John Bidwell told many fascinating stories about his life and experiences. Here is one about his friend and trail companion, James John, and an encounter with a grizzly bear in California.
The grizzly bear was an hourly sight. In the vicinity of streams it was not uncommon to see thirty or forty in a day. . . In this connection let me relate an incident. Becoming tired of beef, James John, one of the first overland party, declared he would have some bear meat. An old Rocky Mountain hunter named Bill Burrows offered to go with him to get his bear meat. It was only a walk of 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, opposite to where Sacramento now stands.
A man who knows anything about the grizzly is cautious. Old hunters always keep to the leeward of a bear, and so take advantage and take a dead shot, but raw hunters, till experience has taught them caution, are often careless, and so 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, as we used to call him, was one of those strange individuals you may see once in a life-time, who never seem to know what fear is. When the grizzly heard the shot, he broke into one of the dense thickets of grape-vine and willows along the river bank. Jimmy followed right along after the bear into the thicket, and was gone about fifteen minutes, when he came out greatly disappointed, because he had not succeeded in killing his game. 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.
I used this story in the (almost) one-man show about John Bidwell that I wrote last year. Nick Anderson portrays Major Bidwell in 1858, and I play the fictitious lady reporter, Mrs. Leticia Norris, who has journeyed to Rancho Chico to interview him. Bidwell liked to regale his listeners with stories about grizzly bears; this is not the only one.
By the way, if you need a program for your group, Nick and I are happy to come and present our Conversation with Major John Bidwell, 1858. It takes about a half hour, and we believe it is highly entertaining and informative.