Today the only grizzly bears to be seen in California are on the state flag. But in John Bidwell’s day, grizzlies were a common sight, and a significant danger. California in 1841 was a land abounding in wild game–deer, antelope, and elk roamed the valley, and salmon and other fish filled the streams. Where there is meat, there will also be predators, and chief among these was the grizzly bear. Bidwell reported that “The grizzly bear was an hourly sight. In the vicinity of streams it was not uncommon to see thirty or forty in a day.” He tells the following story about his friend, Jimmy John.

Jimmy got tired of eating beef, and decided that he would get himself some bear meat, and so went out with an old Rocky Mountain hunter named Bill Burrows.

“It was only a walk or one, two or three miles to find bear, so they started and soon came in sight of one, a monster in size, feeding in the tall grass not far from the river timber, on the west side of the Sacramento River. . . Jimmy John went to within fifty yards of the bear and fired, the old mountaineer screaming at him, “You fool! Don’t go there! Come back!” But Jimmy was one of those strange individuals you may see once in a life-time, who never seem to know what fear is.”

Jimmy shot at the bear, wounding it, and the bear broke into the thicket of grapevine and willow on the riverbank. Jimmy followed right after him, but after fifteen minutes came out greatly disappointed, because he had not been able to kill the bear.

“He said he had bad luck because he got within six feet of the bear and fancied he was wounded, and when the animal opened his mouth, he wanted to make sure work of it by thrusting his muzzle into it, but the bear suddenly took to his heels and scampered off still deeper into the thicket.” (Colusa County, p. 37)

Bad luck or good luck? Escaping the jaws of a wounded grizzly may not have been such bad luck after all.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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