Odd Wisconsin Archive
Of Partridges and Pear Trees
We may never know exactly what Americans understood by the refrain "and a partridge in a pear tree" since the word partridge was used for an amazingly wide variety of birds in America. Here in Wisconsin it was haphazardly applied to any small game bird, but especially to the spruce grouse and the ruffed grouse. Two unusual gifts of partridges are recorded in Wisconsin's historical record, unconnected with Christmas or pear trees, however.
In 1820 future governor James Doty was tramping across northern Wisconsin to find the source of the Mississippi River. He had been raised in the East, of course, and was consequently appalled when one day his Ojibwe hosts offered him a wild rice stew that included skunk meat. "To make that dish still more palatable," he noted in his report, "and one of their highest epicurean dishes, they occasionally take a partridge, pick off the feathers, and without any farther dressing except pounding it to the consistency of jelly, throw it into the rice and boil it in that condition... It is scarcely possible to account for such an appetite or relish except it be that, necessity having compelled them frequently to resort to this loathsome food for sustenance, they have at length acquired a preference for it."
The other gift of a "partridge" was more strange (and more welcome to its recipient). In the spring of 1813, fur trader Robert Dickson and voyageur Pierre Caree were returning from Green Bay to Mackinac when they were stranded by contrary winds. They put ashore, where, according to Augustin Grignon, "Caree took his gun and went out a hunting, and unfortunately got bewildered and lost. Col. Dickson staid two days endeavoring to find him but without success, when he continued on to Mackinaw. Caree soon lost his flint from his gun-lock and though he had ammunition, his gun was useless to him.
"As it was in May or early June, there were no wild fruits and he ate roots and almost anything he could find. One day a hawk flying over him with a partridge in its claws, spying Caree, dropped its game, probably from sudden fear, which the half-starved man devoured raw." Caree eventually reached the lake shore and finally reached a settlement near Mackinaw 50 days after he got lost. "He was so emaciated," Grignon recalled, "that he was scarcely recognized by those who knew him well; he had well nigh lost his senses and had to be nursed some time before his recovery, when he was sent to his friends in Canada."
We haven't discovered who brought the first pear trees into Wisconsin but as early as 1821 Albert Ellis noticed them as a prominent feature of civilization in frontier Detroit: "Detroit River presented most creditable improvements along its banks, the farms being occupied on the old French plan of one of three arpents in width and extending eighty arpents deep. � The houses were generally but a few rods apart on the river bank and there was a halo of antiquity in their appearance. Cultivation was thorough in a few cereals, and most of the vegetables; orchards of apple and pear trees invariably occupied the front."
Mary Ann Bristol Brevoort, who was a child there at the time, later recalled that her family's house had two pear trees in front whose seed had been imported from France, and when she wrote in 1879 they were still bearing delicious fruit. Presumably the 18th century settlers at Green Bay and Prairie du Chien may have also introduced pear trees. Whether any partridges (or grouse) ever sat in them has not been recorded.
:: Posted in Animals on December 21, 2009