Ursus Horribilis In Extremis


On the plains, it was fat and easy living for the great bear. Buffalo were plentiful. The vast herds were riddled with sick stragglers and each year offered up a new crop of vulnerable calves. Thousands of migrating buffalo drowned at the river crossings or were trampled in the wild scramble up and down the river-bottom bluffs. Like all bears, the grizzly was not so proud that it would turn up its nose at carrion. Yet in other plains matters, its pride was supreme. For want of a handy carcass or a stray calf, the bear would not hesitate to attack a grown buffalo bull, crushing the animal’s hindquarters with the full impact of its awesome charge. Such habits honed the bear’s arrogance to a fine edge. Of the plains grizzly, Lewis would write: “These bear being so hard to die rather intimidates us all. I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had rather fight two Indians than one bear.”

Nearly all the roving explorers who followed Lewis’ way west in the early 1800’s corroborated his estimate of the bear’s ferocity. There was, however, at least one dissenter. This was Zebulon Pike, who, returning from the southwestern mountains in 1807, presented President Jefferson with two grizzly cubs. Ina letter to Jefferson the following year, Pike described how the cubs had followed “my men like dogs through our camps … [playing] with each other and the soldiers.” He begged Jefferson to assure some measure of humane care for the two captives (by then in the custody of Philadelphia Museum curator Charles Willson Peale). And finally, as if to set the record straight as to the nature of the grizzly, he wrote, “they seldom or ever attack a man, unprovoked, but defend themselves courageously.”


Pike’s heroic vision of the bear apparently failed to attract many converts. Even trained scientists persisted in depicting the grizzly as a monster; and perhaps the most hyperbolic description came from none other than John Godman, the distinguished Pennsylvania naturalist. In Godman’s view, the grizzly was “the despotic and sanguinary monarch of the wilds… terrific in aspect… ferociously bloodthirsty … [causing] man himself to tremble at [its] approach.…”

With the opening of the West to the fur trade, the grizzly’s monarchy began to crumble. Now it was not just an occasional two-legged intruder to be chased ignominiously back into his canoe, but a seemingly endless flotilla of canoes and pirogues and keelboats, each bristling with fire sticks. Trappers in their wolfskin caps and fetid leathers had ample reason to fear the bear. And in their fear they despised it, and slew it with monotonous regularity. Unfortunately, so much of the record of this period has been distorted by Godmanesque exaggeration that it is difficult now to separate fact from fiction.

In the archives of my own family, for example, looms a largerthan-life fellow named Malcolm Clarke-a great-granduncle, I surmise by imperfect genealogical calculation, but a mountain man for certain. In 1841, Clarke hit out for the Upper Missouri with the American Fur Company. There he married a Piegan Blackfoot woman, one Cacocoma, sired four children, ranched a bit, and then of a summer evening in 1868 had the rotten luck to be gut-shot by his wife’s own people. By then, Malcolm Clarke was something of a legend himself. The Piegans for a time had called him Four Bears, an honorary title and possibly an apocryphal one as well. One account has it that Clarke killed four grizzlies in a single morning, and all before breakfast. Another story holds that a huge bear once almost ended Clarke’s career in a Montana huckleberry thicket. With a swipe or two of the paw, the bear is said to have lifted Clarke’s scalp, knocked him down, worked him over for a moment on the ground, and then left him for dead. Whereupon a friendly Indian, passing by, spotted the dying trapper and with good-samaritan haste pasted the unhinged scalp back in place with spittle and chewing tobacco. So it is said, but I cannot vouch for it.