Hunters killed off the last grizzly bears in the state in the 1920s, but for centuries these ferocious predators had terrorized Indians, vaqueros, Forty-Niners and ranchers.
“There are abundance of elk, deer, and antelope,” California miner Daniel Woods wrote in his 1849–50 journal, “but the most remarkable animal is the grisly [sic] bear….It possesses wonderful strength, and a single blow of its iron-clawed paw would fell an ox; yet it rarely attacks unless it is provoked.” Later in his journal Woods relates how a grizzly, smelling fresh meat at a miner’s tent, invited itself to dinner. The cook, of course, objected. “Infuriated by the resistance which he met,” wrote Woods, “he [the grizzly] made a most violent attack upon his assailants, killing two men and one woman, who was cooking.” Woods perhaps learned a lesson that day: Unpredictable grizzlies were best avoided rather than attacked or aggravated.
Perhaps as many as 10,000 of these great bears inhabited California when the first Spaniards came ashore. The newcomers couldn’t help but notice those Indians who had been scarred and mutilated in the pristine valleys and foothills of the Sierra Nevada by these shaggy beasts, named for their paletipped, or grizzled, hairs. Grizzlies, which weigh between 300 and well over 1,000 pounds, were very imperious and dangerous. For sport some early Spaniards and Californios lassoed them with rawhide riatas and either killed them or guided them back to their ranchos to cruelly pit them in corrals against the fiercest bulls in their herds. Romualdo Pacheco, who in 1875 served as California’s first native-born governor, was a vaquero in the early days and features prominently in an account of a grizzly capture that ran in San Francisco’s Daily Alta California:
A huge grizzly stood erect, with a terrific presence, high above the dry, wild oats…his eyes gleaming fiercely, his cruel teeth and red mouth unpleasantly conspicuous. Each man and every horse for the instant seemed petrified….In a second’s time, Pacheco spurred forward, swinging his lasso…[which] shot out like an arrow and clasped about the huge forefoot, when the horse (who saw every movement and was just as wide awake as Pacheco) sprang the other way, and the lasso being fast to the pommel, the bear was instantly thrown to the ground, when two other men, quick as lightning, had thrown their lassos and caught the hind feet; then another rider caught the loose forefoot, and the four horses…slowly marched down the mountainside, two horses in the van and two in the rear, dragging [the grizzly] quietly down the grassy descent.
Yes, captured bears could be entertaining, but the wild ones became a threat when they discovered that killing a ranchero’s cattle was easier than rustling up their own meals. Bear hunters ventured out to destroy offending grizzlies. When the Anglos arrived and took over, the killing continued. Forty-Niners, ranchers and stockmen relentlessly hunted and poisoned grizzlies. Such powerful, destructive animals could not be expected to adapt to civilization. Many grizzlies took the hint and fled their native valleys and foothills for higher elevations, but there was ultimately no safe place. California grizzlies were doomed.
All that remains of the California grizzlies are tales from an earlier day. Some of these tales are amazing, including an odyssey that extends far beyond California. In 1850 miners hung a butchered steer overnight on the outskirts of camp. In the morning they discovered a hunk of beef missing. The next night the grizzly responsible returned for seconds, whereupon miners shot the bear and identified it as a female. They traced her tracks to a den and found three cubs, their eyes not yet opened, which they brought back to camp, hoping to sell them to some greenhorn. They were in luck.
An Englishman named Pacton, who had found gold and was returning home, bought the cubs, packed them in a crate and shipped out with them from San Francisco to the Isthmus of Panama. After crossing over to Chagres, on the Gulf of Mexico, Pacton reportedly paid $800 for his and the three cubs’ passage to Southampton, England, on the steamship Avon. The trip was uneventful and the cubs docile. “One of them,” reported The Illustrated London News in September, “particularly was so tame that it would play and roll about the ship with the boys on board.” In England, Pacton sold his three cubs to the Royal Zoological Society exhibits at Regent’s Park. The society had just lost to disease two grizzly cubs donated by the artist George Catlin. Subjecting the new cubs to a medical examination, veterinarians discovered two of them had cataracts. Corrective surgery was an option— but for grizzly bears? A veterinary surgeon named White Cooper was up to performing the operation, with the help of a leather collar, chains and a chloroform-soaked sponge. The March 1851 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported Cooper’s success at breaking up both bears’ cataracts.
