A Tale: A Bear Fight in the Yellowstone Park — 1903

By the dawn of the Twentieth Century, watching the antics of bears at hotel garbage dumps became one of the most popular activities in Yellowstone Park.  Here’s a colorful description.


The transportation company’s stages had emptied their loads of dust covered sightseers at the open doors of the Fountain House, and the ink on the register was not yet dry wherewith the newcomers had written their names, when the Fountain geyser began to grumble, hiss and send up clouds of steam, promising an early eruption. Following suit, all the finger holes and cracks in the formation, the hot springs and the baby geysers shot out jets of steam. The Mammoth Paint Pot began to plop, plop, plop! And throw up gobs of pink, white and yellow mud into the air from its bowl full of scalding clay. All this hubbub was a vain attempt to attract the tourist attention.

The Dante’s Inferno in front of the hotel might have saved its steam and sulpher for another occasion, as it was unnoticed by the guests. The new arrivals were following the layovers in a stampede for the garbage heap on the white geyserite formation back of the house. Suddenly the crowd came to a halt.

“Gee!” exclaimed a small boy, as he pushed the button on his Kodak.

“Waught! Waugh! Shouted the pilgrims from Medicine Hat and Rat Portage.

“Hey! May be rubberneck, what?” laughed the man from Moose Jaw.

‘Say! She’s a tough proposition, an’ she wears the straps all right,” cried the guide; while the doctor from Chicago, the broker from New York, the office holder from Ohio, the colonel from Kentucky and the dude from Honolulu all clapped their hands with delight.

Having dumped its load of table leavings and tin cans the hotel garbage wagon was rumbling back over the formation to the stables, but it was not the wagon, team, driver or load of food scraps which called forth the applause and exclamations of pleasure from the guests of the Fountain House; it was nine great black bears that interested us.

To the delight of the spectators, the bears had given a short exhibition of their skills as boxers. It was a hot fight; but it did not last long. In fact, it was a mistake in the first place; an impromptu affair not down on the menu. This is the way it happened.

A long legged cinnamon bear snatched the remains of some ribs of beef from under the nose of a big mother black bear at the moment she was calling her two little cubs to partake of the roast. A benevolent looking bruin, with a glossy black coat covering rotund body, was busily engaged in pawing over the garbage near by, when the indignant mother lifted her paw for a swinging blow, missed the culprit and landed with a resounding swat on the jowl of her benevolent appearing neighbor.

“Ough-oo-oo-ee-ee-eah!” cried Fatty, in a rage, as he rose on his hind legs and let go at the solar plexus of Old Spot. He had gained his name by breaking through the crust near the Paint Pot and covered on black wide with white mud. Spot’s temper had be none of the best since that day, and in less time than it takes to tell it, he let fly with his left and right at his nearest neighbor, and it became a free-for-all fight accompanied by a continued ought-oo-eahing in various keys.

During the melee the cinnamon bear who caused the riot was quietly eating the remains of the roast beef, gnawing the bones within 10 feet of the gallant Kentucky colonel, to the latter’s great amusement.

Although nearly all the men present had cameras, only women and children took advantage of the sunlight and clear sky to photograph the scrapping bears. The sport-loving men stood around in a semicircle, with pleased grins on their faces, too much engaged in applauding the hairy gladiators to waste a thought on the black boxes under their arms.

Scarcely had the women and children time to wind up their films when the brown bear, elated over his former success, made another attempt to slip up unobserved to the garbage pile. To the casual onlooker it would appear that the black bears were all too busy seeking their own dinner to heed the brown’s approach; but a close observer could not fail to notice that the beadlike eyes of the blacks were keenly alert. No sooner did Brownie come within reach than biff! biff! biff! came the great black paws on his unprotected head.

An elderly spinster, who seemed deeply interested in the zoological show, stood within 15 feet of the feeding brutes and directly in front of the cinnamon bear, when, with open mouth, it made a dash for safety. With a quick movement the frightened spinster gathered up her skirts, there was a flash of white petticoats, a twinkling of feet, and she was gone, never once looking back until she slammed the hotel door behind her.

The astonishingly rapid gait at which the terror stricken lady made her 100-yard dash called forth the wildest enthusiasm from the spectators, and the colonel pushed the button of his pocket camera three times without once winding up the film.

Of course, the brown bear turned aside into the woods the moment he was out of reach of the powerful blows of his relatives, but it was of no use telling that to the spinster. She will always believe that the brute followed her to the hotel door.


— Text and image from Dan Beard, “A Bear Fight in the Yellowstone Park,” Recreation 18(2):85-87 (February 1903).

— You might also enjoy:

— You can read Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Johnny Bear” in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone…Early Travelers Tell Their Tales.

— To find more stories about bears, click on “Bears” under the “Categories” button to the left.

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