At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims had never seen such a feast.

The First Thanksgiving

It wasn’t easy being a Pilgrim. After the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620, nearly half its 102 passengers died during their first winter ashore.  Only 53 scurvy-ridden immigrants survived until the next autumn; their number included only four adult women.  Most of the colonists were in poor health, and few of them were skilled farmers or hunters. Fortunately, their new neighbors were glad to share a little squash and venison now and then.

With good reason, these and other colonists were impressed by Native Americans’ hunting skills. One in Virginia describes the Roanokes “… being secretly hidden among high reeds where oftentimes they find the deere asleep and so kill them.”  John Smith reported that “When they have shot a deare by land, they follow him like blood hounds by the blood and straine, and oftentimes so take them.”

The Pilgrims’ new neighbors, the area’s original inhabitants, were the Wampanoag.  Like most tribes, they were competent hunters and farmers.  But somehow that doesn’t quite fit with what most of us learned in school about who catered the first Thanksgiving dinner party.

In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, historian James Loewen describes how “Our archetypal image of the first Thanksgiving portrays the groaning boards in the woods, with the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best and the almost naked Indian guests. Thanksgiving silliness reaches some sort of zenith in the handouts that school children have carried home for decades, with captions like, ‘They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast!’ When his son brought home this ‘information’ from his New Hampshire elementary school, Native American novelist Michael Dorris pointed out ‘the Pilgrims had literally never seen such a feast, since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided by [or with the aid of] the local tribe.’”

For over a century, our mental pictures of the first Thanksgiving have been reinforced by actual pictures.  America’s most well-known image of The First Thanksgiving is the 1899 oil painting of that title by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.  It shows a crowd of well-fed, rosy-cheeked pilgrims offering heaping platters of food to a half-dozen Indians sitting cross-legged on the ground.  All wear clothing more typical of that worn by Indians of the Great Plains.  A 1914 oil painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe shows a similar scene, this time with most of the Indians sitting on the grass in the distant background. In both paintings, half-naked Indians seem noticeably under-dressed for late November in Massachusetts.

Both paintings suggest that dinner was provided by generous Pilgrims.  The truth, however, was somewhat different, and the Indians must have viewed the Pilgrims as we would that bachelor uncle who always arrives at Thanksgiving dinner with a bag of chips and a jar of dill pickles.  But since the three-day feast was attended by 53 pilgrims and around 90 Indians, maybe it’s only fair that the Indians brought most of the food—and also most of the choicest dishes.

Which brings us to the second-biggest myth about that first Thanksgiving—the menu itself.  It featured no potatoes, either mashed or sweet. No green beans baked with cream of mushroom soup and crispy onions.  No pumpkin pie or squash with marshmallows on top—but probably roast or boiled pumpkin and squash, most of it provided by the Indians.  No stuffing, and probably no turkey, either.

The most reliable written account of the occasion is from Edward Winslow. In it, he makes no mention of turkey. But when writing about wild game, Winslow and his contemporaries almost always named waterfowl and turkey specifically—probably because each bird was large enough to provide a solid meal.  He mentions one outing, for example, when “wee got three fat geese and six ducks to our supper, which we eate with soldiers stomachs, for we had eaten little all that day…”  On another trip he and his companions remained hungry: “…wee saw great flockes of wild geese and duckes, but they were very fearefull of us.”

When writing of the first Thanksgiving, however, Winslow only mentions some sort of generic “fowle” that was most likely heath hen. This two-pound bird, a relative of the prairie chicken, was once quite common along the entire eastern seaboard. Because they were easy to hunt and tasted like chicken, they are now extinct.

By 1621, their fate was already sealed.  Writes Winslow: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labours. They foure in one day killed as much fowle as, with a little helpe beside, served the company almost a weeke.”  Figure enough birds to feed 53 hungry Pilgrims for a week, and maybe even a few of the 90 or so Indians who joined them for the party, and that’s a lot of “fowle.”

Besides Winslow’s account, the only other description of that first Thanksgiving is from William Bradford, who does indeed mention turkeys. But Bradford, unlike Winslow, was writing about his recollections 20 years after the fact. He appears to have made a number of other adjustments to the day’s menu, and he also put a far more positive spin on the Pilgrims’ diet during the months before and after.  Knowing his account will be questioned, he seems a little defensive: “Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

Winslow, meanwhile, notes that the Indians “went out and killed five Deere which they brought to the Plantacion, and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captain, and others.”  So at that first Thanksgiving in 1621, it seems likely that turkey wasn’t even on the menu. One thing is certain, however. The main course was venison.

