Times Past

Bears didn't fare well during the 19th century

Special to The TribuneOctober 5, 2013 

"Roping the Bear at Santa Margarita Rancho," an 1876 oil on canvas by James Walker.


“The writhing, straining, and pitching of the powerful monster were now absolutely fearful, and the earth flew in every direction.”

The recent appearance of several black bears in the 300-pound range startled a number of residents of San Luis Obispo. It prompted several readers to ask about the “bear warning” signs at the top of the Cuesta Grade. Last February, I told our friend, Tom Culver, a retired barrister from Cambridge, England, those signs are to be taken seriously. When I was first teaching at Cal Poly in the 1970s, one of my students was nearly killed in a collision with a bear.

But today’s black bears would pale alongside a California grizzly weighing as much as five times as much as the young black bears. The cousin of the Alaskan brown bear was a creature to be feared. Indeed, when Lt. Pedro Fages led an expedition into the Los Osos Valley to hunt down bears for meat to save the starving missions at Monterey and San Antonio in June 1772, the Native Americans appeared to welcome the Spanish soldados.

The mounted soldiers, with their 10- to 12-foot lances and firearms had a distinct advantage over the bears. The grizzlies often mauled the Indians, so much so that Father Juan Crespi remarked that most of them bore severe scars on their bodies.

The soldados did not hunt the grizzly into extinction.

Throughout much of the 19th Century, travelers might catch a glimpse of California’s state “animal,” a light brown, almost golden grizzly bear along mountain trails.

The grizzly bear was the largest creature in California. Distinguished by its size, weight, brown fur and humped shoulders, the bear was feared, hunted and honored by Native Americans, early explorers, trappers and miners.

The Spanish and Mexican rancheros, however, began using this noble creature for entertainment.

A bear would be captured in the wild and dragged on a stiff bull’s hide to a plaza in one of the mission pueblos or to a corral at a rancho.

The left rear paw of the bear would then be tethered to the right front leg of an enormous bull. The frightened animals would then fight to the death.

The bear would usually be gored to death by the upward motion of the bull’s horns. The stoop-shouldered bear aggravated its own fate by downward thrusts, often impaling its paunch on the sharpened horns.

A San Francisco merchant once observed a “bull and bear” fight in our region. He later coined the phrases “bull market” for a period of rising values for stocks and commodities. A “bear market” was when values decline like the downward thrusts of the bear.

In 1849, J. Ross Browne, serving as a federal revenue agent, visited Joaquin Estrada’s Rancho Santa Margarita. Brown kept a diary that he later turned into both East Coast magazine articles and a book titled Crusoe’s Island . . . with Sketches of Adventures in California and Washoe [Nevada territory]. He described how a grizzly was captured for the “Bull and Bear Baiting” entertainment at the rancho.

It required four or five mounted vaqueros with their riatas, lassoing the bear’s neck and limbs until “It was apparent that his wind was giving out.”

But even then, “sometimes by a desperate effort he regained his feet and actually dragged one or more of the horses toward him by [brute] strength but whenever he attempted the others drew tighter their lazoes and choked him or jerked him up on his haunches.”

After watching the bear being tethered, Browne had no desire to stay and watch the entertainment that followed.

By the 1860s, the grizzly bear was hunted into near extinction. The last surviving grizzly was killed in the Sespe Gorge wilderness of Ventura County in 1922.

Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association

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