Grizzlies in the 1800s


First Knowledge of Grizzly Bears

Until the four-year transcontinental explorations of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery (1803-1806), the modern world knew little to nothing about the very large, dangerous, and prominent mammal that inhabited the western area of the United States. However, thanks to the many men who followed in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps and risked their lives to travel deep into an uncharted territory, and experienced almost daily encounters with this animal, we have today an abundance of information on the grizzly bear. These harrowing incidents proved to be dangerous and sometimes fatal, therefore worthy of taking note. By examining the journals and letters of those who crossed paths with and lived in close proximity to the grizzly, we can gather a definite sense of fear and fascination.

The grizzly bear’s name itself gives us insight into how the men of the time felt about the creature. The grizzly’s scientific name, Ursus Arctos, or Ursus Arctos horribilis (as it has commonly been referred to), literally means “Horrible Bear”. Weighing anywhere from 300 to almost 800 pounds, claws measuring 3 to 4 inches long, and towering 7 feet into the air when standing up, the grizzly was both a feared and admired foe.

Throughout the 1800s, explorers and later mountain men proceeded on their travels with great caution. Constantly on guard and weapon in hand, they remained vigilant.  For if any would stumble upon a grizzly, that man would have only a few precious seconds to act to save his life.

Lewis & Clark’s Encounters with the Grizzly Bear

Even before their first encounter with a grizzly bear, Lewis and Clark had heard numerous tales about this terrifying animal while staying the winter at Ft. Mandan. The expedition crew was told many stories by the Mandan Indians, “…about the mysterious monster. The Indians told them how they ‘hunted [the grizzly] in parties of eight or ten man,’ and that ‘the warriors wore paint as they would when going to war against their enemies.”
These stories most likely struck fear and apprehension in the men who would soon be going into that part of the country. They pushed on however, believing that the grizzly “was not dangerous if the hunter was skillful.” Later in their journals, Lewis and Clark note that they were wrong. Even armed with a rifle, it would take many shots to bring down a grizzly. Many times this would only enrage the animal and it would continue to charge towards its intended victim as he struggled to re-load his gun quickly. Although the grizzly could not climb, they were excellent swimmers, and thus even diving into a stream or river to escape would sometimes prove to be unsuccessful. The Corps of Discovery had many run-ins with grizzly bears, yet surprisingly not one man on their expedition was ever fatally wounded by one.


Mountain Men & The Grizzly Bear

“Next to the harsh environment, the primary opponents of the mountain men were the constant threat of the plundering Blackfoot Indians and the indestructible grizzly.”

Mountain Man & Grizzly by author Fred R. Gowans

In 1822, as William H. Ashley and his 100 trapping men entered the mountains, they no doubt heard countless stories and warnings of the grizzly bear. What they were unaware of at the time was that they would acquire, “…more information pertaining to the grizzly than any other group of people during the nineteenth century. If a list describing the nature of the grizzly bear had been compiled by mountain men from their actual experiences and sent to St. Louis to serve as a warning to the greenhorn who would be coming to the summer rendezvous, the following images of the grizzly…could have been included: no fear of man, almost impossible to kill, expert swimmers, faster than our horses, unbelievable strength, kills bison, buries kill in hole, strikes with forepaw, will return and maul victim if tormented, will avoid man if possible, tears up ground when wounded, will attack gun when fired upon, attacks horses, attacks at night, cubs are ferocious, country abounds with, does not climb tree, must have guards around camp at night for protection against, must shoot in eye or just behind ear to kill, guns only infuriate, often plays dead, attacks with open mouth, drawn into camp by food cooking, poor eyesight, will try to dig up tree or break them down when trapper has sought their safety, bites and scratches at wound with claws, large as ox, person should stand and face if attacked, will come within a few yards and stand on hind legs and look you in the eye, if you run you’re dead, one shot thirty times before killed, trapper usually in shock for one-half hour after encounter with…” 

During Hugh Glass’ time in the Rockies (1820s), the grizzly not only inhabited the mountains, but also the plains of North America.  Mountain man encounters with grizzly bears have been documented in most of the western states including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.

