Field of Science

The Bears of Texas: Chapter 6 - The Greatest Sport on Earth

Chapter 6

The Greatest Sport on Earth

“When the forests are no more, the doom of the few surviving members of the big game family in the South will have been sounded, and this time is not far away.” L.L. Kiene

“While it lasted, bear hunting ‘was the greatest sport on earth.’” Doughty, Robin W. 1983. Wildlife and Man in Texas: Environmental Change and Conservation. A&M U Press: College Station.

By 1976, when Texas was 150 years old, it had a population of 11 million people and almost zero bears. In 1836, when Texas declared itself a country, there were considerably fewer people and many more bears. Bears suffered because of their membership in the ├╝ber-predator group, piled together in the minds of people along with wolves and panthers and anything else that threatened them or their livestock. Any rogue bear behavior immediately stood as testament to the behavior of all bears. People hunted bears in proclaimed self-defense, but the line that divided self-defense and wanton destruction became blurred until it vanished along with the bears.

Bear hunting has deep roots in Texas, where its earliest human residents hunted bears through the thickets. These early hunters did not leave behind names famous for their association with bear-hunting prowess, but later settlers mounted to incredible heights in the eyes of their brethren for their breathtaking ability to destroy nature’s creation. Defense of livestock, food, bear oil, trophy skins—the reasons for killing bears were so numerous that it comes as no surprise the primary cause for their disappearance from the state was unregulated hunting.

At first, settlers felt they had no choice. They hunted bears because bears were after their own food sources, either livestock or the wild hogs that roamed the piney woods. They hunted bears for their meat and oil. These hunting expeditions sprang from a genuine need to protect food sources. The minute a settler arrived in an area with his family and his livestock, he became a bear hunter from necessity, and his dogs became bear-hunting dogs. Eventually, hunters would keep dogs especially trained for bear-hunting, but these early dogs did double-duty guarding stock and tracking bears. Sometimes, the dogs made the choice, jumping a bear on a day when they were simply out to work the hogs or cattle. The day became a bear hunt. But dogs had limits—if they wasted time and strayed into a hunt for a deer, they received no accolades, but got 40 lashes with a switch instead.

In 1890, hunting destroyed the only verified Texas grizzly, a huge specimen whose very scent terrified the dogs on its trail, as Bailey relates:

The only specimen of grizzly bear that I have seen or heard of from Texas was killed in the Davis Mountains in October 1890 by C.O. Finley and John Z. Means. The skull, which Mr. Finley has kindly sent me for comparison, proves to be that of a large and very old male of the Sonora grizzly, agreeing in all essential characters with Baird’s type of Ursus horribilis horriaeus from southwestern New Mexico. The claws on the front feet, Mr. Finley says, were about 3.5 inches long, and the color of the bear was brown with gray tips to the hairs. Its weight was estimated at 1100 pounds, if it had been fat. Mr. Finley says that this bear had killed a cow and eaten most of it in a gulch near the head of Limpia Creek, where the dogs took the trail. Out of a pack of 52 hounds, only a few would follow the trail, although most of them were used to hunting black bear. These few followed rather reluctantly, and after a run of about five miles over rough country, stopped the bear, which killed one of them before it was quieted by the rifles of Finely and Means. It took four men to put the skin, with head and feet attached, upon a horse for the return to camp.

Perhaps the most famous bear hunter of them all was Ben Lilly. He is certainly responsible for the loss of many a black bear in Texas, and he may also have had a hand in the disappearance of any grizzlies that chose to reside within our borders. As David E. Brown wrote, “Lilly claimed to have killed between 200 and 300 bears in his lifetime. If only a few of those that were grizzlies had lived, the situation for the grizzly in the Southwest might be very different today.”

