The word “legend” is thrown around a little too frequently and freely. It seems that whenever any Tom, Dick, or Jane drinks a beer a little faster or catches a couple more fish, or really does anything slightly better than anyone else, their friends are quick to exclaim, “Man they’re an absolute legend!” The frequent use of the word has dulled its meaning somewhat, leading many to think individuals whose accomplishments are only somewhat better than average deserve to have their names inscribed in the annals of history. I disagree with this entirely. While these people can be entirely awesome in their own right, I always think of true legends as people who have somehow transcended simple existence and have written themselves into cultural folklore. Men and women whose names are passed down in the whispered tales of old men or by mothers lulling their children to sleep with bedtime stories. True giants of humanity whose lives and accomplishments have somehow blurred the lines between fact and fiction. In the world of hunting, perhaps no other person is more deserving of this status than Ben Lilly.
From tracking a mountain lion for more than 100 miles, to killing dozens of black and grizzly bears with just a Bowie knife, to vanishing from his home for two years in pursuit of a chickenhawk, the tales surrounding Lilly seem more on par with a mythical hero than an actual person. A quiet and stoic man, Ben Lilly was thickly bearded, wore animal skins, and spent most of his life in rickety shacks he built himself away from the general population. He lived almost exclusively on a diet of bear and cougar meat, and generally avoided other people. However, through his hunting prowess, Ben Lilly ingratiated himself with the hunting community by becoming the most prolific hunter of apex predators in history. Ranchers employed him to remove not just problem animals, but entire populations of bears, mountain lions, and wolves from their properties. Though he was by no means a good example of a conservationist, Lilly still did incredible things in helping the general public better understand the nature of wild predators. Mounts of his trophies have ended up in the Smithsonian Museum and stories of his hunting prowess have been published in more than a half-dozen books. He even served as a guide for President Theodore Roosevelt himself on a Louisiana bear hunt. Roosevelt wrote about Lilly in his journal: “I never met any other man so indifferent from fatigue and hardship….He equaled (James Fenimore Cooper’s) Deerslayer in woodcraft, in hardihood, in simplicity, and also in loquacity.”
Ben Lilly was born sometime in the late winter of 1856 in Wilcox, Alabama. After his birth, his parents moved from Alabama to Kemper, Mississippi, believing the more rural area was a better place to bring up their young son. Lilly was raised as a devout Christian for most of his life, but after Lilly’s father had fought in the Civil War, he wished his son to become a soldier and sent Ben to a military academy in Jackson, Mississippi when he was just 12 years old. Lilly had other ideas. He ran away from the academy after mere months and disappeared. His family had no idea what happened to him until three years later, when his uncle, Vernon Lilly, found Ben working as a blacksmith in Memphis, Tennessee. Knowing his parents would never forgive him for fleeing the military academy, and knowing Ben would never forgive them for sending him there in the first place, Vernon offered his nephew a job as a planter on his Louisiana cotton plantation. Ben and his uncle grew very close in the following years, and when Vernon died, he left his plantation to Ben.
It was around this time that Ben discovered his talent and passion for big-game predator hunting. An avid trapper since he was a young boy, one day Ben discovered a fully grown black bear in one of his raccoon traps. Not being one to waste an opportunity, Lilly drew his knife and tackled the animal, stabbing it to death. The fight awakened something in Ben and he decided that this was how he wanted to make a living. He set out to become a professional bear hunter. Aside from the plantation (which he despised), Ben made most of his living as a blacksmith. He reworked the forge to become a knife shop where he designed what was later to become known as “The Lilly Knife,” a wicked double-edged S-shaped Arkansas Toothpick that he found to be the perfect tool for dispatching bears, and later in his life, mountain lions. He felt that shooting them was “less of a sport.”
In the late 1880s Ben Lilly sold the plantation and dedicated himself to the art of predator hunting. He began to train hounds to hunt for him, finding another one of his true passions in life, and made a living by selling meat and fat from the bears he and his dogs killed. Making a name for himself as a bear killer, Lilly partnered up with a man named Ben Hook, an outfitter in east Texas, moving there himself and working as a guide in 1904. For four years he guided hunters and hunted bear and mountain lion. This more often than not resulted in Ben and his hounds running the animal up a tree to be shot by his client or stabbed in hand-to-paw combat by Lilly himself. He’d often send the animals carcasses to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to be used as specimens.
In 1908 Ben Lilly grew restless. Wishing to expand his horizons and explore new territory, he left Texas for Chihuahua, Mexico, and then moved to the Sierra Madre Mountains. His purpose for going there was to take up the challenge of hunting one of North America’s greatest predators: the grizzly bear. He pursued the bears with a passion, choosing to shoot the animals rather than dispatch them with his knife as he feared for the safety of his dogs. His success was such that local ranchers and townsfolk began to tell tales of his prowess and would write to Lilly to come and dispatch grizzlies in their area.
In 1911, Ben came back to America and settled in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, where he’s been credited with killing the last known grizzly in the area. While there he became employed by the local government as a predator killer. In 1912 he moved to Arizona, where he registered as a hunter and trapper for the Apache National Forest. There, he hunted lions and wolves with hounds. By 1916 his reputation was such that when the Museum of Natural History was in search of a hunter to collect specimens for their collection, Lilly was the first person they called. He remained in their employ for four years, killing and cataloguing wolves, bears, and cougars for the museum.
Ben Lilly was living the dream that so many hunters across the country—and indeed the world—still have: hunting every day. He led expeditions as a guide across the Rockies, from Canada to Mexico, and is credited with killing more than 1,000 mountain lions, as well as an uncountable number of bears and wolves. By hunting predators exclusively, Lilly believed he was doing the world a lot of good and kept it up, hunting bears and lions with his dogs until his death in 1936 at the age of 80. His modest tombstone bears the epitaph, “Lover of the Great Outdoors.” And though there is no doubt that Lilly’s mentality and passion for hunting predators is extremely controversial today, as it led to many species almost being wiped out, there can be no doubt about his hunting prowess. He shall forever remain a genuine hunting legend.