Then, as now, it would have been delicious.  The Pilgrims had never seen such a feast.

First Thanksgiving painting by Brownscombe

 

Posted in Cuisine, Deer, History, Hunting, Venison | 3 Comments

Hunters, Be Safe Out There (A Cuts, Clots, and Falls Update)

After You Fall From a Treestand, copyright Al Cambronne

Statistically, deer hunting is a very safe pastime.  And yet….

The other day someone tweeted a link to a hunter safety post I wrote way back in the fall of 2011.  (Thank you for that!)  At the time I was still researching my book DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.  Feels like ages ago.  But if you’re a deer hunter, that post is still worth another look.

Because you know, it always happens to someone else.  Until it happens to you.

Although hunting is just one part of the larger environmental and cultural story I tell in DEERLAND, it was fascinating to explore American deer-hunting culture.  It’s one that’s changed dramatically over just a single generation, and this has in turn changed hunters’ whole risk equation.  Today fewer hunters participate in group deer drives; more of them hunt alone.  Fewer sit on stumps; more sit in treestands.  Just as many hunt with firearms, but far more of them also hunt with bows and crossbows.

It all adds up to fewer hunters accidentally shooting each other, but more of them cutting themselves on razor sharp broadheads.  In addition to bleeding, hunters can also worry about just the opposite: blood clots from sitting still for so long.  Here’s more on that from Dan Schmidt, the editor of Deer & Deer HuntingHe just had quite a wake-up call.

I’m a relatively unskilled deer hunter, and I’m especially lacking in the ability to sit motionless all day in cold weather.  Who knows?  In addition to saving the lives of a few deer, maybe that’s even saved mine.  But blood clots are no joke, and I bet it’s something we’ll be hearing more about in this context—and all because of a big change in American deer hunting culture.  Never before have so many been so frozen and yet sat so still for so long.

Of course, the greatest risk for modern deer hunters is falling from treestands.  It’s something we rarely heard of a generation ago—mainly because back then hardly anyone hunted from treestands.  Now almost everyone does.

But treestands don’t have to be dangerous.  Wear a safety harness, and stay clipped in from the moment you start climbing until both your boots are back on the ground.  It’s great that you’re clipped in while you sit up there, but a large percentage of falls happen on the way up or the way down.  That first step out of the treestand can be a long one.

That’s what happened last year to a guy I know.  Friend of a neighbor.  Broke his back, several ribs, and various other bones.  After regaining consciousness he was able to crawl, very slowly, for almost half a mile to the nearest dirt road.  (He had a phone, but it fell out of his pocket and he couldn’t raise his head high enough to see where it landed.)  Fortunately he fell early in the afternoon, not right after sunset.  It was almost dusk when he reached the road, which is fairly isolated and doesn’t have any year-round dwellings on it.  It was a weekday, and the guy who found him was probably the last person who’d have driven by until sometime the next day.  He rarely drives that route; that day for some reason he’d taken the long way, just on a whim.

So the guy survived.  He was given a long helicopter ride straight to a big hospital down in the city; apparently his spinal injuries were pretty serious.  He might have been paralyzed, but was not.  For the first months after his fall, he wore a rigid plastic body brace that closely resembled a giant turtle shell—especially since it was in a greenish camo color.  His back brace came off after a few months, and by late spring he was walking fairly well.  He’s doing OK now.

If that story doesn’t make you think about treestand safety, I don’t know what will.  But as an extra visual aid, I’ve included two simulated POV shots.  Above: The first thing you’d see after you hit the ground—and maybe the last.  Below: What you’d see if were crawling out of the woods for half a mile with a broken back, broken ribs, a few other broken bones besides.  It’s raining this afternoon, so the photo is a bit dark and blurry.  But then, under those circumstances your vision would be getting a little dark and blurry.