Back in California the grizzly tales were rarely so docile. For instance in May 1853 former mountain man Andy Sublette tangled with a grizzly he had wounded. “By some mischance,” the Los Angeles Star reported, “he stumbled and lost his rifle, and ere he could regain his feet, the bear was upon him. Captain Sublette was badly bitten and would have been killed probably on the spot had it not been for the timely interference of his dogs, who came up and engaged the bear’s attention.” In that day of single-shot rifles, even if hit, a bear could still overwhelm a hunter before he could reload, and a skinned-out grizzly might have up to a half-dozen rifle balls in his carcass. “Make him [a grizzly] mad,” commented hunter Jacob Bonsell in 1847, “and it frequently happens that the more you shoot, the more furious he becomes.” Bonsell claimed to have known of grizzlies that fought for some time after having been shot through the heart.
When confronted by an enemy, a grizzly often stands on its hind feet, making it anywhere between 5 and 7 feet tall. With one swipe of a powerful paw it can “scalp” a man, and indeed many early Californians who encountered grizzlies and survived went through the rest of their lives wearing toupees. “A bear,” stated a Petaluma hunter in 1859, “when it starts to run at a man, in addition to its hideous noise, strikes the ground with unusual force with its feet, which proves to me that the first object is to get the man alarmed and have him run. The bear’s victory is then easily gained.”
Grizzlies naturally have more than speed going for them; there is also that incredible strength. “I have seen,” recalled one old hunter, “grizzly bears carrying the carcasses of pigs that must have weighed 70 pounds several miles across a mountainside to their lairs, and I have heard hunters tell of having seen cows knocked down as if by a thunderbolt with one blow of the forepaw of a bear.”
Many cattlemen and sheepherders, having neither the time nor inclination to hunt these livestock predators, instead poisoned the grizzlies. A sheepherder named Pettit had particular success, as reported by a correspondent of the Havilah Weekly Courier in late April 1867. Noting that Pettit had killed five or six bears, the reporter described his method:
He takes strychnine and, to prevent the bear tasting it, rolls the same into a ball of tallow. Next he gets a piece of fresh beef or mutton, weighing 3 or 4 pounds, into which he makes an incision, inserts the poison and sews it up with needle and thread. He is very careful in handling the meat, using a wet cloth, so that the scent of his hands may not betray the fact that it has been touched by man. Before leaving the poisoned meat, he drags a part of the carcass of a beef for two or three miles around the country, so as to attract the notice of the bears, then places the poisoned meat in the bear trail and is certain of his prey.
As more and more men, daring or otherwise, ventured into grizzly country, the human death toll also climbed. In the fall of 1870 on a ranch near San Jose three dairymen had one of their cows stray off. The following morning two of the men left the ranch to search for the cow, while the third partner cooked breakfast. After a brief search of the countryside, the two men spotted the missing bovine lying down in some brush. As they approached to herd her home, they saw too late that the cow was dead and a large grizzly was lying next to her. The bear immediately leaped on the closest man and, according to a report in the San Jose Daily Independent, “tore out his entrails, and then seizing the second, caught his head in his mouth and bit it entirely off, mangling it fearfully.”
The bear had returned to the cow’s carcass when the third man, having prepared breakfast, went out to retrieve his two partners. When he arrived at the scene of slaughter, the bear sprang up and also killed him, mangling the body “in the most horrible manner.” The eviscerated survivor related the terrible events to rescuers before he, too, died.
Those with knowledge of grizzlies advised greenhorns to play dead when confronted by a bear, which would then ignore the “corpse.” Trouble is, that didn’t always work, as tanner Paul Sweet reportedly discovered when he met up with a female grizzly and her two cubs while walking through the woods near Santa Cruz one day. When the mother bear knocked him to the ground, Sweet recalled the advice to lay as still as possible. Mama grizzly surveyed him for a few minutes and then dragged him to a sandy spot, where she dug a hole, filled it with Sweet and buried her cache. (Grizzlies commonly bury their prey, returning later to feast.) When Sweet began digging out too soon, the bear rushed back and reburied him. The human blue-plate special hesitated before digging out the next time. Sweet ultimately escaped.
Sometimes a frontier fellow could get by in grizzly country with a bit of luck. One gold rush miner related the story of a friend who rounded a bend in a road to find a grizzly lumbering toward him. Wanting to run but knowing that might trigger the bear’s instinct to chase, he just kept walking. He was amazed when the bear ignored him and ambled by like a stranger on a San Francisco street.