Bear hunting was not a genteel pastime, and its heroes were typically not genteel men, but hardy and hardened pursuers of prey. In the Big Thicket, bears took cover in the thick cane brush of the lowlands, where, according to late 19th-century chronicler William Bollaert (left), they were “hunted with dogs, shot with rifle when in distance, and speared at times. When the bear is a large one and has not been mortally wounded, the hunter must look out, for ‘he’s the boy for a fight!’ But in all difficulties with a bear, and when he prefers close quarters, the Bowie knife may then be resorted to with success. Four friends of mine unarmed fell in with a bear; they only had their Bowie knives with them—they went to work and killed him.”

Bollaert’s stories of using knives are not unusual. East Texas resident Noah Smithwick, a sometime bear hunter, would hunt bear with a pack of dogs and find himself unable to shoot a cornered bear without hitting one of his hounds. Instead of offing the dog and the bear together, he would set the gun aside, wade through the hounds, and cut the bear’s throat with his hunting knife. If a knife wasn’t handy, rocks would do; one Col. Abraham Wiley Hill earned fame by recklessly engaging in hand-to-paw combat with bears and panthers in East Texas, and he once even killed a bear by knocking it out of a tree with rocks.

There was no shame in the slaughter. A man named Ben Hooks, the person who provided the town of Kountze with its slogan, “The Town with a Sense of Humor,” hunted with his brother and killed 15 bears in a single year (1905). Hooks’ prowess was notable enough that the following year, he hooked up with a more famous Ben the Bear Hunter and went after bruins in the Big Thicket with Ben Lilly at his side. It was at that time that Lilly predicted the extermination of the black bear from East Texas.

Just a few Hooks’ brothers with a Lilly as a partner would have been enough to decimate the bears in East Texas, but they were not alone in their bear-killing ability. A woman who lived in Wharton County from 1850 to 1860 told of the annual bear-hunting trip her boss, Mr. Womble, took every year. He would head out to bag bears for their meat and fat, taking “several Negroes and a pack of hounds,” and return with a wagonload of bear carcasses each time.

Hunting a bear was no easy task, as the stories of Bowie knives and spears attest. According to Carter Hart (1889–1973), an early resident and bear hunter of the Big Thicket, “bear hunting is the hardest work a man ever did on earth. We would ride if we could, but lots of times, a horse would bog down, bog down anywhere. You had to walk all day in mud, water, and your were in the sloughs, canebrakes, baygalls, and palmetto swamps a lot. I’ve come in after dark and not have a bite to eat all day. None of us ever did.” Hart, who lived and hunted in Hardin County his whole life, knew bears inside and out, and he would keep cubs, remarking that they “aren’t hard to tame and you can just feed ‘em scraps like you would a puppy.”

Another Big Thicket resident recalls a part he played in a bear hunt. His amused attitude in his tale contrasts with the abject fear of the terrified, hunted bear, and he ends his story with a sobering estimate:

One day, when I was walking on a lonely road, on the edge of the Big Thicket...I heard some dogs barking. As I was familiar with the voices of the dogs, I knew they belonged to Bud Brackin and Jake Lloyd. These were bear dogs. People at this time trained their dogs to run different animals and varmints. I stopped by the side of the road and looked through the woods to see what was coming my way. The sage grass was so tall I could not see anything at first. It was not long, however, ‘til I saw something big and black coming toward me. There I was with no gun, so I stayed by the tree. On came the big black bear, hot and foaming at the mouth. There was a small pond of water near the tree. When the bear saw the water, he just plunged right into it. I decided to let him see me, so I just raised my hat and said, “Good morning.” The bear raised up on his hind feet, his hair all turned up. He opened his mouth and made a funny noise. The dogs were now so close to him that he decided to leave. Right through the woods went the bear, dogs, and all. Then came Mr. Brackin and Jake Lloyd. As Jake passed me, he asked me if I had seen his dogs. I said, “Yes, I saw two dogs and a bear going toward the Parker Place.” Brackin and Lloyd crept in where the dogs and bear were and killed the monster. The bear was extra large. They blew their horns, and I went to them and helped them put the bear on one of their horses. After we had discussed his height, we decided he would weigh 400 pounds or more. Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Brackin were winter bear hunters; there were no game laws then. Most every winter they would kill about 40 bears.

