Big Slough Grizzly Forward…

For a very special reason I am telling this story. A story of the hard rugged life acted out in a small frontier fort, began in the late summer of 1859.

The people in this story were real, their fears, their sorrow and the tragedy, that rocked their small, tight valley fort was real.

An influx of settlers, mostly from Mill Creek, Salt Lake Valley, in 1859, insured the permanency of the settlement. Amont this group were: Roger Luckham, Charles Atkinson, the Bird family, the Sorensen family, the Richards, the Hills, Ralph Forester, Robert Sweeten, Hans Jensen, William Findley, James Willie, Charles Shumway and son Andrew P., Thomas Graham, Andrew Anderson and Jasper Lemmon

In 1860 the Bakers, the Woods, the Roes and Donaldsons came to the Fort and now schools were started and the settlement was named "Mendon."

Fear of Indians kept the settlers in the Fort and they were still living in this tight inclosure in 1863 the time of "The Big Slough Grizzly Tragedy." ~ Vance D. Walker

Mendon Utah Logo

The Big Slough GrizzlyGrizzley Bear

Only a few men in this generation have probed the depths of “Bear Lore” and factually and scientifically calculated nature’s most awe inspiring specimen, the grizzly.

Many authors are agreed that the big black and brown bear, as we know them today, are a remnant of the Ice-Age, and have changed little in size or habits since his ancestor rummaged under rotted logs for juicy worms and beetles.

Old hunters looked upon the brown and black bear of the various regions of North America, as timid and inclined to run from mar, un cornered, or nursing cubs, then even these timid critters, would fight with such vicious and cruel abandon as to strike fear into the hearts of all human beings.

So, the old cry, “Bear! Bear! Run for your lives!” Was often heard on the fringe of the frontier. The seasons of the year affect the disposition of these two species. Spring brings them from their winter dens, gaunt, and shaggy, searching for anything to eat dead or alive to fill their bellies, now released from winter hibernation. But in the summer time, when they are fat and sleek, they become lazy and timid, living the “Life of Riley.”

Differing from these species is the grizzly (Urssus Horribilis). Larger by far than the black or brown bear families, he is characterized, by what seems to be a hump on his shoulders and a mottled white tipped hair, which makes him appear to be much greater is size than he really is; and adds a look of cunning and savagery to his already fearsome aspects. This denizen of the forest clad hills of the Wasatch Mountains, struck, not only fear, but horror into the hearts of the early frontier people, living on the broken and rugged sloped of the hills.

The grizzly reminds one of the “Hunch-back of Notredame:” he seems almost as human and mysterious in his cunning and treacherous way. Is it possible that humans have their counterpart among the beast-like qualities come to the surface only when hunted, beaten or driven to extremes by hunger? What ever it is, nature has given the grizzly a protective covering that blends into his native habitat and a contour that exaggerates his size, which is already prodigious. His feet, large and powerful are fortified with claws, long, broad and slightly curved. He had a long narrow muzzle with low slanting brow, resembling the “Neanderthal Man,” before the “Stone Age.” The skulls of many grizzlies have been classified and numbered in the “National Museum’s Biological Survey.”

The grizzly does not hibernate in winter, but roams, hunts and kills throughout the winter as well as in the lush summer and in common with other animals, he lives by habit and instinct; which brings us to our story.

Hidden in the deep recesses of the mountain fastness east of Cache Valley, lived the Queen of the Wasatch grizzlies. This spring of 1862, she was heavy with cub and sought a place of safety and seclusion for the event, far from her native home in the Bitterroot Mountains, north in Idaho.

As winter blew in along the high mountain peaks, the old grizzly built a den far back in a rocky cave; well protected from storm, cold and the searching eyes of her eternal enemy, man. Here she lived within the solitude of the dark hidden canyons and sighing pines; and here gave birth to two tiny, furry cubs. The cubs grew-a-pace and soon began to roll and tumble upon the floor of the cave safe from discovery or harm.

This Lady of the Wasatch, with jealous power watched over her family, as the winter snow piled deep in the canyons and cold Boreas swept the ridges bare and clean to the north and south. Through out the winter this Old Denizen of the hills brought to the cave the choicest bits of the kill, to add to the diet suckled from her glands. The winter solstice passed and the earth moved toward the spring equinox and warm sun and warm winds soon melted the ice and snow that had held the mountains in their frigid guild. The old grizzly rose high on her ponderous hind-legs and sniffed the aroma of growing things in the clean fresh air of these ever lasting hills and awaited the return of the flocks and herds to her hunting grounds.

The bright days of summer brought back to the hills the woolies and the herds of cattle from the floor of the valley. Their blearing and bellowing could be heard in every gully and meadow along the broken slopes, interspersed now and again with shouts of the herders and the crack of the hated rifle. Woodcutters and lumber men lined the roads into the timber covered slopes and the ring of ax and saw could be heard early and late as these sturdy pioneer-men prepared logs and lumber for the fast growing forts and villages in the Valley.

