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May 16, 2015

John "Grizzly" Adams

click on pictures to enlarge

John Grizzly Adams
James Wilson Marshall

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 good education.

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.

John Grizzly Adams
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 other necessities.

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 this day.

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.

John Grizzly Adams
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.

Report presented by Gary "Col. Klink" Klinke
John A Sutter Historian