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Hunter for Hire

The East Bay's Grizzly Adams wasn't just a "bear whisperer"


In our era of dense housing developments and sprawling office parks, it’s hard to imagine that grizzly bears once roamed the East Bay hills. But they did until the 1890s, terrifying the Bay Area’s post–Gold Rush settlers, who saw them as huge beasts that killed livestock, large game animals, and, sometimes, people. Not surprisingly, these settlers celebrated those rare individuals who were willing to get close enough to the bears to kill them.

One such local hero was John Capen Adams, who didn’t just hunt grizzlies but kept them as pets and claimed to have a special talent for communicating with them. Adams started to gain notice in the early 1850s, when he was living and hunting southeast of Livermore and around Mount Diablo. A few years later, he turned heads as a buckskin-clad frontiersman strolling the streets of San Francisco with two grizzlies placidly following him on leashes. One was named Ben Franklin, and Adams referred to him as his “best friend.”

Adams eventually used this “talent” to pursue fame and fortune as an entertainer who toured the country with P. T. Barnum’s circus. His tales of battling and taming bears earned him the nickname Grizzly Adams. More than 100 years later, his purported exploits became the basis of a 1970s feature film and television show.

Those adventures put him at the head of a long line of entertainers who use close encounters with wildlife to dazzle the public, such as Animal Planet stars Jeff Corwin and the late Steve Irwin. Adams’s most direct descendant, however, is Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man (Treadwell lived with grizzlies in Alaska for 13 years before being mauled to death in 2003).

"People have been drawn to bears since prehistoric times,” says Nick Jans, author of The Grizzly Maze, a book detailing Treadwell’s adventures—and mistakes—with the Alaskan grizzlies. “Anywhere you have bears and people overlapping, you find people who felt a kinship with them. Grizzly Adams was one of those people.”

Born in Massachusetts in 1807, Adams grew up learning to be a cobbler but found his true calling at age 21. As he told journalist Theodore H. Hittell, author of The Adventures of John Capen Adams: Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California, he went to work for “a company of showmen,” gathering live “wild beasts” from the forests of New England to put on display.

Adams’s early career ended after a royal Bengal tiger mauled him so badly that he could not hunt for the next 15 years. In 1849, he joined the California Gold Rush and came west. Adams tried mining, among other vocations, and claimed to make and then lose several fortunes.

In 1852, fed up with the human lot, Adams struck out for the Sierra, where, Hittell writes, he “resolved thenceforth to make the wilderness my home and wild beasts my companions.”

Adams’s noble idea transformed into a plan for making a profit from wild animals. He set up a hunting camp in eastern Alameda County’s Corral Hollow area. For several years, he also hunted in Contra Costa oak forests, as well as in the Sierra and the Pacific Northwest. He killed bears and other wild animals to sell their meat and hides. He also captured animals to sell to circuses or to exhibit in local mining towns.

This was no easy trade. Adams waged combat against bears, wolves, elk, a mountain lion, even a buffalo. He always won, but sometimes sustained serious injuries. His most famous battle with a grizzly took place in 1855. Adams prevailed but was left with a hole the size of a silver dollar in the top of his head.

Eventually, he started the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco. The museum’s star attractions were Lady Washington and Ben Franklin, whom he had caught as cubs, and Samson, at more than 1,500 pounds the “largest grizzly ever caught.” Domesticating them seemed to offer evidence that Adams had “a way” with bears. But Adams was not the gentle master depicted by the TV show; he was quite frank about beating his bears into submission. Jans also notes that it is not that hard to tame bears as cubs. “The fact is, once you take away a bear’s need to survive, you can forge an incredible bond with them,” he says. “I’ve seen many bears who were raised by humans and just adored them. They become like dogs.”

Hittell helped shape the Adams legend after wandering into his dingy basement museum in 1856 and deciding that he would make a good subject for a book. The publicity brought in customers—as did Adams’s habit of walking around San Francisco with his leashed bears.

A few years later, Adams set sail for New York, hoping to bring his animal act to a national audience. Alas, a seasick bear named Old Fremont swiped at the adventurer’s head, opening up the old wound and exposing part of his brain. Adams covered the wound with his hat, which worked until 1860, when an irate monkey bit him in the same spot, this time penetrating the still-exposed brain. He died several months later.

Adams left a mixed legacy. He was one of the many hunters who eliminated grizzlies from the East Bay hills by the 1890s, and from the entire state by 1922. At the same time, he sparked a national interest in “zoological gardens” in the late 19th century, says biographer Richard Dillon. In fact, the founders of San Francisco’s original zoo got their idea from Adams’s museum.

He lives on in popular culture through dime store novels from the late 1800s and ’70s TV show memorabilia, and, of course, there is his legacy as an entertainer. It might be difficult to imagine grizzly bears roaming the East Bay hills, but it’s not hard to picture Adams hosting an Animal Planet show. Jans admires Adams both as a showman and as a true outdoorsman. “Looking back on it, it was really phenomenal what he did.”

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