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A Grizzy Tale

John Woolfolk

It was in July of 1830 that Warren Ferris and other employees of the American Fur Company were making their way down Cache Valley when they observed a buffalo munching on grass near their line of travel. Not being in need of meat and knowing fat cow from poor bull, they ignored him and traveled on. That is, they did so until that "buffalo" reared up on its hind legs and watched them as they passed. Like so many before them, they had mistaken a browsing grizzly bear for a grazing buffalo. No small bear, that! (Gowans 98).

It was on April 7th, 1805, a quarter century earlier, that Lewis and Clark left the Mandan Village where they had wintered and headed west across America. Their journals show that they were filled with trepidation by the fact that they were entering the country where the Great White Bear ruled supreme. The Mandans had thrilled the white men with tales of the bear's power, size, and prowess. Their warriors, they said, painted themselves as if going into battle with a human enemy and hunted in groups of eight to ten men. Losing warriors to this enemy was common, they claimed, because a grizzly bear was more likely to attack than to run when he became aware of people in his area. Also, their firearms, especially the "unreliable guns they got from the British," lacked the ability to kill such an animal with surety. (Gowans 15)

Thus it was that the Members of the Corps of Discovery set out to enter the bear's domain with misgivings. It wasn't long until their journals showed that familiarity with the bear did not breed contempt. Such entries as "the grizzly intimidates us all" (Gowans 15) and "I would rather fight two Indians than one bear" (Ambrose 224) confirm that. They commented that the bear was "as large as the common ox" and that he "could only be killed by a brain shot." (Gowans 15) At first they saw their main escape methods, if their rifles failed to bring a bear down, to be climbing a tree because the grizzly cannot climb, or to "resort to the safety of the rivers." On the plains, the nearest tree big enough to climb and too big for a bear to tip over, was often too far away to be of much value. A grizzly can easily outrun even a badly frightened human. The safety of the rivers soon proved to be imaginary, as the bears turned out to be powerful swimmers. (Gowans 15)

On May 14th, seventy miles downstream from the mouth of the Musselshell River, one of the men wounded a bear; but being alone he thought it prudent not to pursue him. That evening, six of the men discovered a large brown bear lying in the open about a hundred yards from the river. Slipping up quietly to about forty yards, four of them took careful aim while the other two held their fire to act as back-ups. For some reason, they elected to shoot for the heart-lung region instead of going for a brain shot, which the journals claimed as the only reliable target.

All four fired almost simultaneously, each ball passing through the bear, two through both lobes of its lungs. Instead of dying, it leaped to its feet and charged at them. The two men who had held their shots in reserve fired on the oncoming bear, one ball breaking his shoulder - but that produced only a momentary stumble. Now the men had to run sixty yards to the river, while the bear had a hundred yards to cover before catching them. Broken shoulder and all, it nearly did so, but the men wisely split up, confusing the bear. Two made it to a canoe and cast off into the river. The others hid in the willows near the water.

Reloading, they started taking shots at the enraged bear. This only brought on further charges. The bear pressed home one charge with such persistence that two of the men had to drop their rifles and pouches and jump from the 20 foot high bank into the river. The bear plunged off the bank right after them. The safety of the river soon proved to be illusory. As the men swam for the opposite bank, they found the bear right behind them and, once again, gaining rapidly.

At this point it looked like the Lewis and Clark Expedition was about to lose at least one or two men. Fortunately, one of the hunters on the shore had managed to reload his rifle, and coming to the high bank, he finally took the effective brain shot and killed the animal. Upon butchering the bear, they found that eight balls had penetrated his body. (Gowans 37)

The men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were certainly not the first whites to confront the grizzly, but they were the first to leave any detailed record of their encounters with the "great white bear." The various and often unnamed Frenchmen who wandered the west in the years previous to the expedition, and the American fur trapper/traders who went up the Missouri prior to 1805, left almost no record of their passing. It is therefore not surprising that so little was known of the great bears prior to that year. As it turned out, they were not all white. Indeed, as Warren Ferris reported, "these animals are of every shade from black to white"...the most common color faze being a dark main coat with white or grayish tips. The name "grizzly" comes from the French word for gray, "gris." (Gowans 98)

While the men of the Corps of Discovery were the first Americans to leave extensive records of the bear and its activities, they were by no means the last. As the Mountain Men moved into the Great Plains and on to the Rockies, encounters multiplied rapidly.

