Hunting The Fearsome Grizzly Bear

During the gold rush, the grizzly bear and elk were the two largest animals found in California. The grizzly is confined to the regions west of the Rocky mountains, and was once found throughout the Sierras, foot-hills, and Coast Ranges. In early days, these giant bears were very numerous, but by the late 1800s became comparatively scarce and seldom were seen or molested any man. During that first wave of the gold rush pioneers however, there were been many desperate fights between the grizzly and hunters. Their great size, strength, and vicious nature rendered them a most formidable enemy to the prospector. During the early days of California there were many of them to be found in the Coast Ranges within a few hours travel of San Francisco, and generally throughout the timber portion of the State. Normally their chief diet was berries and herbs.

This occurred near the El Dorado county line. The bear had been seen several times and was known to frequent a patch of thick chaparral. A party of ten or twelve miners, among whom were the Johnstons, Jim and Jack, started out to find him. They succeeded in getting a fatal shot at his majesty the bear, which contrary to all expectation, retreated into the thick brush. From the amount of blood along his trail they judged that he was too severely wounded to be dangerous, and they imprudently followed him. The infuriated animal charged upon the Johnstons, who were foremost, and brought one of them to the ground, his gun during the encounter being thrown out of reach.



The other fired when the opportunity presented itself to do so without endangering his brother's life, again wounding the bear, which left the first one to pursue the other. It does not seem that they succeeded in loading again, but each endeavored to draw the bear away from the other by pounding him over the head with the gun, when the animal would get the other down and commence again gnawing and lacerating his arms, head and body. It was a desperate fight now to get away. The balance of the hunting party had deserted them at the first sight of the animal, when he made his charge, leaving the two to their fate. Jack's arms were now so useless from the repeated crushings, that he could no longer raise the gun to strike the bear, but still intent to get his brother away, he pushed his shoulder against the animal, which would leave the other for a moment. The creature was a monster in size, his back being nearly on a level with Jack's shoulder. The struggle seemed hopeless, but at the last moment the bear, becoming exhausted or subdued by his severe wounds, gave a kind of snarl and began beat a retreat. One of the men was now utterly helpless and the other one not much better; he however, succeeded in dragging his brother out of the brush to the open ground. He was taken away in a wagon and cared for, and recovered after several months. The crippled hand and arm, and terrible scars all over his person, attest the severity of the contest. After their recovery they revisited the place. They found the skeleton of the bear, which was of unheard-of dimensions. The stories of bears weighing fifteen hundred pounds, to those who have seen only the bears of two or three hundred pounds weight, which frequent the mountains of the Eastern States, bears of such size may seem utterly absurd. Making allowance for the exaggeration natural under some circumstances, there can be no doubt of their occasionally reaching to a monstrous size, perhaps weighing seventeen or eighteen hundred pounds.

Mr. Spaulding's Grizzly Encounter
In 1850 grizzlies were still occasionally met with, and they hardly ever gave space on the road, though they were not apt to attack a man unless provoked. It was Mr. Spaulding's good fortune to have one of the most thrilling adventures with one that has ever been recorded. At that time he was in charge of a saw-mill, and had occasion to visit the gold mining camp of Mokelumne Hill late in the day. The trail led through a deep, shadowy glen, which the fearsome animals sometimes visited, trampling down the brush and leaving tracks twice as large as a Hoosier's. As a matter of prudence he took his rifle promising himself to "fight it out on that line" if he ever met up with one. The day light trip was well enough, no "bars" putting in an appearance, but on his return after night-fall, as he descended into the cool, shadowy part of the glen, he heard the ominous cracking of the brush, and the sound of footfalls along the trail. Nearer and nearer he came toward the vicious animal that was never known to give way on the road. To turn back was contrary to our hero's principles. Pierpont's words echoed in his ears: "Stand! The ground's your own, my braves. Will ye give it up to slaves? Look ye for greener graves?"



The story from his old school reader flashed through his mind, and he stood his ground! With gun cocked and his hair on end, he waited for the onset of the fight. As the outline of the animal came dimly into view he took as good an aim as possible and fired his rifle. An unearthly growling was succeeded by the monster's tumbling, rolling, and tearing down the trail to the bottom of the deep ravine below the road. It was evident the animal was severely wounded, and like all grizzlies, would be then most dangerous, even if the wound was mortal. To go down into the dark and thick woods and fight the grizzly alone, would be dangerous, perhaps fatal to him, for had not the grizzly proved a match for many men even when fatally wounded? Life was bright before him; hopes of meeting well, no matter whom, and renewing the tender relations; hopes of wealth, of political success, of honor were not these worth more than the chance of killing a grizzly? He went back on the trail, and making a wide circuit, reached the camp at a late hour, exhausted with the excitement and his long walk. After hearing of his adventures, the men made up a company to visit the ravine the next morning and finish the monster. All the guns were heavily loaded, and plans laid for approaching the animal with the least danger. The most vulnerable parts of the grizzly were duly discussed, some contending for an eye shot, others a side shot, at the heart, etc. Cautiously they descended into the deep ravine, avoiding clumps of trees or chaparral. At the bottom they found signs of the conflict blood and broken brush. One, bolder than the rest, followed the trail, and crying out with a great roar of laughter, yelled out to the rest:

"Darned if it aint Dr. Herschner's old jackass," This quickly changed the sentiment of the party. The poor, patient old donkey had packed many a load of grub over the hills to the miners, and would, when relieved of his burden, return home alone, but he had now made his last trip. Forty dollars was paid to the owner for the loss of the animal, but many forties would not pay for all the liquors and cigars at Spaulding's expense; and the end is not yet, for a mention of hunting grizzlies will still bring out the best in the house.

Return To: California Gold Rush: True Tales of the 49ers



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