According to an 1857 article in the San Francisco Bulletin, a miner walking down a mountain trail found himself in a similar situation, but with a lone grizzly. “Finding that the animal was close at hand, and an attempt to fly being useless, he suddenly dropped upon all fours and boldly advanced toward the bear,” the newspaper reported. “As soon as the two met, they put their noses together, dog fashion, and finally went through all the formality of strange dogs meeting each other, not omitting the most minute ceremony, until master Bruin, being satisfied with the civilities of his new acquaintance, bade him a very affectionate adieu and marched off.”
As late as 1887 a Ventura stable owner was commuting between his homestead and town when he had a singular experience on a narrow mountain trail. The Ventura Free Press reported: “In coming over the trail from his mountain ranch the other day, Mort Beekman met a large grizzly bear. Mort was riding a mule and leading a horse, and the latter became badly frightened. The bear turned around and returned along the trail a short distance, then turned aside, going below the trail about 30 yards, where he waited until Beekman passed.”The encounter suggested that the great bears, when left alone, were nonaggressive. Startled or shot at, however, they reacted violently. And a mother grizzly with cubs was to be avoided at all costs.
Grizzlies, ever looking for easy sources of food, robbed tents and cabins and were not averse to assaulting supply wagons on the road, either. George McKenzie, freighting supplies over the Sierras in 1859, went several miles ahead of his team to help a man search for stray cattle. Returning to his wagon at nightfall, he found the driver besieged by three adult grizzlies that had sniffed out bacon in the load. Building a large fire, the two men were up most of the night chasing off the bears with glowing firebrands. The interlopers finally wandered off at 3 a.m., and the freighters resumed their journey.
Not every encounter, of course, resulted in a near miss. Newspapers throughout California reported tragedies. “Pshaw,” replied one old man named Doty when warned about walking through the chaparral near Marysville. “I would as soon meet a grizzly bear as not.” In late November 1850 he startled one in a thicket and had his scalp torn from the crown of his head, leaving deep gashes in his skull. “Two very deep gashes of several inches in length were also made in the breast,” reported the Marysville Herald, “and the right thigh was bitten through. …He is recovering, however, and will soon be able to take another ramble if he wants another affectionate embrace.” In that same dispatch the Herald mentioned another grizzly attack, in which the bear tore at a young man’s face and exposed his brain, “so that life is in the most imminent danger.”
In 1857 California miner Charles Chubbuck had a horrifying encounter with grizzlies that a Massachusetts newspaper recounted in 1906. While out hunting with friends, he found himself alone when startled by a passing partridge. He recalled the rest of the encounter this way:
I looked up, hearing a slight rustling of leaves, and saw a big grizzly standing on a rock 12 feet above me. Instinctively I jumped back, crouching. He leaped and swept my rifle out of my reach. Realizing that in another second the brute would be upon me, I whirled about and made tracks for the gulch, with the bear a few feet behind.
As bears are unable to run fast downhill, I had gained on him about 20 feet, when, issuing from the gulch immediately in front of me, came two other grizzlies. One struck me a tremendous blow, which dislocated my hip and hurled me down the mountainside…. Flight was impossible, so I straightened myself out, face down in the leaves, playing “dead man.”
I had lain absolutely still for a minute only, when I felt on my head the hot breath of one of the bears, and the sensation of his jaws slipping down on either side of my neck came together with a crunch. He dragged me for several feet; then he rooted me in the side and licked the blood that trickled down my face, finally getting on top of me and pressing down his entire weight till I heard my ribs snap, felt my breath stop and the blood ooze from my ears and nose.
I had given up all hope, for all life was leaving my body, when the three bears began to quarrel among themselves, and I managed to roll over and draw my bowie knife….The big fellow then came to me and stood over me, and exerting all my remaining strength, I plunged the blade clear up to the hilt between the creature’s forelegs. He gave an unearthly squeal, raised himself on his hind legs, lifting me with him, and for a moment we were face to face.
Then I felt his claws as they tore off some of my face, and a second later a bear in the rear scalped me, and I lost consciousness….When I revived it was dark, and I was alone. I tried to move, but the action caused so much pain that I cried aloud.
A nearby companion heard his cry, found him mutilated almost beyond recognition and carried him down the mountain to their camp. It was eight months before Chubbuck could even sit up and a full year before he could walk again. For the rest of his life, his scarred face gave mute testimony to his ordeal.
A deadlier encounter transpired in Mariposa County in January 1858. Young miner George Favier and four companions had traveled south from Sonora to prospect for gold. Favier was gathering brush for a fire one night, when four grizzlies charged into camp, quickly killing three of his companions. The fourth man made for a nearby tree but was caught and promptly slaughtered. Then one of the grizzlies charged Favier. He struck the animal with a pick, but it knocked him on his face. As the bear turned to leave, Favier scrambled up a tree.