Some tales of bear encounters are humorous, even though the outcome could have been deadly. No mountain man was better at putting a light touch onto a dangerous encounter than Joe Meek.

One of his earliest meetings with Old Ephram took place in 1830, when the twenty-year old Virginian had been in the mountains about a year. He and two companions by the names of Craig and Nelson had dismounted and were looking for beaver sign on foot. Suddenly, they came upon a bear at very close range - so close that they leaped for the nearest climbable trees. Meek and Craig picked a tall pine with many branches which made it as easy to ascend as a ladder. Nelson, on the other hand, chose one of two small trees growing close together to shinny up. The bear picked Nelson to go after. While grizzly bears are not tree climbers, they can be very ingenious. This bear put his back against one tree and his feet against the other and started to hunch and wiggle his way up toward poor Nelson, who was clinging to the skinny top of one of the two trees for dear life. As the bear climbed higher, the trees bent apart and the bear lost his purchase, falling to the ground with a thud. Undeterred, the bear remounted the tree and inched up toward the hapless mountain man. Once again, as he neared Nelson's precarious perch, the trees spread, dumping the bear. Now the bear was really angry. It made yet another assault on the tree, but with the same results. After the third fall, the frustrated bear ran off into the woods, leaving Nelson untouched physically but rather shaken mentally. At this turn of events, Craig began to sing and Meek to laugh.

"O yes, you can laugh and sing now but you war quiet enough when the bear was around," yelled Nelson (Victor 71)

Luck played a major roll in who lived and who died in the mountains. Meek tells of a time when he and two companions were trapping the Rosebud, and evening found them far from camp. They shot a fat cow buffalo and supped on some of the choice cuts, dividing up what was left between them. The remaining choice meat went under their heads as, rotating night watch, they rolled up in their blankets to sleep away the snowy night. Unfortunately, the night-watch, which included Meek, fell asleep. He was awakened about day-break by something walking over him and snuffling about. The men kept their heads down while the bear pulled some of the meat out from a bedroll and took it off a ways to eat.

Then, one of the men raised his head to see what was going on. The bear became aware of the movement and rushed back, causing all three men to scrunch down in their blankets again and endure another tromping and snuffling. Shortly the bear wandered off a ways, causing one of the men to suggest shooting him. Unfortunately, the bear heard this and took umbrage. He came tromping back but "could not quite make out our style," as Meeks put it. The bear then ran off into the woods. (Victor 86)

One of Joe Meek's favorite grizzly tales was told at the expense of Milton Sublette. Being an experienced mountain man, Booshway of a brigade, and one of the luminaries of the fur trade did not make Sublette immune to the intimidating power of "Old Ephram."

It happened in the fall of 1830 when Sublette and Meek were on a buffalo hunt. The two men were approaching a group of the beasts on foot at a distance of about fifty yards from each other when suddenly a large grizzly came charging out of some bushes a short distance from Sublette and headed straight for him, full throttle. Sublette took off for a nearby stand of cottonwood as fast as he could run.

Meanwhile, Meek, seeing that his companion had little change of reaching the trees before the bear overran him, took careful aim and killed the beast. Upon running to the spot where the grizzly lay dead, he found Sublette nearby, his arms and legs tightly clasped around the trunk of a cottonwood tree and his fanny firmly planted on the ground.

"Do you always climb a tree that way?" asked Meek. "I reckon you took the wrong end of it that time, Milton!"

