Animals: They were here first
Grizzly Bears in Berkeley
Grizzly Peak Boulevard traverses the top of the Berkeley Hills. The road is lined with high-windowed homes set to take in the expansive view of the San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge is framed front and center in most of those windows.
When I first moved to Berkeley to attend art school back in the ‘60s, I spent many a Sunday afternoon with friends atop Grizzly Peak. Impressed by the spectacular view, I never gave much thought to the actual name of the road that we traveled along. As is the case in life, one doesn’t really gain an appreciation for history until we ourselves become a piece of the history we have ignored. So it is, that I began a little research about this road, and why it is so named.
The thought of grizzly bears ambling about the Berkeley Hills intrigued me. My imagination pictured a time before Europeans arrived, when the Native Miwoks lived among thousands of grizzly bears for centuries, without conflict, in respect for each other’s need to share the land. The Miwok’s behavior preserved the natural order of the ecosystem. I found an interesting tidbit in my research that described their relationship with nature:
The Miwok had an animistic philosophy: they wanted no walls and trod lightly on the land, leaving no footsteps, always apologizing to the spirits in animals or nature whenever they disturbed them in whatever fashion.
Grizzly bears and Miwoks co-existed in California just fine until the arrival of Europeans. At first things went along in peace, as this quote states from the same article mentioned above:
In 1579, Chaplain Fletcher with the Sir Francis Drake wrote: ”They are of a free and loving nature, without guile or treachery.” In 1775, Father Vincente with Captain Ayala said, “I found the Indians very humorous, with courteous manner, mimicking my prayers with chuckles — they acted like tender lambs, had fine stature, clean and of good color, very elegant of figure — about four hundred naked men appeared.”
However, the Spanish, in their lust for conquest, and with the intent of enslaving the Miwok to clear the land for cattle farming, purposely subjected the Miwok to an abrupt change in diet resulting in rampant disease which weakened the tribe.
In the meantime, the grizzly bear met as rapid a demise as the Miwok. Europeans with modern weapons and a habit of hunting animals simply for sport, obliterated the bears from California in less than a century. The Bancroft Library at Cal Berkeley has an exhibition to document the history. Here is an excerpt from an article published on the University’s website:
Collectors such as Hubert Howe Bancroft and others have helped The Bancroft Library gather a treasure-trove of rare and unique historical materials. The California Grizzly Bear viewed across the centuries, from the earliest known myths and legends of Native Americans to its extinction and subsequent resurrection as a symbol of our state, helps us understand the many cultural, economic, and social forces that have shaped the growth and development of California.
Highlights of the exhibit include: The recently-acquired original manuscript of Theodore Hittell’s 1860 landmark biography, "The Adventures of James Capen Adams," or "Grizzly Adams." The six hundred+ pages record Hittell’s personal interviews with Adams in the 1850s. Grizzly Adams was a legendary figure in California. Famed for his skills as a hunter and trapper of grizzlies and other wild animals, Adams killed scores of grizzlies, shipped live animals to the east coast and Europe, and also raised young cubs as pets. Adams and his long-time pet, "Ben Franklin," often walked the streets of San Francisco.
Exploring the rapid extinction of California’s largest land animal, the contemporary symbol of our state and the mascot for the UC Berkeley campus, illuminates many aspects of California history. The California grizzly "serves as a fitting microcosm for the study of California history from the 1700s to the present," said Charles B. Faulhaber, the James D. Hart director of The Bancroft Library.
"Through the lens of time, one can view the brutality, ignorance, romance, guilt, and 'redefinition' that characterize our treatment of this icon of California history."
The California Grizzly Bear once roamed the shores and hills of California, as the true "monarch of the mountains." The grizzly, a largely vegetarian omnivore, is believed to have once numbered 10,000 within the state. The arrival of European explorers and the population explosion generated by the California Gold Rush marked the beginning of the end for this massive animal. Forced from coastal areas and lowlands to inland areas in search of food and safety, the bear became the target of hunters who killed the bear for sport, to assist ranchers and farmers, or for simple bragging rights. Spanish caballeros roped grizzlies, dragging them into doomed public battles with wild bulls.
At the end of the nineteenth century the California Grizzly Bear represented man’s last challenge to conquer and settle California’s rich agricultural, grazing, and mineral regions. Civilization demanded the submission of nature’s largest, strongest, and most feared animal. Scientists, such as Berkeley’s own C. Hart Merriam and Joseph Grinnell hurried to study this disappearing creature. For many, however, the extinction of the grizzly bear signaled a measurable victory against the savage wilderness and a triumph for the modern elements of California society-expanding cities and towns, increasing commerce and industry, and improved agricultural and livestock ventures.
Susan Snyder, Head of Access Services at The Bancroft Library and co-curator for the exhibit noted, "It’s a sad story. The grizzly was here for centuries and, in a flash, he was eradicated. They were gone before people realized what was happening." Bill Brown, Head of Public Services and co-curator observed, "Beginning in the 1850s the introduction of modern weaponry and technology, in the form of better rifles, traps, and poisons, spelled disaster for the grizzly bear."
The last sighting of a grizzly bear in Berkeley occurred in the 1860s when it was reported that a man was killed by a bear in Strawberry Canyon. The stadium at Cal Berkeley is located at the lower end of that canyon. While enjoying a game, fans can see the top of the hills above the canyon which extends all the way to Grizzly Peak Blvd. A life-size statue of a grizzly bear stands on Piedmont Avenue in front of the stadium. I like the way that the sculptor depicted the bear with its head turned back, gazing upward at the hills.