The Truth About Reelfoot
By George F. Wright
In the past few years I have been urged by many people to write the facts concerning the noted grizzly bear, Reelfoot, and after much thought and consideration I have decided it would be proper and fitting to do so, for I have spent sixty-two years in the Siskiyou Mountains where Reelfoot once roamed. In earlier years the story was told to me many times by one of the bear's slayers, my uncle, Wm. A. Wright, also by my father, Thos. J. Wright, who hunted unsuccessfully for the bear, as did other early settlers.
Although my experience as a writer is little, and my school days were few, I will try to give to my readers this print sketch of the plain, unpolished statement of facts concerning this grizzly monarch, and the events relative to his career of violence among the herds of cattle in the Siskiyou Mountains and vicinity, for more than twenty years. The many unsuccessful attempts to capture him, and his death at last by the rifles of Wm. A. Wright and Purl Bean. As there has been so much told and printed about this bear, which in most cases is incomplete, or of dubious validity, many stories of speculation, misstatement and wild guesses told and printed about this cattle-killing grizzly.
He was tough and he lived to be old, his teeth were short and worn from many years of hard usage, and he was one of the largest grizzlies killed anywhere. Many incidents were related of the wanton killing of cattle in the vicinity of Pilot Rock and Jenny Creek; cattlemen were awed by the giant size and his cunning. The stories and killing of other grizzlies have about all been forgotten, but the tale of Reelfoot is still told.
The end of Reelfoot was a dawn of a new era for the cattlemen, an era free from the torment of cattle losses. He was hated, feared and hunted, but always respected; after sixty-nine years his stuffed hide is still hunted.
I have often heard said that all things must some day come to an end. How true this was of the grizzly race after the coming of the white man, with his onslaught of expanding programs for fortune and fame, his onward push of the cattle industry into the remote areas, spelled the end of at least one of the last remaining grizzlies.
Many years have passed since grizzly bears roamed the forest of southern Oregon and northern California, particularly in the Siskiyou Mountains, but the memory of AReelfoot still lingers. Tales of his great size, immense strength, his ability to outwit the human schemes to kill him, coupled with his uncanny instincts, are told wherever old timers meet.
During the late 1880's it was believed that Reelfoot was the last remaining grizzly in and around the Siskiyou Mountains, however, in the spring of 1890, a large grizzly was killed in the vicinity of Secret Mountain, by Rod M. Frain, W.L. Frain and Frank Ream. This bear had killed a number of cattle in the mountains surrounding Butte Valley, a $500 reward was offered for his scalp. To my knowledge, the last known grizzly to roam the Siskiyou Mountains was killed in 1902 by Gordon Jacobs of Hornbrook, California, along the California-Oregon border west of Hilt. However, grizzly tracks were reported later.
When the rich and fertile lands of Siskiyou and Jackson Counties were first settled and herds of cattle began to graze the surrounding hillsides, grizzly bears were quite numerous. As most of these were only average grizzlies, little attention was paid to those killed. Cattlemen were expanding their land and increasing their herds, grizzlies were also increasing their forays. Cattlemen hunted and killed, poisoned and trapped bears, while hunters and trappers killed them for food, until the grizzly bear population was reduced considerably. But still the number of cattle killed was at an alarming figure, and it became evident as time went on that two large grizzlies were doing most of the killing.
At that time the Grieve brothers were in the cattle business along Jenny Creek, and they also lost cattle, one of the brothers, Robert Bruce Grieve, an experienced hunter and trapper, set a trap in the vicinity of Skookum Gulch, and in time caught a huge female grizzly, said to be the largest yet killed in the Siskiyou Mountains. But still the cattle losses went on, and it was evident that one overgrown bear was doing the killing. For some time the cattlemen tried to trap and poison him, and many hunted for him; except for the huge tracks there was no way to distinguish his killings from other grizzlies, he was of gigantic size, and the way he killed full-grown cattle was beyond the imagination of man.
Robert Bruce Grieve tried his luck at setting a trap for the bear in the Skookum Gulch area, and after repeated efforts, succeeded in getting him in a trap, but he escaped, leaving three of his toenails in the trap. This made his left front footprint appear like it was turned in a little, hence the name Reelfoot.
It was found that he roamed a great expanse of territory, his real foot tracks telling of his visits in many places. He would disappear from the Pilot Rock and Jenny Creek area for as long as six months at a time. Old timers claimed that he went as far as Silver Lake, Oregon. He seemed to kill, eat and move on, although his main travels were along the California-Oregon border between the Klamath River on the east and Pilot Rock on the west. His enormous strength and weight enabled him to kill a full-grown beef with as little effort as an ordinary bear would kill a calf. He would rush upon a beef, usually from a point of vantage on an elevation above his prey, and bear it to the ground, would close his powerful jaws over the animal's back just behind the shoulders, and crush the bones of shoulder and back. Cows and steers killed in this manner had about the carcasses tracks of AReelfoot.
