Goldeneye Drake by Sam Denny, TI Museum Collection

TI Museum Decoy Displays – general information:
The fish and wildlife of the St. Lawrence River have always been important resources. The earliest explorers and settlers were dependent on them for food, and the commercial value of the furs and meat were a significant stimulus to settlement efforts. Even through most of the twentieth century, fish and wildlife continued to be major components of the diet of many of the River families, especially during the long winter months when employment opportunities and cash reserves were lower. As settlement of the area progressed, the food and commercial value began to be replaced by their value as part of the tourism industry. Tourists came to the area for the abundance of fish and game, as well as the scenery, and local businesses sprang up to accommodate them. Hotels and boarding houses were established, and area craftsmen began building the boats and other gear that they needed. This included the carving of decoys to be used in the pursuit of waterfowl.

Decoys are now recognized as a form of folk art unique to North America. The first decoys were made by Native Americans using grass, mud, natural pigments, feathers, and the skins of birds previously killed. The decoys were strategically placed along shore or floated on the water, near hides or near blinds where hunters waited. Made of natural materials, these decoys tended to be rather short-lived, although a cache of decoys was found in a cave in Nevada in 1924. Preserved by the extremely dry climate, the decoys in the cache were eventually carbon dated to 1000 A.D.. Archeological investigations on other continents show that wildfowl were important food resources for many cultures, but only in North American were decoys used in hunting them.

The European settlers were quick to adopt the hunting methods of the Native Americans, including the use of decoys. However, with their knowledge of wood working and the availability of iron and steel tools, they soon began carving more durable examples. By the late 1700s, American settlers were using carved and painted wooden decoys in a number of locations. Demand for waterfowl and decoys rose dramatically after the mid 1800s due in part to increasing population and due in part to improvements in transportation, which improved access to both the waterfowl and the markets. The commercial sale of waterfowl was outlawed in 1918, but recreational hunting continued to grow, continuing the demand for decoys. Local craftsman were quick to fill this need, and like boats, regional styles soon developed to better meet the local conditions and methods.