Grizzly bears were very common along the Coastside before the Spanish came to California. Grizzlies are among the biggest animals that live in North America. They stand over 6 feet tall and weigh up to 800 pounds. Even their scientific Latin name makes it clear that people should be afraid — Ursus horribilis — which translates to “Bear horrible.” (In today’s California, the very different black bear is a calm animal that rarely endangers anything except berries and garbage cans.)
Native peoples in California had the utmost respect for the grizzly. First, it is simply dangerous to be close to them. They don’t seem to hunt humans, but they are inclined to attack them spontaneously. Perhaps more importantly, California’s Indigenous people attributed mystical powers to every aspect of nature, including the grizzly bear. In most of their belief systems, natural things — from animals to trees and people — represent connections and reflections of the human experience. Among their spiritual leaders was one who was known as the “grizzly bear shaman.” As such, that shaman (spiritual leader) was highly revered for the ability to achieve both good and bad things.
To the Spanish mission settlements (1776-1821), the grizzly was trouble. The backbone of the economy was their cattle ranches. The grizzly bear found cattle both tasty and easy to catch. The Spanish — and later, Mexicans successors (1821-1848) in California — would avoid the big bears. Even so, they did occasionally hunt them.
Different cultures approach things differently, of course. One of the great pastimes of both the Spanish and Mexicans was to stage fights between captured bears and their own longhorn bulls. Those bulls were also known for their aggressive temperaments. Grizzly bears almost always won those sad contests. The spirit of that competition lives in modern America. Notice Wall Street’s affection for its battles between bulls and bears.
When California became United States territory (1848), Americans came to California. Grizzlies were still common and still dangerous. The grizzly population began to drop sharply when American gun designs improved. The first reliable lever-action repeating rifle was invented by Winchester in 1866. That rifle spread rapidly across the western frontier.
Still, one of the earliest American settlers on the Coastside, near Point Año Neuvo, was successful lumberman William Waddell. A grizzly attacked and killed him in 1875.
Historian and artist Galen Wolf reported an incident in Digges Canyon, near today’s Highway 92. He describes the local resident who was chased up a tree by a grizzly. Wolf wrote, “A bear treed old man Digges ... Digges sat in an alder. The bear sat on the bank. Real patient.” Finally, a wagon came down the road and one of them was able to shoot the bear, letting Digges climb down from his tree.
John Harkins was a simple man who made shingles in the redwoods high above the Coastside. He also kept a small herd of cattle down below, in Purisima Canyon, about 4 miles east of Half Moon Bay. Finally, one day in 1879, Harkins grew weary of his herd being repeatedly ravaged by a grizzly bear.
Harkins made no fanfare, no bold expedition. He was practical in his approach. He went to the store and bought some poison. The local San Mateo County Gazette reported, “He placed the poison on a beefsteak and carefully laid it in the gulch ... A night or two later startling roars were heard emanating from the canyon; and they continued intermittently throughout the next day, much to the family’s excitement. When they finally subsided, investigation was made, and a dead bruin found.” That bear turned out to be the last grizzly bear in San Mateo County.
It is estimated that there are still well over 200,000 grizzlies in North America, almost all in Canada. There are none known to be in California. The grizzly’s bold spirit does live on, still proudly celebrated with its image flying on California’s state flag.
Dave Cresson is the founder of the Half Moon Bay History Association.
Suggestions or comments can be sent to DaveCresson38@gmail.com.
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