First published June 15, 2018
The largest and most powerful of bears, the California grizzly, thrived in New Spain when European explorers first set eyes on the land. At their peak, approximately 10,000 grizzlies lived in California making the population one of the densest in the Pacific Northwest.
“The grizzlies are the commonest kind of bear found in California, and are very large animals, weighing sometimes sixteen or eighteen hundred pounds.”
“Hunting them is rather dangerous sport, as they are extremely tenacious of life, and when wounded invariably show fight. But unless molested they do not often attack a man; in fact, they are hardly ever seen on the trails during the day. At night, however, they prowl about, and carry off whatever comes in their way.”
– J.D. Borthwick, Three Years in California [1851-1854
Dangerous Grizzly is an Enemy of Progress
In the mid to late 1700’s, it was a right of passage for sons of old Spanish ranching families to kill a grizzly. The hunter lassoed the bear, securing it to a tree, using a well-trained horse to hold it in place while he slit the bear’s throat with a Mexican hunting knife (machete).
Other methods included pit traps where the hunter concealed himself in a pit, camouflaged with logs and leaves, bating the trap with a raw beef. When the bear approached, the hunter shot from below.
It is likely that the Spanish were instigators of the bear and bullfights.
WARNING: Graphics and subject matter in the written material and video may be disturbing to some viewers.
A Very Splendid Fight
I had often heard of these bull-and-bear fights as popular amusements in some parts of the State … I found myself walking up towards the arena, among a crowd of miners and others of all nations, to witness the performances…
Fiddler pre-show performance.
The amphitheatre was a … strongly built wooden structure … enclosed by a very strong five-barred fence … was a hundred feet in diameter. From the top … rose tiers of seats. As the appointed hour drew near, the company continued to arrive till the whole place was crowded; while, to beguile the time till the business of the day should commence, two fiddlers a white man and a gentleman of colour performed a variety of appro-priate airs.
The gay crowd was like a mass of bright flowers
The scene was gay and brilliant, and was one which would have made a crowded opera-house appear gloomy and dull in comparison. The shelving bank of human beings which encircled the place was like a mass of bright flowers. The most conspicuous objects were the shirts of the miners, red, white, and blue being the fashionable colours, among which appeared bronzed and bearded faces under hats of every hue; revolvers and silver-handled bowie-knives glanced in the bright sunshine, and among the crowd were numbers of gay Mexican blankets, and red and blue French bonnets, while here and there the fair sex was represented by a few Mexican women in snowy-white dresses, puffing their cigaritas in delight-ful anticipation.
The grizzly, known as General Scott, had already killed several bulls
… On the green turf of the arena lay the great centre of attraction, the hero of the day, General Scott. He was, however, not yet exposed to public gaze, but was confined in his cage, a heavy wooden box lined with iron, with open iron-bars on one side, which for the present was boarded over. From the centre of the arena a chain led into the cage, and at the end of it no doubt the bear was to be found. Beneath the scaffolding on which sat the spectators were two pens, each containing a very handsome bull, showing evident signs of indignation at his confinement.
Here also was the bar, without which no place of public amusement would be complete.
There was much excitement among the crowd … as the bear had already killed several bulls; but an idea prevailed that in former fights the bulls had not had fair play, being tied by a rope to the bear, and having the tips of their horns sawed off.
But on this occasion the bull was to have every advantage which could be given him; and he certainly had the good wishes of the spectators, though the bear was considered such a successful and experienced bull-fighter that the betting was all in his favour.
Betting was in the bear’s favor
Some of my neighbours gave it as their opinion, that there was ” nary bull in Calaforny as could whip that bar.”
The bear made violent efforts to regain his cage
The bear made his appearance before the public in a very bearish manner … his chain only allowed him to come within a foot or two of the fence, the General was rolled out … very much against his inclination apparently, for he made violent efforts to regain his cage as it disappeared. When he saw that was hopeless, he floundered half-way round the ring at the length of his chain, and commenced to tear up the earth with his fore-paws. He was a grizzly bear of pretty large size, weighing about twelve hundred pounds.
