Orange County’s griz­zly past

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - Karin Klein Karin Klein is a Times ed­i­to­rial writer and the author of “50 Hikes in Orange County.”

There are two shrunken heads from Ecuador and a shawl so in­tri­cately em­broi­dered with minia­ture scenes, it cost its Orange County buyer 500 heifers in the 1800s. An Egyp­tian mummy mask has a haunt­ingly re­al­is­tic por­trait of its owner drawn on the in­side.

The 74-year-old Bow­ers Mu­seum in Santa Ana is an eclec­tic sort of mu­seum. Once de­voted to Orange County his­tory, in more re­cent years its dis­plays have in­cluded China’s terra cotta sol­diers and Ansel Adams pho­to­graphs. But the ex­hibit that opened ear­lier this month has to be the most mixed group­ing yet, a kalei­do­scope of odd­i­ties whose only com­mon­al­ity is that they were found by cu­ra­tors ran­sack­ing the mu­seum’s stor­age shelves.

I came, not for the shawl or the heads or the feather-soled “killing shoes” once worn by in­hab­i­tants of cer­tain Aus­tralian vil­lages in­tent on murder, but for the dou­ble­barred con­trap­tion of metal that was used in 1908 to trap the last griz­zly bear in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The ex­hibit iden­ti­fies the she-bear as Old Moc­casin John, so called be­cause she had left a paw in an ear­lier trap and the print made by that leg looked slip­per­like.

Whether the bear caught in this par­tic­u­lar trap was Old Moc­casin John is un­clear; the last bear in this re­gion was known as Lit­tle Black Bear. Depend­ing on which early ac­count you read, the two might have been the same bear by dif­fer­ent names. But ac­cord­ing to a news­pa­per in­ter­view with Ed Ad­kin­son, one of the two men who killed the last griz­zly, Old Moc­casin John died in the 1890s. A tour­ing ex­hibit on Cal­i­for­nia griz­zlies iden­ti­fies her as Lit­tle Black Bear and says she was the last ver­i­fied griz­zly in the state.

It was while work­ing on a hik­ing book about Orange County that I’d come across this tale and many oth­ers in­volv­ing griz­zlies and the wilder life that thrived in the county be­fore hous­ing tracts crept up its flanks. To hike in and around the Santa Ana Moun­tains is to forge a pal­pa­ble link to the past — the spring jok­ingly named for a brag­gart va­quero, the failed min­ers, the grouchy bee­keeper, the still-stand­ing sy­camore where ban­dits were lynched, the 6-ton rock used by Na­tive Amer­i­cans that, when struck, res­onated with a bell-like tone for a mile.

Griz­zlies were nu­mer­ous in the Santa Ana Moun­tains as late as the 1860s, liv­ing at the lower el­e­va­tions. Cal­i­for­nia con­dors too nested and soared in the canyons. Along the Mod­jeska Grade/San­ti­ago Truck Trail juts a craggy sand­stone out­crop­ping known as Vul­ture Crags where the car­rion eaters par­tic­u­larly liked to roost.

White set­tle­ment would be cruel to both an­i­mals. Va­que­ros made a pas­time of rop­ing bears, with horse­men work­ing from dif­fer­ent an­gles to lasso one, pulling the ropes taut so that it couldn’t at­tack them. A more bru­tal sport in­volved putting a bear and a bull tied to­gether in a cor­ral to fight it out. One eye­wit­ness ac­count says the bears usu­ally won; an­other says the two an­i­mals spent most of the time try­ing to avoid each other.

The griz­zlies were seen as dan­ger­ous to ranch herds, though nat­u­ral­ists say they were more likely to eat car­rion than at­tack live cat­tle. A bounty of $10 a head fin­ished off many of them; by the 1870s, the di­min­ished pop­u­la­tion headed for higher el­e­va­tions. So few griz­zlies re­mained that each was dubbed with a nick­name.

The ul­ti­mate con­flict be­tween man and bear wasn’t over cat­tle, though, but bees. Bee­keep­ing was a pop­u­lar oc­cu­pa­tion in the Santa Anas. The most fa­mous of the men who tried their hand at this was known as Cussin’ Jim Smith be­cause of his fa­mously foul mouth. Later, when the canyon where he lived was for­mally mapped, it was given the name Holy Jim, a more ac­cept­able nod to his oc­cu­pancy and his pro­cliv­ity for pro­fan­ity.

But it was in neigh­bor­ing Trabuco Canyon that the last bear would be killed. Let’s call her Lit­tle Black Bear, be­cause that was at least one of her ac­cu­rate names. An­other nick­name was Honey Thief; like the other last few bears, this small, aged and un­der­fed griz­zly found the hives ir­re­sistible. But she was also so wily that api­arists’ ef­forts to lie in wait or bait her in­vari­ably failed.

The fol­low­ing ac­count of her last days comes from a 1948 his­tory by Terry Stephen­son, “Shad­ows of Old Sad­dle­back.” Af­ter the bear de­stroyed 30 hives, a mod­i­fied moun­tain lion trap — the one now at the Bow­ers — was set on a trail she was known to use. Lit­tle Black Bear fell for the trap but then dragged it five miles, with hunters in pur­suit. When their dogs caught up with her, the in­jured, un­der­weight bear still fought them off. It took three shots from the hunters to fi­nally kill her.

Her pelt was sent to the U.S. Bureau of Bi­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey; an en­thu­si­as­tic let­ter from the agency to the sec­ond hunter, An­drew Jo­plin, notes pay­ment of $25 for it and asks if there are any oth­ers. The pelt is now in the Smith­so­nian. The U.S. of­fi­cial also writes with ex­cite­ment about the con­dors liv­ing in the Santa Anas, say­ing, “I hope the Cal­i­for­nia con­dors you men­tion will breed in your moun­tains and that no one will mo­lest them.”

The sen­ti­ment came too late. By then, the con­dors had been shot and pur­posely poi­soned to the point of rar­ity, and they dis­ap­peared al­to­gether from the Santa Anas around the 1930s. That was the same decade the Bell Rock was carted from its canyon to the Bow­ers Mu­seum, where it now rests in the court­yard. It no longer rings.

CAUGHT: In the 19th cen­tury, va­que­ros in Cal­i­for­nia made a pas­time out of rop­ing bears.

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