Old Grizzly Adams

James C. Adams, or "Grizzly Adams," as he was generally termed, from the

fact of his having captured so many grizzly bears, and encountered such

fearful perils by his unexampled daring, was an extraordinary character.

For many years a hunter and trapper in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada

Mountains, he acquired a recklessness which, added to his natural

invincible courage, rendered him truly one of the most striking men of

he age. He was emphatically what the English call a man of "pluck." In

1860, he arrived in New York with his famous collection of California

animals, captured by himself, consisting of twenty or thirty immense

grizzly bears, at the head of which stood "Old Sampson"--now in the

American Museum--wolves, half a dozen other species of bear, California

lions, tigers, buffalo, elk, etc., and Old Neptune, the great sea-lion,

from the Pacific.

Old Adams had trained all these monsters so that with him they were as

docile as kittens, while many of the most ferocious among them would

attack a stranger without hesitation, if he came within their grasp. In

fact, the training of these animals was no fool's play, as Old Adams

learned to his cost; for the terrific blows which he received from time

to time, while teaching them "docility," finally cost him his life.

When Adams and his other wild beasts (for he was nearly as wild as any

of them) arrived in New York, he called immediately at the Museum. He

was dressed in his hunter's suit of buckskin, trimmed with the skins and

bordered with the hanging tails of small Rocky Mountain animals; his cap

consisting of the skin of a wolf's head and shoulders, from which

depended several tails as natural as life, and under which appeared his

stiff bushy gray hair and his long white grizzly beard. In fact, Old

Adams was quite as much of a show as his bears. They had come around

Cape Horn on the clipper-ship Golden Fleece, and a sea-voyage of three

and a half months had probably not added much to the beauty or neat

appearance of the old bear-hunter.

During our conversation, Grizzly Adams took off his cap, and showed me

the top of his head. His skull was literally broken in. It had on

various occasions been struck by the fearful paws of his grizzly

students; and the last blow, from the bear called "General Fremont," had

laid open his brain, so that its workings were plainly visible. I

remarked that I thought that was a dangerous wound, and might possibly

prove fatal.

"Yes," replied Adams, "that will fix me out. It had nearly healed; but

old Fremont opened it for me, for the third or fourth time, before I

left California, and he did his business so thoroughly, I'm a used-up

man. However, I reckon I may live six months or a year yet."

This was spoken as coolly as if he had been talking about the life of a


The immediate object of "Old Adams" in calling upon me was this. I had

purchased one-half interest in his California menagerie from a man who

had come by way of the Isthmus from California, and who claimed to own

an equal interest with Adams in the show. Adams declared that the man

had only advanced him some money, and did not possess the right to sell

half of the concern. However, the man held a bill of sale for one-half

of the "California Menagerie," and Old Adams finally consented to

accept me as an equal partner in the speculation, saying that he guessed

I could do the managing part, and he would show up the animals. I

obtained a canvas tent, and erecting it on the present site of Wallack's

Theatre, Adams there opened his novel California Menagerie. On the

morning of opening, a band of music preceded a procession of

animal-cages, down Broadway and up the Bowery; Old Adams dressed in his

hunting costume, heading the line, with a platform-wagon on which were

placed three immense grizzly bears, two of which he held by chains,

while he was mounted on the back of the largest grizzly, which stood in

the centre, and was not secured in any manner whatever. This was the

bear known as "General Fremont;" and so docile had he become that Adams

said he had used him as a packbear to carry his cooking and hunting

apparatus through the mountains for six months, and had ridden him

hundreds of miles. But apparently docile as were many of these animals,

there was not one among them that would not occasionally give even Adams

a sly blow or a sly bite when a good chance offered; hence Old Adams was

but a wreck of his former self, and expressed pretty nearly the truth

when he said:

"Mr. Barnum, I am not the man I was five years ago. Then I felt able to

stand the hug of any grizzly living, and was always glad to encounter,

single-handed, any sort of an animal that dared present himself. But I

have been beaten to a jelly, torn almost limb from limb, and nearly

chawed up and spit out by these treacherous grizzly bears. However, I am

good for a few months yet, and by that time I hope we shall gain enough

to make my old woman comfortable, for I have been absent from her some


His wife came from Massachusetts to New York, and nursed him. Dr. Johns

dressed his wounds every day, and not only told Adams he could never

recover, but assured his friends that probably a very few weeks would

lay him in his grave.

But Adams was as firm as adamant and as resolute as a lion. Among the

thousands who saw him dressed in his grotesque hunter's suit, and

witnessed the apparent vigor with which he "performed" the savage

monsters, beating and whipping them into apparently the most perfect

docility, probably not one suspected that this rough, fierce-looking,

powerful demi-savage, as he appeared to be, was suffering intense pain

from his broken skull and fevered system, and that nothing kept him from

stretching himself on his deathbed but that most indomitable and

extraordinary will of his.

After the exhibition had been open six weeks, the Doctor insisted that

Adams should sell out his share in the animals and settle up all his

worldly affairs; for he assured him that he was growing weaker every

day, and his earthly existence must soon terminate.

"I shall live a good deal longer than you doctors think for," replied

Adams, doggedly; and then, seeming after all to realize the truth of the

Doctor's assertion, he turned to me and said: "Well, Mr. B., you must

buy me out." He named his price for his half of the "show," and I

accepted his offer. We had arranged to exhibit the bears in Connecticut

and Massachusetts during the summer, in connection with a circus, and

Adams insisted that I should hire him to travel for the summer, and

exhibit the bears in their curious performances. He offered to go for

$60 per week and traveling expenses of himself and wife.

I replied that I would gladly engage him as long as he could stand it,

but I advised him to give up business and go to his home in

Massachusetts; "for," I remarked, "you are growing weaker every day, and

at best cannot stand it more than a fortnight."

