The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota (1899) Spotlight
The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota is a story by James C. Merritt, first serialized in 1882 and later reprinted as a five-cent-novel in 1899. It chronicles the assault of a horde of wolves on a small Minnesotan settlement while a group of ruffians kidnap the hero’s loved ones.
A wolf in The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota is not only innately ravenous and aggressive, but a “half-starved devil, in the guise of an animal” (Merritt, 1). Wolves throughout the story display a level of aggression and malice far beyond the scope of real wolves. Time is taken each time the wolves are encountered to describe them as cannibals: every time a wolf is shot dead, it is “torn limb from limb and devoured by their rapacious fellows” (3). With these elements of characterization, the wolves of the story serve to represent not merely animals, but a satanic band of monsters. This is not surprising given the climate towards wolves at the time, which saw them as vermin. The main characters of The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota are wolf hunters– specialized bounty hunters who are rewarded by the government for thinning wolf populations. This was a real historical practice, overseen by many state governments (Wise, 52-53). Guided by a philosophy of land optimization, state actors organized the culling of carnivorous species so that it could be used to safely support livestock (Whiteley, 5-6).
Merritt adapts this perspective on wolves into a moral indicator in his story. Association with wolves is association with evil, while characters in opposition to them are virtuous. The former can be seen most acutely in the character of Donald Allen, a fraudulent rancher who breeds wolves. The government pays per wolf scalp turned in, so Allen uses his ranch to harvest the wolves and generate income. We are told that Allen himself is “an old rascal” (Merritt, 14), and everyone who consorts with him, “no better” (14). Allen’s accomplices are described, without exception, as “ugly villains” (16), and all speak in a noticeable accent, which is absent from the protagonists. The orthography of the dialect is clearly meant to portray the characters as gruff, and unaware. “We ain’t pooty”, they claim, but “we’re as good fellers as the next ones, and ye won’t get any better husbands” (16), these comments uttered as they are attempting to force two women into marriage. The evil of these characters is directly tied to wolfish behavior (as it is portrayed in the novel), such as their forcing themselves on the women. When the villains turn on each other, they fall on one another “tooth and nail” (24), much as the wolves in the story do when one of the pack is felled. Villainy and wolfishness are intimately connected in the logic of The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota.
Against the backdrop of this moral cosmology, a Shakespearean drama unfolds around the character of Ned. Mistaken identity, one of Shakespeare’s most prevalent ironic devices (White), is everywhere around this character. Ned is an orphan who searches for his father, meeting an old hermit who is looking for his son. He remarks multiple times about their seemingly parallel quests, saying, “I’m looking for a dad and you for a boy. Only suppose—” (Merritt, 18), though he is always interrupted before he can finish the sentence and draw attention to the situation. The pair later learn that they are indeed father and son. When Ned mentions a mischievous woman in town, calling her a vixen, the hermit seems to recognize his description of her. It just so happens that the woman who stole the hermit’s son has the surname Vixen, and that the woman which Ned was referring to is indeed her. In another example of mistaken identity, when Ned is trapped in a cave and hears commotion outside, he assumes that it is his captors and does not try to get their attention. In truth, it is his friend Kit, who has come to rescue him, and “had he had the least suspicion that it was Kit who was trying to get in, the boy… would have wanted to go out at once” (18).
Ned is not the only character to be the center of a Shakespearean plot. Nellie and Susie, the sisters of the protagonists, are kidnapped by the Reynolds brothers, who attempt to force them into marriage, another extremely common element of Shakespeare’s plays (Dolan). The kidnapping situation is given weight, as evidenced by the level of threats leveled at the women, “ye’re far away from anybody, and these boys are desperate,” and “Ye’ll have to come to it, and if ye prefer to be ruined creatures to honest wives” (Merritt, 16). A comedic section is introduced to give a break from the tension, in which the kidnappers find a corrupt priest to host the wedding. He turns out to be extremely clumsy, and keeps falling over, accidentally soaking himself in water, dropping his bible into the fireplace, tripping over a housecat, and eventually rolling out the door and into the snow, at which point he is locked out. The two scenes in combination form a highly theatric progression, in which tension rises, falls, and is then brought to a head when the women are rescued. Their rescuers are the protagonists, which they then marry in a double wedding placed at the end of the story. The ceremony is summarized in a single sentence instead of being a developed scene, reminiscent of the ending of Shakespeares’s Twelfth Night, wherein the characters proclaim to marry one another it is not acted out (Dolan).
