Of all the animals the men of the Corps of Discovery encountered on their expedition, the most formidable of all was the Ursus horribilus, better known as the grizzly bear. Lewis and Clark were no stranger to bears, having grown up hunting the grizzly’s smaller cousin, the black bear, which was then commonly found across along the east coast. Intrigued by the Mandan Indians’ formidable description of the animal they called the “white bear,” they were eager to try their hand at hunting this fabled beast.
Lewis and Clark began to see signs of the grizzly shortly after they left Fort Mandan in April 1805. Lewis reported seeing “tracks of the white bear of enormous size” along the Missouri, along with mangled buffalo carcasses on which the bear were feeding. The first grizzlies they spotted ran away, giving the Corps a false sense of security. They killed their first grizzly on April 29, 1805, an immature male of about 300 pounds. Lewis bragged in his journal, “the Indians may well fear this anamal equiped as they generally are with their bows and arrows or indifferent fuzees, but in the hands of skillfull riflemen they are by no means as formidable or dangerous as they have been represented.”
Subsequent encounters would prove otherwise. On May 5, William Clark and George Droulliard killed an enormous grizzly bear, with some effort. Clark described it as a “verry large and a turrible looking animal, which we found verry hard to kill we Shot ten Balls into him before we killed him, & 5 of those Balls through his lights.” Lewis estimated the weight of the bear at 500-600 pounds, about twice the size of the average black bear. He noted that after the bear was shot, “he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died; he did not attempt to attack, but fled and made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.” Once the bear finally died, they butchered it for meat, bear oil, and its thick furry skin. Sobered by the size and ferocity of the bear, Lewis wrote, “I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal.”
A few days later Private Bratton narrowly escaped after being chased half a mile by a bear he had wounded through the lungs. Lewis sent a party in pursuit, which found the bear “perfectly alive.” They finally killed it with two shots to the skull. By this time, Lewis’s bravado had all but disappeared. “This bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear; there is no other chance to conquer them by a single shot but by shooting them through the brains… the flece and skin were as much as two men could possibly carry.”
On May 14, six men from the Corps of Discovery, “all good hunters,” came upon another grizzly bear lying in the open about 300 paces from the river. Lewis described what happened next:
they took the advantage of a small eminence which concealed them and got within 40 paces of him unperceived, two of them reserved their fires as had been previously conscerted, the four others fired nearly at the same time and put each his bullet through him, two of the balls passed through the bulk of both lobes of his lungs, in an instant this monster ran at them with open mouth, the two who had reserved their fires discharged their pieces at him as he came towards them, boath of them struck him, one only slightly and the other fortunately broke his shoulder, this however only retarded his motion for a moment only, the men unable to reload their guns took to flight, the bear pursued and had very nearly overtaken them before they reached the river; two of the party betook themselves to a canoe and the others seperated an concealed themselves among the willows, reloaded their pieces, each discharged his piece at him as they had an opportunity they struck him several times again but the guns served only to direct the bear to them, in this manner he pursued two of them seperately so close that they were obliged to throw aside their guns and pouches and throw themselves into the river altho’ the bank was nearly twenty feet perpendicular; so enraged was this anamal that he plunged into the river only a few feet behind the second man he had compelled take refuge in the water, when one of those who still remained on shore shot him through the head and finally killed him; they then took him on shore and butchered him when they found eight balls had passed through him in different directions.
That wasn’t the end of the Corps’ close encounters with grizzlies. Lewis recorded that George Droulliard was very nearly caught by a bear on June 2. On June 14, Lewis himself was out hunting when he came face to face with one of the animals he called “these gentlemen:”
I selected a fat buffaloe and shot him very well, through the lungs; while I was gazeing attentively on the poor anamal discharging blood in streams from his mouth and nostrils, expecting him to fall every instant, and having entirely forgotton to reload my rifle, a large white, or reather brown bear, had perceived and crept on me within 20 steps before I discovered him; in the first moment I drew up my gun to shoot, but at the same instant recolected that she was not loaded and that he was too near for me to hope to perform this opperation before he reached me, as he was then briskly advancing on me; it was an open level plain, not a bush within miles nor a tree within less than three hundred yards of me; the river bank was sloping and not more than three feet above the level of the water; in short there was no place by means of which I could conceal myself from this monster untill I could charge my rifle; in this situation I thought of retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing untill I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner terned myself about but he pitched at me, open mouthed and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water the idea struk me to get into the water to such debth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran haistily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon, at this instant he arrived at the edge of the water within about 20 feet of me; the moment I put myself in this attitude of defence he sudonly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me.
Lewis climbed back on shore, no doubt with his legs trembling, as he watched the bear run away at full speed. “The cause of his allarm still remains with me misterious and unaccountable,” Lewis wrote. Still, he counted his blessings: “So it was, and I feelt myself not a little gratifyed that he had declined the combat.”
In the end, the Corps learned that grizzlies were best avoided, though it didn’t stop an incensed bear from treeing Private Gibson during the return journey in 1806.
Favorite bear joke:
In Montana, tourists are warned to wear tiny bells on their clothing when hiking in bear country. The bells warn away MOST bears. Tourists are also cautioned to watch the ground along the trail, paying particular attention to bear droppings to be alert for the presence of grizzly bears.
How can you tell a grizzly bear dropping?
It has tiny bells in it.