In 1812, John "Grizzly" Adams was born.
Sometimes he went by James Capen Adams,
his actual brother, and also by Grizzly Adams.
John was a member of the Adams family of
New England. That included many men and
women who contributed to the founding of the
United States. John's great-great-great-great
grandfather, Henry Adams, emigrated with his
family from England to Boston,
Massachusetts in 1632. Henry's descendants
include Samuel Adams, a patriot, and two
U.S. Presidents, John Adams and his son,
John Quincy Adams. Grizzly grew up in
Medway a suburb of Boston surrounded my
his relatives and cousins. There he received a
At 14, Adams was an apprentice in a footwear
manufacturing company. Since he loved the
outdoors and nature, at 21 in 1833, John left
the shoe business and signed on with a
company of showman as a zoological
collector. He hunted and captured live wild
animals in the rural parts of Maine, Vermont,
and New Hampshire. Here he honed his
woodsman, survival, and marksmanship skills.
While working as a an animal collector,
several menageries were active in the Boston
area. The largest was the "Grand Nation
Menagerie", famous for its wild animal acts.
John mingled with many performers and
proprietors of other circuses too.
James Wilson Marshall
In 1849, with the Gold Rush in progress, John
invested his life savings of $6,000 to purchase
a large supply of footwear and shipped it to
St. Louis, Missouri. His plan was to sell them
to 49'ers traveling west. Through no fault of
his own, a fire broke out at the St. Louis pier,
which destroyed everything. Gold fever struck
John. He figured that even if gold mining
tapped out, he could always make a living
hunting and trapping. John left his family and
relatives and set out for California. On his
journey via the Santa Fe and Gila Trails, he
twice survived near fatal illnesses; but finally
arrived at the gold fields in late 1849.
John tried his luck at mining, hunting game to
sell to miners, trading, and eventually ranching
and farming. At times he was rich, but quickly
lost it on foolish ventures and gambling. In
late 1852, after losing his ranch near Stockton
to creditors, he took a few salvaged items and
headed to the Sierra Nevada mountains to get
away from it all. With the help of some
friendly Miwok Indians, Adams built a cabin
and stable and spent the winter "alone" in the
Sierra. Being an expert hunter and leather
craftsman, John made his own buckskin
clothes including moccasins. He also made
harnesses, pack saddles, snowshoes, and
John enjoyed venturing into the woods by
foot, riding a mule or horse, or in an ox-drawn
wagon. In 1853, he made a hunting and
trapping expedition over 1,200 miles from his
base camp in California to the eastern
"Washington Territory," which is now "Western
Montana." There he caught and trained a 1
year old female grizzly bear that he named
"Lady Washington." He taught her to carry a
pack, pull a loaded sled, and even cuddled up
with him to keep him warm in freezing
temperatures. Eventually, "Lady Washington"
allowed John to ride on her back.
In 1854, John snagged a pair of 2 week old
male grizzly cubs from its mother near
Yosemite Valley. He named one of them
"Benjamin Franklin," but the other one ran off
in the woods. A year later in 1855, "Ben"
saved John's life after he was brutality
attacked by a mother grizzly. Both bore scars
from that event. John sustained a horrible
head injury as the bear gashed and ripped his
hair off. This plagued him the rest of his life.
Earlier in the summer of 1854, John traveled
to the Rocky Mountains to hunt and collect
more animals. He sold meat, hides, and
some live animals to emigrants making their
way west where the Oregon Trail and Mormon
trail split away from each other, which is now
known as "Southwestern Wyoming." John
traded at Fort Bridger, Wyoming and Fort
Supply. During this expedition "Lady
Washington" hooked up with a "Rocky
Mountain" grizzly. A year later she bore a cub
which he named "General Fremont" in honor
of John C. Fremont. In the winter of 1854,
John captured a 1,500 pound grizzly that he
named "Sampson" in the largest cage that he
had ever constructed. It is also one of the
largest grizzlys ever to be captured "alive" to
In 1855 , John's hunting and trapping
journeyed to the Kern River mines, south
through the Tehachapi Mountains and Tejon
Pass. From there he traveled the "Old
Spanish Route" through San Miguel and San
Jose. Due to interested townsfolk, Adams set
up bear and other animal shows to entertain
and provide needed income. They conducted
them in San Miguel, Santa Clara, San Jose,
the redwoods, and finally San Francisco.
In 1856, John gathered all of his animals from
"Howard's Ranch" near Stockton, where he
left them when traveling, and opened the
"Mountaineer Museum" in a basement on Clay
Street in San Francisco. After lots of publicity
and patrons, Adams moved his menagerie
and museum to the "Pacific Museum" in San
Francisco, a larger facility capable of seating
100's of people. By 1858, John was known as
the "Barnum of the Pacific" after P.T.
Barnum's famous circus.
Grizzly Adams' health was deteriorating and
he knew his life was ending soon. He made
arrangements to move his entire menagerie
and collections to New York City. After a 3
1/2 month journey on the San Francisco
clipper ship "Golden Fleece," he arrived in
New York and sold his show to P.T. Barnum.
For an extra $500, Adams agreed to perform
with the animals for 10 weeks.
Ever since 1855, when Adams suffered
severe head and neck trauma, which included
a silver dollar sized impression in his
forehead, and dislodged scalp, he kept re-
injuring himself by wrestling and performing
with his pet grizzlys. General Fremont clawed
his head exposing brain tissue and a monkey
bit him numerous times there too.
Consequently, John retired to Neponset,
Massachusetts where he died of meningitis.
He was buried at Bay Path cemetery in
Charlton, Massachusetts. P.T. Barnum
erected a tombstone to honor his friend.
James Wilson Marshall
Periodically, Grizzly would go by his brother's
name James Capen Adams. Perhaps it was
to be anonymous; nobody really knows.
Theodore H. Hittell, a famous author of the
times, used to refer to him as James Capen
Adams when writing articles of his exploits.
Hittlell published his book "The Adventures of
James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and
Grizzly Bear Hunter of California" in San
Francisco in 1860 and also in Boston. Charles
C Nahl, Hittlell's illustrator, was so impressed
with the stories and bear sketches that Adams
created, that he created his own depiction of
"Samson" the grizzly bear. In 1953, Nahl's
"Sampson" design became the "Official Flag
of California" and established the grizzly as
California's state land animal.
John "Grizzly" Adams is considered to be "The
Greatest Mountain Man of Them All"
according to many authors. He captured
more grizzlys "alive" in those few years than
any man ever...while capturing 100's of other
animals too for zoos. Grizzly only killed bears
for food, furs, and hides. In 1911, the
"Western Hall of Fame" honored him with "The
Heroes of California" award. In the 1970's,
the motion picture "The Life and Times of
Grizzly Adams" appeared starring Dan
Haggerty. An NBC TV series of the same
name followed. Eventually Grizzly Adams
brand was trademarked by the film and
television creator, Charles E. Sellier Jr. There
have been many other stories about Grizzly
Adams, these are but a few.