Sarah Lim: Hunting grizzlies in Merced

January 24, 2009 

SARAH LIM

He is furry, huggable, and cute; he is also big, wild and scary. He is the legendary California grizzly bear. There were about 10,000 grizzlies once living in California. The California grizzlies exemplified the "untamed" wilderness of the west. Because they were seen by the settlers as a dire threat to human existence and settlement, they were hunted and killed in large numbers. As a result, they are now extinct in California.

Among the first hunters in the Merced County area was Captain Joseph Walker. In the early days, the San Joaquin Valley was a hunter's paradise abundant with elk, antelope, deer, salmon, ducks, geese and grizzly bears. Capitan Walker and his hunting party came to California in 1834 and grizzly bears were one of their main games. They set foot in Merced County in 1854 and camped on the San Joaquin River in the vicinity of Santa Rita. For about two months, they would pair up and hunt all day. One day, while two of his men were in pursuit of a large group of elk, they ran into a nest of five grizzly bears. These experienced hunters successfully killed them all.

While Walker's men succeeded in adding the grizzlies to their take of the day, Merced County pioneer, Eleazer T. Givens, almost lost his life in a bear encounter. It was in the early morning of Oct. 11, 1850. Givens had wounded a grizzly and went back to the camp in Whitlock's Creek to get help. He returned with his friend, John W. Childs, and two other men, and found the wounded bear and her two cubs. They followed the bears for several hours until confronting them in a chaparral thicket, where Givens was badly bitten and lost about half of his scalp. The mother bear was killed by Childs, but her two cubs successfully escaped. This tragic encounter ended Givens' mining operation.

Meanwhile the grizzly bears continued to be killed in large numbers. By the early 1900s, the California grizzlies faced extinction and little of their prime habitats in the Central Valley remained. The last grizzly bear killed in the Central Valley was in 1922 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It was unclear of it took place in Tulare County or Fresno County.

To learn more about the extinction of the California grizzly, the science of bears, and how these animals live on in our imagination and culture, please join us for the opening reception of "Bear In Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly" exhibit on Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Courthouse Museum, 21st and N streets. A PBS Nature series "Bears" will be shown at 6 p.m. This program is about the Alaska grizzly hunting for salmon following the six month hibernation. This exhibit is produced and toured by the California Exhibition Resources Alliance. The event is free to the public. For more information, please contact the museum office at (209) 723-2401.

Sarah Lim is director of Merced County Courthouse Museum. She may be contacted at 723-2401 or info@mercedmuseum.org

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