The "Real" Story
Above: Rare 1860 Matthew Brady daguerreotype photo-reprint of the real Grizzly Adams, depicted as he looked when he performed with his Grizzly Bears and other animals for P.T. Barnum.
The story of the real 'Grizzly Adams’ is one of the most unusual frontier biographies ever documented. A true enigma of a man, ‘Grizzly Adams’ was a fellow by the name of John Adams who was born in Medway, Massachusetts in 1812. He was a relative of 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. But after nearly being 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 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-earnings. By late 1852 Adams had enough of it, and he turned his back on civilization and headed for the Sierra-Nevada Mountains near Yosemite where he built and lived in a cabin surrounded by wildlife and friendly Native American tribes. There he learned to commune with nature, and to become an expert hunter, tracker, and provider for himself and his Native American neighbors. 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 would always hire some of his Indian friends to help him on his journeys, further solidifying his relationship with tribal leaders while enabling his 'Grizzly Adams' legend to grow. He 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 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. One newspaper writer in particular, Theodore Hittell did an impressive series of articles about Adams. [Hittell would go on to become a recognized California historian.]
Theodore Hittell was so taken by the curious '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 reason though, Adams, who often went by aliases, 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 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 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 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, and just two 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.
Adam's famous buckskin outfit is preserved at the Worcester, Massachusetts Historical Society. Another '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, his claim was not true. For the Grizzly Bear rendition on California's State Flag used Adams' bear, Samson as its model, as depicted in an 1855 painting by famous western artist, Charles Nahl. Two of Nahl's 1850s etchings of the real Grizzly Adams are shown to the left and right above.
Below is Nahl's 1855 painting of Adams' bear, Samson shown next to the California state flag.
© 2012 By Tod Swindell, Co-Owner/Managing Partner of the Grizzly Adams® Brand Franchise