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Corbin's Advice

As the long nineteenth century neared its close, the star of Uncle Ben Corbin — frontier hero and champion wolf-slayer of Emmons County — descended and then fell. He sensed this, but had no good answer. He tried going capitalist and growing up with the country. In March 1898 the rough-and-ready hunter advertised he was going into the land business: as a land locator, and as a dealer in investment lands.

A locator was a fellow who met immigrant settlers on arrival, took them in hand, and guided them into the country in order to locate lands open to homesteading. The problem with Ben Corbin as a locator was that the settlers pouring into Emmons County were mostly Germans from Russia, and Uncle Ben did not speak German.

The problem with Corbin as a large-scale dealer in lands was that it was doubtful he could deliver. It was unclear just what large tracts he was representing, or for whom, and he did personally know any big capitalists looking to invest. No one came knocking.

Plus, old Ben was feeling his age, and the physical legacy of his Civil War service. In July 1900 he reported he had killed seventy coyotes, but he was seventy years old and had sold his place on Beaver Creek.

Corbin had a new project. Since 1896 he had been working on a book detailing his experience and expertise as a wolf hunter. It was released in the spring of 1900, each copy bearing the promise, “You can make $10 to $20 a day hunting wolves for the bounty.” On publication, Corbin immediately caught a train for Dickinson, there to address a meeting of stockmen and promote his book. It did not go well.

The full title of the book is, Corbin’s Advice, or, The Wolf Hunter’s Guide: Tells How to Catch ’em and All About the Science of Wolf Hunting. We have a reprint copy in the collections of the Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU Archives.

Why were the stockmen in Dickinson unresponsive to Corbin’s appeals? The immediate explanation is that the open range was passing, open-range sheep ranching in particular was receding, and so the days of the professional wolf-hunter were numbered. The cattlemen would have said, we have the gray wolves pretty well wiped out, and we can handle the coyotes ourselves.

The larger explanation for the failure of Corbin’s book is that its content is distasteful, even repulsive. Scholars of environmental history today point to it as a prime exhibit of animal cruelty and environmental exploitation. This may be a presentist and unfair assessment, but having myself examined Corbin’s Advice, I am not inclined to disagree. The methods described therein are so categorically cruel that I feel I cannot describe them here. Check out the book yourself if you need to know the details.

I will summarize. Corbin sometimes referred to his homestead as his “wolf farm,” and in a sense, that was what it was. His emphasis was on the encouragement of coyotes whelping on his farm and on others where he had access. Other coyote killers commonly dug out coyote dens and killed the pups. Corbin, on the other hand, extracted the pups from the den without digging it up. Thus the mother coyote would return to the same hole year after year, with Corbin taking the pups year after year.

It was his method of extracting and killing the pups that was disturbing, certainly to most anyone today, and I suspect, even to those stockmen in Dickinson in 1900. At least I rather hope so.

In early 1907 Uncle Ben Corbin suffered a series of strokes, losing capacity for speech. When he developed what his care-givers called “a disposition to violence,” the sheriff came and hauled him off to the hospital in Jamestown. He was not heard from again.

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