The next thing … was to introduce the bull. The bars between his pen and the arena were removed … But he did not seem to like the prospect, and was not disposed to move till pretty sharply poked up from behind, when, making a furious dash at the red flag which was being waved in front of the gate, he found himself in the ring face to face with General Scott.
The bull, a very beautiful animal, of a dark purple colour marked with white, made a spendid dash back into his pen
The General, in the mean time, had scraped a hole for himself two or three inches deep, in which he was lying down. This, I was told by those who had seen his performances before, was his usual fighting attitude.
The bull was a very beautiful animal, of a dark purple colour marked with white. His horns were regular and sharp, and his coat was as smooth and glossy as a racer’s. He stood for a moment taking a survey of the bear, the ring, and the crowds of people; but not liking the appearance of things in general, he wheeled round, and made a splendid dash at the bars, which had already been put up between him and his pen, smashing through them with as much ease as the man in the circus leaps through a hoop of brown paper.
He put his head down and charged
He was accordingly again persuaded to enter the arena … after looking steadily at the bear for a few minutes as if taking aim at him, he put down his head and charged furi-ously at him across the arena. The bear received him crouching down as low as he could, and though one could hear the bump of the bull’s head and horns upon his ribs, he was quick enough to seize the bull by the nose before he could retreat. This spirited commencement of the battle on the part of the bull was hailed with uproarious applause; and by having shown such pluck, he had gained more than ever the sympathy of the people. In the mean time, the bear, lying on his back, held the bull’s nose firmly between his teeth, and em-braced him round the neck with his fore-paws, while the bull made the most of his opportunities in stamping on the bear with his hind-feet. At last the General became exasperated at such treatment, and shook the bull savagely by the nose, when a promis- cuous scuffle ensued, which resulted in the bear throwing his antagonist to the ground with his fore-paws.
Wild beasts do not tear each other to pieces quite so easily as is generally supposed
For this feat the bear was cheered immensely, and it was thought that, having the bull down, he would make short work of him; but apparently wild beasts do not tear each other to pieces quite so easily as is generally supposed, for neither the bear’s teeth nor his long claws seemed to have much effect on the hide of the bull, who soon regained his feet, and, dis-engaging himself, retired to the other side of the ring, while the bear again crouched down in his hole.
Neither of them seemed to be very much the worse of the encounter, excepting that the bull’s nose had rather a ragged and bloody appearance; but after standing a few minutes, steadily eyeing the General, he made another rush at him. Again poor bruin’s ribs resounded, but again he took the bull’s nose into chancery, having seized him just as before.
The bull, however, quickly disengaged himself, and was making off, when the General, not wishing to part with him so soon, seized his hind-foot between his teeth, and, holding on by his paws as well, was thus dragged round the ring before he quitted his hold. This round terminated with shouts of delight from the excited spectators, and it was thought that the bull might have a chance after all. He had been severely punished, however; his nose and lips were a mass of bloody shreds, and he lay down to recover himself. But he was not allowed to rest very long, being poked up with sticks by men outside, which made him very savage. He made several feints to charge them through the bars, which, fortunately, he did not attempt, for he could certainly have gone through them as easily as he had before broken into his pen. He showed no inclination to renew the com-bat; but by goading him, and waving a red flag over the bear, he was eventually worked up to such a state of fury as to make another charge. The result was exactly the same as before, only that when the bull managed to get up after being thrown, the bear still had hold of the skin of his back.
In the next round both parties fought more savagely than ever, and the advantage was rather in favour of the bear: the bull seemed to be quite used up, and to have lost all chance of victory.