Two men killing 40 bears every winter would have to take its toll on the population in a very short period of time. Today, we regret the loss, but in the minds of many at the end of the 19th century, extermination was, in fact, the goal, and 40 bears in a single winter nothing to write home about. Bailey tells the story of Ab Carter, whose two occupations were keeping hogs and killing bears:

In November 1904, an old bear hunter, Ab Carter, living on the west edge of Tarkington Prairie, in Liberty County, told me that there were no bears at that time in Liberty County west of the Trinity River, but the active part taken by Mr. Carter in exterminating the bears in that locality makes his statements of peculiar interest. Forty-nine years ago he was born on the ranch he now owns, and his principal occupation, like that of his father, has been keeping hogs and killing bears. To a man with several hundred hogs running in the woods, bear killing was the most important part of the season’s work, but it was not until about 1883 that the extermination of the bears began in earnest. At that time, Mr. Carter and a neighbor each got a pack of good bear hounds and in the following two years they killed 182 bears, mainly within a radius of 10 miles from the ranches. This reduced the number of bears so that later not more than 10 to 20 were killed annually up to 1900, when Mr. Carter killed the last two of the vicinity. Two years ago he killed the last of his bear dogs, and now keeps only hog and wolf dogs, while his hogs eat acorns in safety over 100 square miles of magnificent forest and dense thicket.

This lone hunter killed about 400 bears in 18 years in a small area of the Big Thicket, leaving it safe for his hogs. Given these numbers, the bear population in the Big Thicket before humans began to populate it in earnest must have been huge compared to that which prevails today even in protected parts of the United States.

The fate of the dogs in Ab Carter’s story was typical; if they didn’t die at the hands of their owners, they met their deaths at the swipe of a bear claw or suffered injury in the heat of the hunt:

Dogs are seldom used for two days in succession during a bear hunt. Unlike a deer, a bruin keeps to dense thickets when followed by dogs, and the underbrush and briars lacerate the skins of the hounds until the dogs become too careful to be effective. They also become foot-sore from long races. They are also often injured by the bear. During the fight last season, six dogs out of eight in the chase were disabled by a big bear that weighed 600 pounds. They all recovered, however. To guard against accidents of this kind the hunter usually empties his rifle into bear, for it is the wounded bear that kills and cripples dogs. The bear hunter often delivers the death shot with the gun only a few inches from the animal’s body. A bear is seldom killed by a single shot.

Some dogs achieved fame on par with the greatest bear hunters, including the incongruously named Dandy, a notorious bear dog:

They hunt fox in the Thicket now, but the big stories for 60 years in Hardin County were of the super battles between a bear hound named Dandy and the big bears. People still tell how Dandy would lead and drive a bear to where the hunter with the gun stood.

Hunters used dogs in the Thicket not only for their tracking abilities but because the dogs could simply move faster than the hunters and signal the whereabouts of the bears they cornered. The Thicket got its name because of the density of its undergrowth, and horses were useless in a place where brush, palmettos, and vines obstructed any attempt to follow a bear.

Before the bears disappeared, the Thicket earned widespread fame as a rich repository of bears to hunt for sport. The region drew Ben Lilly in the early 1900s, and legend has it that Lilly even led Teddy Roosevelt on a hunt in the area, although the hunt really took place in Tensas Bayou, Louisiana. Roosevelt was quite taken with bear hunting, writing, “I do not know that I have had many interesting experiences, unless you include bear hunting in the list.” Presumably, being president or charging up San Juan Hill or mapping a tributary of the Amazon paled in comparison to hunting a bear. Roosevelt also noted the appearance of his eccentric guide, writing that Lilly was “spare, full bearded, with mild, gentle eyes and a frame of steel and whipcord.”

