The Story of Grandpa and the Black Panther

By Peter O.

LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is the first in a series of books about Laura’s life on the 19th century frontier. “The Story of Grandpa and the Black Panther” can be found in Chapter 2. Laura’s Pa tells how his father was chased by a black panther in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, narrowly escaping harm. LITTLE HOUSE takes place in 1871, so the time period of that story would be circa 1840s.

Do you think “The Story of Grandpa and the Black Panther” that Pa told was true, or was it made up? Could there really have been a black panther living in the woods of Wisconsin in the early 1800’s? I’ve always been curious about it, so I decided to do some research.

Here’s what I found out…

Actually, there is no species of “black panther.” Panther is just a common name that is informally given to several different varieties of big cats. The puma of North America, also known as the cougar or mountain lion, is sometimes called a panther. (One cat, four different names!) In addition, panther is another name for the leopard, which is a native of Asia and Africa. A jaguar may be called a panther, too. Jaguars live in Mexico, Central America, and South America. But could a jaguar have ventured as far north as Wisconsin?

It definitely wasn’t a cougar/puma/mountain lion. The color of a North American puma ranges from light tan to brownish grey. There has never been a black puma documented in the wild or in captivity. When people talk about “black panthers,” they are actually referring to melanistic jaguars or leopards. These are the only species of big cats that have black color phases, although the spotted variety is much more common.

The New World Jaguar looks a lot like the Old World Leopard. It is thought that leopards from Asia spread across to the Americas via the northern land bridge that once existed between the two continents. The common name “panther” comes from the scientific name for these cats. The scientific name for a leopard is Panthera pardus. In Greek, Panthera means “for all” and “hunter”; pardus means “spotted.” The scientific name for the jaguar is Panthera onca. The Greek word onca means “hook” or “barb,” a reference to the jaguar’s formidable set of claws. (In the story, the panther landed on Grandpa’s horse and slashed its back with its enormous claws.)

The jaguar is the largest cat native to the Western Hemisphere. Adults range from about six to eight feet long. Jaguars are normally cinnamon-buff in color, with black spots. A black jaguar is simply a spotted jaguar with very dark hair that masks its spots. Black jaguars are very rare. For a jaguar to be black, it must receive two black-coat genes, one from its mother and one from its father. (The panther that Grandpa saw was huge and black.)

They say that a solid-colored jaguar or “black panther” is often of a more aggressive nature than those with a spotted coat. This is because normal spotted mothers tend to dislike solid-color cubs, often driving them away prematurely. Apparently this ostracism produces mean-tempered, intolerant individuals. The black jaguar is a very independent creature and it lives by itself. Like most cats, they are territorial.

The jaguar hunts by twilight and by night. (It was dark when Grandpa was riding through the woods.) The muscular jaguar seeks large or small game of any type. (It was after Grandpa and his horse.) The jaguar stalks its prey on the ground or from trees, often dropping silently onto its prey from above. (The panther followed Grandpa through the woods and was always close behind, jumping from treetop to treetop, and finally leaping through the air overhead.)

While generally quiet, jaguars roar like lions and tigers to announce their presence to other members of their species. They are also capable of a variety of loud feline screams, hisses and growls. (Grandpa heard the panther scream.)

Jaguars are known to be far ranging. Movements of 500 miles have been recorded. The jaguar was originally found in savannahs and forests in all parts of North and South America. In 1799, Thomas Jefferson in his writings recorded the jaguar as an animal of the Americas. So there may very well have been a black jaguar – aka black panther – chasing Grandpa in the Big Woods of Wisconsin that night.

The last native jaguar in the United States died in the early 1960’s. But jaguars crossing over the border from Mexico are regularly seen in Arizona today.

Here’s what other people are saying…

“My Grandfather grew up in Athens, Wisconsin. He told me they always carried two rifles going through woods. He said this was because of the Panthers dropping out of trees upon you! Our family located in this area 1880s and parts of the family are there still. Grandpa left Wisconsin about 1913 to make his way west.” ~Mark Dierck

“Although the department has received many calls about black panthers, there has never been a documented case of a black cougar anywhere in North America.” ~Louisiana Department of Wildlife (That’s because cougars don’t have a melanistic phase, but jaguars do.)

“Old timey traveling circuses – back when they traveled in wagon trains, then loaded their wagons onto railroad trains – were just as apt to have escapees back in their day, as happens today with many individuals who own exotics. Also, the hometown of Ringling Brothers Circus is in Baraboo, Wisconsin … so draw your own conclusions.” (However, the Ringling Brothers Circus wasn’t founded until 1884.)

“I grew up in Wisconsin and at one point for a project went to the archive at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and requested 19th century county records for Pierce and St Croix counties. While it was not related to the topic I was researching, I noticed that one of the regular topics was setting bounties on various animals the county considered dangerous or a nuisance such as wolves and species of big cat. I can’t remember whether black panthers were included, but I think cougars might have been. It might be an interesting project for students in Wisconsin to research what animals had bounties placed on them in 19th and early 20th century Wisconsin and whether those animals can still be found in the state or not.” ~Cary Miller

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