The old grizzly she, increased her vigilance and roamed and hunted by night, stealing into a flock of sheep without disturbing even the most timid on the bed grounds or the dogs sleeping at the door of the herders tent. With her powerful jaws she would break the back of the fattest and youngest then steal away as silently and mysteriously as she had come; morning revealing to the herder that she had been there under the cover of darkness, leaving no trail, only a few huge tracks in the soft earth where she had killed.

No man had ever seen this marauder of the Wasatch Mountains, but like awakening in the night with your pulse beating hard at your temples, you knew she was there, watching, waiting, Hunters, trappers and woodsmen searched doggedly for this mystic monster in vain. She was fast becoming a legend, something to be discussed in subdued tones around the campfires by the hunters as the curtains of night gently fell about them; sensing, that somewhere out there in the night, concealed by the thick foliage of the maples and service-berries, this marauder stalked their every move, and calculated with cunning wisdom to avoid them.

The cubs were soon tumbling and wrestling upon the velvety green bottom of the ravine below the cave, or searching with their mother for fat juicy worms beneath the rotting logs on the mountain slopes. The summer was passing, the sun was drifting farther and farther to the sough and the night frosts were turning the forest leaves to gold and brown. The Old Grizzly and her family watched the last of the flocks and herds leave for the valley, and as snow began to drift into the canyons the loggers and lumbermen too, left the hills. As the nights grew longer and colder this great female and her cubs meandered down along the tumbling waters of the Blacksmith Fork River, following the trail of the cattle and lumbermen to the floor of the valley, close to the corrals and feed grounds of the settlers.

The three bears emerged from the mouth of the canyon just at dusk and slipped into the poled corral of Tom Stokes, where he had put the old brindle cow and two calves for the night. As the old bear charged the yearling calf, the other two animals stampeded out through the back of the old straw shed. The Stokes family was just sitting down to supper when they heard the commotion outside; they raced to the door of the log cabin in time to see the three bears disappearing into the heavy willow-brush that lined the river, back of the shed. Tom had grabbed his old muzzleloader down from the mantle above the fireplace when he heard the racket outside and was in time to take one shot at the bears as they were swallowed up by the darkness and thick brush. He did no more than to hasten their departure. On reaching the corral they found the heifer ripped and torn and dying. The news that the old denizen of the hills was in the valley spread to every hamlet and village as if it had been radioed on short wave; and fear stalked the land.

Winter came early this fall of 1863 and soon the broad expanse of the Valley was covered with a white blanket of snow and the three bears holed up in a heavy clump of willows on the banks of the Big Slough, that meandered to the north and west of the Little Bear River a mile and half east of Fort Mendon, the beginning of a village that nestled beneath a branch of the picturesque Wasatch mountains, like a babe in the crock of its mother’s arm, on the west side of the Valley. So carefully had this old mother bear concealed and camouflaged her den that no one knew she was in the vicinity. A noctoroon by nature, she holed up in the daytime and prowled only at night. No one would be likely to discover her hideout only by accidentally stumbling upon it.

As winter progressed, farmers and ranchers on the outer fringe of the small forts in the south end of the Valley were under a continuous anxiety; as an early morning inspection showed where the fattest sheep or the youngest heifer had been savagely killed some time in the night. The only clue to the killer was the huge footprints left in the snow where the kill had been made. At one of these death spots the huge sole was measured and found to be twelve inches long without the claws, and eight inches wide at the toe. A monster, hated and feared in every pioneer home in the west.

As if she had been taught the art of stealth, she eluded the craftiest of the old bear hunters and trappers, eating only that which she herself had killed. No man traveled very far into the Valley or on to the foothills without having his old muzzleloader primed and ready.

This winter of 1863, Tom Graham of Fort Mendon, was on exception. Tom was a man of prodigious strength and courage. He was tall, rawboned, with a pair of heavy wide shoulders tapering to a flat slender waistline, in his early fifties. Around the old bowery, on a Sunday afternoon he would often entertain the squeamish and timid by holding a rattlesnake by the nap of the neck and spitting tobacco juice into its mouth and then watch it die at his feet. Tom could sit eight feet from the door in his log cabin and spit tobacco juice through the latch hole.

At harvest time in the fall he could swing a cradle over five acres of wheat from sun up to sun down; keeping two men busy binding his steady cutting of the grain. He had time and time again boosted the sill log into place while the log cabins were being erected in the fort.

