John Boyden “Grizzly” Adams

John Boyden “Grizzly” Adams

Medway, Norfolk County, Massachusetts, USA
Death 25 Oct 1860 (aged 48)
Dorchester, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
Burial Charlton, Worcester County, Massachusetts, USA
Plot Rear left quadrant from Rt 31, near the mound.
Memorial ID 3 · View Source
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Western Frontiersman. A wild animal fighter, collector and tamer, and a pioneer of live animal exhibits (menageries and zoos). Some believe him to be the greatest California mountain man of them all. Born simply John Adams, he was related to the famous Adamses of Massachusetts, among them President John Adams and patriot Samuel Adams. He had a typical New England childhood and received what was considered a good education for the times. His early experiences in New England and hunting and trapping in the wilds of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont prepared him for a life of self-reliance. In 1849, when (through no fault of his own) he lost his life savings and the savings of others in a business venture, he left behind his wife and three young children in Medway, Massachusetts and joined the stream of emigrants in the gold rush to California. Surviving two near-fatal illnesses on the way, once he reached California he made and lost fortunes in mining, grocery, and finally, ranching. It is a mystery even today, as to why he chose to use aliases of James Capen Adams (actually the name of one of his younger brothers) or William Adams. At age forty, he abandoned city life after losing his ranch near French Camp, California to creditors. He headed into the unspoiled wild areas of the Sierra Nevada mountains. After establishing a semi-permanent camp a few miles away from today's Pinecrest, California. Adams sustained himself, as other mountain men before him had done, by hunting and trapping. His trade in Massachusetts was making footwear, so he knew how to work leather and craft the harness, packs, and other articles from the hides he harvested. He traded wild game and skins with the local Indians for buckskin clothing, a style of attire he maintained the remaining years of his life. Only forty years old, he already had long gray hair and a snowy white beard. He was of average height but muscular and wiry, possessing a tough intelligence and wit along with the ability to make flash decisions needed when danger presented itself. Always fair and charitable in dealing with others, including Indians, he never turned away a stranger to his camp who asked for food or shelter. Rather than fight with the Indians as most other mountain men resorted to, he befriended them and preferred their company over whites, and the company of animals over Indians and wild beasts over domesticated pets.. He stood up for what he considered to be his rights and believed that his Creator provided all the earth and its resources for the benefit of man. His courage was of extraordinary capacity to the point of recklessness. Cowardly behavior in either man or beast he considered abhorrent. Adams was more completely comfortable in the wilds than most of the famous mountain men, and one of the greatest individualists that California (or the Adamses) produced. What most set Grizzly Adams apart from other great mountain men of the West was his unique ability to dominate the "horrible bear" (Ursus horribilis) or the "ferocious bear" (Ursus ferox), the dreaded, fearless, grizzly bear. Other mountain men, hunters and trappers preferred to avoid these bears, whereas Adams invariably sought them out. However, Adams made nothing of his apparent power over the wildest beasts, claiming instead that he himself was "the hardest animal in the collection [of grizzlies and mountain lions]." In his lifetime, he escaped death many times after being attacked by the wild animals he encountered. John Adams made excursions into the wilds of far northeastern Washington Territory in 1853 and the year after, to the Rocky Mountains as far as Fort Bridger (Wyoming). At the end of 1854, Grizzly trapped a huge grizzly bear in the Sierras. He estimated its weight at about 1,500 pounds – one of the largest grizzlies ever captured alive. He named the beast Samson. In the spring of 1855, while on a hunting trip in the Sierras, Grizzly Adams was unexpectedly attacked by a she grizzly with three cubs. One blow of her powerful paw tore his scalp loose and dented in his skull. Her bite into his neck inflicted more damage. After eventually killing the bear, Adams returned to camp and tended to his wounds. It took Grizzly almost a month to recover enough to continue his hunting and trapping activities, this time in the California Coast Range. On his way back from the wilds of the Tehachapi Mountains in southern California where he had unsuccessfully tried to capture a jaguar, Adams followed the coastal route leading through San Miguel, San Jose, and then to San Francisco. The group attracted an audience of curious onlookers on their travels through the coastal populated areas. Adams himself, was one of the most curious-looking, dressed in his buckskin mountain man outfit. He was accompanied by the animals he had collected on his venture, and of course, his grizzly bear. On stops along the way he set up impromptu exhibitions, the success of which convinced him that there was a way to take advantage of his animal collection as a way of making a living. The next year Grizzly Adams set up his Mountaineer Museum in a basement on Clay Street in San Francisco, where he showed his animals for twenty-five cents admission. He was soon noticed by a newspaper reporter Theodore H. Hittell, who promoted the menagerie in articles he wrote for the Daily Evening Bulletin. (Hittell, after Grizzly's death in 1860, published a book based on interviews of Adams from 1856 thru 1859.) As a result of the newspaper articles and advertizing, Adams' business improved and he soon moved to a more suitable location and re-named his show the Pacific Museum. He continued to operate the show, while steadily increasing the size and variety of his collection until the end of 1859. During the grizzly bear performances, Adams would wrestle and do mock battle