So all you deer hunters out there…  Wear a safety harness, and stay clipped in—including on the way up and the way back down.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Crawling Out of the Woods, copyright Al Cambronne

Posted in Deer, Hunting

Studying Deer Impacts at New York’s Binghamton University

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Ever since DEERLAND hit the streets, readers have been sharing with me their stories and photos. Some are ordinary citizens, like the woman from Long Island who sent me before-and-after photos of what happens when exploding deer populations far exceed what their habitat can support.  Others are botanists and ecologists whose job it is to get out into the woods—or at least what’s left of them—and actually study the ecological impacts of overabundant deer.

One of those experts is Tom Rawinski, a botanist with the USDA Forest Service.  He’s just shared a trip report from his recent assessment of deer impacts at New York’s Binghamton University, and both the numbers and the images are astounding.

(Before I continue, I should mention that Binghamton has experts of its own who study deer impacts on the university’s 900-acre campus, over 600 acres of which is in an undeveloped natural state.  They include Drs. Richard Andrus and John Titus, plus Dylan Horvath, who’s responsible for managing the university’s nature preserve.  Most universities have botany professors who can help students better understand deer impacts.  But professors at Binghamton can actually show students these impacts right on their own campus—including the stark contrast visible at six different exclosures.)

Since Binghamton’s deer are totally habituated, and since there’s almost no understory where they could hide, they were especially easy to count.  In one 33-acre area, deer densities would extrapolate to 349 per square mile.  Over the entire 600-acre area, deer densities are currently at 145 per square mile, far above what’s sustainable.  In his report, Rawinski describes the clear ecological consequences: “At present, there are no trees, of any species, able to successfully regenerate in the B.U. forests.”

Rawinksi’s photos alone tell a story.  In the photo above, the forest understory is totally missing.  Below, the only green on the forest floor is from ferns and sedges that deer find unpalatable.

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Below, you can see an area that’s more visually appealing.  On these soils, a dense mat of sedge and grass dominates the understory.  It’s still, however, a sign of severe deer impacts.  This is not a healthy forest.

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The next photo shows an especially crisp, sharp browse line.  It almost looks like humans have been out there with hedge trimmers.  But no.  Just extremely hungry deer.

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Finally, one last photo of a forest that’s open enough to accommodate a fast-paced game of disc golf.

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© 2014 Al Cambronne.  All photos courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski.

Posted in Deer, Ecology, Forests | 6 Comments

Five Years of Gutting, Cutting, and Cooking

GICICI cover

Five years ago, on 09/09/09, Krause Media released Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.  Since then, largely through word of mouth, it’s gone on to become the best-selling book on the topic—and a perennial top-seller among hunting books in general.

Every year my coauthor and I are helping more hunters learn to butcher their own deer, and that’s exciting.  Sure, they’ll save a few dollars.  But the biggest payoff is something less tangible.  It’s the same feeling of self-reliance you get from building your own deck or canning your own tomatoes—but somehow way more powerful and primal.

Eric Fromm, my coauthor, was definitely the expert on this project.  I, on the other hand, could totally empathize with the complete beginner.  That’s because as an adult-onset hunter, I was one myself.  In the end, however, it turned out that my beginner’s perspective was actually very helpful.  It meant I took nothing for granted, and I knew just which steps would seem especially challenging or intimidating.  And given my instructional design background (that’s been my day job for the last twenty years), I thought a lot about what learners really need to know so they’ll be successful at this task.  In the corporate world, I helped people learn the skills they need for their jobs.  Here, I helped hunters learn the skills they need for this job.

This book is different from anything else out there.  We’ve shown readers all the step-by-step details, with supportive tips and guidance at every step of the way.  We’ve been especially careful to zero in on the details that matter most.  Other books only devote a few pages to the practical details of field-dressing, skinning, and butchering.  But that’s where we spent nearly all our time.  That meant there just wasn’t room for recipes, hunting stories, advice on how to shoot the biggest buck of your life, and the history of deer hunting over the last 50,000 years.  But that’s OK.  There are already plenty books on those topics.

After all the butchering is done, and after the chapter on making deerburger, sausage, and jerky, we did include a brief chapter on cooking techniques.  Once you’ve gone to all that work, we’d hate to see you ruin your venison in the kitchen.  And it turns out that cooking venison is very different from cooking beef.  For now, if you remember just one thing, remember this: Don’t overcook it.

In the five years since Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. first appeared, more and more deer hunters are deciding this is a job they don’t want to delegate—and maybe you’re one of them.  Plus, more Americans are taking up hunting as adults, and more of us are thinking of ourselves as DIY locavores.  It’s not just about sustainability, and it’s not just about saving money.  It’s about the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done the job yourself—all the way from pulling the trigger to doing the dishes.  That means five years later, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. is more relevant than ever.

