“We’re going to go see what a lot of people call the most exciting object in the Vermont History Museum. It’s something that Calvin Coolidge wrote about when he was a boy that he remembered as an adult getting to come face-to-face with, part of Vermont’s history,” began Gustin.
“It’s a catamount. This is the last catamount shot in Vermont. Catamounts were hunted for quite a while before that. It was actually part of the first set of laws in Vermont that you could legally hunt down a catamount and receive a bounty for killing it.”
“So, on Thanksgiving Day in 1881, a 15-year-old boy named James Cadwell was out and he came across some tracks in the freshly fallen snow. He went and got a few more people. One of them was a man named Alexander Crowell. Eventually, they came across this catamount. Alexander Crowell shot him twice and killed him. For years afterwards they mounted him and brought him around and charged people to see him,” explained Gustin.
“The catamount, which is also a mountain lion, a cougar, a panther and a ton of other words, is actually one of the most widely distributed mammals in the whole world. So you can imagine there are a lot of local names for the same animal. In Vermont, there are three words that would have described this animal. The earliest would be Bitôlo, which is the Abenaki word and it means long tail. Around the time our cat was killed, it probably would have mostly been panther. And now, we most commonly use the word catamount. It comes from ‘cat of the mountains’. It actually comes from Shakespeare and you see that word used up and down Appalachia, including here in Vermont,” continued Gustin.
“The last one [in Vermont] was killed in 1881. Within about 50 years, the language starts to change and they see all of these qualities that they had feared in the catamount, what an incredible predator it was and how athletic it was; and they started to think those are positive qualities, too. So you start to get, starting in the 1920s, this slow build of things that are named after the catamount. By the middle of the century, it’s just exploding.”
“Of course, now, you’re driving down the highway and you see a truck pass with a catamount business name. There are the license plates. There’s artwork and all of these things that we use today. Catamount has just become shorthand for a certain representation of Vermont.”
“People have told me dozens and dozens of stories of having seen a catamount. Vermont Fish and Wildlife say they get between 50 and 75 sightings here in Vermont, annually. And, a couple of biologists I talked to when I was putting this exhibit together, said that it’s not if, it’s when they come back. So, you know what you saw. I’m not going to tell you otherwise. But, I would encourage you if you have seen a catamount, we have section of our exhibit here where you can tell us. So come to the Vermont History Museum and tell us.
At ‘This Place in History’!
For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.
To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.