Gold Rush History: Performing Pets of the Mother Lode

By Bob Holton June 15, 2008 12:46

Sierra wildlife should play starring roles in stories that recount our foothills’ history, but seldom do we hear about these loveable creatures, these all-but-forgotten creatures, these stage-struck creatures that performed amazing tricks in the diggings and brought smiles to a thousand bearded faces.

There comes a legend from old Tuolumne County of a black bear that would slowly idle into gold camps during the 1850s and show off for large audiences in return for treats. His repertoire included turning summersaults, smoking a clay pipe, drinking from beer bottles without using his paws and performing a curious version of the Irish jig. Nothing is more whimsical than a dancing bear.

Before we continue, readers need to know that it is illegal in California to feed and befriend these remarkably intelligent animals. And rightfully so. Their dispositions can suddenly change from sweet and loving to that of a wanton killer’s without warning.

So much are humans and bears alike that sometimes it’s hard to separate the man from the beast. The costumed “Smokey Bear” character is a myth. Napoleon, on the other hand, was a real-life 650-pound bruin that entertained folks in Big Oak Flat by striking a pose just like the self-crowned Emperor of France.

Napoleon adapted well to life among the miners. Around the turn of the 19th Century, Harry Cobden, a pioneer of historic note, heard of a day-old cub whose mother had been killed by a hunter near Lake Eleanor. Setting out on a rescue mission, he found this helpless newborn with its eyes still closed and carried it back to Big Oak in a bucket.

Here, Napoleon grew into an affectionate monster that loved to wrestle passersby to the ground and smother them with kisses. He stood for hours in front of the old Raggio store, awaiting the arrival of horse-drawn wagons. As soon as one appeared he would snap to attention, placed his right paw over his big heart and maintain this position until the wagon rumbled out of sight. Credible old-timers still tell this story as truth.

This was all quite lovely until one day the town’s beloved mascot was fatally shot by a newcomer to the area who mistook him for a wild animal that had wandered out of the woods. That evening, as a dismal gloom filled the air, the citizens of Big Oak came close to hanging their newcomer from the very tree the community was named after.

What little is left of this once-booming Gold Rush center is located along Highway 120, just west of Groveland on the road to Yosemite. It verges on becoming a ghost town, with only a few structures still standing from that date back to the 1850s.

About the time of Napoleon’s assassination, there lived a deer named Buster who was loved by hundreds of children from Angels Camp to San Andreas. His owner, Clarence Winchell, taught him to roll over, play dead, paw the ground twice for his two years of age, beg for sweets, drink soda pop out of a baby bottle, smoke cigars and bow on command. At Christmastime he played the role of a reindeer. Poor Buster eventually broke his neck while struggling to get out of an enclosure that had been his home ever since he wandered away from his mother as a young buck. He died instantly, whereupon the whole county mourned and the Calaveras Prospect featured his obituary on its front page.

Deer almost never bite humans, but beware. Their sharp hoofs can be used as lethal weapons.

Finally, we have the stranger-than-fiction adventures of John Adams, otherwise known as James Adams, alias Grizzly Adams. His story reads like a fairy tale. More than a century after his death, Hollywood made a factually challenged TV series about this odd man that drastically missed the mark.

Adams lived at Woods Crossing, about half a mile west of Jamestown, perhaps as early as 1848. Having keenly observed that the human race is made up of creatures who fight among each other more than any other species, one day he announced, “I would rather live among savages and wild beasts than with such a thieving, rascally set of scoundrels as this so-called civilized community.”

Upon this he moved to a remote corner of the high Sierra where civilized man had never traveled. Surrounded by unearthly beauty, he lived among giant grizzlies that walked like humans and received him very pleasantly.

For several years he slept with his new acquaintances, shared food with

them, joined them in wrestling games and dancing rituals, and gradually became, as one journalist later put it, “quite as strange as any of his animals.”

After awhile Adams began to miss the company of humans and decided to move to San Francisco. What a mistake! Soon he and his entire entourage were marching down the mountain, across the valley and into the city of a million golden dreams. It was quite a sight, according to eyewitnesses, since by now he had added a number of mountain lions, two owls, a fox and several other “wild animals” to his happy family.

By the way, did I mention that none of this is made up?

Adams could have done something more eccentric, but instead the great animal trainer and his menagerie rented a large basement apartment that allowed pets. They became icons, appearing at opera houses and theaters throughout the city while living like rock stars. Word of their unique act spread and in 1860 P. T. Barnum of New York offered them a sweet buyout deal. After taking a vote that was unanimous, the entire troupe sailed off for the “Big Apple” on the clipper ship Golden Fleece. If only they knew the fate that awaited them.

Sadly, Adams immediately died upon his arrival in Gotham City. Some folks said it was culture shock that did him in. Others believed it was an old head injury he suffered while playing with grizzlies in the high country above Sonora. Whatever the cause, it is ironic that he left his loyal flock of followers to survive on their own among the same brand of “thieves and scoundrels” he had denounced at Woods Crossing.

So what is the moral of this story? The moral is: Animals that live in the forest should stay in the forest. And do not move to New York City.

© 2008, Friends and  Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton June 15, 2008 12:46
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