Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Marked in Bark: Peter Lebeck's Curious Epitaph.

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A Curious Epitaph.

Tombstones are very seldom kept as relics, but the bark of an oak tree, on which there is an epitaph, is preserved in the cabinet room of the county jail in Bakersfield, Cal.[1] It was found by Sheriff Henry L. Borgwardt Jr.[2] and a party of friends who were camping at Fort Tejon, at Tejon pass, about 60 miles south of that city. It marked the grave of a traveler who had traversed many miles of the American continent, probably in search of wealth, and had met a sudden and violent death in an encounter with a bear in that beautiful pass.

It is no unusual thing in unsettled countries for death notices to be engraved on trees, but the records are not usually lasting; the elements batter them and new growth cover them, so that they are soon unrecognizable. But it was with a certain French voyager[3] who had in all probability left his native country to conquer other lands.

Long before Fort Tejon was built, this wanderer, like unto the Prince of India, but without his immortality, crossed the burning waste of the Mojave desert to meet his death in a country where "every prospect pleases, and only man and best are vile." How beautiful the green fields and the snow-capped mountains must have looked to him, when, for the first time, he saw the promised land; the valley of the San Joaquin, stretching out in all its glorious verdure and beauty.

For many months he had traveled mid snow and rain, heat and cold, and this land seemed like a paradise to his unaccustomed eyes. But a cruel fate pursued him, and his life was cut short by a savage beast just on the threshold of his destination.

In 1852[4] the site for a fort was settled by General Beale at the mouh of Tejon pass. Construction commenced soon after, and it was speedily completed. Sheriff Borgwardt and a party of friends spent several weeks at the old fort in June 1889, and it was while hunting near there that they came across the strange epitaph which they brought back with them and which since has been preserved with the utmost care.

The French wanderer had, many years before, camped under the glorious oaks by the fort,[5] and here he met with a violent death. Who he was, where from, and why here, are matters of pure conjecture. That he had a faithful friend is certain, for deep in the hard wood of the oak had been carved in clear cut lines:






October 17, 1837.[7]

The oak was about three feet in diameter and the inscription was covered by a new growth, by which nature repairs the cuts made on trees. The sheriff and his party tried to clip off a little of the new growth to ascertain one letter about which there was some dispute, and soon found that a hollow place existed between the new bark and the old. After a little investigation, it was found that the new fiber had so clearly followed the wounds made by the knife that it had filled in the carved letters, and when with all possible care it was removed a stereotype of the original inscription was obtained.

Peter Lebeck, lying in an unknown grave, had a rare epitaph, carved not by the hand of man, but wrought out by nature's sturdy embrace, seeking to repair the ravages of man's hands. It is just as if a wax or plaster paris cast had been taken of the original. The carving was done with a patient fidelity, as the lines are true and the cut is deep. Many weeks were probably spent in this odd piece of woodcraft[8] and for fifty years it had marked the resting place of an adventurer.

About a month later a party of explorers who had heard of the story went to the scene and dug down at the foot of the tree. They discovered a ghastly scene, for about three feet below the surface the man and bear were found, both buried in the same grave. The heads of the man and bear were reversed, and a blanket was used as a shroud. On the man's breast were his spurs and his six-shooter — the wanderer's friends. — M. Blair Coan, in Los Angeles Sunday Herald.

1. The bark was subsequently moved to Fort Tejon State Historic Park.

2. Borgwardt may have "found" it in 1889, but he wasn't the first to do so. It made the Bakersfield newspaper in 1874. But it's a good thing he saved the bark; otherwise it probably would have been overgrown or lost to fire.

3. He is thought to have been a French Canadian fur trapper, but nobody is really sure.

4. Fort Tejon was established in 1854.

5. There was no fort at that time.

6. It's usually reported as, "Killed By A (X) Bear." X could mark the spot; or it could denote the type of bear. "X" was common shorthand for a grizzly. It's difficult to tell exactly what it says; that's where the bark is broken.

7. Actually it says, "OCTR 17" on the penultimate line and "1837" on the last.

8. Probably not weeks.

News story courtesy of Lauren Parker.

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Noted Tree Causes Lawsuit.

Bakersfield, April 11. — R. Truxton Beale to-day filed suit in the Superior Court against former Sheriff H.L. Borgwardt Jr. to recover possession of some wood and bark from a tree on the Beale ranch bearing on it an inscription to the memory of Peter Lebec, the pioneer, who was killed at that point by a bear in 1837. It is understood that Mr. Beale desires to present it to the Landmarks Society.

News story courtesy of Lauren Parker.

• Fort Tejon
• Rancho Castec
• Tejon Ranch
• Tejon Indians
• Tejon Indian Tribe
• Tejon Ranch Development (21st Century)


Inventory of State Park Collection


Huell Howser Program 1999


Hotel Plan 1858


Ruins (Mult.)


Rancho La Liebre STORY 1929


Postcard 1930s


Flying A Gasoline 1938


Home Movie 1939


Book: Old Adobes (Cullimore 1949)


Travelogue 1949


Old Gate Pre-1950


Enlisted Men's Barracks (Mult.)

• 1857 Earthquake (1)
• 1857 Earthquake (2)
• 1857 Earthquake (3)
• 1857 Earthquake in Harpers Weekly


• Peter Lebeck Story


Peter Lebeck Exhumed 1890


Lebeck Story 1901


Lebeck Oak ~1960s


Lebeck Oak & Grave Marker x7


Lebeck Bark x2


Lebeck Sculpture x3

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