I love Twitter. I’m not on it all the time, but sometimes it’s amazing the cool things you read and discover there. This came from YosemiteSteve, the talented creator of the Yosemite Nature Notes films who apparently has a Grizzly bear project kicking around his mind. I’m hopeful that we’ll all get to benefit from that eventually, but for now, I was just interested in the story of what might have been the last grizzly killed in Yosemite, back in 1887. Steve posted a link to the original hand-written letter from RJ Wellman to Joseph Grinnel, and the rough transcription that I made of it is below.
A few things that caught my attention:
- Although Wellman has a great deal of respect and admiration for the grizzly, his thoughts about wolves and cats aren’t nearly so generous.
- Two guys milled a tree, packed the lumber on a mule and built a scaffold 10 feet off the ground in one day, and I wonder what kind of tools they were using.
- Wolves and wolverines!
- The letter written on April 20, 1918, was finally received June 19. I wonder if they thought a two-month transit time was fast or frustrating.
Notes on the transcript:
I tried to preserve the spellings where I could make out the letters, and things I couldn’t figure out are noted with [brackets]. I could probably have figured out more, but was more interested in the spirit of the story, which I think comes through clearly regardless.
Hornitos Apr 20, 1918
Mr. Joseph Grinnell.
My Dear Sir
of the 4th ____ is just now read
I having been absent from home
since the first & have not yet returned
which must be my excuse for not
answering you inquiry sooner.
My friend Mr. Bruce is correct in
naming me as the executioner of the
Grizzly in question. Yet if there is any
credit due a man for destroying such
a magnificent animal, I cannot claim
it all my friend JH Duncan, who long
since [journd??] into the happy hunting
grounds stood beside me at the time
& if his Bearship had not have been so verry
inquisitive, he would never have got harmed
that night. The circumstances leading up to
the capture of this bear may be of interest
so in as brief a maner as possible, I will relate
them. Our head quarters were at Buck Camp
sum 16 miles East of Wawona near the
South Fork of the Merced River
This region was the summer grazing
ground for our horses & cattle for a number
of years prior to the formation of the
Yosemite National Park. We built three
good log houses, corralls & fenced pastures ~
opened & improved trails leading into the
high Sierras. On the evening of the 17th Oct. 1887
in the head of a small valley about a mile
below camp, I discovered a dead cow [brute?]
which some bear had already comenced
feeding on. From the sign I judged them to
be an old she bear & her yearling cubs. I
felt sure they were camped clost [?] by & so I
scouted around a bit to see if I might jump
them up. While I was carefuly working my
way thru the thick brush clost to a fallen tree
when sudenly thare was a fierce growl & a
swift rush as the old mother bear charged
straight for me. But my rifle barked into
her open mouth killing her instantly & I
heard the young bear scurying thru the brush.
The next morning I discovered that there had
been a monstrous beast at the carcas the past
night having draged the cow several yards
from whare it first had laid & I felt certain
that it must be a Grizzly.
That same day I rode over to my
friend Duncans camp & told him thare
was a Grizzly Bear stoping [?] on the
buck camp [rang(e?)] & if he would come
over I felt quite sure we could bag
him. He smiled & said why Bob, your excited
thare hasn’t been a Grizzly track made
in this neck of the woods for years. But sure
I’l go over & see what youve found. But when
he finally put a rule onto the Bruins foot [_____]
10 inch wide & 13 long . He exclaimed, by heck [hese]
a griz all right & I give it up & right thare
he said, pointing to a huge granit bowlder
some 40 feet distant will be a dandy place
for us to shoot from. But I protested saying
that beast will never come to the cow while
we sit on that rock. He will wind us & he won’t
show himself & furthermore he is a silvertip
Grizzly & they are dead on the fight & we would[ent]
stand the ghost of a show. What makes you
think he is a silver tip Grizzly. I said come
with me & prove my judgment is correct . A short
distance below where the carcas lay, Bruin had
taken a bath in a pool of watter & then used a near
by pine tree for a drying towell & I pointed out to Jim
several small [toufts] of long black & silver gray hair
which was sticking to the bark of the tree.
Well Bob, I guess your right again & I judge
from the size of his foot that hese a whale & notice
how he has draged that heavy carcas around.
Well, after we had spent three nights in succession
sitting on that granit rock, waiting for his Bear
ship to show up, I said I would build a scaffold
& Jim if you wish to assist me, all right. If not, all
right. He replied, of course I’l help. But it’s foolish, just
labor for nothing. [I bet you a well] we sawed a 5 foot
cut off a shake tree near camp & split out
enough boards 2 inch thick for the floor of scaffold
packed them on a mule down where the carcas lay
& before sundown the job was done. The flore of the
scafold was 10 foot from the ground, firmly secured
to a group of young fir trees some 60 [___] distant from
the dead cow & the big granit rock being some 50 feet
directly in front. We now returned to camp ate
our supper, took a couple of blankets & arrived
at the scaffold as the dusk began to settle among
the somber mountains.
