An illustration that accompanied a story published in the San Francisco Call on January 15, 1911.
“. . .and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is another kind of clay.”
—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)
Grizzly bears once roamed the land known today as the southern Los Padres National Forest. They were arguably the preeminent apex predator of the forestland, and as such attracted more than their fair share of attention from Californios and other early Californians.
Grizzlies were the targets of frustrated ranchers seeking to protect their livestock. They were tracked down by trophy hunters. The fearsome bears were also prized as subjects of a gory form of recreation. Killing grizzlies was a popular pastime. Some men approached them on foot to kill by hand, while others captured the deadly bears alive and hauled them back to town to pit against bulls in public arenas for the amusement of cheering throngs of onlookers.
The following four posts excerpted below relate historic accounts of these olden times through firsthand remembrances and newspaper stories. The stories are, in my opinion, horrific, tragic and sad, but in those feelings lie some degree of hope and optimism, however small, because such reactions testify to how radically social attitudes and ideals toward the wild world have changed for the better.
The shift in mores came, admittedly, too late for the California grizzly, but in going forward there is value in better understanding humanity’s past, and how it is that we living today came to inherit what natural riches we have, and how much poorer we are for what’s been lost. Forever.
There remain in the Los Padres and surrounding environs iconic species today clinging tenaciously to life despite and at the same time thanks to human actions — southern steelhead, condors, bald eagles and bighorn sheep. Will future generations be left will only tales of their existence lost in the archives of historic newspapers such as the case with the California grizzly?
The San Francisco Call, January 20, 1901.
1.) Bull and bear fights were a popular form of entertainment in nineteenth century California, a blood-sport brought to the shores of the New World by Spanish settlers and enjoyed by men, women and children. … The more courageous or crazy young men, fueled by machismo, bravado or lack of intelligence, sought to slay grizzlies on foot with a machete or sword like Roman gladiators.
Read more: Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: A California Blood-Sport (1800s)
2.) “When I came here this country was a howling wilderness. It was infested with wolves, coyotes and grizzly bears; and they did a lot of damage to our livestock.”
—Jacinto Damien Reyes referring to his arrival in California’s upper Cuyama River valley around 1887
Born in 1871, J.D. Reyes lived most of his life in Ventura County’s upper Cuyama River valley. He spent over 30 years working as a US Forest Service ranger patrolling the Cuyama District of what was then known as the Santa Barbara National Forest. . . .
In 1939, the Automobile Club of Southern California published an interview with J.D. Reyes in which he recounts memories of growing up in the unpopulated and wild hinterlands of Ventura County. His anecdotes reflect the prevailing social attitude toward grizzly bears in nineteenth century California.
Read more: Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: Recollections of Jacinto Damien Reyes (1880)
3.) The New York Tribune published the following story on July 17, 1904.
“No hunters ever knew the grizzly more intimately than these men of mixed Spanish and Mexican blood. They hunted with riata and bowie knife, scorning the safety of the rifle . . . The excitement of the personal conflict more then repaid the Spaniards for the risks they ran, and they ran many, for in those golden says, in the Ojai and Santa Ynez valleys, there was a grizzly for every acorn bearing wild oak, and some of them weighed more than a ton, if the old dons can be believed.”
Read more: Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: Lassoing Grizzlies (1904)
4.) The following article appeared in the San Francisco Call on January 15, 1911.
“The upper Ojai valley lies between the oak clad flanks of Sulphur mountain and the bare gray cliffs that line the sides of the Topa Topa range in their dizzy ascent of a sheer 3,000 feet. . . . Once the upper Ojai was the most famous hunting ground in all Ventura county. . . .In the ’60s and as late as the early ’70s grizzly bears were a common sight in the mountains of Ventura county. They alone of the all wild creatures became ever bold enough to contest the country with mankind, a fact which rendered these huge creatures an easy prey, not to bullets, for a grizzly may charge a mile or more and destroy his assailants even if shot in a dozen vital places, but to the handiest devices employed by the Spanish vaqueros (cow punchers), the lasso.”
Read more: Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: Sport of Roping Grizzlies (1911)