By Eilene Lyon
A popular form of entertainment in the California gold rush was the bear and bull fight. We’ve come a long way from wanting to watch such carnage for sport – or have we? As recently as 2013, a bill was introduced in Congress to punish people for attending animal fights.
In this day and age when people are scamming to bring their pets aboard airplanes (thank goodness they drew the line at peacocks), we might forget that our ancestors had very different relationships with their domestic animals. They generally didn’t even allow dogs and cats in the house (fleas, dirt, hair – no vacuums). They had a job to do: chase off predators, kill rodents, etc. If they had any particular affection for an animal, it was most likely for a favorite horse.
Our ancestors also butchered their own meat, so watching animals die was pretty much a routine, ho-hum occurrence. But most of us would probably be horrified to see a bloody bear and bull fight. One story, possibly apocryphal, is that Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, used the name of these events to describe the stock market.
Many gold rush-era writers described the fights in detail. J. D. Borthwick even produced the drawings shown above. He had the opportunity to observe one of the more well-known combatants in action, a grizzly known as “General Scott,” at a fight in Mokelumne Hill in 1852.
Just capturing a bear to be used in this manner was a dangerous occupation, but a good-sized grizzly in captivity was worth $1,500 or more. Of course, bear and bull fights were not just about killing animals, money was involved. In addition to paying admission, the miners engaged in one of their all-time favorite activities – gambling. Though betting on the outcome may have been important, the spectacle needed to last long enough to be worth watching, too. If one of the animals was dispatched too quickly, a howl for refunds would arise.
It was a rare bull that came out on top in such contests. In some instances, the bear was handicapped by tying it to a stake. Borthwick describes the first round, as the bull enters the arena:
But this time he had made up his mind to fight; and after looking steadily at the bear for a few minutes as if taking aim at him, he put down his head and charged furiously at him across the arena. The bear received him crouching down as low as he could, and though one could hear the bump of the bull’s head and horns upon his ribs, he was quick enough to seize the bull by the nose before he could retreat. This spirited commencement of the battle on the part of the bull was hailed with uproarious applause; and by having shown such pluck, he had gained more than ever the sympathy of the people.
Well, I’m doubtful about the sympathy part of that statement!
But a bull finally got the better of General Scott: “In these bull-and-bear fights the bull sometimes kills the bear at the first charge, by plunging his horns between the ribs, and striking a vital part. Such was the fate of General Scott in the next battle he fought, a few weeks afterwards…”
Sometimes there might be a little bonus entertainment. Edward Ely, who was not a miner but just a visitor to Sacramento, described a fight that drew as many as 3000 spectators in 1851.
A little before the fight was to commence a half drunk Spaniard fell over the pallisades into the arena. The spectators immediately raised the cry that the “Bear is coming” and the poor fellow jumped up half frightened to death. He first attempted to climb up the posts, but from fear or intoxication he could not succeed. He then ran around the ring, crying and begging to be taken out, but there was no door but the one the bear was to come in through and nobody would give him a rope. At length when the fellow was almost frightened out of his drunken fit, one of his friends hauled him through a small opening in the pallisades, which was as tight a squeeze as he had ever had, since the day he was born.
Borthwick, J. D. 1948. 3 Years in California with index and forward by Joseph A. Sullivan. Oakland Biobooks, California.
Sirna, Anthony and Allison, editors. 1954. The Wanderings of Edward Ely: A Mid-19th Century Seafarer’s Diary. Hastings House, New York.