Certainly, no book about bears in the Southwest would be complete without some reference to Ben Lilly, who may single-handedly have had a greater effect on the fate of grizzlies and black bears than any other human. Along with Ab Carter and a handful of others, this group of determined, relentless men helped drive the bear to extinction in most parts of the Southwest. They had their reasons, from an addiction to the thrill of the sport to a determination to civilize the country, but the result was the same: the bears lost and we lost the bears.

Time changes attitudes. Today we think about conservation and about appreciation for wildness and undefiled nature. Conservation in the modern sense was an alien notion a hundred years ago. People did not have the luxury of considering conservation; their ethic was based on what they needed to do to survive. Some men took the attitude to extremes, viewing predators like the bear as a sort of active Nemesis that needed to be brought to justice. Although they themselves lived and seemed to enjoy a tough, rough, and dirty existence, they lacked interest in preserving that lifestyle. As they killed the bears, methodically and ruthlessly, they killed their own way of life. Like pioneers in an ecological community, they changed the landscape in ways that resulted in their own demise and altered the interaction of that community forever. Neither they nor the bears would survive in a tamed wilderness.

Lilly probably contributed most to taming the wilderness in terms of bears. He worshipped at the altar of bear hunting and had so dedicated himself to it that even as a hired gun for the government, employed to kill mountain lions, he couldn’t resist taking bears instead.

Although he is legendary and the subject of a well-known biography by J. Frank Dobie (center figure, right; Philosophers' Rock, Austin TX), Ben Lilly was probably not the kind of person you’d choose to hang out with today. He apparently had a great deal of whatever it is that attracts people’s notice; it wasn’t just his bear-hunting exploits that garnered him fame, it was himself. People drew to him wherever he went, and his quiet-man charisma came second place only to his ability to kill animals. He seemed to be from a time before his own, and he never fell into step with modernity.

His birth in 1856 was unremarkable. He ran away from home and his six younger siblings when he was 12, and after some scanty schooling embarked on his favorite pastime of hunting. He reached manhood in Louisiana, bred on the notion that panthers were evil and that God had a plan for him. As it turned out, the plan seemed to be for Ben Lilly to kill panthers and their predator associates, the bears. He learned blacksmithing from his father and uncle and became adept at fashioning knives from steel. His earliest passion was hunting, and he dedicated his life to it.

When he was 24, Lilly married a woman who was known to be a bit “tetched” in the head, and soon after his marriage, he began to spend more and more time hunting, struggling through the deep recesses of Louisiana’s woods and swamps with a pack of up to 25 dogs, always on the lookout for panthers and bears. During this time, his wife bore him a son, a fragile child who died while Lilly was hunting in a Mississippi swamp. Soon after the loss of his son, Lilly’s wife became truly insane, and the marriage collapsed. He did marry again, fathering three more children, but he abandoned this family within a decade.

Lilly’s whipcord body reached only 5 feet, 9 inches in height and weighed in at a muscly 180 pounds. He already had gained notoriety for his endurance and speed. Strangely, he also was a noted jumper, able to perform the odd feat of leaping flat-footed out of a cracker barrel even in old age. The one known illness he suffered was malaria, acquired on his long sojourns into mosquito-infested swamps, and he was deaf in one ear, possibly from repeated exposure to the explosion of gunfire, or from sleeping on the ground. In spite of his constant tromping over hill and dale, through swamp and thicket, Lilly could not swim.

An eccentric from early on, Lilly had his own way of doing things, from his signature, which included a picture of a bee and a water lily, to his refusal to do any work—even hunting—on Sundays. Even at the peak of a hunt, he would stop the chase on Saturday night and refuse to start again until the following Monday, even if the target was almost in hand. He also was an immutable teetotaler who never cursed and always kept his word. Roosevelt, whose hunting style involved a large entourage and comforts of home and was completely incompatible with Lilly’s way, described Lilly as a religious fanatic. Lilly’s best biographer, J. Frank Dobie, demurred in this opinion, saying instead that Lilly was actually a hunting fanatic. Since he thought God had brought him into the world to hunt and destroy evil predators like the panther, Lilly was probably both.

