In 1886 the army took over administration of Yellowstone National Park and began enforcing a no guns policy. Soon animals that had fled from public view to avoid slaughter reappeared where tourists could see them. When luxury hotels began dumping garbage in nearby forests, bear watching became as popular with tourists as viewing geysers. One tourist who went to the park to watch bears was the famous wildlife artist, naturalist, and writer Ernest Thompson Seton.
Seton, who helped found the Boy Scouts of America, not only wrote the first Boy Scout Handbook, he also wrote and illustrated popular stories about wild animals for magazines and books. Nearly every boy and girl in America knew about Seton and his stories.
In 1897 he came to Yellowstone Park to do an inventory of large animals for a magazine that focused on wildlife conservation. On that trip Seton saw a fight between a grizzly and a momma black bear protecting her invalid cub that everybody called “Johnny.” Seton’s story about the fight became the basis for his most famous story, “Johnny Bear.” Seton was so fond of the story that he told it a second time from the perspective of Wahb, the subject of his book Biography of a Grizzly.
“Johnny Bear” originally appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and was republished in Seton’s book Wild Animals I Have Known. The following is a condensed version.
All the jam pots were at Johnny’s end; he stayed by them, and Grumpy stayed by him. At length he noticed that his mother had a better tin than any he could find, and, as he ran whining to take it from her, he chanced to glance away up the slope. There he saw something that made him sit up and utter a curious little Koff Koff Koff Koff Koff.
His mother turned quickly, and sat up to see “what the child was looking at” I followed their gaze, and there, oh horrors! was an enormous grizzly bear. He was a monster; he looked like a fur-clad omnibus coming through the trees.
Johnny set up a whine at once and got behind his mother. She uttered a deep growl, and all her back hair stood on end. Mine did too, but I kept as still as possible.
With stately tread the grizzly came on. His vast shoulders sliding along his sides, and his silvery robe swaying at each tread, like the trappings on an elephant, gave an impression of power that was appalling.
Johnny began to whine more loudly, and I fully sympathized with him now, though I did not join in. After a moment’s hesitation Grumpy turned to her noisy cub and said something that sounded to me like two or three short coughs—Koff Koff Koff. But I imagine that she really said, “My child, I think you had better get up that tree, while I go and drive the brute away.”
At any rate, that was what Johnny did.
Grumpy stalked out to meet the grizzly. She stood as high as she could and set all her bristles on end; then, growling and chopping her teeth, she faced him.
The grizzly, so far as I could see, took no notice of her. He came striding tward the feast as though alone. But when Grumpy got within twelve feet of him she uttered a succession of short, coughy roars, and, charging, gave him a tremendous blow on the ear. The grizzly was surprised; but he replied with a left-hander that knocked her over like a sack of hay.
Nothing daunted, but doubly furious, she jumped up and rushed at him. Then they clinched and rolled over and over, whacking and pounding, snorting and growling, and making no end of dust and rumpus. But above all their noise I could clearly hear Little Johnny, yelling at the top of his voice, and evidently encouraging his mother to go right in and finish the grizzly at once. . . .
She scrambled over and tried to escape. But the grizzly was mad now. He meant to punish her, and dashed around the root. For a minute they kept up a dodging chase about it; but Grumpy was quicker of foot, and somehow always managed to keep the root between herself and her foe, while Johnny, safe in the tree, continued to take an intense and uproarious interest.
At length, seeing he could not catch her that way, the grizzly sat up on his haunches; and while he doubtless was planning a new move, old Grumpy saw her chance, and making a dash, got away from the root and up to the top of the tree where Johnny was perched.
— Excerpt condensed from “Johnny Bear” by Ernest Thompson Seton, Scriberner’s Magazine 28(6):658-671 (December 1900).
— Illustration by the Seton from the magazine.
— You might also enjoy:
- “Watching a Giiant Grizzly” by Grace Gallatin Seton
- “Watching Bears Fight at a Dump.”
- Or any of the stories you’ll find by clicking “Bears” under the Categories button to the left.