The Big Bear of Arkansas

Written Text

A steamboat on the Mississippi frequently, in making her regular trips, carries between places varying from one to two thousand miles apart; and, as these boats advertise to land passengers and freight at “all intermediate landings,” the heterogeneous character of the passengers of one of these up-country boats can scarcely be imagined by one who has never seen it with his own eyes.

Starting from New Orleans in one of these boats, you will find yourself associated with men from every State in the Union, and from every portion of the globe; and a man of observation need not lack for amusement or instruction in such a crowd, if he will take the trouble to read the great book of character so favorably opened before him.

Here may be seen jostling together the wealthy Southern planter and the peddler of tin-ware from New England, the Northern merchant and the Southern jockey, a venerable bishop and a desperate gambler, the land speculator and the honest farmer, professional men of all creeds and characters: Wolvereens, Suckers, Hoosiers, Buckeyes, and Corncrackers, beside a “plentiful sprinkling” of the half-horse and half-alligator species of men, who are peculiar to “old Mississippi,” and who appear to gain a livelihood by simply going up and down the river. In the pursuit of pleasure or business, I have frequently found myself in such a crowd.

On one occasion, when in New Orleans, I had occasion to take a trip of a few miles up the Mississippi, and I hurried on board the well-known “high-pressure-and-beat-every-thing” steamboat “Invincible,” just as the last note of the last bell was sounding; and when the confusion and bustle that is natural to a boat’s getting under way had subsided, I discovered that I was associated in as heterogeneous a crowd as was ever got together. As my trip was to be of a few hours’ duration only, I made no endeavors to become acquainted with my fellow-passengers, most of whom would be together many days. Instead of this, I took out of my pocket the “latest paper,” and more critically than usual examined its contents; my fellow-passengers, at the same time, disposed of themselves in little groups.

While I was thus busily employed in reading, and my companions were more busily employed in discussing such subjects as suited their humors best, we were most unexpectedly startled by a loud Indian whoop, uttered in the “social hall,” that part of the cabin fitted off for a bar; then was to be heard a loud crowing, which would not have continued to interest us, such sounds being quite common in that place of spirits, had not the hero of these windy accomplishments stuck his head into the cabin and hallooed out, “Hurra for the Big Bar of Arkansaw!”

And then might be heard a confused hum of voices, unintelligible, save in such broken sentences as “horse,” “screamer,” “lightning is slow,” etc. As might have been expected, this continued interruption attracted the attention of everyone in the cabin; all conversation dropped, and in the midst of this surprise, the “Big Bar” walked into the cabin, took a chair, put his feet on the stove, and looking back over his shoulder, passed the general and familiar salute “Strangers, how are you?”

He then expressed himself as much at home as if he had been at “the Forks of Cypress” and “prehaps a little more so.”

Some of the company at this familiarity looked a little angry, and some astonished; but in a moment every face was wreathed in a smile. There was something about the intruder that won the heart on sight. He appeared to be a man enjoying perfect health and contentment; his eyes were as sparkling as diamonds, and good-natured to simplicity. Then his perfect confidence in himself was irresistibly droll.

“Prehaps,” said he, “gentlemen,” running on without a person interrupting, “prehaps you have been to New Orleans often; I never made the first visit before, and I don’t intend to make another in a crow’s life. I am thrown away in that ar place, and useless, that ar a fact. Some of the gentlemen thar called me green—well, prehaps I am, said I, but I arn’t so at home; and if I ain’t off my trail much, the heads of them perlite chaps themselves wern’t much the hardest; for according to my notion, they were real know- nothings, green as a pumpkin-vine—couldn’t, in farming, I’ll bet, raise a crop of turnips; and as for shooting, they’d miss a barn if the door was swinging, and that, too, with the best rifle in the country. And then they talked to me ‘bout hunting, and laughed at my calling the principal game in Arkansaw poker, and high-low-jack. ‘Prehaps,’ said I, ‘you prefer chickers and rolette;’ at this they laughed harder than ever, and asked me if I lived in the woods, and didn’t know what game was? At this, I rather think I laughed. ‘Yes,’ I roared, and says, I, ‘Strangers, if you’d ask me how we got our meat in Arkansaw, I’d a told you at once, and given you a list of varmints that would make a caravan, beginning with the bar, and ending off with the cat; that’s meat though, not game. Game, indeed, that’s what city folks call it; and with them it means chipper-birds and shite-pokes; may be such trash live in my diggens, but I arn’t noticed them yet: a bird any way is too trifling. I never did shoot at but one, and I’d never forgiven myself for that, had it weighed less than forty pounds. I wouldn’t draw a rifle on anything less heavy than that; and when I meet with another wild turkey of the same weight, I will drap him.”