The final battle between the last surviving villain and the protagonist also features a dramatic element, in that this scene is a callback to one of the first scenes of the story. At the beginning of The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota, Kit King flees from a pack of wolves, but falls into a frozen river. He passes beneath the ice for a time before finding a hole and managing to pull himself onto the surface using his weapon. His party finds him in time and is able to revive him. During Kit’s fight with Rufe, the last remaining member of the villainous Reynolds family, Rufe falls into the very same river. They eventually find his hand frozen in place above the water, trying to pry himself up with his weapon. The scenes are clearly meant to echo each other, and to show what Rufe (and by extension his group) lacks what Kit has. Kit was physically stronger than Rufe, and was able to pull himself up. He also had friends to look for and heal him. Rufe (due to his history of murder, kidnapping, and abetting the fraudulent wolf ranch), was not looked for until the next day, for “no one mourn[ed] the death of such a man” (Merritt, 32). The two falls into the river are so similar that the differences are clearly meant to tell us what is associated with villainy in the morality of the novel– antisocial behavior and physical weakness. In regards to the latter respect, it’s worth mentioning that the characters who hunt wolves, in contrast to Rufe, display superhuman levels of strength. When Kit is trapped inside a cabin, he fights a pack of wolves in unarmed combat, and in the case of one of them, “Kit seized the wolf by its hind legs, tore off its scalp, and threw the body outside” (28, emphasis added). This physicality is not representative of actual wolf bounty hunting, which was most often done with poison (Wise, 57) or denning (60).
The story of The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota is a blend of Shakespearean drama with a moral system qualified by one’s fellowship with wolves. Characters who own wolves act like wolves, and are villainous and criminal– reflecting the attitude of America towards wolves at the time. Plot elements from Shakespeare’s repertoire are acted out as these villains struggle against a wolf-hunting cast of heroes imbued with superior strength and the love of their broader community. This story shows how a moral system can be established and supported by authoritative traditions, such as Shakespeare, and how these characterizations can support harmful environmental policies. The demonization of wolves no doubt supported the common misconception that wolves were ravenous demons, and in some part contributed to the general public accepting the bounties placed upon their heads. By displaying characters who interacted with wolves as villains and kidnappers, the author turns the plot devices of Shakespeare into their own moral construction— into a cudgel against anyone who might disagree with exterminating wolves. With this story, anyone who advocated for wolves might be called a Rufe, or a Donald Allen, a thug trying to use wolves for profit, or a kindred spirit to them, who would turn on their allies at the first sign of trouble. It glamorizes wolf-hunting by giving the wolf hunters superhuman strength and the acceptance of their peers, makes their wolf-owning opposition look monstrous and unintelligent by having them all be ugly kidnappers who speak in funny accents. The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota is a story that tolerates no nuance on the subject— through Shakespeare’s voice it proclaims: honor, strength, love, and friendship, these are the domain of wolf hunters, and evil, deceit, betrayal, womanizing, fraud, these are what come of suffering the wolf to live.
The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota was originally serialized in the Boys of New York story paper in nos. 339 through 347 between February 11 and April 8, 1882, where it was attributed to Robert Lennox. It was first published complete in one volume in Pluck and Luck no. 45 on April 14, 1899, attributed to James C. Merritt, and reprinted again in no. 885. The story is believed to have been written by Francis W. Doughty.
