The year 1807 was known as the “hard year” for early pioneers. One animal was behind all the suffering.
In the state of Ohio, hundreds of thousands of squirrels scurried over fields, eating crops and leaving families starving. Just south of Highland County, witnesses claimed to watch hoards of starving squirrels swim across the Ohio River, determined to ravage the cornfields of Southern Ohio. Such was the extent of the squirrel plague of 1807.
The citizens of Highland County set out to end the reign of the squirrels — in one of the most peculiar ways imaginable.
As early settlers cut down trees that fed squirrels, the tree-dwellers were forced to scour in search of crops to eat. The squirrels were everywhere — in the fields, in the forests, in barns and homesteads. It wasn’t just Highland County, either, Nearly all of Ohio’s population suffered the same bushy-tailed rodent infestation. The pioneers shot many of them to prepare for food, but their ranks were growing constantly, and the settlers were on the losing end of a battle they were ill prepared to fight.
To stop the squirrels, Highland County citizens proposed an act to Ohio legislators called “An Act to Encourage the Killing of Squirrels”. In this new levy, each citizen was obligated to kill and scalp a set number of squirrels, which were to be counted by the town trustees. Each person who couldn’t produce their share of squirrel scalps was heavily taxed, but each pioneer who could bring in more than their required quota received 2 cents per squirrel.
This act took off, and a squirrel massacre ensued across Ohio. The pioneers reportedly ate squirrel meat nearly every meal in the absence of crops. Grey squirrels, fox squirrels, you name it, the pioneers hunted them.
The winter of 1807-08 was a long, cold season that almost entirely wiped out the squirrel race in Ohio. Settlers could no longer meet the squirrel bounty requirements, and the act was repealed.
Squirrels eventually repopulated, but they have never again been the pests they were in the year 1807, thanks to an unusual act from Highland County.
Information for this story came from the “History of Early Settlements of Highland County” series that was published in the Hillsborough Gazette.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.