Jaguars in California
by James Capen Adams
You may recognize this writer by his famous nickname — "Grizzly" Adams. On a hunting trip in the Tehachapi Mountains in the summer of 1855, with his
dog "Rambler" and his grizzly "Benjamin Franklin," Adams camped on the south side of Tejon Pass, near a spring on the great east slope that faces the Mojave
Desert. Late one night, he heard strange noises …
Jaguars roam throughout Mexico and Central and South America, and are increasingly seen in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
I WAS SUDDENLY aroused at midnight by a fearful snuffing and snorting among my animals; but what to make of the noise I knew not, except that there was danger at
hand. It was starlight, but too dark to see; and raising myself in my blankets and seizing my rifle, I listened with all attention. In a short
time, I distinctly heard the lapping of water at the spring, which was about 50 yards distant; and, looking in that direction, beheld 2 spots, like balls of fire,
glaring at me. I expected an encounter and prepared myself for it; but the stranger beast unexpectedly, after uttering a low growl, turned and leisurely
retreated, as if he did not deign to attack, much less to fear me. I could see that he was of large size — a majestic animal of the Lion genus; but this was
all I could see.
My curiosity, as well as my love of adventure, was so much excited by the sight of the magnificent but unknown beast, that during the remainder of the night I
could think of nothing else. My imagination presented me with the picture of an animal whose capture would exceed in interest all the adventures of my
previous days; and no sooner was it light in the morning that I started out with Ben and Rambler to follow the track and reconnoitre the country. The trail
led us 4 or 5 miles over a rough country, and at last into a gorge — one of the roughest and craggiest places man's eyes ever beheld. The only way I
could work through it was by crawling, clambering, climbing, and pulling myself from cliff to cliff, and thus getting along by slow degrees. In among
the huge rocks which were scattered all over the country there was here and there a space of soft earth where all the prints of the animal's feet were plainly to be
seen; and it was by these marks that I pursued the trail into the gorge. Here the marks were better defined; and after following them across the gorge
up to the face of a ledge of rocks, I came to a cave, which there was no difficulty in recognizing as the den of the animal.
The cave was elevated on one side of the cliff, so that a man could with difficulty reach it. In its mouth, and scattered below it, were multitudes of
bones and skeletons of various kinds of animals, and among others, of Mountain Sheep, making the place look like the yard of a slaughter house. I
endeavoured to reach the cave for the purpose of looking into it, but was unable to do so, and therefore withdrew to consider plans of operations, determined as I
was to leave no stone unturned in my efforts to secure the unknown but evidently ferocious animal which made it his haunt. Considering the matter in
every point of view, I resolved at last to build a trap on the trail, near the den; but, there being no trees in the neighbourhood, before proceeding further I had
to go out and search where I could find timber.
Jaguars are much larger than mountain lions, weighing up to three-hundred pounds, and much more powerful than leopards, with which they are often confused.
The country in the vicinity was the roughest that can well be conceived; and it was only with great labour that I was enabled to climb the side of the gorge
and pass along the ridge which separated it from another of much the same character.…
Adams cut timber and brought it to the den gorge with great difficulty — worked a full day building his trap — then …
… went to sleep, but in the course of the night was aroused by a roar, which I supposed to be the beast which I was hunting; it was loud but clear, short but
piercing, different from any roar I had ever heard; and, as a new fact in regard to the beast, it added to my wonder, for I had already come to the conclusion
that the animal was of a different species from any I had ever known. The track was peculiarly large and firm, indicating an animal of great strength
and noble bearing.
There was at this time a new moon, and the gorge, a doleful place even in daylight, was darker than I liked; nevertheless, I could see if any animal passed
the trail, and this would be some satisfaction. I therefore watched the twilight pass over the mountains, and saw it grow dusky and at length dark
when, overpowered by the fatigues of the day, I curled down by the side of Ben and fell into a slumber. Barely were my eyes closed, however, when a
roar roused me and I started up and strained my eyes along the trail from the den to the trap, but could see nothing. In a few minutes the roar was
repeated, but in an apparently subdued tone; and directing my eyes in the direction from which it proceeded, I saw a spotted animal, resembling a Tiger in size
and form, with 2 young ones. The view was very indistinct, but I could see that the animal was crawling out of the rocks. She went ahead
for some distance, then turned around and appeared to call the little ones, which followed, playing like kittens. My first thought was to kill her
and catch the young, and I have often regretted since that I did not take the risks and fire; but I considered that the trap which we had built would be both a
safer and more certain method to secure them.