“A wild turkey weighing forty pounds!” exclaimed twenty voices in the cabin at once.

“Yes, strangers, and wasn’t it a whopper? You see, the thing was so fat that it couldn’t fly far; and when he fell out of the tree, after I shot him, on striking the ground he bust open behind, and the way the pound gobs of tallow rolled out of the opening was perfectly beautiful.”

“Where did all that happen?” asked a cynical-looking Hoosier.

“Happen! happened in Arkansaw: where else could it have happened, but in the creation State, the finishing-up country—a State where the sile runs down to the centre of the ‘arth, and government gives you a title to every inch of it? Then its airs—just breathe them, and they will make you snort like a horse. It’s a State without a fault, it is.”

“Excepting mosquitoes,” cried the Hoosier.

“Well, stranger, except them; for it ar a fact that they are rather enormous, and do push themselves in somewhat troublesome. But, stranger, they never stick twice in the same place; and give them a fair chance for a few months, and you will get as much above noticing them as an alligator. They can’t hurt my feelings, for they lay under the skin; and I never knew but one case of injury resulting from them, and that was to a Yankee: and they take worse to foreigners, any how, than they do to natives. But the way they used that fellow up! first they punched him until he swelled up and busted; then he sup-per-a-ted, as the doctor called it, until he was as raw as beef; then, he tuck the ager owing to the warm weather, and finally he tuck a steamboat and left the country. He was the only man that ever tuck mosquitoes at heart that I knowd of. But mosquitoes is natur, and I never find fault with her. If they ar large, Arkansaw is large, her varmints ar large, her trees ar large, her rivers ar large, and a small mosquito would be of no more use in Arkansaw than preaching in a cane-brake.”

This knock-down argument in favor of big mosquitoes used the Hoosier up, and the logician started on a new track, to explain how numerous bear were in his “diggens,” where he represented them to be “about as plenty as blackberries, and a little plentifuler.”
Upon the utterance of this assertion, a timid little man near me inquired, if the bear in Arkansaw ever attacked the settlers in numbers.

“No,” said our hero, warming with the subject, “no, stranger, for you see it ain’t the natur of bar to go in droves; but the way they squander about in pairs and single ones is edifying. And then the way I hunt them the old black rascals know the crack of my gun as well as they know a pig’s squealing. They grow thin in our parts, it frightens them so, and they do take the noise dreadfully, poor things. That gun of mine is a perfect epidemic among bar: if not watched closely, it will go off as quick on a warm scent as my dog Bowieknife will: and then that dog— whew! why the fellow thinks that the world is full of bar, he finds them so easy. It’s lucky he don’t talk as well as think; for with his natural modesty, if he should suddenly learn how much he is acknowledged to be ahead of all other dogs in the universe, he would be astonished to death in two minutes. Strangers, that dog knows a bar’s way as well as a horse-jockey knows a woman’s; he always barks at the right time, bites at the exact place, and whips without getting a scratch.
“I never could tell whether he was made expressly to hunt bar, or whether bar was made expressly for him to hunt; anyway, I believe they were ordained to go together as naturally as Squire Jones says a man and woman is, when he moralizes in marrying a couple. In fact, Jones once said, said he, ‘Marriage according to law is a civil contract of divine origin; it’s common to all countries as well as Arkansaw, and people take to it as naturally as Jim Doggett’s Bowie-knife takes to bar.’ ”

“What season of the year do your hunts take place?” inquired a gentlemanly foreigner, who, from some peculiarities of his baggage, I suspected to be an Englishman, on some hunting expedition, probably at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

