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William Holcomb

Grizzly Bears in Bear Valley

"Time was fleeting, the old year, 1859, had drawn to a close, and the new year. 1860, had come. Success had not crowned our efforts. Our provisions, except venison, were exhausted and the outlook for us was gloomy, indeed. Jack Martin was now determined on the morrow to abandon Bear Valley and return to his family in Los Angeles for I was determined to stay, at least until the bear should come out of their hiding places. Before separating we concluded to prospect a little more, so we both strolled up to the top of the hill nearby where there was a small quartz ledge. On our way up I said to Martin : We have prospected every likely place we have seen in the valley, now let us try this hillside where the snow is melted away and where we are sure there is no gold,' to which Martin objected at first, but I insisted and shoveled up a pan of dirt off the naked hill. rock, pine leaves and all, and Martin took it back down to the foot of the hill to pan out, which he did and run up the hill to show me the fine gold dust, about ten cents, he had panned out, repeating the operation we found more gold to our great joy. Our courage and hopes now renewed for by night we were convinced that we had struck paying diggins. Next day we began the work with rocker and found we could make about $5.00 each per day.
Jean Beaufort photo

"In a few days Martin left for Los Angeles to bring up his family and also lot of provisions, taking our gold dust to pay for these articles. I stayed and worked on. Passing through San Bernardino. Martin imprudently exhibited some of the gold dust ; this raised a great excitement, but when he arrived in Los Angeles and showed the gold dust there, and paid for a considerable bill of goods with our gold dust, there was quite a stir there. By this time people began to rush into San Bernardino.

"By this time the bear began to make their appearance in the valley and having no other meat but venison I determined to get some bear meat for a change. Doctor Whitlock was anxious to go with me. so taking our guns we went down the valley about two miles and there in the midst of the open valley we saw two monster grizzlies. I immediately prepared to slip up on them. The doctor objected as it was too dangerous, but I had been waiting too long for such an opportunity which I could not let pass, so leaving him, I crawled out into the open valley to within thirty-five or forty yards of them, took deliberate aim and brought one down. The other hearing his dying groans and seeing him struggling, at once fell upon him fighting him as if to drive him away ; being quick at reloading my muzzle loading rifle, I was ready just as he raised his head to look at me. fired, laying him out along side of his companion. Going up to those monsters I must confess that I felt a little proud of this achievement, for it meant a change of diet for all in camp. I now motioned to the doctor to come up. which he did cautiously and expressed wonder and astonishment at their enormous size. On returning to camp there was great rejoicing, but the doctor reprimanded me in the presence of all, saying I was too venturesome and that I would be killed surely by the bear some day and would never accompany me again on so hazardous an undertaking. Next day those bear were brought to camp, a smoke house built, and they were soon converted into bear bacon free to all. I will say now that this smoke house was never clear of bear bacon while I remained in Bear Valley.

"Soon after this I took my gun and strolled out northward to view the country, and ascending to the summit of the ridge that divides the waters of the Santa Ana River from the waters of the Mohave River, and looking down from this eminence in a northerly direction, a distance of about two miles, there I discovered a most beautiful little valley. I gazed with wonder and delight at the beauty and grandeur of the scenery spread out to my view. But it was late in the day and after a few moments more of observation and inspiration I retraced my steps to camp highly pleased with what I believed to be an important discovery. At camp that night I related to my companions what I had discovered, whereupon one of the party. Jim Ware, offered to go with me and see the new valley, the Holcomb's Valley, as they began to call it. A short time after this, in company with this same Jim Ware. I led the way over to this newly discovered valley and found four bear out in the center of it. At once I began to creep up on them, and when in good range, I shot one, while the rest rushed up past and within twenty steps of me and began fighting each other ; this excited me as I thought Ware was right among them. In great haste I had reloaded my muzzle loading rifle, which I threw to my shoulder, my eye caught sight of Ware up a tree. I fired, killing one at the root of the tree Ware was up in. the other two bears got away. I was vexed at the actions of my companion, but he looked so meek and so frightened that I could not upbraid him. After disemboweling our two bear, we had no time to spare to look over the valley, as it was late in the day and we had five miles to travel to camp. When we returned and told the miners about our trip, the valley, etc., there was a general jollification that night and allusions were frequently made to that valley of Holcomb's.

"Next day several of the party took donkeys and went with nie around up the Van Dusen Canyon to pack in the bear. It took us all day to get back to camp. There was more talk of Holcomb's Valley. "I now proposed to prospect this new valley. One of the party, my old friend, Ben Choteau, desired to go with me, so in a few days we took our guns, blankets, a little grub, pick, shovel and pan on our backs and struck out to prospect that new valley of Holcomb's as our companions continued to call it. We arrived there about sun down and found a monster grizzly out in the valley, which I shot but did not bring down and as he ran close by us. Ben's gun missed fire, we followed him a short distance, but darkness ended our pursuit. Next morning early we took the track and followed to where he had crossed a quartz ledge which we stopped to examine and found gold in it. We now abandoned the hunt and taking some dirt in a handkerchief to prospect, we returned to where we had left our outfit and digging out a hole in the main gulch, found water and washed our handkerchief of dirt, and behold, we had found a good prospect. We panned dirt from other gulches and found fair prospects. We were not greatly elated at our success in this new valley of Holcomb's and did not look any further for that wounded bear, which was afterwards found dead, close by, but spoiled. We now returned to camp with great joy. Evidently we had struck new diggins in that new valley of Holcomb's, as the boys now called it. That night there was a bonfire and great rejoicing in camp over the new discovery of gold in Holcomb Valley, and we resolved to return next day to stake out and locate our claims, so we did return next day. May 5th, 1860, just ten years to a day from the time I left home for California.

"Soon this discovery of gold spread like wild fire and the rush began. At Bear Valley log cabins began to appear like magic, a store opened by Sam Kelley. a blacksmith shop erected by John M. Stewart, whose daughter, Nancy Stewart, became my wife, November 8th, 1860. I was now ready to move over to the new valley from Bear Valley and open up the mines there, so I gave all of my interest in the Bear Valley mines to my old partner. Jack Martin, with whom I had crossed the plains to California on foot in 1850, and departed for the new gold diggins in Holcomb Valley, now generally so called, Ware got moved over and camped on the main gulch, between what is now called Upper and Lower Holcomb Valley, arriving there about May 10th, 1860, unpacked, and got dinner, eight of us in all. We had left all of our bear meat in Bear Valley, and now, if you will pardon me, I will relate just one more incident with bear.

"Joe Caldwell, a big, good natured fellow, and a kind of leader in our company, said to me while eating dinner, 'Bill ! Take your gun and go and see if you can't get us some fresh bear meat.' 'Well,' said I, 'suppose you go and try your luck.' I knew he wouldn't go for a bear had previously knocked him down and ran over him. He only laughed and told me to go on. So after dinner I took my old trusty rifle, walked briskly down to Lower Holcomb, about four hundred yards, and there in the open valley were four bears busily engaged in digging for mice or gophers. I had but little difficulty in approaching them. With steady aim I brought down one when the others gathered around him in great rage, fighting among themselves. Three more shots as quickly as I could reload and shoot, and all was over. The four bears lay dead within a few feet of each other. Returning to camp within half an hour from the time I left it, I met Joe Caldwell, who called out, 'Well, Bill! what did you kill?' He had heard the four shots. 'O, nothing,' I replied, 'but four bears.' 'Is that all,' he exclaimed. 'I can do better than that with a club.'

JOHN BROWN, Jr. Editor for San Bernardino County
JAMES BOYD Editor for Riverside County

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