Bear stories are like fish stories. They get bigger and smellier with age. Our history books tell us John Lang, a Soledad Canyon pioneer, shot and killed a 2,350-pound grizzly bear on July 7, 1873. The origin of that version of the story is probably the John Lang biography in "An Illustrated History of Los Angeles County, California," published in 1889, sixteen years after the supposed fact. "Illustrated History" (the "Pen Pictures" series) was the type of pay-to-play book that no less a figure than Horace Bell decried as poppycock. The writeup called it "the largest grizzly bear ever known," which at 2,350 pounds it would have been — by about 750 pounds.
Now comes a more sober version of the story as written by John Lang himself, in the form of a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Herald — penned not 16 years but just two days after he shot the bear on July 15, 1875 (not 1873). In the letter, he credits two men who accompanied him on the hunt (later versions make no mention of helpers), and Lang claims the bear weighed in at more acceptable 1,600 pounds (which would match the modern world record).
Is it possible Lang killed two big bears, one in 1873 and a somewhat smaller one in 1875? Possible, yes. Likely, no. Considering the detail and bravado with which he recounts ridding the region of a bear that terrorized it for years — its scream would have "shaken the teeth loose" of lesser men — if he truly had bagged an even bigger bear two years earlier (notice that the years overlap), why would he not remind readers in his 1875 letter? And why invite people to see the pelt — to prove he shot a smaller bear?
And no, John Lang's bear didn't end up on the state flag. That one was captured a decade and a half later by this guy.
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Death of a Monster Bear.
Los Angeles Herald, Wednesday, July 28, 1875, pg 3.
A monster bear has been ravaging in the neighborhood of Lang's Station for several years, but has at last been killed. The death of the monster took place July 15th and is fully described in the following letter:
EDITOR HERALD: As it will be a matter of interest to settlers in various parts of this lower country to know of the death of the bear that has so long frequented these points and been the terror of the mountains, I propose to make known the particulars of his capture through the medium of your valuable sheet.
He has been in this section every year for four years, to my knowledge. He probably was over twenty years old. On his arrival back this time, the first mischief was breaking into a house on Moore's Flat and stripping it of all the provisions. The next was killing a horse for T.F. Mitchell, and next he killed a cow for me. Consequently I came to the conclusion that he must be captured, as all efforts at poisoning have always failed.
So I got two men (F.O. Moore and Wm. Taylor) to go with me. We took his track from the dead cow and followed him to his own camp, about ten miles in the mountains. When the dog woke him up he at once came for us, and with such a scream as would have shaken the teeth loose in a nervous person, but, fortunately, none such happened to be in the crowd.
At the first charge we put three bullets in him, knocking him down. He mustered and came again, screaming at the top of his voice. At this fire we put four bullets into him, neither shot failing to tell. This knocked him down again, but once more he rallied and came. This time we waited until he got within 50 feet of us, and then fired, knocking him down the third and last time. Thus ended Bruin. He would, if in full fat, have weighed about sixteen hundred pounds. His skin can be seen here at any time. I write this for the satisfaction of parties who have suffered.
Lang's Station, July 17th.
News story courtesy of Tricia Lemon Putnam.