THE BLACK PANTHERS OF THE LOUISIANA-TEXAS BORDERLANDS: ARE THEY EXTINCT?
By W. T. Block
When the writer was a youngster in Port Neches, Texas during the 1920's, there were still alive a few of the old-timers of Texas' "Big Thicket" or Louisiana's "Neutral Strip," who could tell hair-raising tales about the big black cats, that screamed in the jungles at night while they searched for their food. If one looks up the word 'panther' in a dictionary today, the latter defines it as being a "cougar," "puma," or "mountain lion," or the black mutations of the spotted leopards, jaguars, and cougars of Africa and America. What are generally referred to as 'panthers' in the United States today are about thirty big cats in the Florida Everglades, which very much resemble a mountain lion, and they are so endangered and weakened from in-breeding that that species will probably disappear very soon as well.
Before World War II, the Texas-Louisiana gulf marshes were huge fields of sea cane, averaging 15 feet high, that for some reason have generally disappeared. In his memoirs, K. D. Keith, an ex-Confederate captain and resident of Beaumont and Sabine Pass between 1850-1870, wrote of animal trails through the cane marshes of Sabine Pass, where once deer, panthers, and black bears abounded. The writer's grandmother, Ellen Sweeney, formerly of Grand Chenier, Louisiana, often repeated stories of Civil War days when she was a teenager, and all the men were away in the Confederate Army. She noted that as darkness approached, the frontier settlers of Grand Chenier and Cameron barred their window shutters every night (there were no glass windows there then) to keep the panthers out. After dark, they could hear the screams of the big black cats as they left the sea cane marshes for higher ground in search of easy prey - that is, goats, sheep, hogs, or even on occasion, a human.
Panthers, like many of the world's predators, sought their prey the easiest way possible - that is, with the least endangerment or risk to panther, and the least expense of energy, such as stalking, running, or trailing. Instinct taught Mr. Panther very quickly that a broken leg or fang left him quite physically impaired and thus vulnerable to other predators. Hence, panthers became expert at pouncing from tree limbs. And they clung to the sea cane marshes, to the creek bottoms, or the Neches, Sabine and Calcasieu River lowlands, where large numbers of feral hogs congregated to fatten on the "mast" of the nut-bearing trees. The only enemies of panthers that did not carry a rifle were the bears or huge alligators. One alligator killed at Beaumont in 1896 was 18 feet long; another killed in Southeast Texas in 1840 was 20 feet long. (Galv. Daily News, May 29, 1896, p. 5-C; Houston Morning Star, May 20, 1840).
A brother-in-law of the writer, Charlie Phillips of Hillister, Texas, now long deceased, often told of the panther that always followed him home. Phillips taught during the winter days of 1910 in a one-room Tyler County school out in the forest, and he rode home on horseback each day just as darkness fell. He claimed the panther always followed a hundred yards or so behind him, screaming like a woman in agony, but he never needed to fire his gun, and his horse never needed any prodding.
Before 1880, black panthers roamed in relatively large numbers everywhere between the piney forests of East Texas to Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and Florida's Everglades. Apparently, Texas had at intervals three species of the big cats, the panther in the east, the tawny cougar in the Pecos region, and on extremely rare occasions, there were reports of a spotted "Mexican lion" (el tigre), presumably a smaller species of spotted jaguar, that sometimes roamed across the Rio Grande River into Texas. Although perhaps the panther preferred an inoffensive sheep, goat, or pig for its dinner, there are still graphic accounts to be found on microfilm of people fighting off panthers after a fierce fight, or actually being killed and eaten by them.
The writer has located only one story about a spotted "Mexican lion" being in Jasper County or elsewhere in East Texas, although surely there must have been other accounts. The following story appeared in Galveston Weekly News of February 18, 1892, reprinted from Jasper Newsboy, as follows:
The adult male panther perhaps reached a maximum length of five feet, exclusive of his three-foot tail, and reached a maximum weight of 250 pounds. The Houston Telegraph and Texas Register of August 20, 1845, observed that "a 450-pound panther was killed by Mr. Whitehurst of Brazoria County..." The weight was most certainly some one's "guestimation" and was probably grossly exaggerated. In an article captioned "Terrible Combat," the Houston Morning Star of November 19, 1844, page 3, described a woman in Nacogdoches County successfully fighting off a big panther. An encyclopedia recorded that the "heaviest mountain lion on record weighed 227 pounds "
An article in Galveston Tri-Weekly News of October 10, 1872, recorded the death of a Florida woman, who had been killed and eaten by a large panther. In 1874, the Vicksburg Times carried a story, reprinted in Galveston Weekly News of June 1, 1874, page 5, partially told as follows in graphic detail:
There was no location named Delta found on the road map of Louisiana, but there is a small village named Delta City, north of Vicksburg.