"I'll be d______d, Meek, if I didn't think I was twenty feet up in that tree when you shot," answered the frightened booshway. (Victor, 93)

Many who have been visited by a grizzly have not been so lucky. Some did not live to tell of their ill luck, but a few did, or had witnesses to leave a record of their tragic encounter. The story of Hugh Glass, bear-chawed and alone, surviving on pure determination, is too well known to recount here. Besides, it seems ol' Hugh was such a bull-headed and obstinate soul that he brought on his mauling through pure cussedness. (Gowans 69) That was not the case, though, with Lewis Dawson when he encountered a grizzly.

It was on November 13th, 1821, at the mouth of Purgatory Creek near present day Las Animas, Colorado, that Lewis Dawson had his run-in with the great white bear. A group of Mountain Men had made their mid-day stop. Some were hunting, others were cooking a meal, while still others were picking wild grapes. The sound of a gun and the cry of "White Bear" was heard. The men all grabbed their rifles and ran in various directions to head off the bear. The problem was, the bear had taken cover in the same twenty- to thirty-acre patch of brush in which they had made camp.

As Lewis Dawson came running by, the bear, which had laid low, jumped him. Hugh Glenn, who was in charge of the party, attempted to rescue Dawson by shooting the bear, but his gun misfired. Fortunately, the party included a large dog, which rushed in and attacked the bear. As the animal turned on the attacking dog, Dawson attempted to run away, but the bear rushed back and grabbed him again. Once more Glenn came to the rescue, but once again, his gun misfired and yet again the dog came to Dawson's rescue by distracting the bear. By this time, Glenn had become worried about the possibility of the bear getting both Dawson and himself. He retreated up a tree, followed by Dawson. Although grizzlies are not tree-climbers, the bear was able to follow them up far enough to grab Dawson by a leg and drag him down to the ground. While this was going on, Glenn managed to knap his flint and re-prime his rifle. He then shot the bear, grabbed poor Dawson by the leg and pulled him free of the beast. He had hardly done this when the bear rose up once more and returned to the attack. Fortunately for Glenn, some of the hunters arrived on the scene and killed the bear before it could do more damage. The bear's teeth had punctured the victim's skull and he died the third day after the attack, in spite of the careful, if amateurish, ministrations of his companions. (Gowan 62)

Ferris' journal tells of two hunters who came upon a large grizzly that was digging energetically for roots and was not aware of their presence. One of the hunters, noted for the accuracy of his shooting, told his companion to climb a tree. He then found one he could climb, just in case the bear refused to die quickly. Taking careful aim, he fired. The bear let out a roar and swung about, heading for the sound of the shot at full speed. The hunter dropped his rifle and scooted up the tree. Unfortunately for him, his coat caught on a limb, slowing his climb, so the bear was able to grab his foot and yank him out of the tree. The bear wrought terrible vengeance upon the man, tearing him apart. The mortally wounded beast then laid down beside the man's corpse and died. The other hunter, in terror because of the very messy death that had just taken place right below him, slipped out of the tree and rushed back to camp. When he returned with other hunters, they performed a crude autopsy on the bear. It had been shot neatly through the heart. (Gowans 100)

The rifle, a fast horse, and the fact that the Mountain Men usually traveled in groups, made it highly likely that any man/bear confrontations would come out with the bear as the loser. However, a confrontation between one rifleman on foot and one bear tended to even up the odds a bit. In a mano-a-mano contest between one human and one adult ursus, the odds were all in favor of the bear. That is what makes the tale of a fellow named Keyere all the more fascinating.

It seems that this little bundle of gristle and bone never weighed over one hundred pounds in his life. The diminutive mountain man rode out one day alone, and in the evening, his horse returned to camp without him. His companions figured that Indians had probably lifted his hair, but they went out the next morning to see if they could find any sign. They found the fellow lying beside a large and very dead grizzly bear. He was badly mangled and unconscious but still breathing, so they took him back to camp and nursed him. When he had regained enough of his health to tell his tale, they found it hard to believe. Supposedly he had spotted a large grizzly and had gotten off of his horse to take careful aim. Unfortunately for Keyere, he only wounded the bear. The animal charged and caught him, but Keyere fought back, knocking the bear down with a fist to the snoot. The bear jumped back up and came at him again. Pulling his knife, the man began stabbing the bear as the animal bit and clawed him. One of his knife strokes penetrated the bear's heart, killing it.

