Bulls vs. Bears: Northern California’s Bloody Spectator Sport of the 19th Century

An illustration of a bear vs bull fight shown in the British press.

In the 1800’s, when Spanish conquistadors and early gold rush optimists flocked to the newly settled areas of Northern California, the grizzly bear was the dominant animal of the wilderness. In those days, it was said that over 10,000 grizzlies roamed California, creating a dangerous problem for any humans who might encounter one.

Frustrated by the beasts, the locals took up the sport of viciously pitting wild bulls versus captured bears to enjoy a bloody round of entertainment on Sundays after church. While the practice seems appalling now, it was a normal and popular practice in NorCal for nearly 100 years.

San Francisco and Sacramento were the best places to catch a bear-bull brawl after visiting a newly-built mission for Sunday mass. Makeshift arenas would house frenzied men, women and children to watch a bull take on a tied-up bear in a fight to the death. The popular past-time was welcomed to those looking for gladiatorial combat to provide some Sunday excitement.

A drawing of a bull and bear fight that appeared in The Wide West in 1854. Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library

“A bull and bear fight after the sabbath services was indeed a happy occasion,” the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote in 1888. “It was a soul-refreshing sight to see the growling beasts of blood.”

The sport was introduced to the area by Spanish conquistadors and welcomed with open arms by the European settlers in the area. As the captured beasts were brought into the arena, men with firearms roamed the perimeter of the pit, ensuring neither animal would try to escape. Then, after chaining the grizzly bear to a post, they would subsequently tie the bull to the bear, forcing the animals to eventually confront each other.

After a bloody brawl, the bear, sometimes weighing up to 800-pounds, would usually emerge victorious. A young Swiss named Theophile de Rutte gave a gruesomely detailed account of the spectacle.

“Then we saw the bear lower his massive head over the neck of the bull and begin calmly to tear at his nape,” de Rutte wrote. “From time to time he lifted his bloody snout to utter a grunt of satisfaction, and then he bit a little deeper onto his opponent’s vertebrae. The crowd, as if jolted, filled the air with cheers for the victorious grizzly which, satisfied with his victory and undoubtedly exhausted from so much emotion and effort, lay down next to his victim’s carcass.”

Spanish cowboys rounding up bulls. Courtesy of Bancroft Library

From the late 18th century to the mid 1800’s, the events were common in the area, but as more gold rushers flocked to the area in the 1850’s, the spectacle became taboo. For those not familiar with the practice, they found it gruesome and cruel.

“Unwilling and bound as the animals were, the spectacle had in it nothing great or praiseworthy,” wrote German botanist Adelbert von Chamisso in 1816. “One pitied only the poor beasts, who were so shamefully handled.”

The Daily Alta, after viewing a fight in the Mission Dolores area of San Francisco described the events as “a vestige of barbarism” and a “disgrace to the citizens of San Francisco.” Eventually, ordinances were passed limiting the fights in the area. And as the population of grizzly bears rapidly declined in the area, so too did the bloodsport.

Today, the state of California has not seen a grizzly bear, the emblem of its flag, for nearly 100 years. After learning the way the early settlers treated the beautiful beasts, it’s easy to understand why.

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