Throughout the history of the fur trade, there have been many accounts of bear attacks on mountain men.  Those who survived told their story and instilled fear in their colleagues, but sadly even with these warnings many men did not survive a grizzly encounter.  Of the know deaths, fur trade historian, James Hannon Jr. documented six mountain men killed by grizzly in his article “Death in the Far West Among Trappers and Traders” in the 2011 Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal.  Of those who survived a grizzly bear attack, Hugh Glass and Jedediah Smith are the most famous.  Life for a mountain man was harsh. Among the many life-threatening dangers he worried about on a daily basis, an encounter with a grizzly was one of his greatest fears.

The Grizzly Bear in Native American Culture

“Lewis and Clark provided a sound outline of other aspects of grizzly bear natural history, including quite a few preferred foods and foraging behavior, mating season, and a surprising number of details about the relationship between grizzly bears and Indians. These last included obvious things as the popularity and importance of bear-claw necklaces and the beliefs attached to hunting grizzly bears.”

-Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies, pg. 184

In 1837, Artist Alfred Jacob Miller accompanied Sir William Drummond Stewart of Scotland on an expedition to the American West. Alfred Jacob Miller was the first and only artist to attend and visually record a mountain man rendezvous. Many of Miller’s sketches and paintings portrayed members of Native American tribes wearing necklaces made of bear claws. Click Here to View Alfred Jacob Miller Paintings

According to Indian Arts & Crafts Association member, James Johnson: “Many Indians were scared of the grizzly bear. It is amazing that they hunted the large bears for food, clothing, and [that] the claws were made into necklaces. These necklaces were considered to contain spiritual power, wearing a bear claw necklace would mean protection and good health to the Indian wearing it. They were never traded, though could be given as a special gift.” 

The grizzly bear was considered a powerful and great spirit by most Native American cultures, and they would use the image of a bear or an actual bear claw as a symbol of strength. Like the explorers and mountain men, Native Americans held the grizzly in high consternation and awe.


The White Bear

In many letters and journals written by Lewis and Clark and mountain men, the grizzly was often referred to as a “white bear.” Based on their writings, we can speculate that they may have been forming a distinction between the black bear and the grizzly bear. Most likely, the silver-gray guard hairs in a grizzly bear’s fur gave rise to the “white bear” reference.

Since Lewis and Clark were commissioned to study and document animals and their behavior, there is a lot of detail in their notes. Author and historian Fred R. Gowans conducted extensive research on the role grizzlies played during the men’s expedition. He wrote that, “Lewis became intrigued with the physical differences between the grizzly and black bear. His diary supports his opinion that the white, grizzly, and brown bears were all the same species.” 

When he was at Fort Benton on the Missouri River in 1805, Meriwether Lewis correctly asserted in his journal that:  “I am induced to believe that the Brown, the white and the Grizly bear of this country are the same species only differing in colour from age or more probably from the same natural cause that many other anamals of the same family differ in coulor.”

More than 150 years after Lewis wrote this statement, scientists agreed that the “grizzly” bear, which inhabits the lower 48 states of North America, is the same species regardless of fur color. The different colors in grizzly bear fur, which ranges from a very light brown to nearly black, are scientifically explained as a mere genetic variation.

In a letter written by fur trapper Daniel Potts in 1825 to a friend in Philadelphia, he recounted the story of Hugh Glass’ death defying skirmish with a grizzly as well as referring to the color of the bear’s fur.  “one man was also tore nearly all to peases by a White Bear and was left by the way without any gun who afterwards recovered.”

While many early explorers of the American West may have commonly used the term “white bear” in the early to middle 1800s, today white bear refers to the polar bear.


Mountain Men & Grizzly by Fred R. Gowans

– Bears in Native American Culture, Importance of the bear in Native American culture by James Johnson