Wednesday, July 30, 2014


200 years ago in Washington County, Indiana Territory, two locations had been named after the largest ruminant that was occasionally seen in the area—the Eastern Elk.  Early settlers such as Moses Thompson and William McKnight had observed elk grazing in the broad valley that was incised into the New Providence Shale that was exposed by the Knobstone Escarpment.  Elk Creek was the name they gave to this tributary that flowed into the Muscatatuck River from this valley. Likewise, settlers such as William Lofton and Robert Armstrong  had hunted elk in the area along the lower reach of Blue River above its confluence with the Mutton Fork of Blue River.  This flood plain in a large bend of this part of Blue River was named Elk Bottom.

The elk that was native to this area at the time it was opened to settlement was the Eastern Elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis). The Eastern Elk was larger than its western cousins. A full-grown bull could weigh up to 1000 pounds, stand 50-60 inches tall at the shoulder, and carry a rack of antlers six feet in length. These elk generally ranged in forest and forest-edge habitat, feeding on grasses, plants, leaves, and bark. The presence of human encroachment on their habitat quickly led to their abandonment of Indiana.  The Eastern Elk was eventually declared extinct in 1880.

Male elk had large antlers which were shed each year. The settlers, squatters and hunters of the Indiana Territory often found spent antlers in the forests.  If you have ever been to the town square in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, you will recall how thousands of spent elk antlers festoon the corral style fence that surrounds it. Adult males usually foraged alone or in small groups when their antlers were fully grown.  After their antlers were molted, they usually grazed in herds for protection from their predators such as wolves, panthers and bears.

The Lenni Lenape [Delaware Indians] that lived here in the days of the Indiana Territory called the elk “wapiti”.  In Algonquian dialects this word meant “white rump”.  The elk was one of the few ruminants that had both antlers and canine teeth.  The Indians often wore necklaces of elk canine teeth as they were symbols of long life.

Elk bulls had a loud vocalization consisting of screams known as bugling, which can be heard for miles. Females were attracted to the males that bugled more often and had the loudest call.  Bugling was most common early and late in the day and, along with the howl of the wolf, was one of the most distinctive sounds in nature.  The natural soundscape heard by the pioneers of Washington County such as the Thompsons, McKnights, Loftons and Armstrongs was much different from the one we hear today.

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