The Last Bear
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.)
Roosevelt's service in Cuba made him a national hero and secured him the position of vice president on the winning Republican ticket in 1900. The assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 made him president. Once in office, he created some of the means by which modern presidents manage their public images.
"As president," sociologist William Gibson writes, "Roosevelt hired the first full-time press secretary. He also instituted private interviews with correspondents and began to choreograph both his official and social activities for news photographers, including the early film crews." Combining his dynamic personality with careful image management made Roosevelt the dominant national figure in the first decade of the 20th century. In all of America, only Niagara Falls rivaled Roosevelt as a popular spectacle, in the opinion of the English politician and writer John Morley. The success of the Teddy Bear both resulted from and added to Roosevelt's tremendous popularity.
Real bears, though, were not popular –and particularly unpopular was Ursus arctos californicus, the California grizzly.
To the native peoples of California, the grizzly was a powerful and respected presence. Tribes throughout the state had grizzly shaman, who tried to channel the seemingly indestructible power of the bear (grizzlies were remarkable for being able to survive injuries that would have killed any other animal) in healing and other rituals. But the grizzly also played other roles in belief systems of the California Indians. In Chiningchinich, an Historical Account of the Beliefs, Usages, Customs and Extravagancies of the Indians of This Mission of San Juan Capistrano Called the Acagchemem Tribe, written by the missionary Geronimo Boscano in the early 1820s, the grizzly is depicted as an enforcer of the divine order. A severe transgression against the just order of things would result in the grizzly coming to punish the transgressors. The grizzly was essential in maintaining the stability of the world.
To European settlers, however, the grizzly was a menace. The first recorded killing of a grizzly occurred in 1769, the same year Spanish colonists arrived in California. The grizzly was seen as a threat to people, a belief driven by fear of such massive animals rather than any real evidence. Grizzlies, as California writers from the end of the 18th century into the 20th century agreed, tried to avoid people and rarely attacked unless already wounded by a hunter or if a mother bear perceived a danger to her cubs. More realistically, grizzlies were considered a threat to livestock.
Spectacular stories of grizzlies attacking pigs, sheep and cattle are plentiful–though most are second-hand and almost all have a tinge of hyperbole. Grizzlies, whose diet largely consisted of acorns and roots, certainly did attack livestock, but for the most part, they probably settled for eating the carcasses of animals killed by predators who preferred live prey, such as wolves. The grizzly, paradoxically, occupied both the top and the bottom of the food chain: it was the apex predator, but it was also a scavenger, devouring the leftovers from the kills of others. And it was this scavenger nature that ranchers counted on in their battle against the bears.
The methods used on Don Jose Sepulveda's Rancho San Joaquin, one of the largest ranchos in what would become Orange County, were typical of Spanish grizzly management. Vaqueros would slaughter a cow and leave the remains in area known to be frequented by grizzlies–Santiago and Limestone canyons were considered prime grizzly territory. The vaqueros would withdraw to a safe distance and wait. Eventually, a bear would appear, and after it had begun eating, the mounted vaqueros would swoop down on the bear and lasso its feet with riatas. Rendered immobile, the bear would then either be stabbed to death with lances or torn apart as the vaqueros holding the riatas galloped off in opposite directions.
As the grizzlies declined in number and the surviving bears moved farther from human settlement, this sort of hunting continued, but with one notable change: bears were more frequently taken alive to be used in such entertainments as bear and bull fights. The grizzly had gone from menace to source of amusement.
The Englishman Frank Marryat, who wrote one of the most accurate descriptions of these fights, found nothing amusing about them, calling them "the most cruel and senseless" thing he had seen in California. (Marryat was by no means a green in the current sense of the word. In his 1855 book, Mountains and Molehills, he recounts with pride killing a grizzly cub he happened across while hunting, even though he says he found the cub to be perfectly harmless and extremely cute.)
The bear, cramped in his limbs by the strict confinement that his strength and ferocity have rendered necessary, is placed in the arena; and attached to him by a rope is a bull, generally of fine shape and courage and fresh from the mountains. Neither animal has fair play, and, indeed, in most instances, each one avoids the other. The bull's power of attack is weakened by the shortness of the tether, while the bear, as above mentioned, has scarcely the free use of his muscles. . . . The fight generally ends without much damage on either side, for the simple reason that neither of the combatants means mischief.
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.")
Herbert's ideas did not catch on until after the Civil War. Then they found a receptive audience in young men of the upper classes, who lived for the most part in major cities. Nature, for them, was theoretical in ways it wasn't for people who actually depended on the meat they got by hunting to survive, so Herbert's ideas about the morally enhancing power of hunting seemed plausible. Most prominent among these new sportsman hunters was Theodore Roosevelt, who, at the age of 29, helped found New York's Boone and Crockett Club, the most prestigious of nation's elite hunting clubs.
