Squirrel Migration: Happy Fat Times
Meriwether Lewis, descending the Ohio River to meet William Clark before heading west to discovery, fame, and eventual suicide, couldn’t quit writing of the multitude of squirrels. His journal, begun upon leaving Pittsburgh in early September 1803 mentioned them daily: “Observed a number of squirrels swimming the Ohio,” “the squirrels still continue to cross the river,” “saw and caught, by means of my dog, several squirrels, attempting to swim the river.” Lewis’s observations were only one of many accounts of a peculiar event quite common in the early 19th century: squirrel migrations.
During years when there is an unusually high production of nuts, known as mast years, gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) will frequently take advantage of the increased food supply by bearing an extra litter of pups, rodents enjoying nothing more than procreation and the prospect of another three-hundred grandchildren. Although there is still debate on the cause of these massive squirrel movements, scientists have speculated (meaning they don’t know any more than the rest of us) that the exploding population in such years of plenty, followed by a season of normal yield, forced the rodents to move en masse to find sufficient nourishment, creating an event similar in numbers and intensity, if not in physical danger, to “Black Friday” at Walmart. Naturalists and scientists of the early 19th century were quite creative when positing causes of the migrations, suggesting environment, pestilence, general restlessness, demonic possession, and climate change, leaving only alien influence and vacationing squirrels as unnamed possibilities. Englishman Charles Joseph Latrobe, though not a scientist, was more certain of the reason: writing of a squirrel migration in 1811, it was his opinion that the animals were simply “obeying some great and universal impulse” to leave their “reckless and gamboling life” and head south, traveling in a “deep and sober phalanx,” making it sound more like they were Hoplite warriors going to a camp revival in Kentucky than nut-brained rodents in search of acorns.
Whatever their motivation, accounts of mass river crossings by migrating gray squirrels are numerous, though there seems to have been some disagreement on the swimming ability of the animals. Meriwether Lewis wrote that the rodents traveled “very light on the water and make pretty good speed.” An observer in 1809 suggested otherwise, noting that the mammals swam “deep and awkwardly, their bodies and tails wholly submerged,” adding that hundreds of drowned squirrels lined the shore. Naturalist John Bachman reported that the creatures were “not only unskilful sailers [sic] but clumsy swimmers,” obviously not having conferred with another writer who reported that the squirrels would “…carry to the shore a suitable piece of bark, and seizing the opportunity of a favourable breeze, seat themselves upon this substitute for a boat, hoist their broad tails as a sail, and float safely to the opposite shore.” I wonder if they wore sailor hats as well.
Though squirrel migrations were a novelty to river travelers, the results were more serious to settlers, some of the damage reports sounding like the plagues of Egypt, minus the Pharaoh. Naturalist John Bachman described the rodent hordes of 1808 as “devouring on their way everything that is suited to their taste, laying waste the wheat and cornfields of the farmer,” and according to the account of Col. James Baker, the creatures came “in millions…destroying whole fields…” Those with a taste for arboreal rodents seem to have had their measure of revenge, as recollections of abundant table fare abound. (Squirrels are rather good eating for those able to overlook their general resemblance to a rat with an after-market tail.) Lewis penned that “they wer fat and I thought them when fryed a pleasent food [sic].” Travel writer Christian Shultz remembered eating them in “delicious sea pies,” though he acknowledged that settlers soon tired of the food, being “surfeited with the too frequent repetition of the dish.”
Although the intensity in numbers of the mass movements seems to have peaked in the mid-19th century, they have continued to thepresent day. One of the largest and most-studied migrations occurred in 1968, with reports of unusually high numbers of dead squirrels lining the roadways from Florida to New England, and the event has been reported as recently as 2013. Perhaps Kentuckian Ebenezer Hiram Stedman expressed it best when recalling squirrel migrations many years later: “I tell you, them were happy fat times on fat squirrels.”
 “Sea pies,” a British term, were layered meat pies that could be prepared and cooked on board a sailing vessel, though sailors would have cooked rats, squirrels being relatively scarce on ships.
This article was first published in the Ohio Valley Outdoors, Summer 2014, vol. 14, no.2
Audubon, John J. & Bachman, The Quadrupeds of North America,, V. G. Audubon, NY, 1851
Hildreth, S. P. [Samuel Prescott], Pioneer History: Being an Account of the First Examinations of the Ohio Valley, and the Early Settlement of the Northwest Territory, H. W. Derby and Co., Cincinnati, Ohio (1848).
Latrobe, Charles Joseph, The Rambler in North America, Harper Bros., NY 1835
Lewis, Meriwether, The Journals of Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway Kept on the Expedition of Western Exploration, 1803-06, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1965
Seton, Ernest Thompson. Migrations of the Graysquirrel ( Sciurus carolinensis), in Journal of Mammalogy, Vol 1, no. 2, February 1920
Stedman, Ebenezer Hiram, Bluegrass Craftsman, Being the Reminiscences of Ebenezer Hiram Stedman, Papermaker 1808-1885, 1959 Univ. of Kentucky Press