The "Real" Story

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Above: The Grizzly Adams brand's colorized version of famous Civil War Photographer, Matthew Brady's 1860 daguerreotype photo of the real Grizzly Adams. The flamboyant  'performance' costume he's wearing was given to him by P.T. Barnum.

The story of the real 'Grizzly Adams’ is one of the most amazing frontier biographies ever documented. A true western frontier legend, the real ‘Grizzly Adams’ was a fellow by the name of John Capen Adams who was born in Medway, Massachusetts in 1812. He was a relative of the two Adams United States Presidents and 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. Except after being nearly killed by a Royal Bengal Tiger when he was twenty-one, he opted for a trade as shoemaker, something his father, Eleazer 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 decided to head 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 as well, but time and again low-end business sharks tricked him out of his honest-earnings. By late 1852 he'd had enough of that, and turned his back on civilization by seeking refuge in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains near Yosemite. There Adams built and lived in a cabin surrounded by wildlife and nearby friendly Native American tribes. He learned to commune with nature, and to become an expert hunter, tracker, and provider for himself and his Indian friends. He also captured, raised and trained Grizzly Bears [and a variety of other wild animals] lending to his nickname of ‘Grizzly.’

Using his most beloved Grizzly Bears as pack animals—Lady Washington, General Fremont, and Benjamin Franklin—John 'Grizzly' Adams led many tracking expeditions. He traversed as far north as the Canadian border, as far south as the Mojave Desert, and as far east as Salt Lake City. He hired Indian scouts to help him on his journeys, further solidifying his relationship with tribal leaders as his 'Grizzly Adams' legend grew.

Adams lived a mountain-man's life for three years, until 1856, when he relocated to San Francisco after being offered a chance to make money by putting on shows with his animals. While running this enterprise he adapted to city life again, and he and his 'Mountaineer Museum' became popular to where it caused the newspapers to take notice. One newspaper writer in particular, Theodore Hittell did an impressive series of articles about Adams and his animals, leading to even greater popularity. [Hittell would go on to become a recognized California historian.]

Theodore Hittell was so taken by the curious 'Grizzly Adams' that he wrote a book chronicling his mountain man adventures. For whatever reason though, Adams, who often went by aliases, used the name of his brother, 'James' to identify himself then, and thus it would mistakenly remain in Hittell's later published book about, 'James Capen Adams.'

Grizzly AdamsIn late 1859, after the tragic, mysterious death of his favorite bear, Benjamin Franklin, 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 would sail 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 bear, General Fremont, was re-injured by the brute again during his ocean voyage. It was an injury 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 troupe of bears and wild animals along Broadway while heading for the office of P.T. Barnum. The famous showman signed Adams to a performance contract, and his 'Old Grizzly Adams' act soon became wildly popular in New York City. Adams was also reunited with his wife, Cylena who he had been periodically sending money home to during his long absence. Their reunion was bitter-sweet, for Adams' health was failing, and Cylena was soon serving as a nurse for gravely-ill husband in between his shows.     Original Grizzly Adams Sketch

By the fall of 1860, John ‘Grizzly’ Adams could no longer perform and Cylena felt it was best that he 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, just a few weeks before the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. P. T. Barnum paid for Adams’ funeral and burial in Charlton, Massachusetts. His headstone is still there today; his wife, Cylena and one of their daughters is buried near him.

Adams' famous buckskin outfit is preserved at the Worcester, Massachusetts Historical Society. As a tribute to his legacy, an interesting 'Grizzly Adams' historical footnote exists, where even though William Randolph Hearst claimed the Grizzly Bear on California's State Flag was modeled after his bear, Monarch, Hearst's claim was false. For the Grizzly Bear rendition on California's State Flag used Adams' largest and most ferocious bear, Samson as its model. Samson was painted in 1855 by famous western artist, Charles Nahl, and the bear's image in the painting was later transposed onto the flag. [Two of Nahl's 1850s etchings of the real Grizzly Adams are shown here, one directly to the left, and the other above to the right, featuring Adams with his bear, Benjamin Franklin.] Below is Charles Nahl's 1855 painting of Adams' bear, Samson shown next to the California state flag, displaying the likeness.


                   © 2012 By Tod Swindell, Owner of the Grizzly Adams® LLC Brand Franchise