Both the Beaumont Enterprise of September, 17, 1881, and the Galveston Daily News of September 22, 1881, carried accounts of a panther attack near present-day Lumberton, in Hardin County, Texas, revealing the ferocity of two of the big animals that refused to give up their prey, as follows:
Another animal attack reported in the Daily News of March 30, 1882, probably involved a large bob cat or wildcat rather than a young panther, although the editor referred to it as a 'catamount.' Mrs. Emily Smyth of Jasper County was the recently-widowed wife of Judge Andrew F. Smyth, a Texas Revolutionary veteran and for fifteen years, captain of the Neches River cotton steamers, Comargo and Laura. According to Jasper Newsboy, Mrs. Smyth and her son George W. (nephew of G. W. Smyth, Sr., signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence) heard a noise at night, which disturbed a calf and two mules in the barnyard. Young Smyth went outside with a gun, which he soon left beside a barn door, while he investigated the cause of the disturbance. His mother followed him outside, and suddenly a big bob cat jumped on Mrs. Smyth, began biting her shoulder, and clawing her back. In desperation because he could barely distinguish the animal amid his mother's screams, he held the gun muzzle against the animal's head and pulled the trigger. The cat fell dead to the ground, and Emily Smyth, although painfully bitten and scratched, was fully recovered within a few days.
Another verifiable panther episode (Galveston Daily News, January 14, 1897) occurred in December, 1896, when Captain J. J. Jordan took a load of supplies aboard his cotton steamer, the Robert E. Lee, and sailed up the Sabine River to Brice's Landing (a log skidway). On the return voyage, Jordan ran into low water, and he had to anchor the R. E. Lee at Droddy's Shoals to await a river freshet (high water). Hearing his dogs baying outside in the moonlight, Robert Jordan, the 14-year-old son of the captain, fired a shot at a large cat in a nearby cypress tree, and a large black panther fell to the ground. As the dogs gathered snarling around him, the panther, only momentarily stunned, began defending himself with every fang and claw, when suddenly young Jordan grabbed a pine knot and struck the panther across the head, which killed it. Jordan skinned the animal, had it stuffed at Orange, and mounted it as a trophy on the pilot house wall of his father's steamboat. That story is also recounted in the author's Cotton Bales, Keelboats, and Sternwheelers, published by Dogwood Press of Woodville in 1995.
The Sabine River panther, which probably survives today only as the tawny cougar or mountain lion of the Western States, will always be at odds with the ranchers, because of its propensity to kill sheep and livestock. Hence, park rangers in the Western States prefer to release captured animals in the high mountain ranges of Idaho, where they can survive, as well as thin herds, of aged and sick deer and elk, and likewise keep the cats away from angry ranchers.
The question remains unanswered whether or not any black panthers survive in Texas or Louisiana to the present day. No sightings have been reported now for many years, that is, that are verifiable. About 1952, a truck driver, traveling at night along Highway 62 between Buna and Mauriceville, Texas, believed he saw three panthers crossing the road eastward toward the Sabine River bottoms. About 1980 there was a reported panther sighting in the outskirts of Beaumont. And about 1985, a panther was reported killed near Tyler, Texas, although most probably it was a tawny cougar, that had drifted far east of its normal habitat. And since then, another panther has been sighted in the jungles surrounding Cow Bayou in Orange County.
It seems now that the black panther is either extinct or nearly so. None have been reported killed by a gun or run over by a car in many years. A century ago, an East Texas bear hunter's prowess was measured by the number of bears he killed each season. As evidence, Galveston Weekly News of January 28, 1878 observed that: "...E. Stephenson, the old bear hunter of Southeast Texas, killed last season 33 bears and up to date this season, has killed 49..." There were many reports of bear attacks as well. In March, 1878, a single bear reportedly killed both "old John Scott, a chief of the Alabama Indians..." and his son with a single bite, which crushed their skulls (Galveston Daily News, Mar. 15, 1878). Even the black bear of the East Texas piney woods is probably extinct as well, and while man fears the grizzly bear of the Rockies the most, there were also many people in East Texas and Louisiana killed by black bears in frontier days. With scarcely a doubt, however, the big panther was the more vicious of the two killers.