Finally, a few words of encouragement:  You can do it.  If you’re a beginning deer hunter, or if you’re an experienced deer hunter who hopes to butcher your own deer this fall for the very first time…  Just relax.  This isn’t a delicate surgical procedure.  Your deer is already dead.  If some of your steaks from that first deer are a little lumpy, and if you inadvertently turn some of the very best cuts into ragged scraps and shreds, it’s OK.  They’ll be great for gourmet stir-fries and fajitas.  You can do this.  If you can clean your own fish, you can butcher your own deer.  So good luck, good hunting, and bon appétit!

And by the way…  You can find Gut It. Cut It Cook It. online at AmazonBarnes & Noble, Backwoods Home Magazine, Bass Pro Shops, Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine, Scheels, Target, Walmart,  and a number of other sources. You can also find it at bookstores, sporting goods stores, and outdoor retailers everywhere—not just Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain, and Scheel’s, but lots of smaller independent shops, too.  Same with bookstores.  But if you’re not near your favorite independent bookstore right now, click here to buy Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. at Indiebound.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Posted in Books, Cuisine, Deer, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., Hunting, Venison

Today’s DEERLAND PSA: How to Safely Release Your Dog From a Trap

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It’s almost that time of year again.  Most states’ trapping seasons begin around mid-October, and Minnesota and Wisconsin have now joined Alaska and a couple of western states in legalizing wolf trapping.  Traps will soon be set, and a lot of non-trappers will also hitting the trail—many of them with curious dogs.  Some are just out for a pleasant autumn hike with their dogs, and some are using their dogs to hunt birds like grouse or pheasant.

Inevitably, a small number of those dogs will end up in traps meant for wolves and coyotes.  Although the risk is small, it’s worth being prepared.   I know someone whose dog stepped in a wolf trap last fall.  Fortunately, he knew exactly what to do.  His dog is just fine.

This isn’t a scare-mongering tirade against wolf-trapping, and it’s not an attack on hunting in general.  (After all, it’s often hunting dogs that are especially at risk.)  No matter how you feel about wolves, hunting, or trapping, those traps are generally out there legally. If you’re a non-trapper who has strong misgivings about the whole business, that’s OK.  Please set those feelings aside for the moment and get ready for a quick lesson about traps and trapping.  What you learn in the next few minutes could save your dog’s leg, and maybe even its life.

(I’m not a trapper myself, so this will be very basic.  If you finish reading this post and would like to offer deeper expertise, feel free to do so in the comments.)

Although a quick Google turns up plenty of hits on this topic, some resources are more useful than others.  Many contain information that’s incomplete or unintentionally misleading.  Some sensationalize the dangers, while others minimize the risk and downplay the trauma your dog could experience if it’s caught in a trap.  I’ll do neither.  Here’s a quick overview, plus links to the best information I’ve found so far.

Some internet experts advise that your dog will be safe as long as you just keep it on a leash.  But for both you and your dog, running free is part of the fun.  And obviously, hunting dogs can’t do much pointing or retrieving when they’re on a six-foot leash.  What’s more, keeping your dog on a leash, even a fairly short one, is no guarantee of safety.

That’s because many traps are set right at the edge of trails frequented by wolves and coyotes—and also by hunters and hikers.  The whole strategy is to arouse the curiousity of animals passing by on the trail.  These traps are carefully concealed, and you’ll walk right by them without ever seeing them.  Even another trapper would be unlikely to spot them.  They’re baited with scent-based attractants that arouse the curiousity of all canids.  These are the traps your dog is most likely to encounter.  This doesn’t mean you should freak out every time your dog sniffs at something along the edge of the trail.  But the risk, however small, is real.

Your dog is less likely to step in traps set for animals like mink, muskrat, raccoon, or beaver.  It happens, but far less often—mainly because these traps are set in wetland areas and in or near water.  They’re typically places too wet for hiking or hunting upland birds, but not quite wet enough for hunting ducks.  So I won’t say much about these traps, except to mention that a small percentage of them are body-grip traps.  (Conibear, a a brand name like Kleenex, is often used generically to describe all traps of this type.)  They squeeze the entire animal, often around its neck.  Although they’re intended to be more humane than other trap designs, it will be very bad for your dog if it’s caught in one of these traps—especially if the trap is a larger model meant for beaver or otter.  It will be very difficult to get your dog free, and yet you’d better not waste time.  Every second counts.

