Gen. Israel Putnam famously left his plow in the ground when he heard about the Battles of Lexington and Concord and immediately rode the 100 miles from his farm in Brooklyn, Conn., to Cambridge. That plow became something of a local attraction. Years earlier, he created another local attraction, one still around today: The Israel Putnam Wolf Den.
Known as Old Put, he was one of the most interesting and vigorous characters of the American Revolution. A reckless fighter, he survived a shipwreck in Cuba, galloped down a rocky cliff to escape the British and risked his life to save a burning powder magazine. During the French and Indian War he served as a Rogers’ Ranger. Mohawk Indians captured him and came close to burning him alive until it rained and a French officer intervened.
The Israel Putnam Wolf Den
At 22, he then moved to Pomfret, Conn., attracted by the town’s cheap land for sale.
According to legend, Israel Putnam killed Connecticut’s last wolf in Pomfret two years after he arrived.
Putnam had a substantial home by then, cleared fields and a flock of sheep. But a she-wolf kept attacking his and his neighbors’ flocks. Finally, Putnam and his neighbors got together and decided to pursue the wolf until she was dead.
They spotted her one winter night and followed her to a stream six miles away. Then she turned and entered a cave. The men set up a guard, gathered a crowd of men and boys with guns and dogs and lit a fire at the mouth of the cave.
Hours passed and the wolf remained inside. Finally, Israel Putnam persuaded his neighbors to let him go into the cave with a torch. They tied a rope around his ankle and prepared to pull him out when he kicked.
Dead Wolf, Live Farmer
The den’s narrow passageway sloped down fifteen feet, then ran horizontally about 10 feet more and rose gradually 16 feet. Putnam crawled into the cave – you couldn’t stand up in it — and saw the she-wolf’s eyeballs three yards away from him. He kicked the rope, and was dragged out so quickly he lost his shirt.
Putnam then crawled back into the cave with a gun and shot the wolf. His neighbors dragged him out again, nearly overcome by smoke. He revived and crawled back into the cave a third time, where he found the dead wolf, seized her by the ears and kicked the rope. The dead wolf and the live young farmer were dragged out together.
The story was told many times during Putnam’s military career.
Putnam’s Wolf Den is on the National Register of Historic Places, and can be found in Mashamoquet Brook State Park.
At the turn of the 20th century, author Clifton Johnson visited Old Put’s old stomping grounds in Pomfret. In his 1915 book Highways & Byways of New England, Johnson tells of visiting the Wolf Den and of meeting an old New Englander.
“We had that plough of Putnam’s on exhibition here once,” said the old man. “And by gosh! When I saw it I didn’t blame Putnam for leaving it in the field. It was nothing but a crooked stick shod with iron, and I’ll be darned if I’d put it in the barn if it was mine.”
Images: Israel Putnam Wolf den By Ehkastning – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35801371. Cartoon image of wolf https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/.
This story last updated in 2023.