The wolf in colonial America

Killing wolves

One of the first laws instituted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a bounty on wolves, and in early Ipswich, a rather disconcerting aspect of entering the Meeting House was the site of wolf heads nailed to the door. Roger Williams, who fled the colony to establish Rhode Island, referred to the wolf as “a fierce, bloodsucking persecutor,” but Thomas Morton wrote in 1637, “They are fearefull Curres, and will runne away from a man that meeteth them as fast as any fearefull dogge.”

John Josselyn (1630-1675) wrote in New-England’s Rarities discovered in birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, and plants of that country:

“It was never known yet that a wolf ever set upon a man or woman ; neither do they trouble horses or cows, but swine, goats, and red calves, which they take for deer, be often destroyed by them.”

Joseph B. Felt, pastor at Hamlet Parish in the early 19th Century, described the fear of wolves among the colonists quite differently:

“Notwithstanding the constant warfare carried on against wolves, they continued their devastation in Ipswich until 1757. Down to this year, it was a common thing to hear them commence their howl soon after sunset, when it was very dangerous to go near the woods. Even in 1723, wolves were so abundant and so near the meeting house, that parents would not suffer their children to go and come from worship without some grown person.”

Richard and Lydia Potter’s daughter Sarah, who was baptized in 1760 and lived to be 89 years old, told stories in her old age about living in the family farmhouse near the river. A heavy growth of oaks and hickories lined the riverbank, and from the neighboring swamp the cries of wolves and other wild animals were often heard at night.

Wolfsangel for killing wolfs
The double crescent on a wolf trap was fastened between tree branches, and the double hook on the other end of the chain was attached to a piece of meat, and which would be swallowed by a wolf.

Joseph Felt wrote that wolves would often destroy large numbers of sheep, and that they would occasionally kill cattle as well. “Many and long were the efforts of our fathers to extirpate wolves, which often preyed on their flocks.” In 1635, Ipswich received twenty-five wolf-hooks, which were used in the following manner, as described in New-England’s Rarities by John Josselyn:

“The Wolf is very numerous, and go in companies, sometimes ten, twenty, more or fewer, and so cunning, that seldom any are killed with Guns or Traps; but of late they have invented a way to destroy them, by binding four mackerel hooks across with a brown thread, and then wrapping some Wool about them, they dip them in melted Tallow till it be as round and as big as an Egg; these (when any Beast hath been killed by the Wolves) they scatter beside the dead carcass after they have beaten off the Wolves; about Midnight the Wolves are sure to return. It is swallowed by them, and is the means of their being taken.”

Illustration by Benjamin Corbin of wolves trapped with fishing hooks.

Wolf laws of the Town of Ipswich

  • 1642: “Whosoever kills a wolf is to have the skin, if he nail the head up at the meeting-house and give notice to the constables. Also, for the better destroying or fraying away wolves from the town, it is ordered, that by the 1st day of the 7th month, every householder, whose estate is rated £500 and upward, shall keep a sufficient mastiff dog; or if £100 to £500, shall provide a sufficient hound or beagle, to the intent that they be in readiness to hunt and be employed for the ends aforesaid.” The fine for not complying with this order was one shilling each month, until obeyed.
  • 1644: “Whoever shall kill a wolfe with hounds, or the greater part of the dogs being hounds, shall have payed to him by the constable, 10 schillings; if with a trapp or other wayes, he shall have 5 shillings, provided they bring the heads to the meeting-house and there nail them up, and give notice thereof to the constable, whom we appoint to write in his book a due remembrance thereof.”
  • 1648: “The heads of wolves, in order to receive the premiums, must be brought to the constable and buried. The selectmen of each town are empowered to purchase as many hounds as they think meet, and to impose the keeping of them on such as they think fittest, so that all means may be improved for the destruction of wolves.”
  • 1668: “Any person catching or killing a wolf within two miles and a half of the meeting-house, shall have 40 shillings over what is already allowed by the colony, which makes £4.”
  • 1715: “The town votes 30 schillings. over what the law allows, for killing a grown wolf, and 5 shillings for a whelp wolf, if destroyed within their limits.”

The Rev. Joseph Dana of the South Church in Ipswich told how in 1743, his father dragged into their Connecticut home the body of a female wolf which had filled the town with alarm and had been killed by General Israel Putnam. According to tradition, Putnam crawled into wolf’s den with a torch, a musket, and his feet secured with rope so that he could be pulled to safety. The wolf he shot was said to be the last seen in that state.


The Puritan colonists launched what would become a 200-year animal extermination campaign. By the end of the 18th Century, wolves were in serious decline. New England had become almost completely deforested by 1880, the wolves, along with bears, moose,and turkeys had disappeared.

In the 20th Century, forests returned, and a hybrid canine hybrid known as the Eastern Coyote began to appear and is now common. Wolf-like in appearance but smaller, a DNA study of northeastern coyotes showed them on average to be 62% western coyote, 14% western wolf, 13% eastern wolf, and 11% domestic dog.

In 1973, Congress gave gray wolves protection under the Endangered Species Act, and gray wolf populations in the West and Midwest increased. There are real wolves in Ipswich, too; visit Wolf Hollow on Essex Rd.

2 thoughts on “Killing wolves”

  1. Great article and blog! Can you imagine being a young child and seeing a wolf head nailed to the church door on your way in? I started my historical novel set in Ipswich with a metaphor for the evening wolf. Your blog adds so much historical background to a threat that our ancestors had to endure. BTW- I found an agent who is taking the novel to the review board. That is great news!

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