Grand Old Man of the Mountains: Dave Lewis

David Lewis had a propensity for hunting predatory animals, especially cougars, and amassed himself a reputation amongst hunters traveling through Idaho for his skills, affable personality, and hospitality.

David Lewis was a renowned hunter in his time (1844/1855-1936) who other hunters across the West knew as “Uncle Dave,” but today he is regularly referred to as “Cougar Dave” in honor of his cougar and other animal hunting prowess.

Not much is known about Lewis’s early life due to being a private man. Even his exact age is unclear, as Lewis periodically lied about it depending on who was asking, but most accounts put his birth year as 1844 in New Orleans, Louisiana. However, there is compelling evidence to indicate that he was actually born in 1855 in Yoncalla, Oregon. Lewis’s parents travelled to Willamette Valley along the Oregon Trail in the 1850s. Lewis claimed to have been at the Siege of Vicksburg for the Union Army with James “Wild Bill” Hickok, but he would have been 7 at the time. Later, he served at the Battle of Little Bighorn as a scout under Captain Frederick Benteen. During the Sheepeater Campaign of 1879, Lewis was the packer in charge of the two-mule ammunition train and the brief war was his first experience in the area.

Lewis had a particular hatred for cougars, and he began his long career of cougar hunting soon after the Sheepeater Campaign, and by 1888 he had earned himself the reputation of “Cougar Dave” for his talents. The Forest Service hired Lewis as a “Forest Guard (Hunter)” on April 1, 1910, for “the destruction of the animals on the Forest” for what should have been a two-month stint became his job for several years.

Forest management practices and beliefs of the time treated predatory animals, such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, bears, and cougars, as threatening to game in the forest. Dominant policy of the time meant that exterminating predatory animals would protect the wildlife that humans valued, including mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. His reputation for hating and killing cougars was reflected in local tall-tales, where in one legend it is claimed that Lewis treed a cougar, dropped his rifle to climb after the cat, and wrestled it out of the tree where it fell to his dogs waiting below. While Lewis never wrestled a cougar out of a tree, he reportedly went on to kill over 1,000 cougars in his lifetime.

Lewis fell in love with the region known today as the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, but in his lifetime would eventually become known as the Idaho Primitive Area. In 1924, Lewis would later claim a 65-acre homestead along Big Creek seven miles upstream from the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, a land he first experienced during the Sheepeater Campaign. After catching pneumonia Lewis travelled 33 miles from his homestead to his nearest friend. He was then taken to the Boise’s Veteran’s Hospital over 100 miles away. He passed away the next day. The Idaho Statesmen had this to say about Lewis’s death, “Old age closed Friday morning the career of Dave “Cougar Dave” Lewis, nationally famous cougar killer and Idaho’s grand old man of the mountains.”