"What will you give me extra if I will travel and exhibit the bears

every day for ten weeks?" asked old Adams, eagerly.

"Five hundred dollars," I replied, with a laugh.

"Done!" exclaimed Adams. "I will do it; so draw up an agreement to that

effect at once. But mind you, draw it payable to my wife, for I may be

too weak to attend to business after the ten weeks are up, and if I

perform my part of the contract, I want her to get the $500 without any


I drew up a contract to pay him $60 per week for his services, and if he

continued to exhibit the bears for ten consecutive weeks I was then to

hand him, or his wife $500 extra.

"You have lost your $500!" exclaimed Adams on taking the contract; "for

I am bound to live and earn it."

"I hope you may, with all my heart, and a hundred years more if you

desire it," I replied.

"Call me a fool if I don't earn the $500!" exclaimed Adams, with a

triumphant laugh.

The "show" started off in a few days, and at the end of a fortnight I

met it at Hartford, Connecticut.

"Well," says I, "Adams, you seem to stand it pretty well. I hope you and

your wife are comfortable?"

"Yes," he replied, with a laugh; "and you may as well try to be

comfortable too, for your $500 is a goner."

"All right," I replied; "I hope you will grow better every day."

But I saw by his pale face, and other indications, that he was rapidly


In three weeks more, I met him again at New Bedford, Mass. It seemed to

me, then, that he could not live a week, for his eyes were glassy and

his hands trembled, but his pluck was great as ever.

"This hot weather is pretty bad for me," he said, "but my ten weeks are

half expired, and I am good for your $500, and, probably, a month or two


This was said with as much bravado as if he was offering to bet upon a

horse-race. I offered to pay him half of the $500 if he would give up

and go home; but he peremptorily declined making any compromise


I met him the ninth week in Boston. He had failed considerably since I

last saw him, but he still continued to exhibit the bears and chuckled

over his almost certain triumph. I laughed in return, and sincerely

congratulated him on his nerve and probable success. I remained with him

until the tenth week was finished, and handed him his $500. He took it

with a leer of satisfaction, and remarked, that he was sorry I was a

teetotaller, for he would like to stand treat!

Just before the menagerie left New York, I had paid $150 for a new

hunting-suit, made of beaver-skins similar to the one which Adams had

worn. This I intended for Herr Driesbach, the animal-tamer, who was

engaged by me to take the place of Adams whenever he should be compelled

to give up.

Adams, on starting from New York, asked me to loan this new dress to him

to perform in once in a while in a fair day when we had a large

audience, for his own costume was considerably soiled. I did so, and now

when I handed him his $500 he remarked:

"Mr. B., I suppose you are going to give me this new hunting-dress."

"Oh no," I replied. "I got that for your successor, who will exhibit the

bears to-morrow; besides, you have no possible use for it."

"Now, don't be mean, but lend me the dress, if you won't give it to

me, for I want to wear it home to my native village."

I could not refuse the poor old man anything, and I therefore replied:

"Well, Adams, I will lend you the dress; but you will send it back to


"Yes, when I have done with it," he replied, with an evident chuckle of


I thought to myself, he will soon be done with it, and replied:

"That's all right."

A new idea evidently seized him, for, with a brightening look of

satisfaction, he said:

"Now, Barnum, you have made a good thing out of the California

menagerie, and so have I; but you will make a heap more. So, if you

won't give me this new hunter's dress, just draw a little writing, and

sign it, saying that I may wear it until I have done with it."

Of course, I knew that in a few days at longest he would be "done" with

this world altogether, and, to gratify him, I cheerfully drew and signed

the paper.

"Come, old Yankee, I've got you this time--see if I hain't!" exclaimed

Adams, with a broad grin, as he took the paper.

I smiled, and said:

"All right, my dear fellow; the longer you live, the better I shall like


We parted, and he went to Neponset, a small town near Boston, where his

wife and daughter lived. He took at once to his bed, and never rose from

it again. The excitement had passed away, and his vital energies could

accomplish no more.

The fifth day after arriving home, the physician told him he could not

live until the next morning. He received the announcement in perfect

calmness, and with the most apparent indifference; then, turning to his

wife, with a smile, he requested her to have him buried in the new

hunting suit.

"For," said he, "Barnum agreed to let me have it until I have done with

it, and I was determined to fix his flint this time. He shall never see

that dress again."

His wife assured him that his request should be complied with. He then

sent for the clergyman, and they spent several hours in communing


Adams told the clergyman he had told some pretty big stories about his

bears, but he had always endeavored to do the straight thing between man

and man. "I have attended preaching every day, Sundays and all," said

he, "for the last six years. Sometimes an old grizzly gave me the

sermon, sometimes it was a panther; often it was the thunder and

lightning, the tempest, or the hurricane on the peaks of the Sierra

Nevada, or in the gorges of the Rocky Mountains; but whatever preached

to me, it always taught me the majesty of the Creator, and revealed to

me the undying and unchanging love of our kind Father in heaven.

Although I am a pretty rough customer," continued the dying man, "I

fancy my heart is in about the right place, and look with confidence to

the blessed Saviour for that rest which I so much need, and which I have

never enjoyed upon earth." He then desired the clergyman to pray with

him, after which he grasped him by the hand, thanked him for his

kindness, and bade him farewell.

In another hour his spirit had taken its flight; and it was said by

those present that his face lighted up into a smile as the last breath

escaped him, and that smile he carried into his grave. Almost his last

words were: "Won't Barnum open his eyes when he finds I have humbugged

him by being buried in his new hunting-dress?" That dress was indeed the

shroud in which he was entombed.

And that was the last on earth of "Old Grizzly Adams."