Friday, May 11, 2012

The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams

In the past, we've given special attention to individuals like Doug Seus and Casey Anderson who have successfully raised, tamed, and befriended bears in captivity. In that spirit, it would be remiss of me to not give the famous Grizzly Adams his due for being perhaps the first person to pioneer such a feat. Although his methods of taming were not as kind as Seus's and Anderson's, the end result was no less extraordinary.

John Adams (aka James Capen Adams) was born near Boston, Massachusetts in 1812 but ultimately landed in California after being taken west by the Gold Rush. In those days, before the mass extermination of the large majority of the West's wildlife, California was home to thousands of grizzlies and Adams set himself up as a hunter and trapper. In 1853, he set out on an expedition to western Montana where he captured a yearling female grizzly which he named Lady Washington. At first, the little cub proved to be a violent and angry force to be reckoned with but, after rewarding her ferocity and ill-temper with a healthy dose of his own, she seemed to learn her place and, in Adams's words, "followed me like a dog." Over time, he trained her to carry packs on her back and pull a loaded sled. She even allowed him to ride her like a horse, shared his meals, and accompanied him on hunting expeditions in which she would cuddle with him to keep him warm on cold nights. Adams would later state, after she had stood defensively by his side during an encounter with a wild grizzly, that she was his closest companion and that "I felt for her an affection which I have seldom given any human being." Perhaps most remarkable was an incident in which Lady Washington began an "affair" with a wild grizzly that had been entering Adams's camp under cover of darkness. Adams disapproved of the meetings and the Lady apparently picked up on this, for she ultimately refused to leave behind her domesticated world in favor of the wild one, though she did ultimately give birth to a cub that Adams named General Fremont in honor of the American military officer.

In 1854, Adams captured a two-week old male grizzly cub from a den near Yosemite Valley. He named the little bear Ben Franklin (pictured with Adams in the illustration above) and set about on the same training and taming regimen he had prepared for Lady Washington. In 1855, Ben saved Adams's life by viciously attacking and fighting off a sow grizzly after it mauled the man. Both Adams and Ben suffered severe wounds in the encounter, including a head wound that would claim Adams's life in 1860. On several other occasions, both Lady Washington and Ben Franklin would fight valiantly to protect Adams from fierce grizzlies on hunting expeditions.

Other bears eventually came into Adams's life, including Samson, a monster weighing in at 1,500 pounds. Adams gave up hunting and began traveling with his animals as a type of living museum. He could often be seen walking the streets of San Francisco with Lady Washington and Ben Franklin loyally following behind, completely unrestrained. Ben Franklin died of an incurable illness on January 17, 1858 and The San Francisco Evening Bulletin ran his obituary under the heading "Death of a Distinguished Native Californian." Adams later relocated his animals to New York City and joined with P.T. Barnum. He died of illness in 1860.

Personally, I find these accounts extraordinary and, in light of what's been accomplished by Doug Seus, Casey Anderson, and others, I can't believe that it's just a fluke. There clearly seems to be something more complex than just base wild instinct inside the mind of the bear and these events more than speak to its existence. Could the fact that bears are closely related to dogs mean that they have many of the same attributes? I have been told of a study conducted by a biologist showing how grizzlies may have been the next species domesticated had they not been mostly exterminated, but I haven't been able to track down a copy. Honestly, I can't say that I'm the least bit surprised to hear someone make that claim. Having been face to face with grizzlies, I can clearly see those qualities in them...particularly in the right situation.


In other news, I've written a photo and info book on Fortress of the Bear and it's available to read online. I was going to try selling some copies, but they're printing prices are so high and their bulk prices so outrageous that I would lose more money than I would make. It is, however, available to read at the following link:

The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California by Theodore H. Hittell, 1860.
The Beast That Walks Like Man by Harold McCracken, 1955
Grizzlies and Grizzled Old Men by Mike Lapinski, 2006


  1. Hi Chris. What a character this Grizzly Adams must have been. When I first started dealing with my black bears I was quite fierce with them. Now I'm embarrassed at how ridiculously over the top I was when now I just have to say, "bad bear,Buffer" or whoever and they do as I demand. The name separates out the culprit who is making the trouble from other bears standing around and they seem to understand who is in the shit and stand by with unconcerned interest as I reprimand the so-called bad bear. This naming has been a great benefit to me and my attempts to somewhat civilize my wild friends.

  2. I've heard of a number of people who have had success controlling bears (and even deterring wild bears) with a simple vocal command. Stan Price and Allen Hasselborg were well-known for doing this at their homesteads on Admiralty Island. When you consider how in tune bears are to body language, it makes sense that they would be responsive to one's tone of voice.