• Swine Country

     by Ryan Hughes

    I’ve traveled to, and hunted in, some of the most incredible states of the west, but California has remained the apple of my eye for my entire life because of the tremendous outdoor opportunities that it presents to its residents. Even if you’re not a resident, you still have access to these opportunities, but at a ridiculous price. Now, that’s a bit unfair, but it means less folks hunting where I hunt, so I’m not going to complain – yeah, it’s a bit hypocritical and I apologize ahead of time for that.

    The reason California is such a sportsman’s paradise is accredited to one huge factor, among many others – the state allows hunters to pursue big game the entirety of the year. Not just any big game, but big game that a good handful of folks seem to hate – the wild pig. It tastes good, it’s fun to hunt, it’s dangerous, it can be hunted all year, there are no sex or age regulations, and it’s a cheap tag. Seems like the perfect way to waste 90 percent of my free time.

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    My pig dog, Bronco, and his catch

    Whether you agree with me or not, the wild pig is just one key ingredient that makes California a great place to live and hunt. And the California wild pig is more or less a miracle in itself. Though I could write about wild pigs all day, I really want to tell you about why they even exist in California. It is a story that I had been wondering about for many years, and I finally built up the curiosity to spend some time researching. Lend an ear for the synopsis of one of the most interesting stories in the realm of hunting – This is how and why wild pigs exist in California. Though some of the dates may be rough, this is the result of a bit of research on an ill-documented set of events.

    The guy who made it all happen was named George Gordon Moore – a big shot lawyer who made a millionaire fortune by age 25. He did so by investing in land and the railroad industry. Moore was hellbent on creating some sort of masculine paradise – a place where men can go to hunt, fish, play polo, drink, and enjoy themselves. As a matter of fact, Moore was a known friend of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, as the rumor goes, Moore was likely to be the inspiration for his book “The Great Gatsby”.

    Aside from the wild pigs introduced by Moore, Russian colonists brought pigs to Northern California in the 1700s, as well. These pigs were big burly Eurasian hogs, but they were domestic pigs. They would escape every now and again, and the pig population became wild overtime. Moore brought over pigs that were purely wild and had never seen domestication.

    Before we talk about the origin of wild pigs in California, we are going to have to jump forward a few decades to February, 1963. Moore’s journey can best be documented with a letter he wrote to Stuyvesant Fish, of Palo Corona Ranch in Carmel, California. From what I gather, Fish is an owner or some sort of resident of a neighboring ranch to Rancho San Carlos – Moore’s Monterey county ranch which he first brought pigs to. In this letter, Moore responds to Fish’s inquiries about the origins of wild pigs in California.

    Before Moore ever had anything to do with California, he had leased 100,000 acres of timberland in Graham County, North Carolina, roughly around the years of 1880 – 1910. This estate was on Hooper Bald Mountain in the Smoky mountain range. From Moore’s account, he could see three different states from atop of Hooper Bald’s highest peak. This estate was completely fenced in, and was destined to be a game preserve, where Moore would invite friends to hunt exotic species on. Among the very first animals brought to the property were a dozen elk, seven buffalo, and 40 bears that he had bought from zoos. Along with those, there already existed a wealth of deer and bear. Moore hired three local mountain men to be the caretakers of his ranch, and had various cabins constructed on the property. In his letter, Moore claims that the bathtubs in the cabins he built were likely to be the first bathtub to ever exist in Graham County. I think that little piece gives you a bit of a look into the kinda guy he was – classy, brought the party, and had a good sense of humor.

    Anyways, bear hunting was pretty much the pride of his ranch. The mountain men, who he had hired as guides, would take guests out hunting with a pack of hounds by their side. I’m sure it was plenty of fun, but it ended up being a huge issue for both Moore and his guests – bears began breaking into cabins and mauling guests during hunts. In fact, Moore gives an anecdote of being sued by a guest, after she had been scared so badly by a bear that she had a miscarriage. I wonder who won that case.

    So, needless to say, bears were beginning to be a bit of an issue on Moore’s hunting club. Luckily, he soon crossed paths with a guy named Winans. Winans owned a wild boar hunting club in Belgium – basically the same setup as Moore’s, but with pigs. Winan has described how incredible he thought boars were, and how much he enjoyed hunting them. Moore was sold on the idea, insisted on getting hooked up with Winans “pig dealer” and that was all she wrote. Moore swiftly had three boars and nine sows shipped to his ranch, from the Ural Mountains of Russia.