In the spring of 1882, J.D. Williams, of Ashland, Oregon, was herding his flock of sheep in the vicinity of Bald Mountain. He witnessed one of Reelfoot's battles. His sheep were grazing on a hillside, below him in a glade a bunch of cattle under the leadership of a big bull belonging to David M. Horn, were quietly feeding. The instant the bear appeared Williams took to the tree and viewed the struggle from that vantage point at a distance of some fifty yards. The unsuspecting cattle did not see the bear until he rushed in and killed a calf standing beside its mother. The cow attempted to defend her calf but a stroke from the big paws left the cow dead. The bull charged down upon the bear, Reelfoot was knocked off his feet by the impact. He arose with a growl and charged the bull several times until he succeeded in seizing the bull and bringing him to his death. The bear made a meal of the calf, then wallowed in a mud-hole and left. Williams identified the bear by the tracks after the fight was over.
William A. Wright tried repeatedly to trap him but always failed. He then tried out a plan of setting his 50-70 Sharps carbine to kill him. The intelligence and cunning of the bear was soon evident. Wright arranged his loaded carbine, tied to a tree along Slide Creek, in such a way that he thought it impossible for the bear to get at the bait without standing where he would receive the bullet from the carbine. The bear approached the bait from the lower side of the tree, reached around the tree, and started to pull the bait away when the carbine was discharged, but the bullet missed! Again and again Wright tried every plan known to effect his capture, but always failed, so for a time gave it up.
So for several years the herds of cattle were being depleted by this grizzly's vicious acts. The cattlemen banded together and offered a sizeable reward for his capture. Among those having the largest herds and suffering the heaviest losses, were Major Barron of Ashland, Oregon, and David M. Horn, of Hornbrook, California. These cattlemen, along with others, combined and offered a reward of $2,700.00 to any person or persons who could prove the killing of AReelfoot. This stimulated the hunters of this region to extraordinary efforts, and many a hard day's tramp and many lonely nights by campfires resulted only in confirming the hunters in the belief that Reelfoot could not be caught.
Hunters and cattlemen, singly and in groups, hunted for him again and again, but all to no avail. His tracks were often seen, and he was known to be in the vicinity, but he kept out of the sight of the hunters.
Reelfoot possessed a remarkable cunning in eluding all his pursuers, avoiding the dangers of the many traps set for him. He would seldom return to a kill after he had eaten a meal. It took a beef for every meal. By keeping well concealed in the daytime and traveling at a rate almost impossible for man or horse to keep up with him, the bear for many years baffled the efforts of the best hunters to kill or trap him.
George Cook, a noted hunter and guide, put in quite a lot of time seeking Reelfoot, and had the good fortune to get a shot at the noted bear; a 38-55 rifle bullet lodged in his shoulder, where it was found flattened against the shoulder blade after the bear was killed, years later.
During the spring following the hard winter of 1889 and 1890 hundreds of cattle had just been loosed on the rangeland to graze the southward slopes of hillsides between Hornbrook and Pilot Rock. Reelfoot frequently roamed the Pilot Rock area during the early spring, and it was believed he denned up in that area.
On April 4, 1890, Wm. A. Wright, saddled his horse on his home ranch at Camp Creek and rode to Hornbrook. On his return he met Pedro Smith, who lived on his homestead at the head of Dry Creek, on his way to Klamathon. He reported to Wright the killing of a cow by Reelfoot along Dry Creek, belonging to David M. Horn. The incident was also reported around Klamathon town. Wright continued on his way, stopping at the ranch of the Bean family on Pine Creek. He invited Purl Bean to go with him the following day to hunt for the cattle-killing bear. Bean, an experienced hunter himself, was delighted to try his luck. The next morning on arriving at the Bean ranch Wright found three other hunters eager to accompany them on the hunt. On that day, April 5, 1890, the five hunters started after the famous bear, fully determined to capture him if possible. They desired to separate, three going in a different direction than the other two. The country was exceedingly rough, with its high peaks and deep, rocky canyons, mostly covered with thick brush and deep snow on the north hillsides, consequently one that was very difficult for man or beast to travel over.
The two men, Wm. A. Wright and Purl Bean, who were together, found fresh tracks of the bear, and thought it best to report the finding to the rest of the party. After a brief rest the five men returned to the spot of fresh tracks, following them for several miles, soon sighting the bear in the distance. One of the party, being the owner of some dogs brought along for the purpose, unleashed them on the bear's trail, against the expressed wishes of the remainder of the party. Consequently both bear and dogs kept out of sight of the hunters, so the chase ended unsuccessfully again. Weary and disheartened after hunting for four days, the men were ready to return to their homes. Owing to the results of this hunt, Wm. A. Wright and Purl Bean decided to try again later on and by themselves, in fact they decided on the very next day.
