Long ago, before the railroads united this country; before the great wagon trains brought settlers and commerce to the new lands; and before the Indian Wars, outlaws, or cowboys; there existed a group of men who went forth alone to challenge the wilderness of the untamed West. They brought with them little more than their bravery and skill, carving their own niche in history. They were the mountain men. Forged from hard lives as soldiers, scouts, hardscrabble farmers, and loggers, these men sought a better life. The mountain men came to the wilderness to trap fur and dig gold, shaping their own fortunes from the wild places of the world. They lived a hard and lonely existence, facing danger daily but remaining undeterred. They stood up to deadly cold, starvation, and hostile Native American tribes without hesitation. In fact, there was only one thing they feared, an unstoppable juggernaut and the mountain man’s greatest adversary in the wild: the grizzly bear.
From the earliest excursions of the mountain man, they came to know the grizzly bear as much more than just another woodland creature. A fearful legend told to them by native tribes, the grizzly was an entity of the hostile spirit of the unknown wilderness and the savagery of nature. A reminder that, for all their intelligence and technology, man was still vulnerable and part of the food chain. Yet the mountain men, being among the bravest, hardiest, and toughest men in the country, remained determined to go forth and explore. And so encounters between grizzlies and mountain men inevitably began.
One of the earliest recorded confrontations took place between a grizzly and the Lewis and Clark Party, which was led by the man many consider to be the first mountain man, Jim Colter. Colter was a scout, hunter, and trail-finder for the party. He was credited with being the first man of European descent to explore the region that later became Yellowstone National Park. But before all that, he was one of the first mountain men to challenge the might of the grizzly. While leading a party of hunters along the banks of the Missouri, Colter and his men were charged by a massive bear. He raised his rifle and fired, hitting the bear in the head, and was shocked to find it didn’t slow the charge. Colter and his men evaded the grizzly’s initial charge and finally managed to kill the animal after shooting it nine more times. It was one of the first times the legendary strength and ferocity of the grizzly was put to the test by a mountain man, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Battles between these titans of men and bear occurred constantly throughout the early years of the settling of the American West. Grizzly surprised mountain men on trails, raided their fur traps, attacked the stock on wagon trains, and stole their downed or wounded game. Many a mountain man was attacked and killed by the bears. Those few who survived were left with terrible scars and often profound disabilities. Perhaps the most famous of these survivors was Hugh Glass, who was attacked by a sow grizzly while hunting near the Grand River in South Dakota. Glass managed to kill the bear, shooting it twice during the attack and then finishing it off with his hunting knife, but was left severely mauled. The bear shredded Glass’s back with its claws, tore his throat, and broke his ribs and one of his arms. Glass was left for dead by his men and ended up having to crawl some 200 miles, living on berries and roots, to Fort Kiowa and safety.
Another particularly famous encounter between a mountain man and a grizzly was one that happened to the legendary Jedediah Smith. Smith was a mountain man, scout, cartographer, and the man responsible for opening up trade routes to California. While leading an expedition near the Black Hills in eastern Wyoming in search of the Crow Tribe with whom they sought to trade horses, Smith was attacked by a grizzly. He was smashed to the ground when the animal came out of the brush. He stabbed the bear multiple times with his hunting knife, eventually causing it to retreat, but not before the animal broke several of his ribs, tore open his side, and bit off most of his scalp. With the bear gone, Smith’s men moved in to check on their fallen leader, thinking he was dead. Instead they found Smith sitting in the trail, clutching his scalp and ear to the side of his head. He asked for a needle and thread, and proceeded to sew his own scalp back on his head. He then handed his friend the needle so he could reattach the ear. The mountain men were a rugged breed, and though sometimes they ended up on the losing end, much of the time they gave as good as they got.
While most feared the grizzly, there were many who saw the animals as opportunities. Grizzlies were such terrifying entities that many settlers wanted them eliminated. Bounties were placed on the animals’ heads, high prices were paid for their hides and skulls, and many mountain men capitalized on the opportunity, building reputations as grizzly hunters. There was “Bearclaw” Chris Lapp, a friend of the infamous mountain man Jeremiah Johnson. Lapp obsessively pursued the grizzly, hunting and trapping them in sections of wilderness where other mountain men didn’t dare go. He got his nickname from the necklace of bear claws he wore, keeping one claw from every bear he killed.
Another infamous bear hunter was mountain man Seth Kinman. Kinman was an early settler of northern California and is credited with killing more than 800 grizzly bears. He became a folk hero, his brutality toward the grizzly making him a legend. Hunters wishing to emulate him eventually resulted in the extermination of the grizzly bear from the state of California.
Another mountain man who made his reputation on hunting grizzly was Ben Lilly. Lilly was a notorious mountain man, big-game hunting guide, and houndsman who used his own breed of ferocious hounds to run down bears, shooting the animals in the head when they turned to fight the dogs. He pursued the animals from New Mexico to Idaho and is credited with killing more than 200 of them, including several with a bowie knife that he used to stab the bears when they were too close to the dogs for him to shoot.
The mountain men and the grizzly bear have become a part of our culture and folklore. Though they frequently clashed, the two existed in a sort of balance. Circling each other like constellations in the sky, bear and man molded one another into legend and into bona fide symbols of the magnificence of the Old West. They fought together during a period in history when man could still build a life on his own terms, when the wild places of this world had yet to be discovered and explored.
Featured image courtesy of Cowboys and Indians Magazine