with them. Sparring with grizzly bears had the inevitable result of injuries. Even though tamed, a grizzly's playful slaps with their powerful paws always had the potential to inflict serious wounds. On three or four occasions between 1856 and 1859, Grizzly Adams' scalp wound was re-opened and the last time this happened, the skull was cracked and the bone torn away, exposing the brain tissue in a silver dollar-size area just above the hairline on his forehead. After consulting with San Francisco physicians and surgeons about his head wound, they were astonished that he was still alive, they told him that there was nothing they could do to heal it. By this time, Adams was again almost penniless, and considering his health, decided to return to New England to rejoin his wife and family before he died. He had heard of Phineas T. Barnum's museum in New York City, and he hoped he could make enough money to provide for his wife and children before he died. Adams sold half-interest in his museum to an investor in San Francisco and used the money to pay for passage to New York with his animal collection. Departing San Francisco in January, 1860 aboard the clipper ship Golden Fleece, he reached New York City via Cape Horn three and a half months later. Adams' health was much worse by the time he reached New York. He, however, took this in stride and proceeded to seek out Barnum, who he found at his newly re-opened American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan. Grizzly Adams met with Barnum who immediately saw the potential of using Adams'California Menagerie as a new addition to his enterprise. He also saw that Adams was suffering greatly from his head wound and discussed the matter with John, who dismissed its seriousness and promised he could last another six-months or a year. Barnum sent for Adams' wife, Cylene, then living with her daughter, Arathusa, in Neponset, Massachusetts. She came to care for him as soon as she heard about John's condition. Barnum also had his personal physician, Dr. Johns, dress his wound daily. Barnum had a giant tent erected to house the show. On opening day, Grizzly paraded down Broadway and up to the Bowery. Behind a band, Adams followed on a flat-bed wagon with three of his tamed grizzlies. Two were chained, but the grizzly named General Fremont was not, and Adams, dressed in his fringed buckskin hunting suit with his hat made of the head and shoulders of a wolf's skin, rode on his back. Following Adams' wagon were numerous others bearing caged animals of the menagerie. Soon, Barnum had spread advertisements far and wide. He even hastily created a "biography" of Adams in the form of a fifty-three page pamphlet that he sold for a dime a copy. Grizzly continued to show his animals and had performed for six-weeks, when Dr. Johns advised him that he should sell his interest in the menagerie and settle his affairs, for he predicted Adams had only a short time to live. Insisting that he could continue showing his animals on a planned summer tour with a circus, he bet Barnum that he could continue for another ten-weeks for a $500 bonus to be paid to Adams' wife. This he did, although he grew weaker and more sickly every day during the Summer tour throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. Barnum also agreed to pay Adams $60 a week plus provisions for him and his wife during the tour. Barnum had assumed that Adams couldn't last more than a few weeks more, so he had arranged for a successor, and had a hunting suit made of beaver skin, similar to John's attire for Adams' replacement. At the end of the ten-weeks, Adams was so weak that he could barely function, but he exalted in getting the $500 bonus from Barnum. Finally, he pleaded with Barnum to allow him to borrow the $150 beaver skin suit that Barnum had purchased, so he would look presentable to his friends and relatives when he returned with his wife to Neponset. Barnum, knowing Adams couldn't last long, readily agreed to the loan, on condition that Adams would return it "when he was done with it." Adams arrived at Neponset and immediately went to his bed, and five days later (3-days past his forty-eighth birthday) quietly slipped away. However, before he passed, he had his wife promise to bury him in the new beaver skin suit, because he wasn't "done with it!" So Adams had "humbugged" the "Prince of Humbugs." The grave, in the Bay Path Cemetery in Charlston, Massachusetts where John's father Eleazer and mother Sybil (Capen) Adams are also buried, is marked with a five-foot tall by two-foot wide stone (said to have been purchased by P.T. Barnum) which has at its top, a carved effigy of a hunter walking next to his tamed grizzly bear, and the inscription reading, John Adams, Aged 48-years, Died Oct. 25, 1860. It is followed by this verse: And silent now the hunter lays, Sleep on, brave tenant of the wild, Great Nature owns her simple child, And Nature's God to whom alone, The secret of the heart is known, In silence whispers that his work is done. Part of Grizzly Adams' legacy is the fact that in San Francisco, his Pacific Museum was followed by Woodward's Gardens and eventually by the Fleishhacker Zoo of today. A similar tribute is the Bronx Zoo in New York. Another reminder of Adams' grizzlies is that the flag of the State of California has the figure of a grizzly bear on it. The official flag design was finalized in 1953, when a watercolor drawing of one of Grizzly Adams' bears by Charles Nahl, circa 1858, was selected to be used as the model for the flag design.

Bio by: Reb

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And silent now the hunter lays, Sleep on, brave tenant of the wild, Great Nature owns her simple child, And Nature's God to whom alone, The secret of the heart is known, In silence whispers that his work is done.



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  • Maintained by: Find a Grave
  • Added: 31 Dec 2000
  • Find a Grave Memorial 3
  • Find a Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for John Boyden “Grizzly” Adams (22 Oct 1812–25 Oct 1860), Find a Grave Memorial no. 3, citing Bay Path Cemetery, Charlton, Worcester County, Massachusetts, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .