Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies: Legend and Legacy in the American West

(2002,by Paul Schullery)

On their famous exploratory expedition, which began in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered many Indians, most friendly but some hostile. They and the others in their party also met many a great bear. On October 20, 1804, in what would become North Dakota, nearsighted hunter Pierre Cruzatte became the first Corps of Discovery member to shoot at a grizzly bear— and the first to run from a wounded grizzly. On August 11, 1806, during the return journey, Cruzatte mistook Lewis for an elk and shot his leader in the backside, though Lewis reportedly took the wounding much better than did the grizzly. Lewis and Clark, writes historian-naturalist Paul Schullery in this insightful 247- page book, “haunt the literature and folklore of the grizzly bear as surely as the animal itself has haunted the collective imagination of every human society to encounter it.” Most Americans, besides Indians, knew very little about these large, frightening animals before Lewis and Clark returned to civilization with their bear stories. The bears also came to symbolize what the corps had accomplished. “The bears they met,” explains Schullery, “have helped us define the dangers of the journey, the element of the unknown in the hostile land, and, perhaps most simply, the heroism of the men.”

California Grizzly

(1955, reissued in 1996, by Tracy I. Storer and Lloyd P. Tevis Jr.)

 Extinct since the 1920s, California grizzlies, some 10,000 of them, once made their presence felt big time in the Golden State. This powerful bear made such an impression that it became the official state animal and still features prominently on the state’s Bear Flag.The authors, onetime professors of zoology at the University of California, Davis, offer a comprehensive look at the rise and fall of the animal, explore its symbolic significance to California and consider the bear’s relationship with Indians, the Spaniards, Forty-Niners and such legendary figures as “Grizzly Adams.” The reissued edition features an introduction by Rick Bass, author of The Lost Grizzlies.

California’s Day of the Grizzly: The Exciting,Tragic Story of the Mighty California Grizzly

(2007, by William B. Secrest)

 The author says that for the layman, the 1955 book California Grizzly is “perhaps the most thorough and fascinating work on the subject.” But William Secrest complements that earlier volume well by presenting accounts of the great bears from early newspapers, diaries and journals— in short, taking a documentary approach. His stated intention is “to record the historical context of the California grizzly: the ironies, cruelties and brutality in the world of these mighty symbols of a closing frontier.” Secrest suggests the climate was perhaps what made the slight differences between the California grizzlies and the six other groups of grizzlies that once ranged from Alaska to Arizona. The California grizzlies were larger, and their size, appearance and temperament made them legendary, what Secrest calls “the modern equivalent to the dragons of medieval lore.” (See his related article, P. 56.)

Bear in Mind: The California Grizzly

(2003, by Susan Snyder)

This book offers plenty of stories about how Indians, explorers, vaqueros, American settlers and naturalists dealt with Golden State grizzlies through the years. But the real treat are the 150 photographs and illustrations from the University of California’s Bancroft Library in Berkeley. Author Susan Snyder is the longtime head of public service at the Bancroft, and she presents here archived advertisements, labels, sheet music and other materials that reflect the hold this powerful animal had and still has on California. She points out that while people feared and hunted grizzlies, they also used them. An 1858 Sacramento newspaper ad said you could buy a wild griz for $15.50 and a trained one for $5 more. “There was easy money to be made in sponsoring a grizzly in the fighting arena,” Snyder writes.

Mines, Murders & Grizzlies:Tales of California’s Ventura Back Country

(1969, reprinted in 1998, by Charles F. Outland)

 In this 134-page book published by the Ventura Historical Society the author relates accounts of the great bears that once roamed this particular neck of the woods in the Golden State. The revised addition offers 17 more pages and 14 more black-and-white illustrations. Although the disappearance of the bears from the state is tragic, Charles Outland takes a largely lighthearted look at the grizzlies.

Man in the Wilderness

(1971, on DVD and VHS, Warner Home Video)

In 1883 a grizzly sow severely mauled mountain man Hugh Glass near the forks of the Grand River in what would become South Dakota. After comrades John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (yes, that Jim Bridger) left him for dead, Glass dragged his battered body hundreds of miles in search of revenge. His saga inspired John G. Neihardt’s 1915 epic poem“The Song of Hugh Glass” and such books as Frederick Manfred’s 1954 novel Lord Grizzly. The action film Man in the Wilderness, shot far from location (Andalusia, Spain, to be exact), is loosely based on the true story, with Richard Harris portraying the mauled Glasslike character Zach Bass. Bass, tough like Glass, has a near-fatal encounter with a grizzly bear and is driven by revenge. His primary target is expedition leader Captain Fillmore Henry (John Huston), who had deemed Bass beyond help. But a pocket Bible helps transform Bass’ outlook during his slow-moving journey of survival. Portraying a survivalist in the wilderness was nothing knew for Harris, whose character in the 1970 Western A Man Called Horse is tortured and tested by Sioux Indians.

