Everyday Bears

Page 4 of 7

During the winter of 1804-1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition learned from the Indians to call it the white bear, but among the specimens Lewis sent back to St. Louis from Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805 was "the Skin of a yellow Bear which I obtained from the Scious [Sioux Indians]." Later Lewis changed his mind in mid-sentence, calling it the "brown bear White bear." Sergeant Ordway observed that the first one Captain Lewis killed was "a Whiteish bair what is called the white bair, but not white but light collour." Of the same bear, Sergeant Gass reported: "The natives call them white, but they are more of a brown grey." Ordway later noted one that was "silver grey."

Clark was the first to invoke the name we now use. On May 5, 1805, he saw "a Brown or Grisley beare," which he and Drouilliard killed.

On the 13th of June, Lewis drew a tentative conclusion from his observations:

I am induced to believe that the Brown, the white and the Grizly bear of this country are the same species, only differing in color from age or more properly from the same natural cause that many other anamals of the same family differ in colour, one of those which we killed yesterday was of a cream colored white while the other in company with it was of the common bey or redish brown. &the grizly bear we have never yet seen. &I am preswaded if there is any difference between this species and the brown or white bear it is very inconsiderable.

The following year, on May 14, 1806, he hedged a bit:

perhaps it would not be unappropriate to designate them the variagated bear.

The bear we now call "grizzly" has many other names that reflect the backgrounds, attitudes, and experiences of the namers. Among the 87 common names listed by Gary Brown in The Great Bear Almanac (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1993), are bruin ("brown"), chief's son (Cree Indians), eldest brother (many Native Americans), evil genius, great bear, king of the plains, matohota (Sioux Indians), Moccasin Joe (early frontiersmen), and silvertip.

In times of ursine stress, Meriwether Lewis, with anthropomorphic sympathy, euphemized them all as "gentlemen."