In addition to giving wealthy young men a hobby they could consider both morally uplifting and manly, the Boone and Crockett Club took a leading role in the new wildlife-conservation movement. And it was a "conservation" movement, not a "preservation" movement. The sturdy young hunters–who often referred to themselves as "Nimrods" after the mighty Old Testament hunter (Genesis 10:8-9)–were not interested in keeping their prey alive in the name of aesthetics or biodiversity. They simply wanted to ensure there would be enough animals to shoot from one year to the next.
Roosevelt preached the gospel of the sportsman hunter incessantly, championing its morally enhancing qualities in speeches, magazine articles and books. So it was natural for readers outside Mississippi to assume that famous cartoon referred to the sportsman code of not shooting trapped prey when they saw it in 1902. It was just Teddy invoking the old morals of the hunting elite. But by 1902, hunting had taken on a whole new moral urgency for Roosevelt –one that was hinted at in a cartoon that appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Heraldthe next year.
In May 1903, Roosevelt visited California for the first time. On May 8, he arrived in Los Angeles for a one-day visit. The Herald's cartoonist, R.K. Culver, imagined the sights that awaited the president. In the cartoon, a large Roosevelt is surrounded by some of LA's attractions. The president appears to be waving to one of them: a group of children labeled "Members of the Anti-Race Suicide Club." Culver must have thought that addition would please the president because in the spring of 1903, Roosevelt had made "race suicide" a fashionable term.
Although "race suicide" hadn't been coined until 1901, race was always at the heart of Roosevelt's moral and philosophical world-view. Roosevelt's views on race were never simple. Describing what he called "the divided character" of Roosevelt's thought, Gary Gerstle writes that on the one hand, Roosevelt belonged to "a powerful civic tradition that celebrated the United States as a place that welcomed all people . . . as long as they were willing to devote themselves to the nation and obey its laws." On the other hand, "Roosevelt's nationalism expressed itself as a combative and unapologetic racial ideology that thrived on aggression and the vanquishing of savage and barbaric peoples. From the perspective of that ideology, it is vital that 'Americans' cultivate their racial superiority and expel or subordinate the racial inferiors in their midst." Roosevelt used the terms Americans (or old-stock Americans), Anglo-Saxons, Aryans and whites interchangeably and conceived as life as a sort of racial struggle. So it was only natural he interpreted the social upheavals of the late 19th century as the signs of a racial crisis.
In the last decade of the 19th century, America was going through a series of wrenching social and economic transformations. Among other things, the number of self-employed men shrank with the rise of big business. The rural population was drifting into the big cities. At the same time, the great cities were filling with a new wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, people very different from the Anglo-Saxons who made up the stock of what men like Roosevelt regarded as "real Americans." Equally worrisome, women were beginning to demand social and political equality with men. From Roosevelt's point of view, something had clearly gone terribly wrong.
Roosevelt laid the blame for all these changes on what he perceived to be the growing decadence of the white race. Men were losing their vitality, their manliness; women were developing interests outside the home–a sign of their growing selfishness and a failure to appreciate the importance of motherhood to the health of the race. Roosevelt saw a society in crisis, one in which whites were in danger of losing their dominant position and being overwhelmed by their inferiors.
This is what Roosevelt meant by race suicide. And, true to his nature, he acted to head off disaster. On the political level, he allied himself with the Progressive movement, which in its early years stressed the importance of government regulation in creating a stable society, in which those with the greatest intelligence and ability would benevolently guide those less accomplished. On a social level, Roosevelt prescribed a course of action for each sex. Women were to rededicate themselves to motherhood and raise as many healthy children as possible. More was required of men. They needed to dedicate themselves to "the strenuous life" (the title of a book Roosevelt published in 1900). A program of sports, outdoor activities and avoidance of the feminizing influences of city life would restore vitality and manliness. Of course, for Roosevelt, the ultimate form of the strenuous life was war, but decent wars could be hard to come by. Fortunately, there was a substitute almost as good. "Hunting big game in the wilderness," he wrote in 1893, "is, above all things, a sport for a vigorous and masterful people."
And Roosevelt's favorite big-game animal was the grizzly.
Roosevelt's obsession with race may sound strange to the contemporary ear, but these ideas were perfectly common at the turn of the 20th century, particularly in Southern California–more specifically in the region's cultural capital, Pasadena.
No one in Pasadena exemplified the Southland's interest in racial questions better than prominent physician Dr. Joseph Widney. According to Widney, while he was serving as an army surgeon in the Arizona territory in the late 1860s, God revealed to him His plan for the white race. The Southwest would become the homeland of the Aryan people, and Los Angeles would be its capital. Widney spent 40 years working out the details of his vision, and in 1907, he published his magnum opus, Race Life of the Aryan Peoples. It must be stressed that Widney was not considered a crank. Some people might have found his evangelical fervor, or his advocacy of polygamy, or his habit of eating a raw onion every morning to be off-putting, but Widney was a respected member of society. He was the first dean of USC's medical school, after which he became the university's second president. His racial views may have been extreme, but in his day, they were not considered bizarre.
