Lurid Details

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The anecdotes about their experiences with grizzly bears which the members of the Corps of Discovery brought home were gory enough to guarantee they would be passed along. For people who were outside the loop of the "jawbone journals," a man named Brackenridge drove the legend of the grisly man-eater deep into American folklore.

A Sloth of Bears

photo: Three grizzly bears

Courtesy Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute

Henry Marie Brackenridge (1786-1871) was a prominent attorney, and a lifelong student of Indian life, geography, and natural history. In 1811 he accompanied Manuel Lisa, of the Missouri Fur Company, on a whirlwind trip to the latter's fort on the Yellowstone River. His book, Views of Louisiana Together with a Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River, was published in 1814, the same year that the first edition of the Lewis and Clark journals appeared.

With the kind of awe-struck exaggeration and delicious distaste that we reserve for our most notorious monsters, Brackenridge painted the grizzly bear in lurid detail. "This animal, is the monarch of the country which he inhabits. The African lion, or the tyger of Bengal, are not more terrible or fierce. He is the enemy of man; and literally thirsts for human blood. So far from shunning, he seldom fails to attack; and even to hunt him."

Brackenridge then paraphrased Lewis's record of the way the Indians prepare for a grizzly-bear hunt, and quoted the measurements Clark recorded of the bear he and Droulliard brought down on May 5, 1805, with ten bullets. Clark had estimated the beast weighed 500 pounds, but Lewis thought it was closer to 600. "Manuel Lisa," Brackenridge continued, "informed me that they sometimes exceed 1,200 lbs. in weight, and that one full grown, will commonly weigh eight or nine hundred."

The grizzly bear, Brackenridge concluded, "is sufficient to disprove, the idle theories of Buffon . . . as to the impotency of the NEW WORLD in the production of animals."1 At any rate, the picture drawn in the words of Lewis and Clark and their men, as colored by Henry Brackenridge, survives in the minds of many people to this very day. President Theodore Roosevelt, at the turn of the 20th century, was of the opinion that the name "grisly," meaning horrifying or ghastly, was more suitable for the beast than "grizzly," which only means grey, or "grizzled." More recently, those old beliefs have been reinforced in the Hollywood caricature of the "horrible" grizzly bear, The Edge (20th Century Fox), featuring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, and starring a neatly-groomed, well-trained animal named Bart the Bear.

1. George Louis Buffon (1707-1788) was a French naturalist and author of Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, in 44 volumes. Owing to its climate, Buffon wrote, the New World could "nourish only cold men and weak animals." Animals in America were "smaller than their equivalents in the old world," bred as they were "under this spare sky on this empty earth." Actually, Thomas Jefferson, himself a pioneering paleontologist, had already set Buffon straight on the matter.