The Last Wolf in Connecticut

I drove into work this morning behind a car with a bumper sticker for the West Hartford Wolves, a youth hockey team. Today we think of wolves and tough and brave, as noble symbols of wildness and of the wilderness. We now view wilderness itself as something rather rare and precious, good for the human the spirit. Three hundred years ago, people in Connecticut had a lot more direct experience with wolves and the wilderness such creatures inhabited. They considered both a threat to the fragile civilization that they were attempting to establish in the New World. By 1835, when John Warner Barber made this drawing, those days were past, and most of the state’s forests had been converted into farmland. It was less than sixty years since the American Revolution, however, and many old men and women still remembered those times. Some of the men would have fought with General Israel Putnam, one of Connecticut’s most distinguished war heroes. They would have known the story of how, as a young farmer, Putnam had killed the last wolf in Connecticut. Barber’s drawing shows and old man telling the story to two young boys, passing on the legend.

Barber’s Trees

chs_1953_5_56The New Haven artist John Warner Barber knew a lot about trees. When he traveled around Connecticut in the early 1830s making sketches for his book, Connecticut Historical Collections, he carefully noted the species of the trees, so that he would be able to portray them correctly in the wood-engraved illustrations. Many of his drawings include young trees, recently set out, providing us with some idea of what kinds of trees people were planting in that period. Young trees, including at least one young elm, are shown lining the town green in Guilford. In his sketch of the Nathan Hale homestead in Coventry, Barber specifically noted the presence of “young maples” lining the road leading to the house. Some of those trees, now grown to massive old age, still survive. I wonder how many of Barber’s young trees are still to be found, scattered about Connecticut.

Over 300 of Barber’s views of Connecticut towns, including preliminary sketches and finished wash drawings, may be seen in Connecticut History Online, a collaborative digital library of historic images of the state.