“The season for bar hunting, stranger,” said the man of Arkansaw, “is generally all the year round, and the hunts take place about as regular. I read in history that varmints have their fat season, and their lean season. That is not the case in Arkansaw, feeding as they do upon the spontenacious productions of the sile, they have one continued fat season the year round; though in winter things in this way is rather more greasy than in summer, I must admit. For that reason bar with us run in warm weather, but in winter they only waddle. Fat, fat! It’s an enemy to speed; it tames every thing that has plenty of it. I have seen wild turkeys, from its influence, as gentle as chickens. Run a bar in this fat condition, and the way it improves the critter for eating is amazing; it sort of mixes the ile up with the meat, until you can’t tell t’other from which. I’ve done this often. I recollect one perty morning in particular, of putting an old fellow on the stretch, and considering the weight he carried, he run well. But the dogs soon tired him down, and when I came up with him wasn’t he in a beautiful sweat—I might say fever; and then to see his tongue sticking out of his mouth a foot, and his sides sinking and opening like a bellows, and his cheeks so fat that he couldn’t look cross. In this fix I blazed at him, and pitch me naked into a briar patch, if the steam didn’t come out of the bullet-hole ten foot in a straight line. The fellow, I reckon, was made on the high-pressure system, and the lead sort of bust his biler.”

“That column of steam was rather curious, or else the bear must have been very warm,” observed the foreigner, with a laugh.

“Stranger, as you observe, that bar was WARM, and the blowing off of the steam show’d it, and also how hard the varmint had been run. I have no doubt if he had kept on two miles farther his insides would have been stewed; and I expect to meet with a varmint yet of extra bottom, that will run himself into a skinfull of bar’s grease: it is possible; much onlikelier things have happened.”

“Whereabouts are these bears so abundant?” inquired the foreigner, with increasing interest.

“Why, stranger, they inhabit the neighborhood of my settlement, one of the prettiest places on old Mississippi—a perfect location, and no mistake; a place that had some defects until the river made the ‘cut-off’ at ‘Shirt-tail bend,’ and that remedied the evil, as it brought my cabin on the edge of the river—a great advantage in wet weather, I assure you, as you can now roll a barrel of whiskey into my yard in high water from a boat, as easy as falling off a log. It’s a great improvement, as toting it by land in a jug, as I used to do, evaporated it too fast, and it became expensive. Just stop with me, stranger, a month or two, or a year, if you like, and you will appreciate my place. I can give you plenty to eat; for beside hog and hominy, you can have bar-ham, and bar-sausages, and a mattress of bar-skins to sleep on, and a wildcat-skin, pulled off hull, stuffed with corn-shucks, for a pillow. That bed would put you to sleep if you had the rheumatics in every joint in your body. I call that ar bed, a quietus. Then look at my ‘pre-emption’ land—the government ain’t got another such a piece to dispose of. Such timber, and such bottom land, why you can’t preserve anything natural you plant in it unless you pick it young, things thar will grow out of shape so quick. I once planted in those diggens a few potatoes and beets; they took a fine start, and after that, an ox team couldn’t have kept them from growing. About that time I went off to old Kaintuck on business, and did not hear from them things in three months, when I accidentally stumbled on a fellow who had stopped at my place, with an idea of buying me out.

“ ‘How did you like things?’ said I.

“‘Pretty well,’ said he; ‘the cabin is convenient, and the timber land is good; but that bottom land ain’t worth the first red cent.’“

“‘Why?’ said I.

“‘‘Cause,’ said he.

“‘ ‘Cause whet?’ said I.

“‘‘Cause it’s full of cedar stumps and Indian mounds,’ said he, ‘and it can’t be cleared.’

“‘Lord,’ said I. ‘them ar “cedar stumps” is beets, and them ar “Indian mounds” ar tater hills.’

“As I had expected, the crop was overgrown and useless: the sile is too rich, and planting in Arkansaw is dangerous. I had a good-sized sow killed in that same bottom land. The old thief stole an ear of corn, and took it down to eat where she slept at night. Well, she left a grain or two on the ground, and lay down on them: before morning the corn shot up, and the percussion killed her dead. I don’t plant any more: natur intended Arkansaw for a hunting ground, and I go according to natur.”

