Ursus Horribilis In Extremis


To what extent the early Indians of the West counted coup on Lord Grizzly-and vice versa-can only be conjectured. Bear hides and claw necklaces were worn or displayed by members of some tribes. The acquisition of such finery no doubt was costly. For the most part, the American Indian revered the great bear. Indeed, to some cultures it was a deity. Charles Fletcher Lummis, a newspaper correspondent who spent many years among the Indians of the Southwest in the late 1800’s, reported that the Navajos were in mortal dread of the bear-not of its fangs and claws but of its imagined supernatural powers. There was only one excuse, wrote Lummis, for meddling with a grizzly. That was when a bear killed a Navajo. A large party of warriors and medicine men would proceed to the animal’s lair. And then, as Lummis told it: “The praises of the bear, commander of beasts, are loudly sung, and his pardon is humbly invoked for the unpleasant deed to which they are now driven. Having duly apologized beforehand, they proceed as best they may to kill the bear, and then go home to fast and purify themselves.”

Probably the first written account of the grizzly by a European was that of Father Antonio de la Ascension, official scribe on the voyage of Sebastian Vizcaino to Monterey Bay in 1602. The padre saw the bears feeding on a beached whale, and later, inspecting their tracks in the sand, noted that they measured “a good third of a yard long and a hand wide.”

The first English observers were more observant. In 1691, the Hudson’s Bay Company dispatched one Henry Kelsey on a thousand-mile journey from Fort York, at the mouth of the Nelson River, to the plains of western Saskatchewan. According to Kelsey’s journal, he and his Assiniboin guide pitched their tent on August 20 and looked out upon a view affording “Nothing but short round sticky grass and buffalo and a great sort of a bear which is bigger than any white bear and is neither white nor black but silver hair’d like our English rabbit.…” Later, the two men encountered a pair of grizzlies at close range and discovered that this great sort of a bear had something else in common with the English rabbit-a swiftness of foot. The grizzlies charged, chasing the Assiniboin up a tree and Kelsey into a thick clump of willows. From this implausible hiding place, Kelsey claimed he shot and killed both bears with his flintlock musket. The feat earned him the honorary title of “Little Giant” among the northern tribes, and possibly the dubious distinction of being the first white man ever to slay a grizzly.

A century after Kelsey’s journey, Alexander Mackenzie set out from Montreal to complete the first overland crossing of America north of Mexico. In his journals, the Scot referred to “grisly and hideous bears,” and recounted how “One of our men, being at a small distance before the others, had been attacked by a female bear with two cubs but another of [the men] arrived to his rescue, and shot her.”

One of the richest lodes in the early literature on the bear was opened in 1804 when President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to chart the way to the Pacific Ocean. The journals of Lewis and Clark and their associates are filled with hair-raising tales of encounters with “white” bears-a misnomer then in use by French traders and some Indians who were impressed by the silver tips of the grizzly’s otherwise brownish hairs. According to Elliot Coues’ edition of the journals, the first significant encounter occurred on April 29,1805, somewhere on the Missouri River, beyond Fort Mandan:

“Captain Lewis, who was on shore with one hunter, met about eight o’clock two white bears. Of the strength and ferocity of this animal the Indians had given us dreadful accounts. They never attack him but in parties of six or eight persons, and even then are often defeated with a loss of one or more of their party. Having no weapons but bows and arrows, and the bad guns with which the traders supply them, they are obliged to approach very near to the bear; as no wound except through the head or heart is mortal, they frequently fall a sacrifice if they miss their aim. He rather attacks than avoids a man, and such is the terror he has inspired, that the Indians who go in quest of him paint themselves and perform all the superstitious rites customary when they make war on a neighboring nation.… On approaching these two, Captain Lewis and the hunter fired, and each wounded a bear. One of them made his escape; the other turned upon Captain Lewis and pursued him 70 or 80 yards, but being badly wounded the bear could not run so fast to prevent him from reloading his piece, which he again aimed at him, and a third shot from the hunter brought him to the ground.”

On May 5 the party encountered another “white” bear. Sergeant Ordway wrote, “We shot him as he was swimming in the river.” On May 11, William Bratton shot a grizzly through the lungs. The bear then chased Bratton for “a mile and a half.” On May 14, near the Musselshell River, six men went out to kill a bear on a hillside. Wounded, the grizzly by Ordway’s account “chased two of them into a canoe, and another into the river, and they steady firing at him. After shooting eight balls in his body … [the bear] took the river and was near catching the man he chased in.”

And on June 14, at the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis again was pursued by a grizzly that “ran open-mouthed and at full speed upon him.” Lewis saved his skin by plunging into the river.