The people were intensely excited and delighted with the sport
The conductor of the performances then mounted the barrier, and, addressing the crowd, asked them if the bull had not had fair play, which was unani-mously allowed. He then stated that he knew there was not a bull in California which the General could not whip, and that for two hundred dollars he would let in the other bull, and the three should fight it out till one or all were killed. This proposal was received with loud cheers, and two or three men going round with hats soon collected, in voluntary contributions, the required amount. The people were intensely excited and de-lighted with the sport, and double the sum would have been just as quickly raised to insure a continu-ance of the scene. A man sitting next me, who was a connoisseur in bear-fights, and passionately fond of the amusement, informed me that this was “the finest fight ever fit in the country.”
A second bull, looking around him, seemed to understand the state of affairs at once
The second bull was equally handsome as the first, and in as good condition. On entering the arena, and looking around him, he seemed to understand the state of affairs at once. Glancing from the bear lying on the ground to the other bull standing at the opposite side of the ring, with drooping head and bloody nose, he seemed to divine at once that the bear was their common enemy, and rushed at him full tilt.
The bear, as usual, pinned him by the nose; but this bull did not take such treatment so quietly as the other: struggling violently, he soon freed himself, and, wheel-ing round as he did so, he caught the bear on the hind-quarters and knocked him over; while the other bull, who had been quietly watching the proceedings, thought this a good opportunity to pitch in also, and rushing up, he gave the bear a dig in the ribs on the other side before he had time to recover himself.
The poor General did not know what to do
The poor General between the two did not know what to do, but struck out blindly with his fore-paws with such a suppliant pitiable look that I thought this the most disgusting part of the whole exhibition. After another round or two with the fresh bull, it was evident that he was no match for the bear, and it was agreed to conclude the performances.
The bulls were shot to put them out of pain
The bulls were then shot to put them out of pain, and the company dispersed, all apparently satisfied that it had been a very splendid fight.
Borthwick Addresses the Reader
The reader can form his own opinion as to the character of an exhibition such as I have endeavoured to describe. For my own part, I did not at first find the actual spectacle so disgusting as I had expected I should; for as long as the animals fought with spirit, they might have been supposed to be following their natural instincts; but when the bull had to be urged and goaded on to return to the charge, the cruelty of the whole proceeding was too apparent; and when the two bulls at once were let in upon the bear, all idea of sport or fair play was at an end, and
it became a scene which one would rather have prevented than witnessed.
In these bull-and-bear fights the bull sometimes kills the bear at the first charge, by plunging his horns between the ribs, and striking a vital part. Such was the fate of General Scott in the next battle he fought, a few weeks afterwards; but it is seldom that the bear kills the bull outright, his misery being in most cases ended by a rifle-ball when he can no longer maintain the combat.
– John David Borthwick, Three Years in California
California’s Last Grizzly
Settlers in the late 1800s commonly shot and poisoned bears with arsenic to protect livestock.
The California Governor appointed expert bear hunters.
During the 1850s, the Gold Rush pioneers tenaciously hunted them for sport and for fur.
The repeating rifle (1848) may have signaled the end for California grizzlies.
Thousands of the bears were killed between the 1850s and the early decades of the 20th century.
Less than seventy-five years after the discovery of gold, every grizzly in the state was dead.
The last known California grizzly, over 2,000 pounds, was killed in Fresno County in 1922. By 1924, the bears were extinct.
Lost Grizzly Immortalized
Yet the grizzly, a species that civilized man considered a nuisance, continues as a symbol of strength, independence, and California’s adaptability.
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California Digital Newspaper Collection – The Sport of Roping Grizzlies in California’s Early Days
California History Online – The First Californians [PDF download]
California Museum – Bear In Mind
HistoryNet – California Grizzly Tales
San Francisco Chronicle – When bulls fought bears in brutal Mission District matches
Sausalito Historical Society – Californio Entertainments – Richardson Saga Part III
The Tribune – Bears didn’t fare well during the 19th century
Valley Center History Museum – Grizzly Bear
Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco – Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California
Wiki – California Grizzly Bear