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Orange County's grizzly past

Part of the Bowers Museum's latest exhibit recalls the grizzly bears that once called Orange County home.

September 29, 2010|By Karin Klein

There are two shrunken heads from Ecuador and a shawl so intricately embroidered with miniature scenes, it cost its Orange County buyer 500 heifers in the 1800s. An Egyptian mummy mask has a hauntingly realistic portrait of its owner drawn on the inside.

The 74-year-old Bowers Museum in Santa Ana is an eclectic sort of museum. Once devoted to Orange County history, in more recent years its displays have included China's terra cotta soldiers and Ansel Adams photographs. But the exhibit that opened earlier this month has to be the most mixed grouping yet, a kaleidoscope of oddities whose only commonality is that they were found by curators ransacking the museum's storage shelves.

I came, not for the shawl or the heads or the feather-soled "killing shoes" once worn by inhabitants of certain Australian villages intent on murder, but for the double-barred contraption of metal that was used in 1908 to trap the last grizzly bear in Southern California. The exhibit identifies the she-bear as Old Moccasin John, so called because she had left a paw in an earlier trap and the print made by that leg looked slipperlike.

Whether the bear caught in this particular trap was Old Moccasin John is unclear; the last bear in this region was known as Little Black Bear. Depending on which early account you read, the two might have been the same bear by different names. But according to a newspaper interview with Ed Adkinson, one of the two men who killed the last grizzly, Old Moccasin John died in the 1890s. A touring exhibit on California grizzlies identifies her as Little Black Bear and says she was the last verified grizzly in the state.

It was while working on a hiking book about Orange County that I'd come across this tale and many others involving grizzlies and the wilder life that thrived in the county before housing tracts crept up its flanks. To hike in and around the Santa Ana Mountains is to forge a palpable link to the past — the spring jokingly named for a braggart vaquero, the failed miners, the grouchy beekeeper, the still-standing sycamore where bandits were lynched, the 6-ton rock used by Native Americans that, when struck, resonated with a bell-like tone for a mile.

Grizzlies were numerous in the Santa Ana Mountains as late as the 1860s, living at the lower elevations. California condors too nested and soared in the canyons. Along the Modjeska Grade/Santiago Truck Trail juts a craggy sandstone outcropping known as Vulture Crags where the carrion eaters particularly liked to roost.

White settlement would be cruel to both animals. Vaqueros made a pastime of roping bears, with horsemen working from different angles to lasso one, pulling the ropes taut so that it couldn't attack them. A more brutal sport involved putting a bear and a bull tied together in a corral to fight it out. One eyewitness account says the bears usually won; another says the two animals spent most of the time trying to avoid each other.

The grizzlies were seen as dangerous to ranch herds, though naturalists say they were more likely to eat carrion than attack live cattle. A bounty of $10 a head finished off many of them; by the 1870s, the diminished population headed for higher elevations. So few grizzlies remained that each was dubbed with a nickname.

The ultimate conflict between man and bear wasn't over cattle, though, but bees. Beekeeping was a popular occupation in the Santa Anas. The most famous of the men who tried their hand at this was known as Cussin' Jim Smith because of his famously foul mouth. Later, when the canyon where he lived was formally mapped, it was given the name Holy Jim, a more acceptable nod to his occupancy and his proclivity for profanity. The descendants of the fig trees he planted now grow wild in Holy Jim Canyon and bend over the trail, forming a tunnel on the way to a waterfall.

But it was in neighboring Trabuco Canyon that the last bear would be killed. Let's call her Little Black Bear, because that was at least one of her accurate names. Another nickname was Honey Thief; like the other last few bears, this small, aged and underfed grizzly found the hives irresistible. But she was also so wily that apiarists' efforts to lie in wait or bait her invariably failed.

The following account of her last days comes from a 1948 history by Terry Stephenson, "Shadows of Old Saddleback." After the bear destroyed 30 hives, a modified mountain lion trap — the one now at the Bowers — was set on a trail she was known to use. Little Black Bear fell for the trap but then dragged it five miles, with hunters in pursuit. When their dogs caught up with her, the injured, underweight bear still fought them off. It took three shots from the hunters to finally kill her.

Her pelt was sent to the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey; an enthusiastic letter from the agency to the second hunter, Andrew Joplin, notes payment of $25 and asks if there are any others that might be obtainable. The pelt is now in the Smithsonian. The U.S. official also writes with excitement about the condors living in the Santa Anas, saying, "I hope the California condors you mention will breed in your mountains and that no one will molest them."

The sentiment came too late. By then, the condors had been shot and purposely poisoned to the point of rarity, and they disappeared altogether from the Santa Anas around the 1930s. That was the same decade the Bell Rock was carted from its canyon to the Bowers Museum, where it now rests in the courtyard. It no longer rings.

Karin Klein is a Times editorial writer and the author of "50 Hikes in Orange County."

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