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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Grizzly Adams

Updated: May 6, 2023

The True Life of a Frontier Original

Movies, television series, and books have extolled the legendary mountain man-turned-bear-tamer, Grizzly Adams. But the truth was even more incredible than fiction. He grew up poor with no education and apprenticed to be a cobbler in Massachusetts. But, at 21, he left to pursue his true love, working with animals for a zoological collector. He trained wild animals but, within two years, he was nearly killed by a Bengal tiger!

Maimed for life and suffering severe spinal injuries, he returned home to the quiet life of a cobbler. But in 1849, during the California Gold Rush, adventure called and he left his wife and three children to go West. He tried mining, trading, and farming with no success, then lived in the wilderness as an isolated mountain man. In 1853, he caught a yearling female grizzly he named Lady Washington. He tamed her, taught her to carry a pack, and she lived in his cabin with him. The next year, Adams caught a two-week grizzly cub from a den in Yosemite that he named Benjamin Franklin.

The following year, young "Ben" saved John's life by fighting off a huge mother grizzly. The shebear almost killed both, mangling Adams' face and ripping nearly his entire scalp off. Her claws bore a hole the size of a silver dollar in his skull exposing his brain. It never healed. Later, when Adams became an entertainer with his bears, he would remove his wolf-head cap, bend over and ask spectators to look in the hole at his glistening brain and ask if they could tell what he was thinking!

He continued to collect more bears, as well as cougars, elk, black bears, snakes, eagles, and smaller mammals and opened the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco. His collection was the largest exhibit of living and mounted animals on the West Coast. Soon newspapers dubbed him the "Barnum of the Pacific."

His exhibitions inspired a national campaign for the establishment of zoos that, in part, led to the Central Park Zoo in 1860 and Woodward Gardens (precursor to the San Francisco Zoo) in 1866. Also during this time, a famous illustrator, Charles C. Nahl, sketched Adams' favorite bear, Samson. The image became the bear on the California state flag!

During one of his shows, the grizzly General Fremont, clawed his old head wound. His health was failing from many injuries from bear attacks, so he decided to go back East. He approached P.T Barnum about purchasing his show and hiring him. Barnum was so charmed by Adams' showmanship, he agreed. Adams even finagled Barnum into commissioning a new mountain man suit for him, made of beaver skins.

Grizzly Adams toured only briefly with Barnum's show before a monkey he was training bit the hole in his skull and penetrated his brain. His health quickly deteriorated, and he returned to the wife he had left for more than ten years, where he died. He was buried in the mountain man suit Barnum had made for him and Barnum paid for his gravestone. Adams was 48 years old.

PHOTOS: (Top left) A drawing of John “Grizzly” Adams with his signature wolf-head cap. 1860. (Top right) One of the only known photographs of a scarred Adams with one of his bears. About 1855. (Middle left) Grizzly killed in southern California posed to show its deadly 6-inch claws. 1908. (Lower left) The television show, “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,” ran from 1977-1978, starring Dan Haggerty with the humongous trained female Grizzly, Bozo.

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"Grizzly Adams" was originally posted on Facebook and on June 2, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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