One afternoon Brad Bird was shoeing a skittish mare in the makeshift blacksmith shop with very little or no success. Even the wicked nose twist failed to tame the animal, which grew more excited by the minute. Tom, leaning lazily against the door jamb watched the struggle with a wry-grin and just when it seemed this horse cold not be shod; he walked over to the animal, and with a agility surprising in one so large, reached down and picked up its hind leg and held it in the crook of his thigh, while the shoe was tacked on. He then repeated this with the other three feet until the shoeing was completed. Tom Graham was invincible.
The Graham’s woodpile was getting low, and winter nights were long and cold so, early this December morning 1863 Tom and his son-in-law Andrew P. Shumway, the first bishop of Mendon, sharpened their axes, hitched the team of mules to the bobsleigh and drove down the one street of the Fort, headed for the willow lined slough stemming from the Little Bear River in a north west direction. The morning was crisp and cold. A low fog hung thickly over the bottoms. On reaching the Big Slough, Tom stepped out of the bob sleigh, leaving young Andrew to bring the team when he could locate a clump of dry willows for their load. Tom swung off with easy strides, his axe on his shoulder, over the crusted snow and ice-covered slough. He was soon out of sight of the team and began scanning both sides of the ravine as he meandered along in the damp soupy fog. He stopped suddenly! There, directly in front of him loomed out of the fog the old she silvertail, blocking his way. Tom Graham paused only momentarily. He stepped forward and swung his axe with all his might at the head of this grizzly beast. It never landed. With one deft sweep of the great brute’s forepaw, she flung the axe clear across the slough, then closing in quickly the brute literally tore Tom’s head from his shoulders. Whether it was pure savageness or fear for her cubs, as Tom had stumbled right on to the entrance of her den, we will never know, but she ripped and tore Tom Graham as long as a muscle in his body quivered or jerked. His body and clothes were spattered all over the snow-covered ice of the Big Slough.

Young Andrew, following the tracks of Tom, to find out what was keeping him so long, came upon this bloody scene at the bend of the slough. A savage growl that rumbled deep in the throat of this blood bespattered fiend sent him screaming back to the sleigh. The team, now getting the scent of the bear and startled by the screams of the running boy, wheeled and broke into a run for home. Raw panic drove the lad on until he grabbed the rear end gate of the sleigh. He pulled himself up into the box and grabbed the lines from the peg. He didn’t try to stop the running mules, but thrashed them to greater speed.

Joe Richards, Robert Sweeten and Joe Baker clumping along the edge of one street fort at the east gate, stopped short, as they spied the racing mules bearing down upon them. The wild look in young Andrew’s eyes brought them to the side of the sleigh in one jump.

“What’s up?” Joe Richards shouted, in a voice that could be heard a block away. They stood rooted to the snow as Andrew, his words tumbling over each other, shrieked out his story of the tragic scene on the Big Slough.

The news struck the quiet little hamlet with the force of a thunderbolt; and as if a Aladdin’s lamp had been rubbed, men and boys appeared as though by magic with every kind and make of weapon that could be pressed into service and moved toward the fog-ridden area below town. The women stood in their doorways, with their aprons wrapped around their hands and the little children pressed their noses against the cold frosty windowpanes, gripped with fear and black forebodings, and watched their men folk leave for the arena of death. A cold chill! A chill of death! Spread up and down the street.

This small army followed the fresh tracks in the snow to the Big Slough and to the scattered remains of this erstwhile giant. His friends soon gathered up his shattered body in a buffalo robe and placed it in the same sleigh that had brought him here, and slowly, oh, so slowly, returned to the Fort.

The big marauder of hills and valley was now brought to bay. Her bloody foot prints let directly into a heavy clump of willows on the west bank of the Big Slough, not ten feet from where the frightful slaughter had taken place. Such old ea hunters as Alec Hill, his son, Jim, Forester, Jarvis and Amenzo Baker from Mendon; James Leishman, Bill Hoskins and the two Hill boys from Wellsville; Miller, Allen, Wilson and Christensen from Hyrum, stood, leaning on their guns and discussed ways and means of dislodging this Old Demon from her den, as calmly as if they had been seated around the cracker barrel in the co-op store hashing the weather.

“Wal,” Alec Hill injected into the conversation, “To me, thar’s but one way to do’er. That’s go right in and shoot’er out.” “That’s fine Alec,” Mike Murphy interposed, “But who’s go’n in?” “I’ll do’er,” answered Alec. “Jim, Alec’s son leaning there on his gun, dryly added, “I’ll be right behind ye, Pa.

