Times Past

Dan Krieger: Santa Margarita visitor was a witness to grizzly bear capture

Grizzlies are usually regarded as the most aggressive bears. Weighing just less than 1,000 pounds, they thrived in our part of California through the 1860s.

In 1849, Federal Revenue Agent and journalist J. Ross Browne visited Joaquin Estrada’s Rancho Santa Margarita.

As he entered the rancho, “an undulating and beautifully timbered range of country extending into it from the foothills, ” he saw a cloud of dust in the distance.

The mule he was riding “pricked up his ears” in fear and “whirled around and fled at the top of his speed.

“Neither voice nor bridle had the slightest effect. In vain I struggled to arrest his progress.”

Finally, one of the mule’s hooves caught in a squirrel hole and Browne was thrown to the ground.

“I jumped to my feet to catch him, but he was on his feet as quickly, and hurried away.”

Browne looked for the source of the animal’s anxiety and was “astonished” to see “a large animal followed by several horsemen in full chase.”

Browne crouched on the ground to get out of the way. He heard loud shouts and observed “a huge grizzly bear, sitting upon his haunches was now facing his pursuers.

“The native Californians managed their horses with wonderful grace and skill. The nearest swept down like an avalanche toward the bear, while the others (made) a circle, so as to prevent his escape.”

The bear was dragged to the ground but “soon regained his feet and commenced hauling in the line with his forepaws, so as to get within reach of the horse.”

One of the vaqueros tried to lasso the bear’s rear legs, but missed.

Another lassoed the bear around the neck.

“The bear soon rolled upon the ground again, biting furiously at the lassoes (with) the most terrific roars.”

The bear was ultimately worn out and subdued.

“One rider now dismounted. Approaching the bear with a spare riata (he) cast a noose over his forepaws and tied the remaining part around the neck, drawing it so tight to destroy by suffocation the bear’s remaining strength.

“Another rider dismounting, the two bound the powerful armed paws so securely that it was impossible for the bear to break loose. They next bound his jaws tightly together, winding the riata about his head, after which they loosed the fastenings of his neck to give him air.

“When all was secure, they freed their lassoes and mounted horses.

“I thought it now time to make my presence known. I stood up. Some of the party had evidently seen me during the progress of the chase, for they (showed) no surprise at my presence.

“(Their) leader after exchanging words with another man, and pointing in the direction taken by the mule, rode up and said very politely: ‘Buenos días, señor!’

“(He told) me he had sent a man to catch my mule, and it would be back presently. While we were endeavoring to carry on some conversation relating to the capture of the bear, during which I made out that they were going to (drag the bear) to the ranch on a bull hide and have a grand fight (between the bear and a bull) in a few days, the vaquero returned with my mule and I proceeded on my journey.”

Browne had no desire to stay and watch the entertainment. The infamous “bull and bear” baiting tethered the bear’s rear legs to the bull’s front. The bear always charged down, impaling itself on the bull’s horns. This led a visiting San Francisco banker to use the term “bull market” for a prospering stock exchange. The “bear market” of course always involved loss as the bear went down.

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

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.