Israel Putnam: The Early Years

This plaque marks the site of Israel Putnam's first home in Connecticut.

The Wolf Den

Putnam moved to Connecticut from Massachusetts in 1740
at the age of 22. He had been living upon his farm two
or more years when an incident occurred which was destined to be
always closely associated with his name. This was the wolf hunt in
the winter of 1742-43. A she-wolf caused Putnam and some of the other
settlers great loss by preying upon their sheepfolds. She had
repeatedly eluded the hunters, although they were successful in
killing most of her young. She frequently returned from the woods
in the west and once barely escaped from a steel trap by tearing her
paw from her claws which were caught in it. One night when prowling
over Putnam's farm, she killed seventy of his sheep and goats, and
lacerated many of the lambs and kids. In this exigency he and five
Pomfret men arranged a continuous pursuit by agreeing to hunt
alternately in pairs. Fortunately a light snow had fallen and the
course of the wolf could be easily traced. The tracks showed one foot
to be shorter than the other paws. This was proof that the animal was
the same which had previously lost some of her claws in the trap. On
reaching the Connecticut River, the hunters found that the wolf had
turned in the opposite direction. Following the trail back toward Pomfret
and traveling all night, they arrived within about three miles of
Putnam's farmhouse at ten o'clock in the morning, when John Sharp, a
lad of seventeen years of age, who had outstripped the other pursuers,
discovered the den into which the wolf had been driven by the
bloodhounds. The news of the location of her lair spread rapidly, and
many persons, armed with guns and supplied with material for smoking
her out, hastened to the place, which was among the granite boulders
on the side of a steep, craggy hill.

The Wolf Den as it appears today.

The whole day was spent by Putnam and his neighbours in attempting to
dislodge the animal, but the dogs - one of them Putnam's own hound -
which were sent into the den returned frightened and badly wounded and
would not go in again. Straw and sulfer were burned within the entrance,
but without compelling the wolf to quit her hiding place. Twelve
unsuccessful hours passed away. It was already ten o'clock at night,
yet Putnam felt the importance of continuing the efforts in the
emergency. His servent being unwilling to enter the den and attempt
to shoot the wolf, Putnam himself, notwithstanding the remonstrances
of his neighbours against so perilous a venture, made ready to
undertake it.

He took off his coat and waistcoat; then he tied a long rope around
his legs in order that he could be pulled back by it when he kicked
it as a signal; he lighted the torch which he had improvised from some
strips of birch bark and, holding it in his hand, crawled into the cave.
The entrance was about two feet square and very slippery on account of
the ice. The den descended obliquely fifteen feet, then ran horizontally
about ten feet more and ascended gradually sixteen feet to the end of the
opening. It was not more than a yard wide in any part and it was so low
overhead that in no place could a person raise himself from his hands
and knees.

The entrance is much the same as three centuries ago, except a
few feet inside it's been filled in.

Crawling slowly down to the level part and continuing until he reached
the gradual ascent, Putnam saw the fiery eyes of the wolf as she
crouched at the end of the dark cave, gnashing her teeth and growling
at him. He gave the signal which he had arranged, but the excited people,
hearing the savage sound and thinking that he had been attacked, dragged
him out with such solicitous but ill-judged energy that his shirt was
stripped over his head and his skin severly scratched. He prepared
himself to enter again, this time taking his gun, which he had loaded
with nine buckshot. Holding it in one hand and a torch in the other,
he advanced farther than before into the den and found the wolf even
fiercer, howling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping
her head between her legs. He fired at her just as she was evidently
about to spring upon him. Being instantly pulled out, he refreshed
himself and waited for the smoke to disappear out of the den. He then
made a third venture. When he approached the wolf this time he heard
nothing from her and touching her nose with his torch, found that she
was dead. He grasped her ears, kicked the rope and was drawn out,
dragging his victim into the presence of the astonished and exultant

Up the ragged and icy face of the hill and through the wild
woodland the wolf was carried to a house a mile distant and suspended
from a beam into which an iron spike had been driven. Then at that
midnight hour a sort of "wolf jubilee" was held and, for several
succeeding days, people came from different directions to see the animal.

The exploit won at once for Putnam a local reputation for great bravery.
Afterwards, when he became famous as a hero in the French and Indian War
and the American Revolution, the story of the wolf hunt was universally
told to illustrate his characteristic daring, and it gave him the
sobriquet of "Old Wolf Putnam" during his military career.

The above article is taken from the book Israel Putnam,
Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-General
by William Farrand
Livingston, The Knickerbocker Press, 1901.

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