The "Real" Story
The story of the real 'Grizzly Adams’ is one of the most unusual frontier biographies ever documented. The real ‘Grizzly Adams’ was a fellow by the name of John ‘Grizzly’ Adams who was born in Medway, Massachusetts in 1812. He was related to the two Adams United States Presidents and the Revolutionary War Patriot, Samuel Adams.
As he grew to manhood John ‘Grizzly’ Adams recognized an uncanny ability he had when it came to understanding the behavior of wild animals. Yet after being nearly killed by a Royal Bengal Tiger when he was twenty-one, he opted for a trade in shoemaking, something his father had him apprentice at during his teen years.
For fifteen years Adams made and sold shoes and boots in Boston. He also married and raised a family of three children with his wife, Cylena. Then came the Gold Rush of 1849, and after losing his savings in a business venture that went up in flames, in order to better he and his family's future Adams headed out west lured by the promise of great fortunes to be had.
In California Adams tried his hand at mining and was successful for awhile, as a land owner too, but time and again low-end business sharks tricked him out of his honest-earned holdings. By 1852 John Adams had endured enough, to where he turned his back on civilization and headed for the Sierra-Nevada Mountains where he lived in a cabin surrounded by wildlife and Native American tribes. There he learned to commune with nature, to become an expert hunter and provider for himself and his Native American neighbors, and he also learned to raise and train Grizzly Bears and a variety of other wild animals, leading to his nickname of ‘Grizzly.’
Using his most beloved Grizzly Bears as pack animals—Lady Washington, General Freemont, and Benjamin Franklin—John 'Grizzly' Adams led many major hunting expeditions. He traversed as far north as Idaho, as far south as the Mojave Desert, and as far east as Salt Lake City. He would always hire some of his Indian friends to help him on his adventures, further solidifying his relationship with tribal leaders, and enabling his 'Grizzly Adams' legend to grow. He lived his mountain man life for four years, then in 1856 he relocated to San Francisco after being offered a chance to make money by putting on shows with his animals. While heading up his enterprise he adapted to city life again, and he and his 'Mountaineer Museum' became a popular enough attraction that it caused the newspapers to take notice. This led to a writer by the name of Theodore Hittell deciding to do a series of articles about Adams. [Note: Hittell would go on to become a well recognized California historian.]
Theodore Hittell was so taken by the curious John 'Grizzly Adams' and his live collection of wild animals, particularly his trained Grizzly Bears, that he decided to write a book chronicling Adams' life story. For whatever curious reason though, Adams used the name of his brother, 'James' to identify himself to Hittell, and thus it would remain in Hittell's later published book about 'James Capen Adams.'
In late 1859, Adams decided to leave San Francisco and head back to the east coast—to New York in particular—with as many of his animals as he could load onto a clipper ship that sailed him around Cape Horn on a veritable 'Noah's Ark like’ adventure. He departed in early January of 1860. The journey took three months, and Adams, who had previously been injured while wrestling his bears, was re-injured during the journey from a blow once again delivered by one of his bears. Unfortunately, the re-injury was one Adams would never fully recover from.
Adams was as tough as they came though, and after he arrived in New York City he proudly paraded his large troupe of about sixty wild animals down Broadway, and headed toward the office of P.T. Barnum, the famous showman who would sign Adams to a performance contract. Barnum’s 'Old Grizzly Adams' act became wildly popular in New York, and soon Adams was also reunited with his wife, Cylena who he had been periodically sending money home to in order to help support his family. But their reunion was bitter-sweet, for Adams' health was failing, and Cylena was soon needed to serve as a nurse who would tend to him in between his shows.
By the fall of 1860, John ‘Grizzly’ Adams could no longer perform and his wife felt it best for him to return to Boston so he could live out his final days with his family by his side. He died on October 25, 1860, three days after his forty-eighth birthday, and just two weeks before the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. P. T. Barnum paid for Adams’ funeral and burial in Charlton, Massachusetts where his headstone remains today, and Adams' famous frontier buckskin outfit he was known to wear also remains preserved at the Worcester, Massachusetts Historical Society.
By Tod Swindell and Julie Magnuson Swindell, Owners and Executive Managing Partners of the Grizzly Adams® Brand Franchise.