Remaining silent, therefore, I watched the beasts disappear in the darkness, and neither saw nor heard anything more of them till near morning, when I was aroused
by the same masculine roar, which I had heard 2 or 3 nights before. I recognized it immediately, and strained my eyes to see the possessor of that lordly
voice. It was, however, so dark that I could not see, though I distinctly heard the tramp of the beast; and it seemed that he was accompanied by his
consort and the young ones, which I had seen in the evening. It was evident to me that they had passed near the trap, but they had not entered it; and on
examining the tracks in the daytime, I found that they had passed around.
Seeing thus that the trap had been passed by, I determined to dig a pit with a falling door; and, accordingly, going to work, in the course of a few days we
completed such a trap, 8 feet long, 6 feet broad, and 10 feet deep, and fixed a door over it, swung upon an axle in such a manner as to turn and drop any animal
that trod upon it into the pit. The door was covered over with dirt, grass, and leaves in such a manner as to resemble the ground about it, so that I
supposed it would be impossible for an animal to detect the deception. I then hung a piece of raw mutton over the door, and retired to my place of
concealment, to watch during the night as usual.
Soon after dark the male animal again made his appearance. As he came to the mouth of the den, he looked around and snuffed the air, and then leaped
down, and going a few yards placed his paws upon a rock, and stretched himself, yawning at the same time as if he were waking up out of a sleep. In a few
minutes afterward, the female appeared, and approaching, lapped his brawny neck. Pleased with this conjugal attention, the male threw himself upon the
ground, and after rolling for a few minutes, stood up, shook himself, and then, with a proud step, trod away toward the traps; and his consort followed
him. Their manner toward each other induced the reflection in my mind that nature works much the same in all species of animals; for, even among human
beings, I had rarely seen a more expressive indication of conjugal love than was exhibited here.
The male beast, as nearly as I could see, was twice as large as the ordinary Cougar, and appeared to be covered with dark round spots of great richness and
beauty. His mien was erect and stately, and so majestic and proud in bearing, that it was with pleasure I contemplated him. As he approached the
pit, my heart fluttered; now, thought I, is the time of my success; but, alas, for my hopes! the animals, when they reached the place, evidently suspected something
wrong; and, after smelling about suspiciously, made a circuit and passed on. They next stopped at the trap which they appeared to examine attentively; they
even entered it, and I strained my eyes to see the door fall; but, no, alas, for my hopes again! the animals came out and went off, without disturbing the bait,
and soon disappeared over the ridge. I watched the remainder of the night but neither saw nor heard anything more of the beasts.
For several weeks after this time I continued making all endeavours to trap these animals. I caught live bait and tried to inveigle them with the
choicest morsels, but all in vain. On several occasions, subsequent to those mentioned, I obtained a sight of the animals, but only a passing one; and at
last, confident that it would be impossible to trap them, I determined on the first opportunity to shoot. The male I never afterward saw; but the female and
her cubs I unexpectedly came across one day in a gorge far removed from the one containing the den. Ben and Rambler were with me at the time; and as I
fired upon her, they bounded forward and engaged with her in a terrific combat, but she tore them dreadfully, and managed to escape. Poor Ben was so
badly injured in the encounter as to require my surgical care and assistance for a week or more afterwards; but though I hunted and hunted, I could find no more
trace of the beasts or of any animal like them. I was, therefore, not able then, nor am I able now, to pronounce with certainty upon their
character. If they were not Jaguars which had strayed up beyond the usual range, I know not what to call them.
In the 1900's, the jaguar's range included southern California ...
Massachusetts native James Capen ("Grizzly") Adams (1807-1860) deserted his wife and children and went to live alone in the mountains after he'd gone
broke. He spent many years in the western mountains (mainly in California), living around animals and sometimes trapping them for zoos. The
fictitious biographical "facts" of the popular 1974 movie and 1977-1978 television series, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, which were very loosely
based on his adventures in the mountains, alleged that he'd been falsely accused of murder, was captured after many years in the mountains with his animals, and
was eventually able to clear his name. That's probably a bunch of melodramatic Hollywood hooey that has obscured factual details of his
life. He befriended and raised a grizzly cub that he named "Benjamin Franklin," and he toured with "Ben" as an attraction in P T Barnum's shows even
after the cub had grown into a huge adult grizzly (probably the first "Gentle Ben").|
Copyright © 2007 Dr Kenneth E Howell
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