The Last Bear

Teddy Roosevelt, race suicide and the killing of Orange County's last grizzly

Courtesy Jim Sleeper CollectionSeventy years later, what Richard Shrewsbury remembered most was the size of the bear.

As a kid, I do remember old Clubfoot, the last grizzly bear that was killed in Silverado Canyon. I remember seeing his tracks, and to me, they seemed nearly a yard across, but they weren't, of course. They were about eight to 12 inches wide, I guess. But they were big things.

Shrewsbury was born in Orange, the fifth of seven children in one of Orange County's most prominent early families. He was 11 years old in 1903, when the last wild grizzly in Orange County was killed. In 1975, he told an interviewer from Cal State Fullerton's Oral History Program what he could remember about OC's last grizzly.

Some of the boys had gone after old Clubfoot and killed him, and they brought him down to Santa Ana, and I saw the hide there. Now the bear is stuffed and in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. That was the last old grizzly bear up in the mountains there.

Actually, there was one more grizzly bear in the Santa Ana Mountains, a female misnamed Little Black Bear, who was shot and killed in January 1908 on the San Diego side of the county line in Trabuco Canyon. Little Black Bear was the last wild California grizzly in all of Southern California–and one of the last of her kind anywhere. It's her hide (skinned, but not stuffed) in the Smithsonian Institute. Little Black Bear also achieved in death the melancholy distinction of being the only Santa Ana grizzly ever photographed. Of the last grizzly killed in Orange County–believed to have been Little Black Bear's mate–nothing remains: no photographs, no hide, nothing but memories, and very few of those.

No one outside Orange County seems to have taken notice of the killing of the county's last grizzly 100 years ago. And even if the story of Orange County's last grizzly had somehow made it beyond the county's borders, it still would have been overshadowed by another bear story: 1903 was also the year the Teddy Bear was introduced.

The story of the Teddy Bear is familiar enough: inspired by a widely circulated Washington Post editorial cartoon showing President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captive bear cub during a Mississippi hunting trip in mid-November 1902, New York shopkeeper Morris Mitchtom decided to name the stuffed bears his wife made in honor of Teddy Roosevelt. He wrote to the White House asking permission to use the president's name. Permission was eventually granted, and in January 1903, the first Teddy Bears went on sale. A craze was born. The Teddy Bears proved so popular that, before the end of the year, Mitchtom gave up his shop and started a new business–the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co.

The cartoon that gave rise to the Teddy Bear, however, really had nothing to do with bears, even though it was inspired by an actual incident on Roosevelt's hunting trip. Captioned "Drawing the Line in Mississippi," the cartoon is actually about lynching. The image of Roosevelt refusing to kill a black bear held by a rope around its neck was meant to depict the president's opposition to lynching. And everyone in Mississippi would have understood that, even if New Yorkers didn't.

Roosevelt's November hunting trip was in large part a piece of political theater. Mississippi's incumbent governor, Andrew Longino, a political ally of Roosevelt's, was locked in a fierce election struggle with the fiery populist James Vardaman, and the president's visit was meant to boost Longino's popularity with the voters. The ploy misfired badly. Vardaman, who called himself "The Great White Chief," used Roosevelt's reputation as a moderate on racial issues to attack Longino. He denounced Roosevelt as a "coon-flavored mescegencist" [sic] who had no business interfering in Mississippi politics. Vardaman went on to win the election. But even if Roosevelt couldn't help Longino, the trip was still a triumph. Because as with so much else in Roosevelt's career, image trumped reality.

Theodore Roosevelt had become a national figure thanks to his careful attention to image. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the ambitious Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to form a cavalry unit to fight in Cuba (then part of the Spanish Empire and, along with the Philippines, one of the two major fronts in the war). He carefully selected his men to form an appealing cross-section of American society. "Three cups of Southwesterners, a leavening of Ivy Leaguers, a tablespoon of Indians, and a sprinkling of Jews, Irish, Italians and Scandinavians yielded, in Roosevelt's eyes, a sterling all-American regiment" is how historian Gary Gerstle describes the mixture. (Blacks and Asians were deliberately excluded.) And the name Roosevelt chose for his regiment, the Rough Riders, was already familiar to Americans–it was the name of the riding troupe in Buffalo Bill's immensely popular Wild West show. During the war, Roosevelt ensured maximum publicity for himself by reenacting the victorious battle of San Juan Hill for the newsreel cameras. To enhance the realism of the footage, the captured Spanish soldiers played themselves–they were even rearmed, although this time they had only blanks for ammunition. Notably absent from the films, however, were the African-American soldiers from the Ninth and 10th cavalries and 24th infantry division, who did much of the fighting that day but whose presence at San Juan Hill had "interfered with . . . Roosevelt's enjoyment of that triumph," as Gerstle delicately puts it. (Although he was a strong opponent of lynching and was appalled by the crude racism of people like Vardaman, Roosevelt was as firmly opposed to racial integration and as convinced of the innate inferiority of blacks as the Great White Chief was.)

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