For most of his life, Grizzly Adams was a very different man from the rugged bear-loving forester he marketed himself as.
John “Grizzly” Adams was a western mountain-man legend, a man who earned his name by training grizzly bears in the California wilderness.
His legacy spawned a film and television series in the 1970s, titled The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, about an 1880s trapper who is falsely accused of murder and abandons society to live in the mountains with a bear he befriends.
But while the real Grizzly Adams did indeed become a mountain man famous for training grizzly bears, he wasn’t always a bearded man of nature. In fact, John Adams began his life as a shoemaker in Massachusetts and only spent about two and a half years of his life in the California mountains.
And if Adams was presented as having a bear for a friend in the film and television dramatizations of his life, the real story of how he trapped and trained his animals was far darker than it has been portrayed.
John Capen Adams’ Life As A Massachusetts Shoemaker
John Adams was born on October 22, 1812 to Eleazar Adams and Sybil Capen Adams in Medway, Massachusetts. The oldest of seven children in a family of farmers and shoemakers, he received no formal education as a child. Instead, as a teenager he began work as an apprentice shoemaker.
According to a biography of his life, Adams showed an early talent for keeping animals when he was 21 years old. For a brief period, he managed a small troupe of animals brought to the United States from Africa. Then, a nearly deadly experience with a Royal Bengal Tiger left him bedridden for months. After a year of recovery, Adams returned to the cobbling business.
He eventually set up his own business making shoes in Boston and married a woman named Cylena Drury. They had two daughters together, and for a time it seemed as if Adams had settled into a safe, peaceful life. Unfortunately, tragedy soon reared its ugly head.
In 1849, Adams and his father lost their combined savings in a fire that destroyed their business. Unable to bear the sudden financial hardship, Eleazar Adams died by suicide, and John Adams found himself unable to cope. He packed what few possessions he had and headed west for California, hoping like many other men of his time to earn himself a fortune in the Gold Rush.
He promised to send money home to his wife and daughters when he could, though when he ultimately made a name for himself as Grizzly Adams, his family was curiously left out of the promotional biographical materials he himself helped to create.
Grizzly Adams Leaves For California
John Adams spent his first three years in California trying out a number of different ventures. He mined for gold, worked on farms and ranches, and began investing in different mining and real estate ventures. Eventually, he earned enough to once again start his own business, becoming a landowner and employing several men to run a sluice operation.
Adams, however, was too trusting. Business partners regularly conned him out of his gold claims, and in 1852 he’d reached his breaking point. At age 40, he gave up on the business, packed his meager belongings into an ox-cart, and trekked 200 miles into the Sierra Nevada.
According to JSTOR Daily, this was where the image of Grizzly Adams truly began to take shape. He grew a thick beard, ate primarily nuts and berries, and dressed himself in various animal furs.
By Adams’ own account, “In the fall of 1852, I abandoned all my schemes for the accumulation of wealth, turned my back upon the society of my fellows, and took the road toward the wildest and most unfrequented parts of the Sierra Nevada, resolved thenceforth to make the wilderness my home, and the wild beasts my companions.”
Unlike other mountain men of his time, Adams reportedly developed a close relationship with the Native American tribes in the region. Other mountain men were self-proclaimed “Indian hunters,” mostly down-on-their-luck gold miners who found the offer of five dollars per Native American scalp they could deliver more tempting than the less than a dollar per day they earned in the mines.
Instead, Adams befriended and traded with local tribes, and often hired Indigenous men and boys to help him track and tame wild animals.
Adams also marketed himself as living harmoniously with the animals he trapped. However, his relationship with his famous bears paints a vastly different picture.
Deconstructing The Legend Of Grizzly Adams
In the words of historian Jon T. Coleman, “The spectacle of a bearded patriarch commanding nature’s obedience hid the reality of an insolvent shoemaker who traded his own flesh and blood for a California dream.”
After a few years in isolation, Grizzly Adams once again sought wealth and fame, this time as an entertainer, opting to take his animals and use them in shows as a traveling menagerie. He began touting himself as an expert trapper and tamer. In truth, though, Adams was severely under-qualified.
“Lions escaped and ate Shetland ponies,” Coleman wrote. “Grandstands and tents collapsed, pinning women and children in the crush; caravans dropped through bridges, wrecking wagons and drowning specimens.”
The shows, in short, were disastrous, and Adams was anything but kind to the animals he kept. In addition to rewarding them for good behavior, he regularly beat his bears to keep them in line.
Shockingly, Adams obtained his most famous bear, Ben Franklin, by killing its mother before the young cub could even open its eyes, then forcing a greyhound to suckle the bear. In order for this to work, Adams had killed all but one of the greyhound’s pups.
Grizzly Adams’ bears were never truly “tamed.” Despite his marketed fondness for them, Adams once described being “beaten to jelly, torn almost limb from limb, and nearly chewed up and spit out by these treacherous grizzly bears.”
This inconvenient truth is often excluded from biographical accounts of Adams’ life, which tend to be more favorable. For example, Adams’ biographer Richard Dillon once described him as “perhaps the greatest individualist California ever produced.” It’s much harder to sell the story of a man who abused his animals than it is to sell the story of a man who lived harmoniously with some of the most fearsome animals in America.
But in the end, it was Adams’ relationship with these creatures that brought about his demise after he sustained a serious head injury during a wrestling match with one of his bears in 1858.
When his prize bear, Ben Franklin, died of a sudden illness, Adams sold what remained of his menagerie to P.T. Barnum and, after working with Barnum briefly, returned home to his family.
In 1860, Grizzly Adams died of complications from his injuries in Boston, where he was staying with his wife and one of his daughters. He was 48.
After learning about the real story of Grizzly Adams, read up on some other famous mountain men from history, like Liver-Eating Johnson, the man who tracked down his wife’s killers and, well, ate their livers. Or, read about John Colter, who may have been the most badass mountain man of the American West.