The griz rushed back in time to paw and bite at the young miner’s feet, but Favier was able to reach the higher branches. Perched aloft, the wide-eyed survivor then endured the horror of watching the bears tear his dead companions to pieces and then devour all the provisions. “Bruised and bleeding,” reported The Sacramento Age, “the young man remained in the treetop two days and two nights, nearly perishing with thirst. At last he descended and, finding some scraps of food…he started in what he supposed was a northerly direction. He traveled on, and for three days he was without food and two days without water. When the last ray of hope was deserting him, he saw a cabin, to which he crawled and where he was taken care of until he was able to walk.”
While grizzlies sometimes ate people, people also ate grizzlies. In gold rush California, where provisions were expensive, miners discovered that griz meat could be quite savory.“We had a rarity for dinner yesterday,” wrote miner Franklin Buck in an 1850 letter home to his sister. “I should like to send you a piece —a steak of a grizzly bear. It was the finest meal I have ever eaten, so tender and juicy.” Others concurred, although the flavor often varied with the age of the animal. And there were other perks to hunting the great bears. The large hides were in demand as buggy robes and for bedding in the rough miner’s cabins. Bear oil was always in demand, as were certain organs used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes.
Feeding on the curiosity concerning these great bears were the era’s popular traveling menageries, whose entrepreneurs collected grizzlies and other California animals for tours of the Eastern states, South America, Canada and Europe. Among them was Massachusetts-born mountain man John Adams, who captured and trained several grizzlies for exhibitions both in California and back East. “Grizzly Adams” (see article in the February 2010 Wild West) gained widespread fame, training his grizzlies to wear costumes and perform astounding tricks and acts.
Man would have the final say when it came to the California grizzly. As early as the 1840s professional hunter George Nidever claimed to have killed more than 200 grizzlies. Silas Gaskill reported his kills at 266, and Rocky Beasley claimed 139. Governor Pacheco once stated he had killed “several hundred” grizzlies, including as many as “eight or 10 in one week.” Repeating rifles made grizzly kills less of a challenge. When big-game hunters, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and others, discovered the grizzlies, it was just a matter of time. By 1880 the grizzlies had vanished from Colusa, Humboldt, San Mateo and Mendocino counties. By 1885 Monterey County, too, was devoid of the bears, and five years later grizzlies were no more in Santa Cruz and Mariposa counties. In Ventura County the end for the griz came shortly after 1900.
The last grizzly in California was reportedly killed outside Sequoia National Park during the summer of 1922. Jesse Agnew, Walter Goins and several other cattlemen trailed a grizzly that had killed or mutilated some calves. They set out a large trap baited with a chunk of beef and carefully monitored it. It took several days for the trap to work. “Goins found the calf-killer securely ensnared by the left forefoot,” the Visalia Daily Times reported. “Smarting with pain caused by the jaws of the trap, the animal was furious and presented a sinister front to the approaching hunters, but a well-directed shot from a heavy rifle ended his calf-stealing propensities.”
And so it was over. But was it? There were other sightings of grizzlies over the years in the brushy canyons of Yahi Indian country. In the fall of 1926 a bear staged nocturnal raids on the Tulare County apple orchard of Alfred Hengst. Concerned, the cattleman consulted with Jacob Rice, a local hunter, and the two men set out a trap. The guilty grizzly was discovered a few days later, his foot crushed in the trap. Rice killed him, skinned him and cut out steaks for his friends. He reportedly rendered 17 gallons of lard from the carcass. The skull and a photograph went to the University of California, Berkeley. The Visalia Times Delta reported on March 5, 1930, “The skull of the animal which [Jacob] Rice shot on October 15, 1926, which was taken to the University of California several weeks ago for examination and recognition, has been proclaimed a grizzly skull by J. Grinnell of the university.”
The California grizzlies are gone now, lost in the collision between two worlds. Scientists, zoologists and animal lovers in general realized that a tragedy had occurred. But it was too late. The enduring mystique and wonder of these great bears is nowhere more evidenced than in place names statewide—156 geographic sites and countless other “grizzly” attractions. Gold rush country stage stops, saloons and hotels often appended the name “grizzly” to their establishment, and when it came time to designate a state animal in 1953, there could be no other choice but the California grizzly. It remains California’s official symbol to this day.
William B. Secrest writes about California’s outlaws and lawmen as well as grizzly bears. His book California’s Day of the Grizzly is recommended for further reading, along with California Grizzly, by Tracy I. Storer and Lloyd P. Tevis Jr.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.