The mountain men thought this a huge joke and laughed about it loudly, but their laughter had a tentative note to it. They were confronted with several undeniable facts. First, it was doubtful that any man could recover from the mass of wounds Keyere had been found with, yet recover he did - proof that he was one tough little fellow. Second, there was no denying the fact that Keyere had been found lying next to a very dead bear, his knife buried in its side, and there were other knife wounds in the bear's body too. (Gowans 89)

Today we are told that a big grizzly will weigh up to 750 pounds. (The Kodiak is supposed to weigh as much as 1,600 pounds - Merrit Vol. 3, 26.) What size did the grizzly grow to in the days when food was more than plentiful and there were few to challenge its eminence? The Mountain Man who left us journals often mention a single bear providing them with six-to eight-hundred pounds of meat and five to seven gallons of oil. What must the size of such a beast have been? Where their estimates as to weight and volume grossly exaggerated? Horace Bell tells of one California bear that was transported to a ranch after it had been killed, cut up and weighed. The bear's weight came to 2,100 pounds avoirdupois. (Gowen 175)

When one puts this size with George Nidever's comments, one can only wonder. Nidever, a professional hunter who killed forty-five grizzlies in one year, stated that if one is cool, prudent, and a good shot, there is little danger in hunting bears. He almost always got to within forty to fifty yards of a bear before he fired, and never took a shot over a hundred yards. However, he warned that if one does not have these characteristics, plus a good rifle, "he has no business to hunt bears." (Gowan 168)

It would seem that prudence is the most important characteristic for a good grizzly hunter, especially when using a muzzleloader. Take Isaac Slover, for example. He had some twenty years' experience hunting grizzlies. Indeed, he seems to have declared war on the bears. At the age of eighty, he became guilty of imprudence. Coming upon a grizzly near the summit of Cajon Pass, he fired at the bear, wounding it. The bear crawled into some brush. Slover reloaded and, ignoring the warnings of his hunting partner, approached the bear. The bear made a sudden spring, landed on Slover and tore him to pieces! (Gowans 190)

The era of the grizzly lasted only a couple of decades longer than the rendezvous period. Even before the fur trade died (about 1840), the number of the great bears was in noticeable decline. The Indians had hunted them primarily to show their bravery. Wearing a necklace of bear claws indicated you were a truly brave warrior. Mountain men hunted them partly for the same reason, plus the large amount of meat and oil, and the value of the hide.

It is likely that many of the mountain men came from the same gene pool as today's extreme sports devotees. (Auto racing, sky diving, rock climbing, etc.) With their need for an adrenaline rush and a level of technology well ahead of the Indians', they proved to be an adversary too formidable for even the great bears. The end of the Civil War brought cattlemen and cartridge rifles to grizzly country, but mostly it brought people. There could be little doubt as to how this conflict would end.

Today, there are many persons who advocate returning the grizzly to much of its former range. Most of those people live in cities, miles from bear country. The folks who live where the bears would roam generally tend to be a bit less enthusiastic about the idea!

Sources:
Ambrose, Stephen A., Undaunted Courage, New York, NY. Simon & Schuster., 1996
Bakeless, John, The Adventures of Lewis and Clark. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company. 1962
Cayne, Bernard S. Ed. Merit Student Encyclopedia, Crowell-Collier Educational Corporation, 1970
Gowans, Fred R., Mountain Man & Grizzly. Orem, Utah: Mountain Grizzly Publications. 1986
Victor, Francis Fuller, River of the West, Vol. I, Missoula, Mountain Press Pub. Co., 1983.