The "Real" Story

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Above: A colorized version of famous Civil War Photographer, Matthew Brady's 1860 daguerreotype 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 western mountain man 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 began raising a family. Then came the Gold Rush of 1849, and after losing he and his father's savings in a business venture that went up in flames and led to his father's suicide, Adams left the life he had going to head west, lured by the promise of fortunes to be had.

In California, after "numerous hardships and privations" as he put it, Adams settled near Stockton where he took to mining for gold. He was successful at it for awhile, enough to become a land owner and an employer of men who helped him run his own sluice operation. Except his trusting nature allowed low-end business sharks to con him out of his land holdings and honest-earnings, to where by late 1852 he'd had enough of being mistreated and turned his back on civilization. Adams decided to head for the wilderness, and before long he chose to settle in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains near Yosemite where he built and lived in a cabin surrounded by wildlife and nearby friendly Native American tribes.

Adams learned to commune with nature and to become an expert hunter, tracker, and provider for himself and his Indian friends. As well, beyond engaging in his newfound hobby of collecting a wide variety of living animals, Adams also captured, raised, and trained Grizzly Bears lending to his soon-to-be given 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 based out of his Sierra Nevada encampment. 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 also hired Indian scouts to help him on his journeys, further solidifying his relationships with different tribal leaders as his 'Grizzly Adams' legend grew. So much marked a big difference with Grizzly Adams when compared to other mountain men of his era, who often boasted themselves to be 'Indian hunters' as well. Grizzly Adams saw things differently there, as he worked and traded with Native Americans instead. He described them as "fair and honest" in their doings and he viewed his relationship with them symbiotically.

Grizzly Adams lived a mountain-man's life for three and a half years, until 1856, when he relocated to San Francisco after being offered a chance to make money by putting on shows with his bears and other animals. While running said enterprise he adapted to city life again, and he and his 'Mountaineer Museum' became so popular that it soon caused newspapers to take notice. One young newspaper writer in particular, Theodore Hittell wrote an impressive series of articles about Adams and his animals causing him even greater popularity, and leading him to invites to perform professionally. [Hittell would go on to become a recognized California historian.] Adams was initially billed as 'The Wild Yankee Adams' at Thomas Maguire's opulent opera house and his Theater Americana, but the name was soon replaced by his more recognizable moniker of 'Grizzly Adams.' For four years Adams performed at San Francisco's most notable venues while embracing his newfound celebrity. His accolades delivered him respected social status that left him hobnobbing with the likes of future Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman and the indomitable Lola Montez among others. He also became a recognized voice during Governor Neely Johnson's controversial vigilante's movement that was geared to help curb San Francisco's reputed lawlessness. Adams' overhead was high though; a lot of animals, especially his many bears required special boarding needs, much tending to, and a lot of food leaving it difficult for him to get ahead financially. 

Theodore Hittell became so taken by the curious 'Grizzly Adams' that he eventually wrote a book chronicling his mountain man adventures said to have been admired by Teddy Roosevelt. For whatever reason though, Adams, who often went by aliases while out west, used the name of his brother, 'James' to identify himself to Hittell, and thus it mistakenly remained in Hittell's later published book about, 'James Capen Adams.'

Grizzly AdamsIn late 1859, after a mysterious illness caused the 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 ship that would sail him around Cape Horn on a veritable 'Noah's Ark like’ adventure. He departed in early January of 1860 aboard the clipper, 'Golden Fleece' that he loaded with over a hundred animals, reptiles, and birds. His impressive menagerie featured elk, wolves, a sea lion and seventeen of his prized bears.

The arduous 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. Sadly, it was an injury he 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 other animals on Broadway while heading for the office of P.T. Barnum--where the famous showman, who had purchased an interest in Adams' menagerie, quickly signed him to a performance contract. Barnum's 'Old Grizzly Adams' act grew to be wildly popular in New York City. Adams was also reunited with his wife, Cylena who he had sent money to a few times during his long absence. Their reunion was bitter-sweet though, for Adams' health was failing and Cylena was soon serving as a nurse for her decade-long estranged, turned 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 and 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.

There is no measuring of the influence Grizzly Adams had on P.T. Barnum, especially when it came the way Barnum viewed the 'future' of the circus. Certainly Adams was among the very first to parade a large troupe of exotic wild beasts into major cities, a tradition that stuck with most all major circus acts later on. His many animals also contributed to the start-ups of both the San Francisco and the New York City Zoos. In fact, well into the Twentieth-Century many descendants of animals owned and raised by Adams himself were still living attractions in both places.

Another modern anecdote exists where the name 'Grizzly Adams' is a household term anymore when it comes to describing full beards on men. There are even Grizzly Adams 'beard growing' contests that crop up now and then, where the winner sports the best looking 'Grizzly Adams beard.'

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 tried to claim the Grizzly Bear on California's State Flag was modeled after a bear named Monarch that he hired a team of hunters to capture in the 1880s, Hearst's claim was false. The Grizzly Bear rendition on California's State Flag used Adams' largest and most ferocious bear, Samson as its model. Samson had been 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 its transposed likeness.


                   © 2012 By Tod Swindell, owner and proprietor of the Grizzly Adams® trademarked brand and Grizzly Adams® LLC