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Maurice 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 archery publication.

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. .

history menu
Hunting with the Bow - Will Thompson
The Clout Shoot
Horace Ford - Britains Greatest Archer
The Glory Years
Bill Sweetland
Thoughts on...
Bofari
The Three Merry Bowmen
Ben Pearson
Sasha Siemel - "Tiger Man"
The Trinity
The history of Roving
Maurice Thompson, The Early Years
Maurice Thompson - The War Years
Maurice Thompson - The Sylvan Years
Maurice Thompson, - The Final Years
Howard Hill
Dr. Saxton Pope
Art Young
Will Compton

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