Cleveland incorrigible, shameless sportsman

From Washington to Bush, there have been but few presidents who were fond of sports in the field and by the stream.

George Washington was a famous rifle shot and occasionally a waterfowler. He carefully preserved his lands and riverfront from invasion by pothunters.

Andrew Jackson was also a rifleman, but never used the shotgun, which was almost unknown at his time as a sportsman's arm.

“The first double-barreled shotgun I ever saw,” said Jackson to Gen. Harney in 1824, “belonged to Gen. Wade Hampton, who owned a splendid estate above New Orleans [in Mississippi] in 1812. I thought it was an effeminate sort of arm, and I said as much to Hampton, who laughed, and then showed me how to shoot ducks on the wing.”

President Rutherford Hayes was a good wing shot, and nearly every autumn before he became president he visited the St. Clair Flats or the fine shooting grounds near Sandusky Bay for a week or two of waterfowling.

President Benjamin Harrison was an excellent shot at ducks and snipe and a mean performer with the heavy eight- and ten-bore duck gun. He was one of only two presidents who were avid waterfowlers. He hunted all over the Eastern seaboard, both north and south, but never in this region.

Most everyone knows that President Theodore Roosevelt hunted bear in 1902 in Mississippi and again in 1907 in Louisiana. However, he wasn't the first to have ventured into this region for hunting. That honor goes to President Grover Cleveland, who was known as “Cleveland the Sportsman.” He was the other president who was an avid waterfowler.

A fine wing shot, Cleveland was a persistent gunner. On Chesapeake Bay and in the Carolinas, where he so often shot, he sat in a duck blind from dawn to dusk, scorning the customary midday return to camp and quitting only when he got his limit.

Once he tried out an enormous 8-gauge shotgun and let go both barrels. The recoil knocked him flat in the bottom of the blind, and he never used the gun again.

However, it was during his waterfowling trip to Orange Island (later to become Jefferson's Island) in southwest Louisiana that he first became known to the country generally as a “crack shot.” In January 1892, he hunted with his good friend, Joe Jefferson, a 19th Century comic actor best known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, a role he acted for about 40 years.

There, Cleveland tested his double 12-bore, 8-pound Scott that cost him $125. His favorite ducking gun, however, was a 10-bore, 10-pound Parker of the hammer pattern. For shorebirds, he used his old $80 Colt 12-bore. There were few better duck shots than the President Cleveland.

He usually loaded with heavy charges of powder: four and one-half drams of black in his cartridge for duck and an ounce and one-eighth of No. 4 shot on top of the powder. He shot with great deliberation, and usually allowed the duck to get well up and away before he shouldered his gun. This he did in Louisiana, for the birds — being very abundant and not frightened by being shot at much — gave him plenty of time and all the leisure he wanted.

Jefferson's land abounded with waterfowl during the season: Canada geese, Western Brant, snow geese and wild ducks of every species, while snipe and woodcock were found in the surrounding fields. Sometimes, the roar of waterfowl could be heard for a mile or more away.

Cleveland remarked, “I never saw such clouds of ducks in my life as there were at Mr. Jefferson's place in Louisiana, and the marshes adjoining were alive with snipe and small wading game birds of every kind.”

The president had as his boatmen and guides two native Creole duck shooters. The men knew every bayou along the coast, and shot 36- and 40-inch long 14- and 16-bore doubles. They still used percussion caps, and loaded their guns with paper wadding for powder and shot. A breechloader was an abomination to them; their fathers did not have them, nor would they.

The president was amused with their quaint homely ways, and told some interesting stories about his visit and “Canadian guides,” when he got home.

He admitted in his book Fishing and Shooting Sketches that “as far as my attachment to outdoor sports may be considered a fault, I am utterly incorrigible and shameless.”

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