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
"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
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
"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
"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."