The questioner who thus elicited the description of our hero’s settlement seemed to be perfectly satisfied, and said no more; but the “Big Bar of Arkansaw” rambled on from one thing to another with a volubility perfectly astonishing, occasionally disputing with those around him, particularly with a “live Sucker” from Illinois, who had the daring to say that our Arkansaw friend’s stories “smelt rather tall.”

In this manner the evening was spent; but conscious that my own association with so singular a personage would probably end before morning, I asked him if he would not give me a description of some particular bear hunt; adding that I took great interest in such things, though I was no sportsman. The desire seemed to please him, and he squared himself round towards me, saying that he could give me an idea of a bear hunt that was never beat in this world, or in any other. His manner was so singular, that half of his story consisted in his excellent way of telling it, the great peculiarity of which was the happy manner he had of emphasizing the prominent parts of his conversation. As near as I can recollect, I have italicized them and given the story in his own words.

“Stranger,” said he, “in bar hunts I am numerous, and which particular one, as you say, I shall tell, puzzles me. There was the old she devil I shot at the Hurricane last fall—then there was the old hog thief I popped over at the Bloody Crossing, and then—Yes, I have it! I will give you an idea of a hunt, in which the greatest bar was killed that ever lived, none excepted; about an old fellow that I hunted, more or less, for two or three years; and if that ain’t a particular bar hunt, I ain’t got one to tell. But in the first place, stranger, let me say, I am pleased with you, because you ain’t ashamed to gain information by asking, and listening, and that’s what I say to Countess’s pups every day when I’m home; and I have got great hopes of them ar pups, because they are continually nosing about; and though they stick it sometimes in the wrong place, they gain experience any how, and may learn something useful to boot. Well, as I was saying about this big bar, you see when I and some more first settled in our region, we were drivin to hunting naturally; we soon liked it, and after that we found it an easy matter to make the thing our business. One old chap who had pioneered ‘afore us, gave us to understand that we had settled in the right place. He dwelt upon its merits until it was affecting, and showed us, to prove his assertions, more scratches on the sassafras trees than I ever saw chalk marks on a tavern door ‘lection time.

“‘Who keeps that ar reckoning?’ said I.

“‘The bar,’ said he.

“‘What for?’ said I.

“‘Can’t tell,’ said he; ‘but so it is: the bar bite the bark and wood too, at the highest point from the ground they can reach, and you can tell, by the marks,’ said he, ‘the length of the bar to an inch.’

“‘Enough,’ said I; ‘I’ve learned something here a’ready, and I’ll put it in practice.’

“Well, stranger, just one month from that time I killed a bar, and told its exact length, before I measured it, by those very marks; and when I did that, I swelled up considerable—I’ve been a prouder man ever since. “So I went on, larning something every day, until I was reckoned a buster, and allowed to be decidedly the best bar hunter in my district; and that is a reputation as much harder to earn than to be reckoned first man in Congress, as an iron ramrod is harder than a toadstool. Did the varmints grow over-cunning by being fooled with by greenhorn hunters, and by this means get troublesome, they send for me as a matter of course; and thus I do my own hunting and most of my neighbors’. I walk into the varmints though, and it has become about as much the same to me as drinking. It is told in two sentences—A bar is started, and he is killed. The thing is somewhat monotonous now—I know just how much they will run, where they will tire, how much they will growl, and what a thundering time I will have in getting their meat home. I could give you this history of the chase with all the particulars at the commencement, I know the signs so well—Stranger, I’m certain. Once I met with a match, though, and I will tell you about it; for a common hunt would not be worth relating.

“On a fine fall day, long time ago, I was trailing about for bar, and what should I see but fresh marks on the sassafras trees, about eight inches above any in the forests that I knew of. Says I, ‘Them marks is a hoax, or it indicates the damndest bar that was ever grown.’ In fact, stranger, I couldn’t believe it was real, and I went on. Again I saw the same marks, at the same height, and I knew the thing lived. That conviction came home to my soul like an earthquake. Says I, ‘Here is something a-purpose for me: that bar is mine, or I give up the hunting business.’ The very next morning what should I see but a number of buzzards hovering over my corn-field. ‘The rascal has been there,’ said I, ‘for that sign is certain’; and, sure enough, on examining, I found the bones of what had been as beautiful a hog the day before as was ever raised by a Buckeye. Then I tracked the critter out of the field to the woods, and all the marks he left behind, showed me that he was the bar.