Snares are used more rarely.  If your dog is caught in one, you may be able to release it by pulling back, not forward, on the snare’s sliding metal tab.  If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to cut the cable.  Since you won’t be able to do that with an ordinary multitool or pliers, consider carrying a special tool like this one.

Most traps used for wolves and coyotes, however, are leg hold traps that come in one of newhouse 4two basic designs.  The first is a long-spring trap whose design hasn’t changed much in 150 years.  Some of these traps have two springs, one on each side.  You can release their jaws by simply stepping down on the spring(s).  If you’re not confident you’ll be able to do that, consider carrying a couple of ordinary C-clamps that you can use to compress the springs.

The other type is the coil spring trap.  These give you a much smaller tab to step on.  If youtrap_leghold_coil_spring.preview
hunt or hike with your dog in places where there’s a lot of trapping, you could buy inexpensive trap-setting tools like trappers themselves use.  They slip on over that small steel tab to provide extra leverage.  But because long-spring traps are easier for trappers themselves to handle, I’m guessing they’re more popular in most areas.

Either way, releasing these springs can be harder than you’d think—especially since your dog will be hurt, scared, and struggling to escape.  To minimize injuries, try to keep your dog from twisting or pulling on its leg.  Experts advise that you wrap your dog in your jacket and/or loop a leash around its nose as a makeshift muzzle.  That won’t be easy, either.  If you’re hunting or hiking alone, these situations can be especially challenging.

But here’s the good news: The kind of traps used for coyotes, and even for wolves, probably won’t crush your dog’s leg and do serious damage.  Depending on the size of your dog, the trap’s jaws may not even break its skin.  These traps are designed that way, often with a built-in gap or rubber cushions on their jaws.  In fact, when government trappers catch wolves for radio-collaring, they use the same trap they’d use for lethal control measures.  The only difference is in what happens next when they check their traps.  Most wolves can be safely released from these traps with no injuries whatsoever.  With luck, and with a little preparation and know-how, so can your dog.

For more details, here’s a pamphlet from Alaska DFG: trap_safety_for_pet_owners.  Better yet, follow the link in the next paragraph to see a great five-part video tutorial with Carter Niemeyer, author of Wolfer: A Memoir.  He’s a wolf advocate and retired USDA Wildlife Services trapper who really knows his stuff.  He’s spent a lifetime handling traps; notice how confidently he demonstrates the grip of a wolf trap by letting one close on his gloved hand.  (Kids, don’t try this at home.)  But note, too, how even someone with his skills and experience has trouble releasing the coil-spring and conibear traps.  And in these videos he’s not simultaneously dealing with a frightened, struggling dog.

If you hike or hunt with a dog in wolf country, these videos are well worth watching.  Click here to see Part One; as you watch each segment, you’ll see a link to the next one in the upper-right corner of your screen.

Stay safe out there.  And if your dog does step in a trap, don’t panic.  It will panic enough for both of you.  Be your dog’s calm, reassuring human, and things will probably turn out OK.

© 2014 Al Cambronne, top photo courtesy Wikipedia

 

Posted in Hunting, Wolves | 2 Comments

When We Talk Deer Impacts, Let’s Remember the Deer Themselves

CT doe with ticks, courtesy Tom Rawinski

Locally hyperabundant deer are not a trivial nuisance.  They have profound, long-lasting impacts on entire ecosystems.  These deer impacts affect every other plant, animal, and bird out there.  It’s an important, vastly under-reported story, one that’s unfolding right under our noses in America’s sprawling suburbs and exurbs.

In DEERLAND you met a few of the botanists, ecologists, and foresters who helped me trace these connections, and at times I’ve told a simpler version of the story here at my blog.  I’ve shown you forests with browse lines and a missing understory, and exclosures that tell a simple “deer on the right, no deer on the left” story.  I’ve explained how overabundant deer reduce songbird numbers and diversity in the forest canopy, and why all these effects are incredibly persistent.  Even when deer are weakened and starving, their numbers can remain high enough so their habitat never fully recovers.