Pasadena was also home of Southern California's sportsmen hunting movement. In 1888, Charles Frederick Holder, a friend of Roosevelt's, founded the Valley Hunt Club, the first of the region's elite hunting clubs dedicated to building moral character through shooting animals. Other clubs soon followed. Three of the region's most important were in OC: the Westminster Gun Club and the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, both of which primarily hunted waterfowl; and the Santiago Hunt Club, which chased game big and small. Other hunting clubs, such as Holder's Valley Hunt Club, made trips to OC as well. In his 1906 book on hunting in Southern California, Life In the Open, Holder describes Orange County as "very attractive hunting country, with an abundance of game, long reaches of well-wooded and sloping lands covered with live oaks, [and] picturesque canyons filled with trees."
Holder was also the president of the Wild Life Protective League of America, and he used this position to lobby for regulations to restrict hunting to those capable of enjoying its moral splendor. Backed by the elite hunting clubs, Holder campaigned for the "non-sale of game" (effectively putting the market hunters out of business) and other measures such as a $25 hunting fee for noncitizens (effectively putting hunting out of reach of newly arrived immigrants). Again, the aim was conservation, not preservation.
With the arrival of the elite hunt clubs, the remaining grizzlies in Southern California faced a new challenge: rich men with the best equipment and the finest dogs looking to make trophies out of the biggest of the region's big game. Sometimes these hunters, most of them newly arrived from the East and Midwest, dressed up in sombreros and serapes in order to recapture some of the flavor of what they imaged the California of the dons must have been like. It made them feel like participants in a noble tradition–it was the strenuous life Roosevelt recommended, with a California accent.
By the time Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Los Angeles, there would have been very little point in inviting him to hunt for grizzly. The last grizzly in Ventura County was killed in 1882. San Bernardino's last grizzly was shot in 1868. Riverside's last grizzly was recorded in 1895. And no one in Los Angeles County had seen a grizzly outside a zoo since 1897. In 1903, when Teddy Roosevelt was making speeches in Los Angeles, it's very likely there were only two wild grizzlies left in Southern California. In a few months, the number would be one.
Seventy years later, Richard Shrewsbury's memory of Orange County's grizzly was tangled up with other memories. The bear that was killed in 1903 was known as Old Whiteface, not Old Clubfoot. Old Clubfoot had died years earlier, killed by a fire in that swept through the mountains.
Shrewsbury got the location wrong as well. Old Whiteface was killed in Coldwater Canyon. Throughout most of 1903, the bear had been raiding beehives on Ed Atkinson's property in Trabuco Canyon, destroying apiaries and doing other damage as well, but no one could catch him. Sometime that Autumn–Atkinson was never clear on the date–while returning from a deer hunting trip on Santiago Peak, Atkinson spotted the honey thief–easily recognizable thanks to the white markings on the elderly bear's face–in Coldwater Canyon. Ed shot Old Whiteface, who disappeared howling into the thick brush and was never seen again.
The grizzly Richard Shrewsbury remembered seeing on display in Santa Ana must have been Little Black Bear, the last wild grizzly in all of Southern California. In January 1908, a party of hunters led by Ed Atkinson set out to get a grizzly seen raiding apiaries and sniffing around the refuse from slaughtered cattle on properties near the San Diego County line. On Jan. 5, in Trabuco Canyon on the San Diego side of the line, their dogs picked up the scent. The hunters pursued the small female grizzly for five miles before the dogs caught up with her. The dogs brought the grizzly down; fierce fighting between the animals ceased when Atkinson shot the bear three times with his .30-.30 rifle.
The date traditionally given as when the California grizzly became extinct is 1922. A rancher in Tulare County shot a bear he caught on his property. He skinned the bear and nailed the hide to his barn door. He also sent a tooth to the National Museum of Natural History, where a zoologist identified it as that of a California grizzly. Since this was the last grizzly for which there was any physical evidence, 1922 is listed in all the reference books as the year the last California grizzly died.
But . . .
In 1954, a zoologist examined the hide the rancher nailed to the barn door, and to his surprise, he discovered it was quite clearly the hide of a black bear, not a grizzly. It proved impossible to re-examine the tooth that had identified the bear as a grizzly–the museum had lost it. If the 1922 bear was misidentified, that means that Little Black Bear, whose hide is in the Smithsonian, is the last wild California grizzly for which there is any physical evidence. It would also mean the California grizzly became extinct 11 years earlier than traditionally thought.
Excluding the 1922 bear, there is only one other California grizzly we have any firm evidence for after the death of Little Black Bear. Monarch the grizzly was a popular attraction in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. He died in 1911. If he was the last California grizzly, that means California's official animal became extinct the same year the state Legislature officially adopted the bear flag as California's state flag.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.