    Though there was never any real effort to limit the bear population, pigs became the main focus of the ranch’s hunts. Guests would come to visit for a day, a week, and even several weeks. Pig hunting for these massive Russian boars became a wildy popular phenomenon that was relatively new and unique to the American hunter. With this new species of game came a need for a new dog to hunt them with. The bear hunting hounds were decent, but they were getting killed left and right, by these massive razorback boars, that inhabited the timber of Hooper Bald. Moore’s newest remedy became crossing an Irish wolf hound with a Great Dane, producing a pig-dog that was extremely effective.

    This is where the story starts to get a bit fuzzy –

    Moore addresses Fish, telling him about a relative of his named Hamilton Fish, who came as a guest to hunt on his estate. Apparently, this Hamilton guy was associated with the “Porcellian Club” at Harvard University, and was very anxious to kill a pig, and take its skull back to the University with him. Still listening? Hamilton Fish and Moore had gone on a pig hunt together and successfully bayed up a pig. While attempting to shoot the pig, Hamilton accidentally missed and shot and killed one of the dogs that surrounded the pig. That dog was a coon hound that had belonged to the chief hunting guide of the ranch, named Devereaux Birchfield. According to Moore’s letter, Birchfield had already killed three men for less important causes than killing his coon hound. At this point in the letter, Moore says a line that I hope to never forget – “In those days human life was a cheap commodity in the Great Smokies. A good coon hound was slightly more valued than a child.”

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    Your handsome author, with a California pig

    Moore fails to describe exactly what had happened next, but all he says is that he had suddenly realized that he had urgent business elsewhere, so he and the entire party he was with had packed their bags and began a journey back to New York the very next morning. Though I believe that is probably exactly how this whole thing unfolded, I will remain curious of what exactly happened with that property. Did Moore ever return? Did he just up and leave? I have no clue, and I am unable to find any other information about this, but it is such a key part in the story of the California pig. Apparently the ranch was from then on managed by a man named Garland McGuire, who had some sort of friendship with Moore.

    The next chapter in our story takes place in the early 1920’s. Moore had purchased a 25,000 acre ranch in Carmel, California, called Rancho San Carlos. This ranch would soon become Moore’s complete “Gentleman’s paradise” complete with a massive Spanish Hacienda. He had contacted McGuire, of Hooper Bald, and had three boars and nine sows shipped to his new California ranch. The same amount that he had initially began with on his North Carolina ranch. According to Moore’s letter, the trapping of the wild pigs, of Hooper Bald, resulted in four dead pig dogs and a badly wounded ranch-hand. These mean, dog-killing, Russian pigs would soon be the first to ever see and live in California.

    Moore’s ranch became much like his old one, with a few exceptions. This place was really like something out of the Gatsby book – there were elegant balls, Hollywood stars, wild boar hunts, massive parties, artificial lakes, a horse track, polo games, and the bourbon flowed like water. Sounds like one hell of a place.

    The ranch continued to be a world class pig hunting estate, but it’s no secret that these pigs made their way north in a hurry, only to meet up with pigs living in the northern coastal ranges of California. In his letter, Moore wrote, “The biggest boar we ever killed on the ranch, when hung, measured 9 ft. from tip to tip. The skin on his neck was three inches thick; eleven bullets were found which over the years had been imbedded in the fat.”

    I don’t know about you, but I found this to be the most magnificent story in hunting’s strange history. If it weren’t for Hamilton Fish killing that guy’s dog, who knew if we would even have pigs in California….. Yikes! There likely would be, BUT they would probably occupy a much smaller range. I don’t even want to think about a world like that. Regardless, I think we can all agree that Moore’s unorthodox conservation strategies sure did us Californians a lot of good.

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2 Comments
  • Joel Williams
    28 March 2018
    Reply

    Very interesting Ryan. Last year, I had the opportunity to hunt mule deer in Nevada with a guy who owned a Ranch in California. It was a family owned operation for many generations, and was large in size, covering thousands of acres. He remembers as a boy seeing the ranch teaming with deer, as his family would harvest several every year. I asked him, “if they still hunt deer on there ranch?” His answer startled me when he said they’d be lucky to see one a year as they have basically been wiped out by the predators, mainly the Mountain Lions, which are protected by the State of California. He did however mention, that we were invited anytime, to come hunt the pigs as there numbers were out of control and they leave a trail of devastation and destruction where ever they roam. I happily excepted the invite. Count Me In!
    Great read Ryan Hughes. Thanks.

  • Brad
    31 May 2018
    Reply

    Really a fascinating bit of history. Thanks for sharing, Ryan.