Old Grizzly Adams.1

James C. Adams, or “Grizzly Adams,” as he was generally termed, from the fact of his having captured so many grizzly bears, and encountered such fearful perils by his unexampled daring, was an extraordinary character. For many years a hunter and trapper in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains, he acquired a recklessness which, added to his natural invincible courage, rendered him truly one of the most striking men of the age. He was emphatically what the English call a man of “pluck.” In 1860, he arrived in New York with his famous collection of California animals, captured by himself, consisting of twenty or thirty immense grizzly bears, at the head of which stood “Old Sampson”⁠—now in the American Museum⁠—wolves, half a dozen other species of bear, California lions, tigers, buffalo, elk, etc., and Old Neptune, the great sea-lion, from the Pacific.

Old Adams had trained all these monsters so that with him they were as docile as kittens, while many of the most ferocious among them would attack a stranger without hesitation, if he came within their grasp. In fact, the training of these animals was no fool’s play, as Old Adams learned to his cost; for the terrific blows which he received from time to time, while teaching them “docility,” finally cost him his life.

When Adams and his other wild beasts (for he was nearly as wild as any of them) arrived in New York, he called immediately at the Museum. He was dressed in his hunter’s suit of buckskin, trimmed with the skins and bordered with the hanging tails of small Rocky Mountain animals; his cap consisting of the skin of a wolf’s head and shoulders, from which depended several tails as natural as life, and under which appeared his stiff bushy gray hair and his long white grizzly beard. In fact, Old Adams was quite as much of a show as his bears. They had come around Cape Horn on the clipper-ship Golden Fleece, and a sea-voyage of three and a half months had probably not added much to the beauty or neat appearance of the old bear-hunter.

During our conversation, Grizzly Adams took off his cap, and showed me the top of his head. His skull was literally broken in. It had on various occasions been struck by the fearful paws of his grizzly students; and the last blow, from the bear called “General Fremont,” had laid open his brain, so that its workings were plainly visible. I remarked that I thought that was a dangerous wound, and might possibly prove fatal.

“Yes,” replied Adams, “that will fix me out. It had nearly healed; but old Fremont opened it for me, for the third or fourth time, before I left California, and he did his business so thoroughly, I’m a used-up man. However, I reckon I may live six months or a year yet.”

This was spoken as coolly as if he had been talking about the life of a dog.

The immediate object of “Old Adams” in calling upon me was this. I had purchased one-half interest in his California menagerie from a man who had come by way of the Isthmus from California, and who claimed to own an equal interest with Adams in the show. Adams declared that the man had only advanced him some money, and did not possess the right to sell half of the concern. However, the man held a bill of sale for one-half of the “California Menagerie,” and Old Adams finally consented to accept me as an equal partner in the speculation, saying that he guessed I could do the managing part, and he would show up the animals. I obtained a canvas tent, and erecting it on the present site of Wallack’s Theatre, Adams there opened his novel California Menagerie. On the morning of opening, a band of music preceded a procession of animal-cages, down Broadway and up the Bowery; Old Adams dressed in his hunting costume, heading the line, with a platform-wagon on which were placed three immense grizzly bears, two of which he held by chains, while he was mounted on the back of the largest grizzly, which stood in the center, and was not secured in any manner whatever. This was the bear known as “General Fremont;” and so docile had he become that Adams said he had used him as a packbear to carry his cooking and hunting apparatus through the mountains for six months, and had ridden him hundreds of miles. But apparently docile as were many of these animals, there was not one among them that would not occasionally give even Adams a sly blow or a sly bite when a good chance offered; hence Old Adams was but a wreck of his former self, and expressed pretty nearly the truth when he said:

Mr. Barnum, I am not the man I was five years ago. Then I felt able to stand the hug of any grizzly living, and was always glad to encounter, single-handed, any sort of an animal that dared present himself. But I have been beaten to a jelly, torn almost limb from limb, and nearly chawed up and spit out by these treacherous grizzly bears. However, I am good for a few months yet, and by that time I hope we shall gain enough to make my old woman comfortable, for I have been absent from her some years.”

His wife came from Massachusetts to New York, and nursed him. Dr. Johns dressed his wounds every day, and not only told Adams he could never recover, but assured his friends that probably a very few weeks would lay him in his grave.

But Adams was as firm as adamant and as resolute as a lion. Among the thousands who saw him dressed in his grotesque hunter’s suit, and witnessed the apparent vigor with which he “performed” the savage monsters, beating and whipping them into apparently the most perfect docility, probably not one suspected that this rough, fierce-looking, powerful demi-savage, as he appeared to be, was suffering intense pain from his broken skull and fevered system, and that nothing kept him from stretching himself on his deathbed but that most indomitable and extraordinary will of his.

After the exhibition had been open six weeks, the Doctor insisted that Adams should sell out his share in the animals and settle up all his worldly affairs; for he assured him that he was growing weaker every day, and his earthly existence must soon terminate.

“I shall live a good deal longer than you doctors think for,” replied Adams, doggedly; and then, seeming after all to realize the truth of the Doctor’s assertion, he turned to me and said: “Well, Mr. B., you must buy me out.” He named his price for his half of the “show,” and I accepted his offer. We had arranged to exhibit the bears in Connecticut and Massachusetts during the summer, in connection with a circus, and Adams insisted that I should hire him to travel for the summer, and exhibit the bears in their curious performances. He offered to go for $60 per week and traveling expenses of himself and wife.

I replied that I would gladly engage him as long as he could stand it, but I advised him to give up business and go to his home in Massachusetts; “for,” I remarked, “you are growing weaker every day, and at best cannot stand it more than a fortnight.”

