October 22, 2013 —
The Lebeck Oak at Fort Tejon, with Peter Le Beck's gravestone.
Little is known of Peter le Beck (alternately Lebeck or LaBeck or Lebec) except that he was probably a trapper from France who was killed Oct. 17, 1837, by a bear, presumably a grizzly, and buried under an oak tree on the grounds of what would later become Fort Tejon (next to the former hospital and commissary).
Lt. Robert S. Williamson.
Lt. R.S. Williamson camped at the same oak grove in 1853 while on his mid-1850s mapping mission for a practicable railway route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Geologist William P. Blake accompanied Williamson's party and writes (1857):
The surface of the valley is covered with a luxuriant growth of grass, and a deep soil supports groves of magnificent oak trees, some of them eight feet in diameter. ... One of the large oaks bears the following inscription, cut deeply into the hard wood: "Peter le Beck, killed by a bear, Oct. 17, 1837." A broad, flat surface was hewed upon the trunk, and well smoothed off before the letters were cut. It is a durable monument.
The area was garrisoned by the United States Army a year later, on Aug. 10, 1854, as Fort Tejon, the first military fort in the interior of California. The inscription in the oak tree proved not to be as "durable" as Blake predicted. Ann Zwinger, in John Xántus: The Fort Tejon Letters, 1857-1859, (University of Arizona Press, 1986) writes:
In twenty years, by the time Xántus was there [May 1, 1857 - Jan. 14, 1859], the tree had covered with bark the bare spot which held the inscription. A group called the Foxtail Rangers from Bakersfield removed the bark in the 1880-90s and found the inscription in reverse on its underside. ... They also exhumed Lebec's body and returned it to its grave.
The bark is now (2001) encased in the U.S. Forestry ranger station at Fort Tejon, where a marker relates that the reverse lettering was found when "a lady of the Foxtail Rangers" removed it from the tree in 1889.
A proper headstone was placed beneath the Lebec Oak on April 5, 1938 — a century and change after Le Beck's death — as a more "durable" epitaph for the body buried there. Preceded by the words "In Memory Of," it replicates the precise inscription that had been carved into the tree, as follows: "PETER LEBECK / KILLED BY A X BEAR / OCTR 17 / 1837."
While it's conceivable that "X" could mark the spot, it more likely denotes the type of bear. "X" was common shorthand for a grizzly.
"Bec," incidentally, is French for "nozzle."