But let’s not forget the deer themselves.  In their weakened state, they’re more vulnerable to disease—and also more likely to spread disease.  They tend to carry a much higher parasite load, which only weakens them further.  They host protozoan parasites that include toxoplasmosis, babesiosis, and theileriosis, and they’re often infested with some combination of liver flukes, lungworms, stomach worms, meningeal worms, arterial worms, abdominal worms, and tapeworms.  And then there are external parasites, like the ticks tormenting the deer in these two photos.

(The rather scrawny, tick-bitten doe was spotted in the suburbs of Connecticut, and the fawn in the photo below was found out on Long Island near Calverton, N.Y.  For earlier posts on Long Island deer, see here and here.  And here’s an op-ed on Long Island deer that I wrote for the Wall Street Journal.)

The moral of the story?  When deer populations skyrocket, standing by to “let nature take its course” is not always our best option—or our most humane.

Long Island fawn with ticks in eye calverton NY, courtesy Clifford Dayton

© 2014 Al Cambronne.  Photos courtesy Tom Rawinski and Clifford Dayton. For more of Cliff’s photos, visit his website.

 

 

 

Posted in Deer, Ecology, Forests

Pierre and Me

Pierre_Cambronne

So the other day I did the vanity Google. Admit it.  You have, too.

I don’t get past my first name before Google offers auto-completes like Al Jazeera, Al Pacino, and of course…  Al Capone.  But then right after that, Al Cambronne pops up pretty quickly.  That’s me.

And if I simply search for “Cambronne?”  There’s apparently a restaurant supply company called Cambro, and as long as I can remember I’ve been seeing their name on the bottom of those cheap red plastic glasses at pizza parlors. But immediately thereafter, up pops my name—Cambronne, a surname I share on the internet with a distant relative at a Minneapolis law firm, a cousin who’s an artist working in metal, and various other relatives who mostly live here in the Midwestern U.S.

In Paris, however, there’s the Paris Eiffel Cambronne Hotel, the Best Western Hotel Eiffel Cambronne, the Ibis Tour Eiffel Cambronne, the Hotel Carladez Cambronne, and dozens more hotels and very classy French restaurants—and by “French” I mean the kind that are actually located in France.  They’re near the Cambronne Metro station at the Place Cambronne, and most are on the Rue Cambronne, one of my favorite streets in Paris. Theoretically, that is.  I’ve never actually been there.  But apparently there’s great pizza at a place on Rue Cambronne called Pizza Flora.

Nor have I been to Cambronne Street in New Orleans.  But when I search for Cambronne Street, I see many real estate ads. From the prices, Cambronne Street looks like a pretty OK neighborhood.  One ad describes a “large, gorgeous home” as being located on “mellow Cambronne street.”  Yeah.  That’s me.  Not Easy Street, but Mellow Cambronne Street.

All these places, it turns out, are named after Pierre Cambronne, a heroic general of Napoleon’s who may or may not be an ancestor of mine.  He fought and was wounded at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and may or may not have said something quite noble, quite obscene, or both.  The Battle of Waterloo, of course, gave us the idiom “to meet one’s Waterloo,” and that’s where Pierre Cambronne met his.

According to one newspaper account, when asked to surrender he replied “The Guard dies.1280px-Cambronne_-_buste It does not surrender.” After his death, these words were carved into the base of his statue.  But since he surrendered at Waterloo, married the Scottish nurse who cared for him after his capture, retired to his home town of Nantes, and lived happily for 27 more years until dying there in 1842, more appropriate words might have been “The guard surrenders. It does not die.”

There is, however, another version of the story that’s gained much greater traction over the last two centuries.  Legend has it that when asked to surrender Cambronne replied with more colorful language that was not later carved into the base of his statue.  According to most sources, his defiant reply was brief and to the point: “Merde!”  (“Shit!”).  Even today, in polite company the French often use the euphemism “le mot de Cambronne” (the word of Cambronne).  Although this is the version of the story told by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, I’ve also heard vague rumors that Cambronne may have used even stronger language at Waterloo.

At any rate, on the rare occasions when I introduce myself to anyone from France who stayed awake in history class, they are always delighted to learn of my last name.  I tell them I’m not sure, but yes, I might be related to Pierre.  Yes, probably.  I’m pretty sure.

The moral of the story: There’s nothing like a good story.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

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Posted in Books, History