His behavior about animals belied his seemingly gentle, austere exterior. He would as soon shoot a dog or horse that didn’t do right by him as look at them. Any living creature served as a target for practice, and he was incredibly wasteful of the animals he killed, often shipping spoiled game to market. He ruthlessly killed his bear dogs, beating them to death, and would castrate or spay any that he sold to others. If dogs had a sense of destiny, they would have felt that Lilly was placed on Earth to mistreat and torture them.

Lilly was weird in other ways. When he ate, he thought it was unhealthy to mix up foods in the stomach and would eat only one dish at a time. His hygiene certainly was not up to modern standards; he bathed once a week but generally always wore the same clothes, adding or removing layers as the climate required. Evidently, his strong personal charisma overwhelmed what must have been a strong personal stench. When he hunted, he would stock up on calories like a python, eating a huge amount at a sitting and then going for days without further sustenance. He loved to sleep outdoors no matter what the weather, and he had an almost preternatural tracking ability.

In an odd twist of fate and a strange marriage between Lilly and the government, Lilly began collecting animals for the U.S. Biological Survey just after the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, many of the animals he collected are now extirpated from Louisiana or altogether extinct, including the passenger pigeon, the wolf, and the ivory-billed woodpecker (left), almost as though Lilly’s very touch served as a harbinger of loss. He got an early start on shifting the ecological balance of any hapless acreage that fell under his ruthless eye.

Texas fell under that gaze in 1906, when Lilly had almost reached the age of 50. He entered the Big Thicket that year and bagged his first Texas bear for the Biological Survey. It may have been his first Texas bear, but it was at least his 118th lifetime bag, and the claim was that it was one of the largest black bears ever killed in North America. Lilly didn’t linger in the Thicket long, pausing only to go on a few hunts, including his outing with the Hooks brothers, before moving west.

He didn’t leave West Texas untouched, either, and he also made his way into Northern Mexico, where he went on his legendary hunt after a huge male grizzly. Lilly killed his first grizzly in Chihuahua and dutifully dispatched the hide and skull to the National Museum. His tale of this hunt, which took place in 1911, describes a marathon through the mountains, during which Lilly killed, almost as an aside, a mountain lion and two black bears. But his main target was the giant male grizzly he followed through three states and two countries. In the end, he got his bear, as he almost always did. Lilly continued his extirpation attempts through New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, sometimes at the behest of the government, sometimes leading a hunt for entertainment, sometimes alone. He died on a New Mexico farm in 1936 at the age of 79, and revisionist friends erected a monument to him 11 years later with an inscription that captured his life while softening the edges of his story considerably:

Born in Alabama and reared in Mississippi, Ben V. Lilly in early life was a farmer and trader in Louisiana, but turned to hunting of panthers and bears with a passion that led him out of swamps and canebrakes, across Texas, to tramp the wildest mountains of Mexico, and finally become a legendary figure and dean of wilderness hunters in the Southwest. He was a philosopher, keen observer, naturalist, a cherisher of good hounds, a relier on his rifle, and a handicraftsman in horn and steel. He loved little children and vast solitudes. He was a pious man of singular honesty and fidelity and a strict observer of the Sabbath. New Mexico mountains were his final hunting range and the charms of the Gila Wilderness held him to the end. Erected 1947 by friends."

Lilly made a harsh dean in the school of nature and fit only the broadest definition of naturalist in that he spent most of his time outside and knew a lot about at least one side of nature. His exploits took him from the Big Thicket to West Texas and beyond, but the chronicle does not record any adventures of his in the Texas Hill Country, although that area, too, once abounded with bears. Many tales from early residents of the area refer to the abundance of bears in the sheltered canyons of the area, and one record even calls the Hill Country a “world of bears” that furnished provisions for early settlers.

