The Last Bear

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

Bear and bull fights were popular throughout the 19th century in California, but they became less frequent as grizzlies became rarer. The arrival of Anglo-Americans at the end of the 1840s accelerated the bear's decline. The Americans brought improved technology with them: the repeating rifle, the steel trap and strychnine. Each would play an important part in the eventual extinction of the California grizzly. The role of the first two is obvious, but the importance of strychnine requires a word of explanation.

Rather than rely on hunting to keep their livestock safe from grizzlies, many American ranchers preferred to poison the bears. The rancher would slaughter an animal, lace the carcass with strychnine and leave it on the edge of his property, where it was likely to attract bears. On a ranch where bees were kept, a poisoned pool of honey often took the place of the dead animal. In the morning, the rancher would check to see what had taken the bait. The poison usually wasn't enough to kill a large grizzly, but it would incapacitate the bear, making it easy to shoot. In their book California Grizzly, Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis cite examples of ranchers who collected sheds full of grizzly skulls in this manner. The ranchers were generally not proud of what they had done, but considered it a necessity.

Hunters, on the other hand, were bursting with pride. Storer and Tevis quote from an 1861 article that describes the pride hunters took in going after grizzlies:

The risk was great, to be sure. . . . Hence the peculiar charm of a fight with a grizzly! If you kill your bear, it is a triumph worth enjoying; if you get killed yourself, some of the newspapers will give you a friendly notice; if you get crippled for life, you carry about you a patent of courage which may be useful in case you go into politics. . . . Besides, it has an effect upon the ladies. A "chawed up" man is very much admired all over the world.

The population explosion that accompanied the gold rush gave rise to a grizzly hunter more interested in money than in being a chawed-up ladies' man–the market hunter. Grizzly meat was sold to mining camps and served in restaurants up and down the state; those with discriminating palates favored the paws of an adult bear or the flesh of a cub. Grizzly meat remained a staple in California restaurants into the first half of the 1870s. (Frank Marryat, it's worth mentioning, described grizzly meat as "perfectly tasteless," and when it comes to tasteless food, an Englishman should be considered an expert witness.) The grizzly's hide also fetched a good price, as did the animal's fat, which became a favorite type of axle grease. The grizzly population in the northern part of the state rapidly dwindled. By the last quarter of the 19th century, grizzlies were common only in sparsely settled areas, such as the southern part of Los Angeles County–which became Orange County in 1889.

Of course, it was all very different then. Where we see strip malls and off ramps, the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who visited the area in 1876, saw "a Versailles garden in the wilderness, embellished with marvelous bouquets of trees and shrubs almost as though contrived by the hand of a gardener-artist." Taken with the canyons of OC, he wrote, "If I were blessed with eternal life, I should not wish to spend it anywhere else." (In 1905, Sienkiewicz became the sixth writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The early Nobel committees had a weakness for overly dramatic prose.)

But it wasn't all bucolic splendor. The arrival of the Americans meant more ranches and other new enterprises, pushing into new territory. Again, grizzlies were encountered, and just like the Californios, the Americans killed them (the first recorded killing of a grizzly in OC by an American occurred in 1859). And just as it happened with the Californios, purely utilitarian hunting eventually gave way to hunting as a form of entertainment. But this time, there was an important difference. When serious sport hunting arrived in OC at the end of the 19th century, it had been endowed with a moral mission.

The idea of hunting as a sport, as opposed to a necessity, was first promoted in the United States in the 1830s by Henry William Herbert, an English immigrant who published his writings under the name Frank Forester. Herbert encouraged Americans to think less about the animal being pursued than the way in which it was pursued. He proposed a "sportsman code" of "fair chase": no poison, no traps, just riding to hounds in the best tradition of the English aristocracy.

Such hunting, he promised, would bring many moral benefits. On a personal level, it would foster a "manly" character. On a social level, it would help create a reliable military aristocracy that would lead America to greater glory, just as England's aristocracy had acquired an empire for their small island. (Later in the century, Oscar Wilde, who had spent much more time among England's aristocracy than Herbert, described the country's hunting gentry as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.")

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