- Multiple times throughout the story, the wolf hunters are depicted shooting wolves at close range, even battling them with their bare fists at times. In reality, early wolf hunters would rack up bounties by poisoning bison corpses and then laying them out near known wolf dens. When bison became less numerous, denning (which sometimes involved raising pups to maturity once taken) became the primary method. Why might Merritt have presented wolf hunters in this way, and attached the real wolf hunting practice to the character of Donald Allen?
- Ned’s newly found father figure, the hermit, dies near the end of the story, only to be replaced almost immediately by another man, the hermit’s brother, and Ned’s uncle. The uncle takes Ned in and adopts him. What purpose might this switch serve, especially in terms of the story’s Shakespearean elements?
- Jack Whiteley’s article, Property in Wolves, discusses how the state chose winners for how land could be used by declaring carnivorous species as nonproducers. Land would instead be retooled for cattle-rearing and farming, which paved the way for many early industries in the Midwest. How does The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota’s final paragraphs, which discuss how the country has changed since it was cleared of wolves, support this mission? How does its placement of the events of the story in the distant past contribute to the aesthetics of wolf extermination as an ideology?
- Brett Walker, in The Lost Wolves of Japan, discusses the process by which wolves there were reinterpreted from revered animals into abominations who upset the normal exercise of neo-Confucian values. There is attention paid to how Japanese religion and land property law grew closer in scope. This eventually led to wolves being exterminated from many areas in order to populate them with rice farms, symbols of neo-Confucian humility. How does this converse with The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota’s presentation of the wolves as satanic, and the eventual changes to the area described in the story’s final paragraphs?
- When Rufe falls into the river in a scene which mirrors Kit’s own fall, he is unable to pull himself up, as Kit was. He is shown to be weaker than the wolf hunters, who have inhuman strength. Rufe and his fellow ne’er-do-wells throughout the story are given wolfish traits, however in this scene there is dissonance between them, as the wolves are always shown to have incredible speed and strength. How is strength used throughout this story? Can you see an evolution from the wolves’ physicality to the personality traits of the evil human characters?
- Wise, Michael. “Killing Montana’s Wolves: Stockgrowers, Bounty Bills, and the Uncertain Distinction between Predators and Producers.” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 2013.
Article covering the development of wolf killing methods, how bison hunting may have contributed to an initial surge in wolf populations, and descriptions of wolf ranches used to fraudulently collect bounties.
- Lopez, Barry. Of Wolves and Men. Scribner, 1978, pp. 178-191.
Passage discussing methods and attitudes of wolf hunters, the structure of bounties and how wolfing grew into an industry.
- Whiteley, Jack. “Property in Wolves.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2023.
Discussion of how property law and economic incentives drove wolf bounties— in efforts to optimize land usage.
- Walker, Brett. The Lost Wolves of Japan. University of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 97-110.
Passage detailing how wolves came to be targeted in Japan, especially in terms of land usage, as well as cultural/religious factors. The western influences on the process are especially relevant to The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota.
Merritt, J. C. (1899). The Wolf Hunters of Minnesota. Frank Tousey, 29 West 26th St.
Wise, M. (2013). Killing Montana’s Wolves: Stockgrowers, Bounty Bills, and the Uncertain Distinction Between Predators and Producers. Montana The Magazine of Western History, 63(4).
Whiteley, J. H. L. (2022). Property in Wolves. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4186969
White, R. S. (2016). Comedy of disguise and mistaken identity. Shakespeare's Cinema of Love. https://doi.org/10.7228/manchester/9780719099748.003.0006
Dolan, F. E. (2011). Shakespeare and marriage: An open question. Literature Compass, 8(9), 620–634. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00822.x
Doughty, F. W. (1892). Evidences of man in the Drift; a description of certain archaeological objects recently discovered in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Priv. Print.
Doughty, F. W. (1890). Cents of the United States: A numismatic study. Scott Stamp co.
Gruhlke, A. C., Whorter, L. V., Nissley, J. R., & Causey, C. F. (1893). The Archaeologist. (A. F. Berlin, Ed.) Display of Archaeological Ignorance.