Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lewis & Clark arrogance ... and "coppolating" grizzlies

American Indians hunting grizzly bears,
by George Catlin (1796-1872)
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark brought just a little arrogance with them as they explored the undeveloped northwestern United States in the very early 1800s. For example, familiar with only the relatively small black bear of the eastern United States, they discounted Native American reports of a large, ferocious brown bear – the grizzly.

Lewis and his men looked forward to meeting some of these brown bears. With an air of superiority, he wrote that the Indians had only bows and arrows or “the indifferent guns with which the traders furnish them, with these they shoot with such uncertainty and at so short a distance that they frequently miss their aim & fall a sacrifice to the bear,” as noted in Stephen Ambrose’s 1996 book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Lewis also noted that the Indians prepared for a bear encounter with the same types of ceremonies in which they prepared for battle against other men, but felt certain that the animals would be no match for his men’s superior arms and expertise in using them.

The expedition’s first encounter with the grizzly was a little disconcerting. Lewis and another man, walking on the shore of the river on which their boats traveled, shot two bears. One ran away, but the other charged Lewis and pursued him for about 80 yards. He and the other man were able to reload their guns and shoot the animal again, killing it. Although this bear was not full-grown, it began to earn some respect for its species from Lewis, who wrote that it is “astonishing to see the wounds they will bear [certainly he meant no pun?] before they can be put to death.” He added, though, that “in the hands of a skilled rifleman [the bears] are by no means as formidable or dangerous” as the Indians believe, Ambrose reported in his book.

The next encounter, a few days later, ended with the death of another bear, but it wasn’t easy. Lewis described “a most tremendious [correct spelling wasn’t Lewis’ strongpoint] looking anamal, and extremely hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five other in various parts he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died.”

The expedition came across another grizzly a week later, but it ran away before it could be attacked, to which Lewis wrote that “I find that the curiosity of our party is pretty well satisfied with respect to this anamal.” The bears’ size and ferocity “has staggered the resolution [of] several of [the men], others however seem keen for action with the bear,” Lewis added.

Of those who looked forward to additional encounters with the grizzlies, Lewis added a bit of humor:  “I expect these gentlemen will give us some amusement shotly as [the bears] begin now to coppolate.”

1 comment:

The Horse Dad said...

Lewis & Clark ... an amazing journey, all without Gore-Tex, Thinsulate and Vibram! I always enjoy L&C tales. Thanks, Ray.