“Well, stranger, the first fair chase I ever had with that big critter, I saw him no less than three distinct times at a distance; the dogs run him over eighteen miles and broke down, my horse gave out, and I was as nearly used up as a man can be, made on my principle, which is patent. Before this adventure, such things were unknown to me as possible; but, strange as it was, that bar got me used to it before I was done with him; for he got so at last, that he would leave me on a long chase quite easy. How he did it, I never could understand. That a bar runs at all, is puzzling; but how this one could tire down and bust up a pack of hounds and a horse, that were used to overhauling everything they started after in no time, was past my understanding. Well, stranger, that bar finally got so sassy, that he used to help himself to a hog off my premises whenever he wanted one; the buzzards followed after what he left, and so, between bar and buzzard, I rather think I got out of pork.

“Well, missing that bar so often took hold of my vitals, and I wasted away. The thing had been carried too far, and it reduced me in flesh faster than an ager. I would see that bar in everything I did: he hunted me, and that, too, like a devil, which I began to think he was. While in this fix, I made preparations to give him a last brush, and be done with it. Having completed everything to my satisfaction, I started at sunrise, and to my great joy, I discovered from the way the dogs run, that they were near him. Finding his trail was nothing, for that had become as plain to the pack as a turnpike road. On we went, and coming to an open country, what should I see but the bar very leisurely ascending a hill, and the dogs close at his heels, either a match for him in speed, or else he did not care to get out of their way—I don’t know which. But wasn’t he a beauty, though! I loved him like a brother.

“On he went, until he came to a tree, the limbs of which formed a crotch about six feet from the ground. Into this crotch he got and seated himself, the dogs yelling all around it; and there he sat eyeing them as quiet as a pond in low water. A green-horn friend of mine, in company, reached shooting distance before me, and blazed away, hitting the critter in the center of his forehead. The bar shook his head as the ball struck it, and then walked down from that tree, as gently as a lady would from a carriage. ‘Twas a beautiful sight to see him do that—he was in such a rage that he seemed to be as little afraid of the dogs as if they had been sucking pigs; and the dogs warn’t slow in making a ring around him at a respectful distance, I tell you; even Bowieknife himself, stood off. Then the way his eyes flashed! —why the fire of them would have singed a cat’s hair; in fact, that bar was in a wrath all over. Only one pup came near him, and he was brushed out so totally with the bar’s left paw, that he entirely disappeared; and that made the old dogs more cautious still. In the meantime, I came up, and taking deliberate aim as a man should do, at his side, just back of his foreleg, if my gun’ did not snap, call me a coward, and I won’t take it personal. Yes, stranger, it snapped, and I could not find a cap about my person. While in this predicament, I turned round to my fool friend—says I, ‘Bill,’ says I, ‘you’re an ass—you’re a fool —you might as well have tried to kill that bar by barking the tree under his belly, as to have done it by hitting him in the head. Your shot has made a tiger of him; and blast me, if a dog gets killed or wounded when they come to blows, I will stick my knife into your liver, I will .’ My wrath was up. I had lost my caps, my gun had snapped, the fellow with me had fired at the bar’s head, and I expected every moment to see him close in with the dogs and kill a dozen of them at least. In this thing I was mistaken; for the bar leaped over the ring formed by the dogs, and giving a fierce growl, was off—the pack, of course, in full cry after him. The run this time was short, for coming to the edge of a lake the varmint jumped in, and swam to a little island in the lake, which it reached just a moment before the dogs.

“‘I’ll have him now,’ said I, for I had found my caps in the lining of my coat—so, rolling a log into the lake, I paddled myself across to the island, just as the dogs had cornered the bar in a thicket. I rushed up and fired—at the same time the critter leaped over the dogs and came within three feet of me, running like mad; he jumped into the lake, and tried to mount the log I had just deserted, but every time he got half his body on it, it would roll over and send him under; the dogs, too, got around him, and pulled him about, and finally Bowieknife clenched with him, and they sunk into the lake together. Stranger, about this time I was excited, and I stripped off my coat, drew my knife, and intended to have taken a part with Bowie knife myself, when the bar rose to the surface. But the varmint staid under—Bowieknife came up alone, more dead than alive, and with the pack came ashore.

