In the early days, grizzly bears were more abundant around here than we can ever imagine. The Indians had a sort of truce with them. After all, going after a 1000 pound animal wielding four inch claws with only a bow and arrow would be a formidable undertaking. Little wonder that the Indians feared, revered and avoided them. So for centuries, grizzlies and Indians coexisted. An occasional bear would kill an Indian and vice versa.
With the arrival of the Europeans in the 1850s, the truce ended. It became apparent that the two species couldn’t adapt to one another. So the bears had to go. Destroying bears became an obsession for some of the rancheros. Partly it was to protect their cattle, and partly it was for sport. And partly it was for self-preservation in a chance encounter.
Countless bear stories have been left by early settlers of our area. So amazing are some of them that the line between fact and legend has blurred over the years. The details you read come directly from an early local settler or an observer who passed through the area. You can decide whether you’re reading fact or legend.
From William Heath Davis: [1840s] “In the mountain forests and on the prairie country in back of and on either side of San Francisquito Creek, there were hundreds and hundreds of black, cinnamon and grizzly bears which roamed the county, living on acorns from the live oaks studding the flat lands. In the season of matanza [slaughter of cattle for the hide and tallow market] they feasted on the rejected meats … At this season vaqueros and their masters amused themselves in the exciting night pastime of lassoing and strangling the brutes to death, … One night soldiers from the San Francisco Presidio lassoed and killed forty bears in the woods at San Francisquito Rancho [today’s Stanford campus].”
The preferred method for killing in an individual encounter was to shoot the bear at close range. Rancheros didn’t have repeating rifles, so if the first shot wasn’t fatal, before the man could reload with his ramrod, he would doubtless be dead. Thus, with courage, determination, and a steady hand, the successful hunter would wait for the bear to advance near enough to be certain the first shot would kill. Having the bear rise up on his haunches ready to spring was the recommended time to fire.
The rancheros also used a unique kind of trap. Rafael Soto, who lived on the Corte Madera Rancho for a while, and whose own rancho, Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito, encompassed most of today’s downtown Palo Alto, was famous for his skill with it. Step one was to dig a large hole and cover it with logs. Step two: leave a large chunk of raw meat on the logs. Step three: climb into the hole with gun and wait. Step four: kill the bear from below when he comes for the bait.
The most exciting method was to capture the bear alive for a bear and bull fight. Vaqueros would kill a steer for bait and drag it about a bit so that its scent would permeate the area. As a hapless grizzly would approach, three or four vaqueros, expert with lassos, mounted their well-trained ponies and lassoed the bear with two ropes, one around the neck choking him and one around a hind leg, lifting him partially off the ground. Pulling in opposite directions, they would drag him to the fighting arena. There the bear would either kill the bull or die in the attempt.
Lucas Greer told of one self-preservation encounter which involved a Frenchman named Barbone. As he was fishing, he met a grizzly which grabbed him by the thigh before he could escape. He broke the bear’s hold, only to have it bite into his arm. At this point, Barbone grabbed the bear by the nose with his teeth; the bear let go. So did Barbone, and each went their separate ways.
By far the most famous story is one verified by no less a personage that Dr. Tripp of the Woodside Store. The hero’s name is “Grizzly” Ryder. He was looking for stray oxen in the vicinity of Searsville Lake when darkness settled in. Walking a trail back to Woodside by the light of a young moon, he stopped for a drink at the stream now called Bear Gulch. As he arose, he saw a large object near him.
“To my horror and surprise, the thing arose upon its hind feet and grabbed me around the body. I realized that I had met a grizzly bear. Fortunately, the animal was probably as greatly surprised as I was, and grabbed me quite high up about the shoulders, so that my right arm was comparatively free. I at once loosened my sheath knife and proceeded to plunge it into the beast.”
Well, the bear let go, two cubs appeared, and the bear struck Ryder a fierce blow which sent him sprawling down an embankment. He played dead, lost consciousness, and the bear and her cubs left. Eventually a rescuer found him and sewed up the profusely bleeding gash in his thigh with a sail needle and string. Ryder survived to age 85 with his body covered with scars and the upper portion of an ear torn away.
By the 1880s the grizzlies were nearly gone. David Bromfield has told his version of the last bear in San Mateo County. George Harkins’ father set out poison in Whittemore Gulch for a grizzly making raids on his calves. “Soon roars were heard proceeding from the canyon. These lasted one whole day and night but finally on their subsidence, an examination was made and a dead bruin found.”
The Greers had another version. It must have been in the late 1880s or 1890s when Robert Greer saw the last grizzly bear in the Woodside area. He was riding unarmed when he came upon it drinking at a stream. It was old and lame. He went back to the ranch for his gun and some help. When he got back, the bear was gone.