Thompson - The Sylvan Years
by Cliff Huntington
It's been commonly reported that Maurice and Will returned to their burned
out boyhood home, gathered bows and arrows and embarked on some wildwood existence
for several years. Actually, of immediate concern for both was the mundane
task of fulfilling the necessities of life. Both worked as field hands, hunted
squirrels for the ten cents they would bring, sold cider processed in their
home made press and any number of odd jobs to meet their needs and acquire
the capital necessary for the purchase of books. Early on they realized that
their pre Civil War way of life was forever gone and the future resided in
the professions. These books allowed them to pursue "their studies in
mathematics, engineering, and law at night," studying in front of an
open fireplace, illuminating the text by the bright light of pine knots because
candles were a luxury they could not afford.
If Maurice was suffering from a wound or illness at the end of the conflict,
months of hard labor, fresh mountain air and plain food proved beneficial.
With his strength returned Maurice began to range out in search of adventure.
The summer of 1866 found him touring his old haunts in North Georgia and these
events are recorded in the essay Pockets of North Georgia. If we are
to believe Will's essay Deep in the Okefinokee Swamp then Maurice next
joined Will for a month's long excursion into the wilds of this unspoiled
wilderness during the month of July the same year.
It might be appropriate to point out, none of the previous biographers/researchers
of Maurice Thompson have been successful in chronicling his hunting trips
during the three year period between the end of the Civil War and Maurice's
move to Crawfordsville, Indiana. I'm not sure this is possible for a number
of reasons, the chief being Maurice's liberal use of literary license in the
preparation of his charming essays. His archery essays are not literal representation
of the truth, rather a blending of similar events and episodes put together
to entertain and not published in any orderly sequence.
I don't mean to challenge Maurice's veracity, only to note that an essay such
as his An Archer's Sojourn in the Okefinokee probably contains "factual"
events of several trips made to the Okefinokee Swamp and events that occurred
elsewhere. Maurice provides a disclaimer in Chapter I of The Witchery of
Archery. He makes another comment that he only writes about "The
successful day--the `brilliant shot'--the exciting chase ending in capture--the
long-range hit when I expected to miss...." and warns, "The reader
must not expect to get even a glimpse of the dark side. One does not care
to write or read about failures, disappointments, vexatious delays....."
With this in mind, the following interpretation is my own, based on the study
of his archery and related essays, to include original material not included
in any edition of The Witchery of Archery nor reprinted in any other
In one of Maurice's early essays, Bow-Shooting, he makes the statement,
"Florida was the first grand hunting-ground visited by my brother and
myself....we spent three winters there, shooting over some of the finest water
and land regions for sporting to be found in the world." In An Archer
Among The Herons, Maurice states "My brother and myself were well-grown
boys,--almost men,--and our camp was on a beautiful head-land, overlooking
a narrow inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, with a great swamp of cypress on one
hand and a dense hummock forest on the other." An examination of Bow-Shots
on the St. John's, Bow-Shooting with a Hermit and Some Wing-Shots,
and Other Fancy Work shows that Maurice and Will were accompanied by the
camp hand Caesar. In The Mysterious Lake, Caesar wasn't a member of
the group that explored the Okeechobee, Kisssimee and headwaters of the St.
Johns River. The events written about in these essays take place on the Atlantic
side of Florida. An Archer Among The Herons places the brothers on
the Gulf of Mexico with only themselves for companions. Maurice's other essays
about the Gulf Coast take place well after his move to Crawfordsville when
he spent his winters in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
I believe that Maurice and Will spent all or portions of three winters hunting
and exploring Florida as Maurice states and these events occurred prior to
their move to Crawfordsville. I find nothing to substantiate them making trips
south together after moving from Georgia. Their last winter together in the
south would have been 1867/68 and this is fairly well documented as the time
they explored Okeechobee and surrounding region. All the essays that include
Caesar probably occurred in the winter of 1866/67 during outings along the
lower (northern portion) St. Johns and vicinity. I believe the third winter,
the one most often in question, was spent on the Gulf Coast during 1865/66
and is recorded in An Archer Among The Herons. Maurice wrote this essay
for The Boy's Book of Sports and Outdoor Life, a book geared for youths.
His comment "My brother and myself were well-grown boys,--almost men....."
at the beginning of the essay is used to establish a youthful perspective
in tune with the flavor of the book. Another comment about the plumes of several
species of herons being quite valuable and the popularity of them as "the
principal objects of the bird-hunter, especially in Southern Florida."
tends to place the episode after the Civil War when these plumes became fashionable
in the millinery trade. Their expertise and knowledge of archery and associated
tackle speak of a sophistication far beyond youths of 17 and 14 years of age
which would eliminate the winter of 1861/62.
The only ones who know the truth aren't speaking, but one thing is certain.
Maurice and Will H. Thompson lived and enjoyed a lifestyle during this period
that was truly remarkable. The essays Maurice wrote about his bouts "by
field and flood" are classics and should be recommended reading for all
inspiring archers. Maurice would retain his love for the south and it's "shooting
grounds" long after moving to Crawfordsville and return many times to
revisit old haunts and explore new ones. .