The Animals of Virginia at the Time of European Discovery

John Smith wrote fascinating reports of the plant and animal life he found in the New World in the early 1600's, and the "time of discovery" extended into the 1700's as Europeans gradually reached the Appalachian plateau in far southwestern Virginia.

John Lederer described seeing a mountain lion killing a deer, in his journal of a 1669 trip up the Pamunkey River to the Blue Ridge:1

Thravelling thorow the Woods, a Doe seized by a wild Cat crossed our way; the miserable creature being even spent and breathless with the burden and cruelty of her rider, who having fastened on her shoulder, left not sucking out her bloud until she sunk under him: which one of the Indians perceiving, let flie a lucky Arrow, which piecing him thorow the belly, made him quit his prey already slain, and turn with a terrible grimas at us; but his strength and spirits failing him, we escaped his revenge, which had certainly ensued, were not his wound mortal. This creature is something bigger than our English Fox, of a reddish grey colour, and in figure every way agreeing with an ordinary Cat; fierce, ravenous and cunning: for finding the Deer (upon which they most delight to prey) too swift for them, they watch upon branches of trees, and as they walk or feed under, jump down upon them. The Fur of the wilde Cat, though not very fine, is yet esteemed for its vertue in taking away cold Aches and Pains, being worn next to the body; their flesh, though rank as a Dogs, is eaten by the Indians.

State biologists have not documented any mountain lions that may still remain in Virginia, despite regular reports of sightings. The only wildcats today are the much smaller bobcat and the large number of feral pets abandoned by their owners.

Deer are more common today than when the Europeans first reached Virginia, because the habitats have been so heavily altered by farming and then housing development.

One species that was most obvious to the early discoverers was the passenger pigeon. These are now extinct, eliminated not only from Virginia but from the face of the earth. The last one to die, named Martha, has been stuffed and can be seen in a zoo.

The Vegetation of Virginia at the Time of European Discovery


1 Lederer, John, The Discoveries of John Lederer, Readex Microprint, 1966, p.7

Habitats and Species of Virginia
Virginia Places