Everyone in the know was objecting to this but Alec and Jim were already entering the ramp to the den. Every man now looked to the priming of his gun and stationed himself, ready for the inevitable charge. It was so still that the scuffing of the stalkers clothing against the twigs along the channel, marked their progress. Then she came! The foam of madness dripping from her fangs as she leaped at them. Alec raises “Old Faithful” and pulled the trigger— but nothing happened. The gun that had never failed him missed fire. Jim, stepping in close behind his father said, “Hold still Pa, I’ll fetch’er,” and blazed away right into the big brute’s face, but the grizzly monster was upon them with mouth wide open and old Alec, who stood right in front of her, rammed “Old Faithful” down her throat. So terrific was the charge of this big brute, that Alec and Jim wee bowled over into the brush, as she swished the gun from her mouth and bolted into the open. The barrage of guns opened up as she leaped clear of the willows and drover her back into her den, just as Alec and Jim emerged from the entrance, shaken and clawed.

This experience threw such a chill into the group that no one now cared to volunteer another try into the monsters lair. Faithful dogs that had followed their masters to this rendezvous with death, were now called up and urged and pushed into the ramp leading to the den, in the hope that this would lead the “Ole She” to make another charge but they came racing out or whimpering and whining dragging their broken bodies to their masters feet. The horses and mules that had been ridden to the scene, couldn’t be lead or cudgeled close enough to the bear scented area to be used as bait to entice the beast out of her hole, except, the old flea bitten mare ridden here by Joe Baker, a young blade from the Fort. With a lot of tugging kicking with his heels and slapping with the rope, Joe backed the old mare time and time again to the mouth of the willow tunnel. The only response from these tactics, thus employed, was a deep rumbling growl issuing from the wounded beast. This method seemed futile and they were ready to abandon it and resort to burning her out— when the cracking of brush gave warning that she was coming!

Men, who had momentarily relaxed their watchfulness, sprang to action yelling and trying to get the old mare started away from the opening, but she was old and sow. She was finally started, with Joe belaboring her ribs with heel and rope, just as the bear brought one huge paw down across her rump, tearing the flesh to the bone. This was all the impulsion the old mare needed, she shot out onto the slick, smooth surface of the slough, the great beast right behind her.

Every man emptied his gun into the body of the already wounded animal as she bore down upon the mare and Joe with savage fury. Her deep marrow chilling growls, together with the yelling of the men and the barking of the dogs and the thundering of the guns created a din, noise and confusion the likes of which had never before been heard in the peaceful Valley. To keep the old mare from going headlong into a big clump of brush, Joe pulled her sharply to the left, her feet shot out from under her and down she came on her side, pinning Joe beneath her. Every heart stood still and every man with bated breath gazed helplessly upon the tragic scene being enacted before their very eyes. They dare not shoot. Each man dropped his gun and raced forward to engage this horrible beast with bare hands and drag her from the prone body of the horse and boy. This was not needed however; as this last leap had drained from her body the final spark of life. Her dead weight pinned the mare to the snow covered ice as effectual as if she had been tied.

The old Grizzly was rolled over and the mare and boy helped to their feet, scared, but none the worse for the experience. Joe remarked rather laconically, “Boys that was kinder’ close, war’nt it?”

The skinning and cutting up of the bear began at once. As the skin was peeled off, Murphy counted twenty-four bullet holes in her carcass and often bragged afterward, that four of them were from his gun. How did he know? Well he made the bullets.

Usually one brush with death is enough for any one man in a day; but not so for young Joe Baker. He wanted to see what kind of den had housed and so well concealed this denizen of forest, hill and valley. He entered the ramp or tunnel on his hands and knees and crawled to the end, which was covered so densely with brush that it was almost dark. He sat back on his heels to get a getter view of the den when an earsplitting bah! Rushed at him. The two cub bears and Joe tried to get out of the den and down the ramp at the same time. The bawling of the cubs and the screams of Joe brought the men from the carcass of the old mother bear on the run, grabbing up their guns as they came and crying, more bear! Joe and the two cubs rolled out on the slough at the same time, and as the cubs broke loose they were literally filled with lead. The smaller of the two ran a few steps and fell to the snow, jerked a few times and was dead. The other cup, the larger one, made it to the brush and headed for the river, from the bank he plunged into the ice jammed water and swam to the further shore; pulled himself out, dripping wet, cold and alone. He looked back once over his shoulder at his pursuers and then disappeared into the brush and waist high grass on the island. Hunters, as soon as it was light the next morning, took up the chase, but to no avail.

He was never heard of again, until years later, when cattlemen and sheepmen, who took their flocks and heards into the east mountains, began to lose the fattest of their young stock to a monster they could never trap nor see. They found his wallows where he purified his hair and the scars on the pine trees where high, with his back to the tree sharpened his teeth ten feet above the ground, but the ablest of the hunters and trappers were never able to bring him to bay. He had learned his lessons well from men, in spitting fire and burning lead.

At night, in the hills, when the herders and campers were seated around their camp fires, they could feel the presence of this great beast, back in the shadows of night watching, waiting, and as the wind blew through the trees they seemed to hear the sigh os a sad and lonely heart.1

Vance D. Walker

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1. Vance D. Walker, The Big Slough Grizzly