Both these men were good hunters and mountaineers and knew the area they were to cover. Wright was 41 years of age, seasoned with many years of experience on the frontier and having three previous narrow escapes from grizzlies. His physical ruggedness and determined courage fitted him well for the hardships and dangers often met with on the western frontier. Bean was only a youth of 17 years, but much older in experience, having grown up in the mountains. He was a good hunter and a crack shot, endowed with great courage.
So at the dawn of a new day, April 10, 1890, Wright and Bean, with two dogs, started on a bear hunt that resulted in the death of the much-feared grizzly, Reelfoot, and was to grace the pages of history and the talk of the country far and near for years to come.
After traveling several miles they came suddenly upon the object of their hunt, about three miles south of Pilot Rock, near Wildcat Gulch, in Siskiyou County, California, and near the Oregon border.
The bear when first sighted had just gotten up from his bed, made on a flattened wood-rat's nest. It was believed that he had gotten the scent of the hunters, and his cunning instinct started him to move along his way. The hunters were standing on a hillside, about one hundred feet from the little gulch, looking up at the bear on the opposite hillside, some three hundred feet from the gulch. They both at once fired from the rear at a distance of about one hundred and twenty-five yards as the bear left his bed, both bullets took affect. As soon as shot he showed fight and made for the hunters, tearing up with his teeth large shrubs and brush in his anger, and fighting the two dogs as he came. Blended with the rifle fire was the barking of the two dogs and the roaring growls of an enraged, huge, grizzly bear. The hunters stood their ground, to kill or be killed, taking good aim and firing as fast as possible and with good effect. By this time the bear had fought his way down to the bottom of the gulch, where the dogs Abayed him for a few minutes, giving the hunters time to reload their repeating rifles.
Although the bear showed some signs of weakening the dogs were tired also. The men agreed that Wright would shoot for his head, and Bean for the heart. With their rifles fully loaded again they started firing, still the weakened bear fought his way up the hillside of the gulch, trying to get at his assailants. When within forty feet of the men the great bear unexpectedly toppled over dead. Thus ended the career of this much feared and noted grizzly. The hunters probably breathed a sigh of relief and no doubt felt a gratitude toward the two dogs for their much-needed help in bringing their hunt to a successful conclusion.
It was never known how many cattle this old and vicious grizzly killed during the twenty-odd years he was known to be a killer, but the figures were estimated to be in the hundreds.
With horses and a sled the two successful hunters hauled the bear down from the mountain to the Bean ranch home, and began to prepare the hide for mounting. It was mounted by an amateur taxidermist, in time the hide began to spoil, so it was necessary to dismount it and it was taken to another taxidermist, but due to the spoiled condition it was impossible to make a good job of mounting. This is the reason the mounted animal does not have the exact appearance of a grizzly bear. Missing is the hump so characteristic of the grizzly. However, the mounted bear was placed on a wagon drawn by a team of mules, and displayed for ten cents per person in the towns and villages throughout western Oregon and northern California.
Wright, a family man with a ranch and cattle, was anxious to sell the mounted bear and return to his home, this was accomplished in, I believe, 1892, for the sum of $500.00. The bear was then displayed in many cities and towns throughout the United States, and finally seems to have disappeared. In the late 1930's an effort was made to locate the mounted bear by Gordon Jacobs and others, to have it returned and placed in the Siskiyou County Museum in Yreka, California. Several clues were run down and checked, but to no avail. Service men returning from World War II from overseas reported that they believed the bear was in a museum in London, England. So the hunt began again, all museums in England, France and Germany were contacted without success. At this writing, the whereabouts of the memorable old bear Reelfoot are a mystery.
In 1912 I acquired the number six Newhouse trap used by Wright to catch the bear. In 1922 I acquired the number six Newhouse trap from which Reelfoot escaped, leaving three of his toenails. This trap was stolen from my ranch in 1950. In 1924 I became the owner of the 50-70 Sharps carbine used by Wright as a Aset gun, but this was destroyed by a fire in the same year. The three toenails were for many years on display at the home ranch of the Grieve brothers, one of them was stolen. The remaining toenails, which are 42 inches long, are owned by George A. Grieve and on display at the Siskiyou County Museum in Yreka, California. I understand at this writing that Mrs. Mackey, sister of Purl Bean, still has the bullets taken from Reelfoot after he was killed. It is not known what became of Bean's 44-40 Winchester Model 1873 rifle, used in slaying the bear. The 56-46 Spencer rifle that Wright used, was, before coming into the possession of the Wright family, owned by G.A. Nordheim, an early California gunsmith of Yreka, California. He had made a target rifle of the Spencer, by fitting a heavy barrel and set trigger bringing the weight to thirteen pounds. I have handled the rifle many times at our old home ranch on Camp Creek. I have in my possession some pictures of the mounted AReelfoot.
In conclusion, I hope this article has given some of the real facts and will clear up many of the misleading statements that have been made and printed about Reelfoot.