On the Real Grizzly Adams


I came across this delightful information yesterday when writing up my eulogy of Dan Haggerty of tv’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.  As I wrote yesterday, the character was based on a real gent, whose given name was John Adams (1812-1860). Surprisingly, he turns out to be one of those Adamses, i.e. the same family that gave us Presidents John and John Quincy, maltster and revolutionary Samuel, ambassador Charles Francis, historian/writer/ philosophers Henry and Brooks, and U.S. Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis (III).

Originally from Medway, Massachusetts, Adams began his working life as a shoemaker, learning skills like sewing and leather working that would later be of much use when he became a mountain man. In 1833 he began working as an animal trapper and trainer for a group of menagerie showmen, catching live bears and other creatures in the Northern New England states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Sometime before 1836 he was mauled by a tiger, and retired for a time to raise a family, returning to the trade of shoemaker.

In 1849 he went west for the California Gold Rush. When nothing panned out he became a mountain man, hunting and trapping for a living. In 1853, he captured his first grizzly, named her Lady Washington and trained her to earn her keep as a pack animal. He trapped and trained several more bears and other animals over the next few years, and performed shows as he traveled from place to place throughout the western wilderness.  (One of my most prized possessions is an autographed copy of a novel by none other than Lionel Barrymore. The novel is called Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale, and it is almost certainly inspired by this phase of Adams’ career.) In 1856, he opened the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco, containing a menagerie of live specimens, as well as taxidermically preserved beasts and other curios. With backing from others he expanded the enterprise under the name the Pacific Museum, while performing with various circuses during the same period.. One of his partners, James H. Hittell, took down notes from Adams’ stories and published it under the title, The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California. Mysteriously, Adams had given Hittel his brother’s name, James Capen Adams, as his own. He had also styled himself William Adams for a time. Like many such frontier characters, Adams was given to a certain amount of flim-flam and hucksterism — something of a far cry from how he was depicted in the tv show. (John Huston’s interpretation in The life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was probably closer to the mark).

In 1860, Adams went into partnership with P.T. Barnum and brought his whole operation to New York City. He exhibited under canvas on Broadway for several weeks, and then traveled in New England with a circus. He died in late 1860, apparently from illness related to injuries he had received years earlier… from grizzlies.

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