“‘Thank God!’ said I, ‘the old villain has got his deserts at last.’
“Determined to have the body, I cut a grape-vine for a rope, and dove down where I could see the bar in the water, fastened my queer rope to his leg, and fished him, with great difficulty, ashore. Stranger, may I be chawed to death by young alligators, if the thing I looked at wasn’t a she bar, and not the old critter after all.
The way matters got mixed on that island was onaccountably curious, and thinking of it made me more than ever convinced that I was hunting the devil himself. I went home that night and took to my bed—the thing was killing me. The entire team of Arkansaw in bar-hunting acknowledged himself used up, and the fact sunk into my feelings as a snagged boat will in the Mississippi.

“I grew as cross as a bar with two cubs and a sore tail. The thing got out ‘mong my neighbors, and I was asked how come on that individ-u-al that never lost a bar when once started? and if that same individ-u-al didn’t wear telescopes when he turned a she-bar, of ordinary size, into an old he one, a little larger than a horse?

“‘Prehaps,’ said I, ‘friends’—getting wrathy—’prehaps you want to call somebody a liar?’

“‘Oh, no,’ said they, ‘we only heard of such things being rather common of late, but we don’t believe one word of it; oh, no,’ and then they would ride off, and laugh like so many hyenas over a dead man.

“It was too much, and I determined to catch that bar, go to Texas, or die—and I made my preparations accordin’. I had the pack shut up and rested. I took my rifle to pieces, and iled it. I put caps in every pocket about my person, for fear of the lining.
“I then told my neighbors, that on Monday morning—naming the day—I would start THAT BAR and bring him home with me, or they might divide my settlement among them, the owner having disappeared.

“Well, stranger, on the morning previous to the great day of my hunting expedition, I went into the woods near my house, taking my gun and Bowieknife along, just from habit, and there sitting down, also from habit, what should I see, getting over my fence, but the bar! Yes, the old varmint was within a hundred yards of me, and the way he walked over that fence—stranger; he loomed up like a black mist, he seemed so large, and he walked right towards me.
I raised myself, took deliberate aim, and fired. Instantly the varmint wheeled, gave a yell, and walked through the fence, as easy as a falling tree would through a cobweb. I started after, but was tripped up by my inexpressibles, which, either from habit or the excitement of the moment, were about my heels, and before I had really gathered myself up, I heard the old varmint groaning in a thicket near by like a thousand sinners, and, by the time I reached him, he was a corpse.

“Stranger, it took five fellers and myself to put that carcass on a mule’s back, and old long-ears waddled under his load, as if he was foundered in every leg of his body—and with a common whopper of a bar, he would have trotted off, and enjoyed himself.
‘Twould astonish you to know how big he was: I made a bedspread of his skin, and the way it used to cover my bar mattress, and leave several feet on each side to tuck up, would have delighted you. It was in fact a creation bar, and if it had lived in Samson’s time, and had met him, in a fair fight, he would have licked him in the twinkling of a dice-box.

“But, stranger, I never liked the way I hunted him, and missed him. There is something curious about it I never could understand—and I never was satisfied at his giving in so easy at last. Prehaps, he had heard of my preparations to hunt him the next day, so he jist come in, like Captain Scott’s coon, to save his wind to grunt with in dying; but that ain’t likely. My private opinion is, that that bar was an unhuntable bar, and died when his time come.”

When this story was ended, our hero sat some minutes with his auditors, in a grave silence; I saw there was a mystery to him connected with the bear whose death he had just related, that had evidently made a strong impression on his mind. It was also evident that there was some superstitious awe connected with the affair—
a feeling common with all “children of the wood,” when they meet with anything out of their every-day experience. He was the first one, however, to break the silence, and, jumping up, he asked all present to “liquor” before going to bed—a thing which he did, with a number of companions, evidently to his heart’s content.

Long before day, I was put ashore at my place of destination, and I can only follow with the reader, in imagination, our Arkansas friend, in his adventures at the “Forks of Cypress” on the Mississippi.


“The Big Bear of Arkansas”

By Thomas Bangs Thorpe

Read by Walter Evans

Copyright Georgia Regents University

2012, All Rights Reserved