Grizzly Adams might have gone down as a minor legend in the wilds of California had a fatal injury not taken him back east to P.T. Barnum and lasting fame.
He was born Oct. 20, 1812 in Medway, Mass. One of his biographers called Medway, southwest of Boston, a ‘dull New England town.’ Grizzly Adams apparently thought so too.
His parents named him John Capen Adams, but he preferred James. When he wasn’t called Grizzly, that is.
At 14, he apprenticed as a shoemaker until he turned 21. But he preferred the outdoors to his pegging awl, and so he hired out to a company of showmen as a collector of wild beasts. He roamed the forests of northern New England capturing panthers, wolves, wildcats and fox.
But then a caged Bengal tiger struck him, injuring his back and ending, for a time, his hunting and trapping career. Grateful he had a skill, he returned to shoemaking in Boston. He married on April 12, 1836, and settled down with his wife and three children in Brookfield, Mass.
Ups and Downs
For 15 years he labored, saving his money until he’d accumulated around $6,000. He thought he could double or triple his money by selling footwear out west, so he converted his savings into a cargo of footwear. Unfortunately, he lost it all in the St. Louis Fire of 1849.
By then, gold fever had struck. Grizzly Adams, still James, decided to try his luck in California. If he didn’t strike gold, he thought, he could make money hunting and trapping.
Things went well at first. Then they didn’t. He staked some mining claims near Sonora, bought a store and a saloon and invested in a scheme to dam a river to mine the riverbed. But a rainstorm flooded the mine. Then someone stole his cattle. Someone else had a claim to his land. He ended up in court, mortgaging his properties to pay for a lawyer.
He decided he far preferred wild animals to lawyers.
“Disgusted with the world and dissatisfied with myself, I abandoned all my schemes for the accumulation of wealth, turned my back upon the society of my fellows, and took the road towards the wildest and most unfrequented parts of the Sierra Nevada, resolved thenceforth to make the wilderness my home and wild beasts my companions,” he wrote
He grew his prematurely gray hair and beard long. Using his shoemaker skill, he made buckskin clothing, moccasins, harnesses and saddles from the animals he trapped.
Friends in High Places
He built a shelter and lived off the land, making money selling meat and skins and working as a guide. Adams also trapped animals, which he kept in a primitive corral. He grew fascinated with the grizzlies. “There is a vastness in his strength, which makes him a fit companion for the monster trees and giant rocks of the Sierra,” he wrote.
He captured and tamed a year-old female grizzly, which he called Lady Washington. He taught her to carry a pack, pull a sled and carry him on her back. Then a year later he found two grizzly cubs, and he named one Ben Franklin. Ben saved his life when a mother grizzly attacked them, cracking Adams’ skull. That head injury would kill him five years later.
In 1856, Grizzly Adams collected all his animals and put his show on the road to San Francisco. Along the way, he’d stop in villages, find a corral and put on his act with the animals inside it. People loved it. When he reached San Francisco, Grizzly Adams was becoming a legend. People called him the Barnum of the Pacific.
He set up a wild animal show in the city on the Bay, calling it the Pacific Museum. A visitor said he saw, ‘10 bears of various kinds, a California lion and tiger, several eagles, several elks and several Sierra Nevada cats, or martins.’
But his head wound continued to bother him. His health declining, he packed his menagerie for New York. There he hoped to make enough money to support his soon-to-be widowed wife, who he hadn’t seen in 10 years.
The real P.T. Barnum hired him in the last year of his life and publicized the nickname Grizzly Adams. In his memoirs, Barnum recalled the old mountaineer was as much a show as his beasts. He wore buckskin trimmed with skins and bordered with the hanging tails of small Rocky Mountain animals. A three-month voyage around Cape Horn hadn’t added to his beauty or neatness, wrote Barnum.
His show opened to rave reviews and large crowds in New York City. He toured Connecticut. But Barnum knew he was dying, and hired a replacement.
Ironically, a monkey, not a grizzly killed Grizzly Adams. His earlier wound reopened and the monkey bit into it.
Barnum urged him to go home to his wife and children, but Adams offered him a deal. He’d stay with the show for 10 weeks if Barnum gave him a bonus of $500. Somehow, Grizzly Adams managed to stay upright for the whole period.
He died at 48 on Oct. 25, 1860, five days after returning home to his wife and daughter in Neponset, Mass. Shortly before he died, someone asked him about his religion. “I have attended preaching every day, Sundays and all, for the last six years,” he replied. “Sometimes an old grizzly gave me the sermon, sometimes it was a panther; often it was the thunder and lightning, or the hurricane on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada.”
A book about his mountaineering career spread his fame after his death. To read his ‘as-told-to’ biography, click here.
A film and a television series, both starring Dan Haggerty, portrayed the life of Grizzly Adams in the 1970s.
This story was updated in 2022. Photo of Dan Haggerty by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2027735.