“What will you give me extra if I will travel and exhibit the bears every day for ten weeks?” asked old Adams, eagerly.

“Five hundred dollars,” I replied, with a laugh.

“Done!” exclaimed Adams. “I will do it; so draw up an agreement to that effect at once. But mind you, draw it payable to my wife, for I may be too weak to attend to business after the ten weeks are up, and if I perform my part of the contract, I want her to get the $500 without any trouble.”

I drew up a contract to pay him $60 per week for his services, and if he continued to exhibit the bears for ten consecutive weeks I was then to hand him, or his wife $500 extra.

“You have lost your $500!” exclaimed Adams on taking the contract; “for I am bound to live and earn it.”

“I hope you may, with all my heart, and a hundred years more if you desire it,” I replied.

“Call me a fool if I don’t earn the $500!” exclaimed Adams, with a triumphant laugh.

The “show” started off in a few days, and at the end of a fortnight I met it at Hartford, Connecticut.

“Well,” says I, “Adams, you seem to stand it pretty well. I hope you and your wife are comfortable?”

“Yes,” he replied, with a laugh; “and you may as well try to be comfortable too, for your $500 is a goner.”

“All right,” I replied; “I hope you will grow better every day.”

But I saw by his pale face, and other indications, that he was rapidly failing.

In three weeks more, I met him again at New Bedford, MA. It seemed to me, then, that he could not live a week, for his eyes were glassy and his hands trembled, but his pluck was great as ever.

“This hot weather is pretty bad for me,” he said, “but my ten weeks are half expired, and I am good for your $500, and, probably, a month or two longer.”

This was said with as much bravado as if he was offering to bet upon a horse-race. I offered to pay him half of the $500 if he would give up and go home; but he peremptorily declined making any compromise whatever.

I met him the ninth week in Boston. He had failed considerably since I last saw him, but he still continued to exhibit the bears and chuckled over his almost certain triumph. I laughed in return, and sincerely congratulated him on his nerve and probable success. I remained with him until the tenth week was finished, and handed him his $500. He took it with a leer of satisfaction, and remarked, that he was sorry I was a teetotaller, for he would like to stand treat!

Just before the menagerie left New York, I had paid $150 for a new hunting-suit, made of beaver-skins similar to the one which Adams had worn. This I intended for Herr Driesbach, the animal-tamer, who was engaged by me to take the place of Adams whenever he should be compelled to give up.

Adams, on starting from New York, asked me to loan this new dress to him to perform in once in a while in a fair day when we had a large audience, for his own costume was considerably soiled. I did so, and now when I handed him his $500 he remarked:

Mr. B., I suppose you are going to give me this new hunting-dress.”

“Oh no,” I replied. “I got that for your successor, who will exhibit the bears tomorrow; besides, you have no possible use for it.”

“Now, don’t be mean, but lend me the dress, if you won’t give it to me, for I want to wear it home to my native village.”

I could not refuse the poor old man anything, and I therefore replied:

“Well, Adams, I will lend you the dress; but you will send it back to me.”

“Yes, when I have done with it,” he replied, with an evident chuckle of triumph.

I thought to myself, he will soon be done with it, and replied:

“That’s all right.”

A new idea evidently seized him, for, with a brightening look of satisfaction, he said:

“Now, Barnum, you have made a good thing out of the California menagerie, and so have I; but you will make a heap more. So, if you won’t give me this new hunter’s dress, just draw a little writing, and sign it, saying that I may wear it until I have done with it.”

Of course, I knew that in a few days at longest he would be “done” with this world altogether, and, to gratify him, I cheerfully drew and signed the paper.

“Come, old Yankee, I’ve got you this time⁠—see if I hain’t!” exclaimed Adams, with a broad grin, as he took the paper.

I smiled, and said:

“All right, my dear fellow; the longer you live, the better I shall like it.”

We parted, and he went to Neponset, a small town near Boston, where his wife and daughter lived. He took at once to his bed, and never rose from it again. The excitement had passed away, and his vital energies could accomplish no more.

The fifth day after arriving home, the physician told him he could not live until the next morning. He received the announcement in perfect calmness, and with the most apparent indifference; then, turning to his wife, with a smile, he requested her to have him buried in the new hunting suit.

“For,” said he, “Barnum agreed to let me have it until I have done with it, and I was determined to fix his flint this time. He shall never see that dress again.”

His wife assured him that his request should be complied with. He then sent for the clergyman, and they spent several hours in communing together.

Adams told the clergyman he had told some pretty big stories about his bears, but he had always endeavored to do the straight thing between man and man. “I have attended preaching every day, Sundays and all,” said he, “for the last six years. Sometimes an old grizzly gave me the sermon, sometimes it was a panther; often it was the thunder and lightning, the tempest, or the hurricane on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, or in the gorges of the Rocky Mountains; but whatever preached to me, it always taught me the majesty of the Creator, and revealed to me the undying and unchanging love of our kind Father in heaven. Although I am a pretty rough customer,” continued the dying man, “I fancy my heart is in about the right place, and look with confidence to the blessed Saviour for that rest which I so much need, and which I have never enjoyed upon Earth.” He then desired the clergyman to pray with him, after which he grasped him by the hand, thanked him for his kindness, and bade him farewell.

In another hour his spirit had taken its flight; and it was said by those present that his face lighted up into a smile as the last breath escaped him, and that smile he carried into his grave. Almost his last words were: “Won’t Barnum open his eyes when he finds I have humbugged him by being buried in his new hunting-dress?” That dress was indeed the shroud in which he was entombed.

And that was the last on Earth of “Old Grizzly Adams.”