle of August to the middle of September black ducks, gray ducks, teal and dippers frequented the marsh in great numbers and were easy to get if one knew how"

Bird suppers were popular events. In 1901, "The citizens of Hampton will have their annual outing and bird supper at the Sea View next Thursday evening. A large attendance and most enjoyable time is confidently expected." About the same time, a bird supper was served at Green's Inn, "to a party mainly of prominent Hampton Falls citizens."

For some years, local market gunners shot the birds by the barrel and shipped them to Boston by train. Eventually, game laws were enacted that reduced bag limits and the activity became more of a sport than a seasonal business. Not everyone enjoyed gunning. Many complained about gunners shooting on Sunday and disturbing the Sabbath. And some people didn't care for the "sport" at all. The Hampton correspondent to the News-Letter complained in 1894, "This is Arcadia but it has its drawbacks, and greatest among them is 'the slaughter of innocents' which begins whenever the 'sweet will' of the early comers in the guise of 'summer boarders' elect to 'go a shooting.' ..... And what pleasure they can find in shooting the pretty little sandpipers that flit so happily in the sunshine along the dashing waves I fail to see, But I do see the aftercome when I find wounded and fluttering among the rocks poor little birds, whose pitiful eyes make my heart ache .... Bang! goes another gun on the beach with probably a broken winged bird left fluttering among the rocks. The early morning hours are made uneventful and sad to one who loves not only birds but all living things God has made." The writer would be content in a heaven with no sea at all if it meant "no more shooting matches."

Seafowl gunning continued from Boar's Head and from the beach by the fish houses, but its popularity declined by the late 1950s, when reduced bird populations and stringent game laws forced many hunters reluctantly to give up the sport, although it is still legal. It is a difficult activity as well, and seemingly few hunters the today are willing to row offshore before a cold October dawn to await what few birds might come along. Some people credited the automobile, which brought many more gunners to the coast, as one of reason leading to the overkill that has decimated seafowl populations. The loss of nesting and feeding areas along the coasts has also resulted in the decline.

Perhaps we have also lost our appetites for the strong-tasting birds. Sawyer remarked that although the loon was a prized target, it "was a tough fishy fowl that was hard to eat." The author's grandfather, Harry E. Chase, who was a market gunner for a while in the early years of this century, and who loved sea fowl, remarked that the best way to prepare a coot was to cook it with a brick and when finished, "You throw away the coot and eat the brick." And then there is the story that appeared as a 1933 Union item: "There is an old man who still drives his horse to Boar's Head where he hunts sea fowl. One day he and another hunter shot at the same bird and the old man rowed over to the bird in the water, picked it up, then rowed back to his neighbor's boat and threw it to him saying, 'Shot on your side. He's your bird."'

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