A Tale: Colonel Pickett’s Version of Bagging His First Bear — 1877

When two people  describe the same event, interesting differences often occur. That certainly happened when Colonel William D. Pickett’s and his guide, Jack Bean, described the Colonel’s first bear hunt.

Col. Pickett

The hunt happened shortly after the Nez Perce Indians fled through Yellowstone Park following the bloody Big Hole Battle on August 9, 1877. Although there was still a possibility of danger from Indians remaining in the Park, Pickett was eager to hunt for grizzly bears there so he hired Jack Bean, an old Indian fighter and frontiersman, as his guide.

Bean’s version of their trip presented the Colonel as a bit of a buffoon. Here’s how Colonel Pickett, who lated became a famous bear hunter, described his first kill.


It was learned the hostile Indians had passed through the National Park, followed by Howard’s forces. As there was still time to make a hasty trip through the Park before the severe winter set in, I determined to do so. I was urged not to make the attempt on account of the hostiles’ sick or wounded that might have been left behind, and of other Indians. I recognized the risk, but since as a youngster I had served during the Mexican war as a mounted volunteer on the northwest frontier of Texas against the Comanches, and all the bad Indians of the Indian Territory and of the Kansas Territory who infested that frontier, I had some knowledge of Indian ways. Added to this, was the experience of four years’ service in the War Between the States. These experiences qualified me to judge of the credence to be placed in war rumors. I was anxious to make the trip.

Only one man of suitable qualities could be found willing to make the trip—Jack Bean. He knew the routes through the Park; he was a good packer and mountain man, cautious, but resolute. We went light. I rode my hunting mare Kate; Jack his horse, and we packed my little red mule Dollie. I was armed with a .45-90-450 Sharpe long-range rifle, and Jack with a .44-40-200 repeater. In addition to a belt of cartridges, Bean carried around his neck a shot bag pretty full of cartridges, so that in case of being set afoot, they would be handy. When Dollie was packed there was not much visible except her ears and feet.

We left Bozeman September 11, and nooned in the second canyon of the Yellowstone on the 13th. While there, a portion of the cavalry that accompanied Colonel Gilbert on his trip around from the head of the Madison, passed down toward Fort Ellis, having with them Cowan and Albert Oldham, who had survived the hostile Indians near the Lower Geysers.

In the afternoon, we passed up the river, by the cabin of Henderson, burned by hostiles, turned up Gardiner’s River and camped within three miles of Mammoth Hot Springs. As this squad of cavalry passed down, we were conscious that we had to depend entirely on our own resources for the remainder of the trip, for there was probably not another white man in the Park. A note in my diary says: “International rifle match commences today.”

Early on the 14th, we went on to the Hot Springs, and spent two or three hours viewing their beauties and wonders. We passed by the cabin, in the door of which the Helena man had been killed a few days before, after having escaped the attack on the camp above the Grand Falls. During the day’s travel, there were splendid mountain views from the trail.

In the afternoon of September 15, the trail descended to the valley of the Yellowstone and passed within one mile of Baronett’s Bridge, across which Howard’s command passed on the 5th of September in pursuit of the Nez Perces. We soon dropped into the trail taken by that command and followed it back to Tower Falls.

September 16, we packed up and began the ascent of the Mt. Washburn range. For a few miles, the trail followed an open ridge, exposing us to a northeast blizzard, accompanied by snow. After descending into the gulch, up which the trail leads to the pass in the range, the snow became deeper, and toward the summit of the range, it was eighteen or twenty inches, knee-deep, which compelled us to dismount and lead the horses, as the ascent was very hard on them. In view of future possibilities, we made every effort to save their strength. It was one of the most laborious day’s work of my experience.

When near the summit, going through open pine timber, we discovered a large bear approaching us. He was moving along the side of the steep mountain to the left, about on a level, and would have passed out of safe range. I immediately dismounted and cut across as rapidly as the snow and the ascent admitted, to intercept him. He had not discovered us. When within about one hundred yards, watching my opportunity through the timber, I fired at his side. He was hit, but not mortally. As my later experience told me, those bears when hit always either roll down hill or go “on the jump.” On the jump this bear came, passing about twenty yards in our front. A cartridge was ready, and against Jack’s injunction “Don’t shoot,” I fired; yet, it failed to stop him, and Jack turned loose with his repeater, I shooting rapidly with my rifle. By the time the bear had reached the gulch he stopped, to go no further.

The excitement caused by this incident and my enthusiasm on killing my first grizzly—for I claimed the bear—dispelled at once all feelings of hardship and fatigue. The bear was a grizzly of about four hundred pounds weight, fat and with a fine pelt. We had not time to skin him, nor could the hide have been packed. After getting a few steaks, a piece of skin from over the shoulder and one of his forepaws, we continued our laborious ascent of the mountain. Still excited by this incident, the work was now in the nature of a labor of love.


— Abridged from William D. Pickett, Hunting at High Altitudes, (George Bird Grinnell, ed.) Harper & Brothers: New York, 1913. Pages 62-68.

—Photo from the book.

— Read more about Jack Bean in my book Adventures in Yellowstone.

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