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Bounty hunter

Q From Ray Hattingh, South Africa: A friend has circulated an e-mail that suggests that the term bounty hunter comes from the search for HMS Bounty, the famous ship captained by William Bligh that mutinied in April 1789. It also suggests that Captain Edward Edwards of HMS Pandora, who captured ten of the mutineers on Tahiti, was the original bounty hunter. What do you think?

A The facts of the story about Captain Edwards being sent out to hunt down the mutineers and return them to England for trial are correct. His mission was only partly successful. He did capture some mutineers on Tahiti, but he failed to find the uncharted Pitcairn Island that was the refuge of other mutineers, his ship was wrecked on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and he and the surviving crew and mutineers were forced to make a long voyage in open boats, much as Bligh had had to after the mutiny. It’s an extraordinary story but it has nothing whatever to do with the term bounty hunter.

Bligh’s ship was named for the fruitfulness of nature or the generosity of God. Bounties were also cash rewards to encourage some activity. For example, they were given to recruits on joining the army or navy. The American colonies offered bounties from about the middle of the eighteenth century for the scalps of American Indians and for wanted criminals taken dead or alive. The following century, it was common in the US to offer cash bounties for the pelts, scalps or tails of some unwanted or dangerous species of animal, such as bears, wolves, skunks or coyotes.

After a Supreme Court ruling in 1872, individuals outside formal law enforcement bodies could track down fugitives from bail to get a reward, especially those that the law had trouble apprehending because they’d skipped across county or state lines. Civilian bounty hunters are still known in the US (the only country apart from the Philippines that permits them); they go by names such as recovery agent or bail enforcement agent. Most early bounty hunters remained anonymous for very good reason. A very few were famous (or infamous), such as Jack Duncan of Texas and Charlie Siringo of the Pinkerton Agency. More recent fictional ones, such as Rooster Cogburn of True Grit, were based on their stories.

When I began to look for the written evidence for the term, I was surprised by what turned up — or more correctly by what didn’t. There’s no evidence that the early real-life bounty hunters were called that by their contemporaries. The term came late into the language and the first examples are all references to hunters of wild animals, not humans. This is the earliest I’ve found:

Cheyenne Leader, 23rd: A trifle over $500 worth of warrants were issued at the court house yesterday in favor of bounty hunters. From 8 o’clock in the morning until the closing hour in the afternoon boys and men were continually visiting the county clerk’s office with installments of gopher scalps, varying from the small boy’s mite of fifty-two to the professional’s contribution of 500.

Salt Lake Daily Tribune, 26 June 1887.

A shift in sense from a hunter of animals to one of criminals is easy to understand but you have to come a lot nearer the present day to find examples. An ambiguous example dated 1930 is in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, but the first I’ve been able to find that explicitly refers to the apprehension of humans is this:

The first four chapters deal with noted western characters: Charles Goodnight, the trail-blazer, John Chisum, the cattle king, Clay Allison, the man-killer, and Tom Horn, scout and human bounty-hunter.

A review of Fighting Men of the West by Dane Coolidge, in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly of Texas, July 1932. Dane Coolidge didn’t use the term in his book, describing the protagonist as a “man-hunter”.

As the writer of the review felt it necessary to specify that the bounty hunter was after human beings and not animals, it confirms that that sense of the term was then new.

Even if Captain Edwards had been paid a bounty for capturing the Bounty’s mutineers — which he wasn’t — he couldn’t have been called a bounty hunter. To apply the term to the pursuers of fugitives in the late nineteenth-century US is equally anachronistic.

Page created 9 Apr. 2011

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Last modified: 9 April 2011.