I amediatly climbed up the pole lader we had
prepared while Jim remained below & sent up
the guns & blankets, which I hauled up with a rope.
Jim was half way up the lader when I discovered
that he had not set up my canvas coat in the
pockets of which was my rifle cartridges. He steped
back gathered up the coat & endeavored to throw it up
but it failed to reach my hand but it resulted in
spilling the amunition on the ground the fact of
which I was to learn later as Jim came puffing
up on to the platform & handed me the coat, he
remarked, well Bob, of all the foolish things I ever
had any hand in, I think this is the silliest.
I was somewhat anoyed but made no reply
within a verry short time, after we had got our positions
to suit us, a large gray timber wolf came sneaking
up thru the [_low?__] quakin asp bushes to get his supper. He
stoped, one foot raise & sniffed the air. I saw Jim rais
his gun. I put out my hand & whispered, don’t shoot, but
his rifle barked. The wolf sprang into the air & disapeared.
I was mad & felt hurt that he should have lost his head
& fired that shot.
[_____] a time there was a dead silence. Then we heard the
three young bears whose dam I had killed a fiew
days before coming down the hill to get their supper
in a fiew minutes more, we could hear them grunting
& working away at their feast. The extreme darkness
saved them from a shot from Duncans rifle
& he wanted to fire at the noise they made anyway
but I persuaded him not to do it. An hour or more
must have past & I noticed Jim was geting
[dousy] & I could still hear the young Bruins
working away. Then suddenly, something seemed
to disturb them. I could hear them grunting & sniffing
the air. I punched Jim & said Listen to them cubs.
I bet you they hear the old boss coming. [Aw dont]
he replied, nothing doing, I want to sleep. 3 nights on that
dam Rocks nuff for me. but the nois the young bears
made tearing thru the brush, seeking a safer locality
seemed to disipate Jims drousiness & he remarked
gosh, them little divils is scared sure, after
perhaps 20 minutes of dead silence, we heard
the breaking of dry twigs directly in front of our
position & then sudenly thru the gloom by the side of
the gray granit Rock, appeared a black shadow
darker than the night.
[Seemed] to be walking on the air & advancing directly
toward us after passing the big white rock. The advancing
shadow was plainly visable darker than the night
gloom & continued to advance. (He saw the white floor of
our scafold & came on straight to his doom.)
The hamer of my Rifle came back as I heard Jims
lock click. The dark shape sudenly assumed
an upright position. the two rifles barked as one
& the great beast sank to Earth with a roar & a
continuation of [barks] which were thrown back
by the granit walls of the Canyon of the River
Merced & were heared by the distant peaks of
Mount Raymond & were sent back to our ears
like far distant thunder. I felt in my coat pocket
for shells. It was empty. Jim, what did you do with
my cartridges. Gosh he says, their on the ground. I forgot to
bring em up. Well Jim, You let my gun down to me I’m
going down. Don’t do it Bob, wait till daylight. But I went
down – found a fiew cartridges & put into the magazine
scraped some dry pine needles together & soon had a
light. Now Jim, come down & we will make some torches
& one can hold them while the other plants a shot in his brain.
Duncan came down & we soon prepared a good torch.
All this time, our bear was trying to get farther away
[He] succeeded in draging his big bulk several yards from
where he fell into some quaking asp bushes. On the
aproach of the light, the bear raised himself partly
to a sitting posture & I got Jim to work around in front
& as the bear turned his head to look at the torch, my Rifle
barked, sending a ball under the [bur?? base] of his ear. He
rolled over on his side, a fiew convulsive strugles
shook his frame he raised one huge fore arm & waved
it back & forth a fiew times. Then it dropped. He never moved
again. The King of the Sierras was dead. We gazed on the
prostrate beast for some moments in silence & then
I said, we must open him & draw the entrails. I want
to save the lard & some of the meat. When we had
that done, we went to camp & to bed, the hour 2 A.M.
Next morn, we went down to the slaughter pen. The 3
young bears were sleeping by their dead dam & they
scurried off in a hurry. After skining I severed the
head & put it on a high rock, intending later to clean
& take it below when I should go out. I never saw it
again. Some animal, a wolverine I think, got away with
it. I searched for it the next season, but evidently
the animal had packed the head a long ways.
Bruins hide, when first stretched was nearly 10 foot
from nose to tail. Judged by his teeth, he was not an old bear.
[I] sold the skin to the Artist Thomas Hill
as I have before stated & after reading my
history of the case it would seeme that I certainly
must have had a hand in taking that poor Bruins life
& it might be interesting to some people to know, that
my first encounter with a Grizzly was in the days of
the old muzle loading rifles, in 1860 – that after he
knocked me down & sat on me, I killed him.
I believe the brown & Black bear should be protected
by law from wanton & ruthless destruction, but
the cat & wolf tribe should become extinct as
soon as possible, my dear Grinnell.
I trust you will be able to read my poor
writing & if I should happen to come to
Berkeley, I should be glad to call & meet you at
Most Sincerely Yours
R[obert] J Wellman.