Hunting has long been an important component of the Palmetto State’s culture. Indians hunted a wide assortment of game from as early as 13,000 b.c.e. until well after English colonization. They pursued deer, mountain lions, raccoon, rabbit, bear, and other animals for meat and skins, while taking birds for food and feathers. Colonists, too, depended on game for survival. Much of the eighteenth-century trade between Indians and colonists, as well as between the colony and England, was based on animal skins. By the time of the Revolutionary War, however, Carolinians increasingly saw hunting as sport. They also recognized the detrimental effects of unrestricted hunting, and enacted laws to restrict night hunting and to establish seasons for different game animals.
Antebellum hunters continued to take game for sport, for food, to protect livestock and crops, and to fulfill their cultural traditions. Planters emulated the English gentry through their choice of game (pursuing deer but not opossum, for example) and by style (hunting on horseback and using firearms). They involved their slaves as hunt masters, dog handlers, and assistants. In some cases slaves hunted for themselves and their families with permission; in others they hunted in secret. Poorer whites hunted for similar reasons if not always for the same game or in the same style as planters. Many yeoman and planters disdained the “pothunters” who hunted for a living and paid little heed to laws and seasons. Efforts to toughen state laws on hunting and increase enforcement met with little success until after the Civil War.
Hunting traditions persisted into the twentieth century despite many changes in the economic and social order of South Carolina. Some planters held on to their plantations primarily for hunting purposes even after abandoning agriculture and taking up residence in the cities. Wealthy northerners purchased plantations in the lowcountry in the 1920s as preserves to hunt deer, quail, and waterfowl. Working-class whites and blacks created formal and informal hunting clubs especially to pool resources and rent hunting land. Clubs tended to be segregated by race and class and, until recently, usually excluded women.
During the twentieth century the state took a more direct and scientific role in developing rules and regulations for hunting. Since 1994 wildlife research, policy development, and law enforcement have been under the auspices of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). Paralleling the growth of the state infrastructure for research and enforcement has been the rise of nongovernmental organizations interested in the preservation of hunting traditions and wildlife. Prominent examples include Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation, based in Edgefield. Competitive hunting in the form of field trials is now popular as seen at the Grand American, the nation’s largest raccoon-hunting field trial, held annually in Orangeburg.
The supply and distribution of game around the state varied historically, affected by geography, land-use patterns, and changes in agricultural practice. In the middle of the twentieth century, mechanized agriculture reduced habitat for quail, which appear in smaller numbers in the state today. Conversely, the decline in the overall importance of agriculture led hunters and landowners to manage land to encourage wildlife by planting food plots and altering tree-harvesting and control-burning practices.
Hunting remains one of the state’s most important forms of outdoor recreation, incorporating new technologies into traditional practices. Hunters have access to warmer, lighter camouflage clothing, synthetic calls for deer and fowl, CB radios, satellite-based navigation, and all-terrain vehicles. While some hunters have embraced the development of better weapons such as high-powered rifles with light-gathering scopes, others feel these advanced weapons take the challenge out of the hunt, and instead use so-called primitive weapons such as compound bows.
Hunting is a big business in the state, combining the impact of expenditures on arms, clothing, fuel, dogs, new technologies, land leases, and licenses. In 1996 SCDNR reported receipts from hunting licenses purchased by South Carolinians totaled more than $4 million. A further indication of South Carolina’s continued attractiveness to out-of-state hunters is the more than $2.5 million that visiting sportsmen paid for licenses that year.
One result of the important role of hunting in South Carolina’s culture has been the development of a body of literature and art. Though never a permanent resident of the state, John James Audubon collaborated with Carolinians such as Maria Martin Bachman on his famous Birds of America during the 1830s. The pioneering work on hunting and fishing in the state is William Elliott’s Carolina Sports by Land and Water, first printed in 1846. In the twentieth century Archibald Rutledge, first poet laureate of South Carolina, continued the tradition of the planter-sportsman established by Elliot through his popular books Plantation Game Trails (1921) and Home by the River (1941). More recently, Havilah Babcock penned several memoirs of the sporting life, including My Health Is Better in November (1947) and Tales of Quails’n Such (1951).
Babcock, Havilah. My Health Is Better in November: Thirty-five Stories of Hunting and Fishing in the South. 1947. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.
Elliot, William. William Elliot’s Carolina Sports by Land and Water. 1846. Reprint. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Marks, Stuart A. Southern Hunting in Black and White: Nature, History, and Rituals in a Carolina Community. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Proctor, Nicholas. Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.