The greatest California mountain man of them all was Grizzly Adams.
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He was also one of the most mysterious men in the history of the American West.
In this colorful biography, historian Richard Dillon chronicles the life of the man from a dull New England town who cultivated a society of bears in the wilderness of the West and went on to be one of the greatest showmen.
Grizzly Adams’ real name was John Adams (despite various aliases he used) and he left Medway, Massachusetts for California in 1849 at the age of 37.
Adams traveled widely in the West racking up exploit after exploit. After trying mining in the Gold Country, hunting game to sell to the miners, and trading, Adams finally settled on ranching near Stockton, California.
Creditors took his ranch in 1852 and he decided to head to the hills to get away from it all. With the help of the local Miwok Indians, Adams built a cabin and spent the winter alone in the Sierra.
During a later hunting and trapping expedition 1,200 miles from his California basecamp, in what is today western Montana, Adams caught a yearling grizzly he named Lady Washington. He tamed her and trained her to follow him. Before long he had her carrying a pack and pulling a loaded sled. In due course, she allowed him to ride her. Lady Washington was the first grizzly Adams captured and tamed, but not the last.
As he traveled, John set up impromptu shows of his bears and other animals he had collected. Thinking he was onto something, he then opened the Mountaineer Museum in a basement on Clay Street in San Francisco.
In 1855, Adams had been attacked by a mother grizzly in the Sierra. Ben Franklin, one of two grizzly cubs he’d made into pets a year earlier, save his life. In the melee, Adams had his scalp dislodged and came away with a permanent depression in his forehead the size of a silver dollar.
Adams often wrestled with the bears during his shows and during one such event, his old wound was cracked open like an eggshell.
Knowing he was in poor health and having been away from his wife and family for 10 years, on January 7, 1860, Adams and his menagerie departed from San Francisco on the clipper ship the Golden Fleece. It was a three and one-half month voyage around Cape Horn.
When he got to New York he went to work with famed circus owner P.T. Barnum for six weeks. His health having failed him, he sold his menagerie to Barnum and retired to Massachusetts where he died, five days after arriving at the home of his wife and children. Adams was 48.