John “Grizzly” Adams


I entered the community of Charlton, Massachusetts via Muggett Hill Road, which passed the Bay Path Cemetery, the cemetery I wanted to stop at. Though I had directions to the grave I sought, what I was not told is the parking for the cemetery is non-existent. The first two of the three entrances I came to were chained off, and “No Parking” signs littered the grassy strip between the roads and the walls of the cemetery.

Thankfully, the final entrance was open and I pulled through and parked. Immediately noting all the old stones, I stopped just inside the entrance and got out.

I paused to scan the old cemetery. Located at the junction of Route 31 and Muggett Hill Road, the Bay Path Cemetery, also known as the Charlton Centre Yard, was established in 1764 and holds many of the towns early settlers. The original acre of land for the cemetery was donated by Ebenezer Mackintire, a local land owner who ran a tavern here. When the first grave was being dug, the hole quickly filled with water, so Mackintire offered a different piece of land for a burial ground and there the grave was dug and the body placed at rest. Note: modern spelling of Ebenezer’s last name is McIntire, but the sign at the cemetery spells it Mackintire, which is the version I used.

With directions in hand, I carefully walked across the cemetery, pausing among the old stones to investigate the carvings that crowned them. I was halfway across the cemetery when I spotted the grave I sought. As I walked over to the two stones marking the grave of John Adams, I was taken in by the carving at the top of the older stone, which shows a man standing next to a large bear. The man resting here was a noted trapper of grizzly bears, hence the name that most know him as: Grizzly Adams.

Note: Yes, in the picture, there is an orange at the base of the older stone. While I do not know for sure the reason it was placed there, I imagine it was to remember his life in California, because the John Adams buried here spent many years living there under the moniker Grizzly Adams.

I grew up on the television series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and I thought I knew the story of Grizzly Adams. After all, the show which ran from 1977-78, was in constant rerun in the early 1980s and I knew all about the legendary mountain man. The character had fled into the mountains after being falsely accused of murder. In his journeys he adopts an abandoned grizzly bear cub that he named Ben.

Little did I know that the only thing the television series had correct was Adams had a grizzly bear named Benjamin Franklin that was constantly by his side.

John Adams was born October 12, 1812, the son of Eleazar and Sybil Adams. Though he did receive some schooling, at the age of fourteen Adams was working as a cobbler’s apprentice. By the time he was twenty-one Adams had left the position and became a hunter, capturing live specimens for zoos. While attempting to train a Bengal tiger, Adams was severely mauled and after a year of recovery, he moved to Boston to resume working as a cobbler. Adams married Cylena Drury in 1836 and their union produced three children.

By late 1849, Adams found himself caught up with gold fever and, with his father, invested in shoes to be sent westward for the miners to purchase. When the shipment arrived in St. Louis, it was destroyed by a fire, costing the life savings of both men. John, rather than returning home, set out westward to find his fortune as he joined the numerous others headed to California in an attempt to make it rich by searching for gold. Failing to strike it rich, Adams turned to hunting, selling the meat to miners. He began farming, but in 1852, he lost his ranch near French Camp, California to creditors. With nothing left, he escaped into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and began trapping.

In 1853 Adams journeyed north into the Washington Territory, where he caught his first grizzly bear, a female grizzly cub he named Lady Washington. Adams taught Lady Washington to carry a pack and pull a sled. Adams would eventually be allowed by Lady Washington to ride on her back.

The following year Adams trapped one of the largest grizzlies captured alive – a 1,500 pound grizzly bear he named Samson. While in the Yosemite Valley in late 1854, he retrieved a pair of male grizzly cubs, one he named Benjamin Franklin.

The following spring Benjamin Franklin would save Adams’ life when John was attacked by a mother grizzly. Benjamin Franklin distracted the mother grizzly long enough to allow Adams to escape. He would eventually recover his rifle and kill the attacking grizzly. The power swipe from the mother grizzly ripped Adams’ scalp off and cracked his skull. It would take a month for Adams to recover and he would display the wounds of the attack, which never fully healed, for the remainder of his life.

In 1856, Adams opened the Mountaineer Museum in a San Francisco basement. Once the museum proved successful, Adams was able to move it into a better spot and renamed it the Pacific Museum, which remained open until 1858. During this time he met Theodore H. Hittell, who would later publish the story of Adams’ life; also painter Charles Nahl, whose paintings of Adams’ grizzlies became a model for the bear on the California state flag.

From the time of the attack by the mother grizzly, Adams suffered health wise. A wound on his neck failed to heal, having been reopened and reinjured numerous times. In 1859 he was severely injured while training a bear, which resulted in his skull being cracked again and a silver-dollar sized piece of bone on his forehead being torn away.

On January 7, 1860, Adams and his animals left San Francisco headed for New York City. Upon arrival he sought out P.T. Barnum, who took in Adams and his animals. Adams continued to perform with his animals for another ten weeks before selling the animals and retiring to his home in Neponset, Massachusetts. On October 25, 1860, just five days after his retirement from show business, Adams died and was buried in the Bay Path Cemetery at Charlton, Massachusetts – legend maintains that the stone marking his grave was paid for P.T. Barnum after learning of Adams’ death.

As I stood at his grave, I realized how different the real Grizzly Adams was from the story that I had known from watching the television show. The real Adams moved west to seek his fortune – which, by the way, he bankrupted almost every venture he tried – and had not fled due to being accused of murder. Unlike the television show “based upon his life, Adams was not a hermit that lived in the mountains due to being falsely accused of murder, but only went into the mountains to trap grizzlies for his show.

John “Grizzly” Adams may have been able to trap grizzlies, but his living and training the dangerous animals would be the cause of his death. I finished paying my respects before winding my way through the old stones to the vehicle, leaving the larger-than-life figure to rest on the hillside of the Bay Path Cemetery.

Note: Adams – as far as I can determine – was not given a middle name at birth. By the time he reached California, he adopted the name “John Capen Adams” with Capen being his mother’s maiden name and also the middle name of his brother James. When Theodore H. Hittell published his book, The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California, he referred to Adams as James Capen Adams, the same name he went by under P.T. Barnum. Oddly, many genealogical sites refer to him as “John Boyden Adams,” – I have not been able to determine where this version of his name originated from.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s