The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams

(1974, onVHS,Vci/Ffi)

In Gold Rush California, New England–born John Capen Adams failed in the mining business and became a trapper, capturing so many grizzly bears for food and for profit that he became known as “Grizzly Adams.” This movie transforms Adams into a much gentler trapper. Wrongly accused of murder, he hits the wilds, and he comes to love bears and other animals so much that he refuses to harm any of them, following his convictions by becoming a vegetarian. The film version of Grizzly Adams (played by Dan Haggerty) has the wonderful woodsman befriending an orphaned grizzly cub he calls Ben (not to be confused with the bear Gentle Ben of 1960s TV series fame). Even when Ben fills out, he sticks by Adams’ side. The pair shares a true chemistry, although the thoughtful trapper also befriends two humans—mountain man Mad Jack (Denver Pyle) and Indian brave Nakoma (Don Shanks). The 1974 film inspired an NBC-TV series of the same name that ran for 39 episodes in 1977–78. Then came the 1982 TV movie The Capture of Grizzly Adams, in which a bounty hunter brings in the human hero to stand trial (Ben was not called as a character witness). Filming on the original movie was done in the mountains near Ruidoso, N.M., not far from where Smokey the Bear hung out.

The Night of the Grizzly

(1966, on VHS, Paramount Home Video)

If any human being this side of Grizzly Adams could handle a grizzly bear, it would be barrel-chested Clint Walker, who effectively punished smaller badmen with fists and firearms as the title character in the 1950s TV Western Cheyenne. Here Walker plays “Big Jim” Cole, who stops risking his life as a marshal to take on the supposedly easier life of a Wyoming Territory rancher. Think again. A 300-pound troublemaker, livestock taker and man-killer named “Satan” is on the loose. The devilish grizzly lives up to his name, at one point decapitating Cole’s prize bull. But that’s not the only threat to Cole and his family. Nefarious neighbors are after the land Cole inherited, and outlaw Cass Dowdy is seeking revenge after being sent to prison by Marshal Cole. As Satan waits in the wings, Cole must first handle Dowdy (played by tough guy Leo Gordon) in a vicious man-to-man encounter. “I’m going to cut you up and use you for bear bait,” Dowdy threatens. This is a fine family film, however, and that doesn’t happen. Cole beats up but does not destroy Dowdy. That’s a job for Satan.

The Edge

(1997, on DVD, 20th Century Fox)

No, this isn’t a Western, more like a modern survivalist thriller, but all of the edge-of-the-seat action takes place in a remote part of Alaska, which is at least as rugged as any danger spot on the 19thcentury Western frontier. Do watch for classic Western character actor L.Q. Jones as Styles, the keep of a wilderness inn. Caught in the wilds after a small plane crash are billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins), photographer Bob Green (Alec Baldwin) and photo assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau). The biggest apparent danger is Bart the Bear, a film veteran Kodiak who plays a grizzly so vicious he makes Satan (see preceding review) seem like a teddy bear. It’s kill or be killed, as the bear isn’t only much bigger and tougher but also smarter—at least on his home ground— than two of the three lost humans. That one human survives. Bart also costars in the excellent 1988 French film The Bear (L’Ours), about an orphaned cub in 1885 British Columbia, Canada, who befriends a wounded male grizzly and later has a frightening but entertaining encounter with a hungry cougar.

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier

(1955, on VHS and DVD,Walt Disney Video)

David Crockett was a real frontiersman of note and a great hunter of bears in Tennessee, even if, contrary to the song lyrics, he did not “[kill] him a bear when he was only 3.” An edited compilation of the three episodes of Walt Disney’s mid-1950s Davy Crockett TV series, this film has Davy fighting Indians, going to Congress and battling to the death at the Alamo. And yes, there is a bear fight, but not one you might expect; he goes after the bear sans rifle. The real Crockett, if he didn’t say so himself, was known to “grin down” animals such as raccoons out of trees. To get some quick rations for the Army in the movie, Crockett casts aside his coonskin cap and leaves the side of his sidekick, played by Buddy “Not Yet a Beverly Hillbilly” Ebsen, to “grin a bear to death” in the bushes. An officer comes along and interrupts the proceedings, forcing Davy to go after the snarling beast the old-fashioned way—with a knife. Several times the bear, which Crockett describes as a “fair to middling-sized critter,” forces the great hunter to fly backward out of the bushes. But then Davy, only slightly ruffled, comes out face-first having accomplished his task—all outside the view of the camera. The bear never appears onscreen (this is a Disney film; filmmakers also omit Davy’s actual death at the Alamo), but there is no doubt Davy got his bear.


Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.