Lewis & Clark Encounter the Grizzly

Lewis & Clark encounter the grizzly several times during the core of Discovery expedition.

At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806), known as the Corps of Discovery, the plains grizzly populated the upper reaches of the Missouri river. The expedition spent the winter of 1804-1805 as guests of the Mandan indians near present-day Bismarck, ND. In early April of 1805 they left the Mandan and continued on their journey to the Pacific.
They immediately entered grizzly country, and began to see signs of this powerful creature. The Mandan had warned them about the “white bear”, but Lewis was unimpressed. The first bears they saw ran away and Lewis concluded they were of little threat. After killing one on April 29, Lewis wrote in his journal:

“the Indians may well fear this anamal equiped as they generally are with their bows and arrows or indifferent fuzees, but in the hands of skillfull riflemen they are by no means as formidable or dangerous as they have been represented.”

This proved to be a false sense of security. On May 5th a grizzly was encountered which did not run away. Clark described it as a

“verry large and a turrible looking animal, which we found verry hard to kill we Shot ten Balls into him before we killed him, & 5 of those Balls through his lights.”

Lewis wrote that after the bear had been shot,

“he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died; he did not attempt to attack, but fled and made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.”

A few days later one of the party was chased by a grizzly after shooting it in the lung. Lewis and others later searched for the bear and found it “perfectly alive.” They killed it with two shots to the head. Lewis was quickly changing his first impression that the grizzly was not a serious threat, having experienced how difficult it was to kill one after an attack began.

Finally, on May 14, 1805 six men, described by Lewis as “all good hunters,” met a bear that taught them all a pretty good lesson about grizzlies. They came upon the bear lying in the open about 300 paces from the river. Lewis described the encounter as follows:

…they took the advantage of a small eminence which concealed them and got within 40 paces of him unperceived, two of them reserved their fires as had been previously conscerted, the four others fired nearly at the same time and put each his bullet through him, two of the balls passed through the bulk of both lobes of his lungs, in an instant this monster ran at them with open mouth, the two who had reserved their fires discharged their pieces at him as he came towards them, boath of them struck him, one only slightly and the other fortunately broke his shoulder, this however only retarded his motion for a moment only, the men unable to reload their guns took to flight, the bear pursued and had very nearly overtaken them before they reached the river; two of the party betook themselves to a canoe and the others seperated an concealed themselves among the willows, reloaded their pieces, each discharged his piece at him as they had an opportunity they struck him several times again but the guns served only to direct the bear to them, in this manner he pursued two of them seperately so close that they were obliged to throw aside their guns and pouches and throw themselves into the river altho’ the bank was nearly twenty feet perpendicular; so enraged was this anamal that he plunged into the river only a few feet behind the second man he had compelled take refuge in the water, when one of those who still remained on shore shot him through the head and finally killed him; they then took him on shore and butchered him when they found eight balls had passed through him in different directions.

It is instructive of this encounter that the bear was slowed only momentarily by a broken shoulder and continually charged after each time it was shot, and charged the last person who shot it.  Many a hunter or hiker has suggested that one should shoot to break a leg of a charging bear.  But a four-legged animal, especially one as determined as a grizzly can easily continue a charge on three legs.

Several modern-day accounts of hunting parties attacked by a grizzly record a scenario similar to the one Lewis reported, several men shooting, the bear charging each shooter in turn, and the bear absorbing bullet after bullet while keeping up a ferocious rage until finally either killing some or all of the people or succumbing itself, sometimes after taking 10 or more hits from high powered hunting rifles.

It is common of grizzly attacks defended by multiple hunters or hikers in Alaska armed with .44 magnum revolvers that the bear is capable of taking several of that type bullet, often a dozen or more, by the time it finally gives up the attack. At the same time, one can find reports of a single bullet or even a single arrow stopping a charge, but that is rare.  Apparently, shot or arrow placement is the key and that place is the brain, protected by hard and thick bone not easily penetrated and small in size on a large animal.

Grizzlies are hunted in Alaska but on those hunts the shot is usually aimed at the heart and lungs, just over and slightly behind the front shoulder, and taken from cover at a distance of 100 yards or more with a scoped rifle so that the bear does not immediately detect the source of the injury and does not know where or what to charge.  If the shot is well placed the bear often disappears into the brush where it dies within a short time.  When the shot is bad the bear may suffer for a longer time while the hunter risks injury or death if he tries to find the bear to finish the job.  Hunters may find bears by using dogs, or by sitting at a bait source, which may be a bucket of rotten bacon.  Those practices have been criticized as not sporting and is illegal in some areas.  In those areas only the “spot and stalk” method is allowed.

At present there is nowhere in the lower 48 where grizzly hunting is legal.  A grizzly hunt is expected to take pace in Wyoming in Fall, 2018. I’m confident the day will come when grizzlies will be legally hunted in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and believe that day cannot come soon enough.  The defenders of the grizzly should welcome that day, since no animal that is hunted will ever become endangered.  The hunting associations are far and away the best at preserving and strengthening the population of the animals they hunt.

Some hunters are more adventurous and will spot and stalk hunt with a lever-action rifle having iron sights only, or even with only a powerful un-scoped handgun where that is legal.  This is sometimes called the “Boone and Crocket” style of bear hunting.  The idea is that the hunter offers the bear a more even chance, the hunter placing himself in danger which he accepts as part of the thrill of the hunt.  Of course, the most authentic Boone and Crocket style of bear hunting would be with a muzzle loading rifle, although it must be said that neither Daniel Boone nor Davy Crockett ever hunted the grizzly.  A fair number of early 19th Century mountain men did face the grizzly with only single-shot muzzle loaders.  Sometimes they ate the bear, but most times the bear ate them.

I’ve never heard of anyone hunting grizzly with bow and arrow, but if anyone is brave enough to do it  I salute them.  There are at least two well-known stories from Montana of deer or elk bow hunters who have successfully defended themselves from grizzly attack with only their bow and arrow.

The Corps of Discovery encountered grizzlies a few more times both going to the Pacific and on the return, but after these first encounters they had learned much about this bear and always did their best to avoid them when they could.

There’s no shortage of present-day accounts of just how difficult is it to stop a grizzly charge once it begins, even with large and powerful firearms, but these episodes of the Corps of Discovery in 1805 are as illustrative as any.

Lewis and Clark encounter the grizzly is a gripping story of some very brave men.

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