One naturalist became quite prosy in his description of the hunt, including hunting of bears, saying that a book could be written about them “when listening to the hunting tales of the old sturdy German settlers.”

German settlements were common throughout the valleys of South Central Texas, and in the Hill Country as elsewhere in the state, bears drew hunters like flies to honey, as in the story of the mysterious Mr. P that took place just west of New Braunfels, near Austin:

The settlers told us, with fresh excitement, the story of a great bear hunt, which had recently come off. The hero was one of the German hermits,. named P______, a famous sportsman. Mr. P. had been mauled once by a wounded bear but had stabbed it to death. ...this doughty hunter had discovered a bear’s den in a long, narrow cave. After crawling into it several times in order to combat the inmates, Mr. P. had succeeded in killing one bruin after another. Imagine the cheers, when the five bears were carried by his neighbors, on poles, into the settlement. Mr. P. entered the community ‘striding modestly at the rear’ of the trophy-bearing procession, a three-day feast was declared.

The chronicle makes no mention of the oddity of five bears huddling together in a single cave.

Another famous hunter, whose complete name survives in the records, was John H. Jenkins, who live near Webberville (east of Austin) with his bear dogs. Today an area in southern Travis County known as Hornsby Bend is Austin’s site for sewage and yard-trimming recycling and a well-known birding ground, but 100 years ago, bears ruled the bend. Jenkins best bear dog, Watch, was “deadly at tracking bruins in Hornsby’s Bend and in the Elgin bottom (12 miles below Bastrop).” Elgin is now known for its sausage, with nary a bear in sight. Jenkins was proud of Watch, claiming that “when Watch was in sight, I could tell even on a cold trail the size of the bear they were after.” Watch was a sort of canine Ben Lilly, able to track a bear through any terrain for hours, crossing streams and rivers and working in any weather. His master loved him because Watch offered him “the pleasure of shooting many bears.” Watch was so dedicated to the hunt that he sometimes would wake Jenkins the middle of freezing nights, begging to go on a hunt.

Even without Lilly, bears disappeared from the hills at the hands of Jenkins and his dogs and the German hunters, and through indirect elimination as people came in waves to this promised land of water and green hills. Now, where there were bears and trees and birds, there are acres of concrete, steel, and glass.

Even in sparsely populated West Texas, where only small islands of concrete and steel sprout up in the vast desert, the bears suffered because of the hunt; in fact, as with the Germans around New Braunfels, hunting bears was an entertainment, rather like going to the park today for a game of flag football. Families gathered together, bringing wagons and picnic baskets to enjoy the slaughter of the day, or of the week, the length of time these parties usually lasted:

In the early 1890s several families, numbering 40 to 75 persons, gathered together annually for a week’s sport. Horses, dogs, children, tents, equipment, and wagons made up these caravans, and each day members of all ages set out to hunt, invariably bagging three or four bears. C.O. Finley (who was involved in killing the only verified Texas grizzly), whose family pioneered settlement in the Davis Mountains about 1885, recalled that “every day or so some one would get lost from the bear chase, and kill a deer or two, while this was all good sport, especially if you got in the chase and got to the killing of the was awfully hard on the horses and men who rode hard and reckless in the rough country to follow and keep up with the hounds.

Fort Davis eventually became the hunters’ mecca in West Texas, a depot where they set up headquarters and brought in their meat and skins on horses, including the meat and skins of bears. Bear meat and fat were still highly prized in the area even into the 20th century, and hunting parties from as far away as Austin or Houston would make their way to West Texas to hunt the bear. Intrepid hunters would even go into the caves of the Chisos Mountains—the very caves where bears winter there today—and kill the bear with a knife as it rushed from its den.

Bears departed from West Texas as they had vanished from the Hill Country and from East Texas, at the hands of determined hunters. They disappeared from most of the state, never to return. But their story in the western part of Texas had not yet ended.


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The complete book, When Worlds Collide: The Troubled History of Bears and People in Texas, is now available as a Kindle download on Amazon. Thanks for reading.

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