Trapping. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

The practice of capturing animals through the use of any mechanical device that kills or
immobilizes the prey without requiring the presence of the trapper. The use of such
devices is ancient: Egyptian tomb paintings depict the use of fish traps, but the practice
undoubtedly has its roots in prehistory, with the earliest use of tools of any kind.
Fur provided a major economic incentive for European explorers of North America
from the first, and all early accounts of the riches of the New “World include descriptions
of the abundance of valuable fur-bearing game. The development in the 15th and 16th
centuries of a practical, reliable, and portable metal-spring trap that could be
manufactured in quantity and packed into the wilderness with ease gave further impetus
to the exploration of the American frontier. The Hudson Bay Company, founded in 1670
and still in existence, provided the foremost outlet for sales to the European market.
The dramatic and colorful role played by the professional trapper in American history
has overshadowed the ongoing role of part-time practitioners—farmers and woodsmen
with sufficient skill to put food on the table, rid their land of nuisance species, and
supplement their income with fur sales. Most contemporary trappers belong to this parttime category, if only because state regulation of the activity in the United States limits
the trapping of most species to an annual season of a few weeks or months. In the 1990s,
the most frequently trapped mammals in the United States include beaver, opossum,
skunk, muskrat, bobcat, mink, otter, raccoon, marten, bear, red and grey fox, nutria, and
Like hunting and fishing, trapping is an activity that must be learned by observation
and experience. Many rural youngsters begin with simple homemade snares, pitfalls,
deadfalls, and boxtraps, the designs for which are often centuries old or more. However,
most serious would-be trappers eventually graduate to the steel-spring trap. To do so,
they typically enter into an informal apprenticeship with a more expert individual who
instructs the pupil in highly traditional aspects of the activity such as the habits and temperament of the target animals, the placement and construction of a trap set, the
concoction and use of aromatic baits and lures, the responsible regular running
(checking) of the trap line, humane dispatch of appropriate target animals, and techniques
for release of accidental catches. In many rural communities, trapping under the guidance
of a knowledgeable older man is considered an especially appropriate training for young
boys, teaching them the virtues of patience, careful observation, hard work, and
responsibility. Because some capital is tied up in the purchase of equipment, trapping is
also understood to provide early training in financial management. Furthermore, successful implementation of educational and regulatory programs concerning animal population
control at the state and local level since the 1930s has strongly reinforced the conviction
among trappers that their work enhances the general health and strength of the furbearing species in their region. The predominant metaphor is agricultural: A trapper
frequently speaks of “harvesting,” and a female or young male of a target species that is
released is “left for seed.”
The activity thus carries for many participants a complex set of positive values and
sentiments that go far beyond its practical utility. In addition, although few trappers trap
purely “for the sport” in the same sense that American hunters hunt and fishermen fish,
trapping affords its competent practitioners enormous personal satisfaction difficult to
convey even to sympathetic nontrappers.
Historically, trapping has never shared the aristocratic traditional heritage that is a
component in hunting—a heritage deriving from the deeply held classical and European
belief that the hunt provided the best possible means for peacetime maintenance of
military skills. Within the Anglo American tradition, the aristocratic youth George
Washington hunted; Abe Lincoln, a backwoods boy, trapped. Among the general public,
the romantic historical picture of the trapper on the frontier coexists uneasily with
increasingly negative images of the contemporary trapper arising in part from the anti-fur
stance of the animal rights movement, which gained momentum in the 1970s.
Trapper reaction to the “antis” has fundamentally altered the culture of trapping.
Where once the communal aspect was limited to the dyads of the teacher-pupil
relationship and the partnerships established between pairs of experienced trappers,
trappers have now organized groups on the regional, state, local, and national levels for
the purposes of educating the general public, neutralizing the political momentum of the
animal rights lobby, and cooperating with state game agencies.
These organizations provide a forum for a great deal of informal interaction as well,
adding substantially to the folklore of contemporary trapping. Meetings provide an
opportunity to share narrative accounts of the adventures of the last season and to pass
around the latest “anti” jokes and stories. (A whole cycle of humorous tales circulates
concerning the animal rights activist Cleveland Amory, most of which turn on his
putative ignorance of “real-life” animal behavior.) Snapshots of previous seasons’ take
are often brought out: Because the catch is sold, photographs provide the sole means of
visual documentation. Pelts are arranged with a careful eye to pleasing and impressive
composition. Garb at the meetings often includes items identifying the wearer as a proud
trapper: Baseball caps, enamel pins, and T-shirts with the organization logos and slogans
abound, although such clothing is less commonly used in the field, where the
requirements are warmth and durability.
The meetings also provide an opportunity for participation by wives and girlfriends.
Although women are seldom full participants in trapping itself, they are often very active
in the local trapping organizations, providing support such as bookkeeping, food
preparation, dues collection, and fund-raising through women’s auxiliary organizations.
Trapping as a traditional activity has not been extensively explored by folklorists, with
the exception of beliefs documented in the hunting sections of the major compendiums
compiled by Wayland D.Hand and others. Most trappers are pessimistic about the future
of the pursuit; it is possible that within a generation or two it may have passed completely
from the roster of traditional American outdoor skills, with its latter years relatively
Erika Brady
Bateman, James A. 1971. Animals, Traps, and Trapping. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Brady, Erika. 1990. Mankind’s Thumb on Nature’s Scale: Trapping and Regional Identity in the
Missouri Ozarks. In Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures, ed. Barbara Allen and
Thomas J.Schlereth. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 58–73.
Hand, Wayland D. 1964. Beliefs and Superstitiom. Vol. 7 of The Frank C.Brown Collection of
North Carolina Folklore. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 483–490.
Hand, Wayland D., Anna Casetta, and Sondra B. Thiederman. 1981. Popular Beliefs and
Superstitions: A Compendium of American Folklorefrom the Ohio Collection of New bell Niles
Puckett. Boston: G.K.Hall, pp. 1019–1023.
LaFleur, Normand. 1973. La vie traditionelle du coureur de bois aux XIXe et XXe siecles. Ottawa:
Editions Lemeac.