Bancroft exhibit spotlights the California grizzly


bear art from exhibit

Above: H. R. Robinson's humorous lithograph, 'Mose in California,' published in 1849, shows a miner and grizzly bear facing off.

21 August 2002 | Statues, flags, and embroiderings of California’s majestic grizzly bear — an animal that once prowled Berkeley’s Strawberry Creek — are everywhere on the campus, whose mascot it has been for years. Next week the Bancroft Library opens a new exhibit, “Bear in Mind,” to commemorate this icon of California history.

Opening Aug. 26, the exhibit will showcase nearly 100 objects, including 19th-century illustrations, early maps of grizzly sightings, a bear skull, and excerpts from the diaries of missionaries describing grizzly slaughters.

Now revered as a true symbol of the wild West, the California grizzly (believed by some a distinct subspecies of Ursus horribilus, the North American grizzly) is emblazoned on the state flag and seal. At Berkeley it became “Oski,” the mascot celebrated in school-spirit songs, art, sculpture, and banners around campus. Yet it lived a brief existence in California after 1850, vanishing as its habitat became home to explorers, gold miners, adventurers, and other immigrants.

“The grizzly’s demise happened so quickly,” says Susan Snyder, co-curator of the exhibit. “In a flash, after the Gold Rush, we went from 15,000 grizzlies to none, all in not more than the life-span of a single bear.”

One of the state’s most enduring symbols of strength and vitality, the last grizzly bear was shot and killed in California in 1922. The animals had coexisted with native Californians for centuries before, drawn to northern Cali-fornia’s mountains and coastal regions, where there was an abundance of wildlife, fish, roots and acorns, manzanita, and wide-open space.

On display are the stories of naturalist John Muir, who described some of the lesser-known rituals carried out by native Californians — such as placing mounds of stones on the spots where their tribespeople had been killed by grizzlies — to commemorate their bravery against the fierce and powerful beasts.

In fact, descriptions of the grizzly were often peppered with hyperbole, invoking, perhaps, more fear of them than was necessary, and putting them at greater risk of slaughter. One early account of an encounter with bears, written in the mid-1800s by explorer William Davis, characterizes the grizzly as “…a monster, the largest that had ever been seen there, strong and savage.”

With the later influx of gold miners to the Mother Lode in the late 1800s, grizzlies became a source of food for starving, stranded miners, and the target of sport for all.

Bill Brown, who helped Snyder organize the exhibit, says the widespread use of rifles, beginning in 1848, decimated the last of the grizzly bear population quickly.

“As soon as the repeating rifle appeared in 1848, the grizzly bear was essentially dead,” says Brown, who is the coordinator for research and instruction at Bancroft Library.

Just as they neared extinction, grizzlies began to rise in symbolic stature, making a comeback in 1895 as Berkeley’s mascot. That year, a 12-man UC track team, returning triumphant from a series of meets on the East Coast, chose a grizzly bear as its logo, Snyder says. The bear was embroidered in gold on the team’s banner, and Charles Gayley Mills, a professor of English, wrote a song in the golden bear’s honor.

Snyder happened onto the theme of the grizzly bear in Berkeley and California history accidentally. Last year, as she thumbed through historic fruit and vegetable labels in search of a suitable image for the library’s Christmas card, she began to discover “some wonderful illustrations and narratives” about grizzlies.

“I realized how little I knew about them,” she says. “That got me started collecting. ”It took nine months, she says, to gather all of the bear objects included in the exhibit.

Among some of the highlights:

• An interview by Hubert Howe Bancroft, founder of the Bancroft Library, with hunter George Nidever, who killed more than 200 grizzlies in the 1840s and 1850s.

• A 1772 map and diary by Franciscan monk Juan Crespi that describe grizzly sightings along Strawberry Creek, running through what is now the Berkeley campus.

• The skull of the “Richardson bear,” killed in 1894 in Big Tujunga Canyon, with a bullet hole through its lower jaw.

• A John J. Audubon illustration of two grizzlies, based on descriptions by explorers Lewis and Clark.

• The campus’s recently acquired original manuscript of Hittell’s 1860 landmark biography, “The Adventures of James Capen Adams” (aka “Grizzly Adams”), which includes several hundred handwritten pages and records of Hittell’s personal interviews with Adams in the 1850s.

• William H. Davis’ diaries of the pre-Gold Rush slaughter of grizzlies in the Emeryville area.

• A letter describing the 1887 shooting of the last known grizzly in the Yosemite area; the pelt was later sold to the Berkeley campus, where it remains in carefully controlled storage today.

The Bancroft Library is working with several local museums and other institutions in California in hopes of taking the exhibit on the road. Tentative plans are for the library to show some of its materials, and for local institutions to find grizzly bear items within their collections to display in joint exhibits.

“Bear in Mind” will be free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday; and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays, through Nov. 27.


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