Harmon’s Histories: A Thanksgiving bear hunting tale for the ages
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
A single gun shot dropped the bear, but only momentarily. It quickly rose and charged the hunter.
Astonishingly, the hunter dropped his gun and “rushed upon the bear with nothing for protection except a red sash which held up his trousers.”
A hunting companion yelled out, “Think of your family!” The man replied, “Tell the world that I died as a man.”
So reported the 1890 Missoula Gazette, in an item credited to the Spokane Spokesman newspaper.
It all began a few days earlier, when “a number of gentlemen were talking over plans for Thanksgiving when someone proposed that they go after their own game.”
“Dr. Buckley of the Northern Pacific (N.P.R.R.) tendered his private railroad car and the following day the trip was begun.”
“Dr. Buckley, N.P.R.R. Superintendent Ramsey, T.E. Jefferson, W.H. Taylor, and D. Essig formed the party.”
When they “arrived home laden with all kinds of game from quail to black bear, acquaintances asked, ‘Did you have a good time?’ ” T.E. Jefferson responded, “Did we? Well I should cut a tooth! ‘Twas one continual round of pleasure, interlarded with enough spice to color the event.”
“Dr. Buckley nearly lost his life. That man is a hunter from Huntersville. ‘Death on the trail’ might tie him but couldn’t beat him. And Dr. Buckley is such a fair fighter, too. I’ll never forget how he got that big black bear.”
The hunting party left the banks of the “Clarke’s Fork” river onto a trail in the woods, when they came face-to-face with the bear.
Taylor excitedly “happened to think of something he’d forgotten in the car and doubled back on the trail. Dr. Essig reacted by knocking Jefferson’s gun from his hands, breaking the trigger, and scrambling up a tree. The rest of the party stayed with Dr. Buckley, who never flinched.”
Well, he flinched slightly, but only “when something hit him on the shoulder. Dr. Essig’s hair had raised so high that it pushed his hat off and it fell below. The gnashing of Essig’s teeth sounded as if two ice carts had run into one another.”
Buckley raised his rifle, took aim, and fired. The bear fell, but quickly got up. It sustained but a minor shoulder wound.
To this, Buckley asked Jefferson, “Tom, haven’t I always been fair to everyone in the world?” Jefferson replied, “You are one of God’s noblemen,” as the bear continued toward them.
“Did I ever take advantage of anyone?” queried Buckley. “Never,” responded Jefferson, “as the bear was making for us hotly.”
“Then I’ll be true to the last,” proclaimed Dr. Buckley, as he threw his gun aside. “The beast is wounded. He is under a disadvantage, and I’m not mean enough to shoot him under these circumstances.”
It was then that the doctor “threw off his coat and rushed the bear.” Buckley grappled with the bruin, “giving the animal a savage undercut” as they tumbled down a hill. Freeing himself from the beast, he made a loop out of his sash and threw it over the animal’s head, wrapping the other end around a tree limb.”
He then “made a ferocious thrust at the bear who dodged to one side,” falling and effectively hanging itself by the neck (and) “strangling on the tree limb.” That, reported Jefferson, “was the only dangerous part of the trip.”
The hunting party said “the deer were plenty, (adding) a beautiful white-tail was brought down by Dr. Essig and Mr. Taylor one day” using a particularly interesting ploy.
“They posted up some exposition posters (for the World’s Fair), and in a few hours a dozen deer were looking at them. As one handsome-looking fellow was glancing at a bright picture, Essig and Taylor crept up behind and beat him to death with clubs.”
Asked why they used clubs rather than shooting the deer, Jefferson reportedly said, “they never thought of it.”
If not some time ago, by now – I’m sure we’re all questioning the veracity of the whole story.
But we’ll give both the Spokane Spokesman and the Missoula Gazette credit for creative and entertaining writing in 1890!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.