Alta California

Alta California Bear & Bull Fights

Alta California

Bear & Bull Fights…. What’s So.

Grizzly Bears fighting Wild Bulls? Yup—right here in California and really not that long ago.

The Spanish brought many things with them when they colonized California, including the tradition of bull-fights. These new settlers herded cattle with them, letting their cows and bulls graze freely over unfenced land. The cattle were primarily used for their hide and tallow, which became cornerstones of Alta California’s colonial economy. But the bulls weren’t the only huge and potentially vicious mammal around; when they arrived in California, the newcomers became fascinated with the grizzly bear.

The Californios, as the Californians of Spanish descent[1] were called, were legendarily skilled with the horse and lasso (‘reata’ in Spanish). Several horsemen would ride out to capture a grizzly bear with their reatas and bring the captured animal back to the town where the fight was to be held.  German explorer Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff described the process after witnessing parts of it in San Francisco in 1806:

Don Arguello had talked much to us, from the first of our arrival, of the combats between animals which form a part of the amusements of this place, and on the tenth of April he sent out eight soldiers on horseback, to endeavour to catch a bear alive, and bring it to the presidency to fight a wild bull. The same evening they returned, having taken a large dark brown bear by means of ropes and slings. He lay upon an ox-hide, which was stretched over several branches of trees bound together, and had been drawn this way for some miles by a pair of oxen. He was muzzled, and his claws were bound fast together: this confinement, with the manner in which he had been drawn, and the rage he felt, had heated him exceedingly. (Snyder, 117)


The fights themselves were usually held in the town square at or near the mission. People generally paid admission to watch the fight and often the bear was tied to a stake to keep it from trying to run away. Sometimes the bear and bull were tied together to keep them fighting, usually the bear killed the bull, but not always. Some bears and bulls won fame for their repeated victories and earned nicknames like “the celebrated Bull-killing Bear, General Scott” and “the terrible Mexican bull Sant’ Anna”(Snyder, 126). Each species had a distinct fighting style: the bull generally tried to charge the bear with its horns, gore it, and then lift its head to throw the bear up; the bear usually tried to grab the bull by its face to control and avoid the bull’s sharp horns, and then pulled the bull’s face down while scratching the bull’s body with its claws[1]. Below is writer Hinton Rowan Helper’s description of the scene at a one such fight that took place at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores:

Four o’clock, the hour appointed for the fight between the bear and the bull, having arrived, a few taps by the drummer, and some popular airs played by the other musicians, announced that the amphitheatre, which fronted the church and stood but a few yards from it, was open for the reception of those who desired admission. I made my way to the ticket-office, and handed three dollars to the collector, who placed in my hand a voucher, which gained me access to an eligible seat within the inclosure. I found myself among the first who entered; and as it was some time before the whole audience assembled, I had ample opportunities to scan the characters who composed it, and to examine the arrangement and disposition of things around me.

The Seats were very properly elevated so high above the arena that no danger was likely to result from the furious animals; and I suppose five thousand persons could have been conveniently accommodated, though only about three-fourths of that number were present. Among the auditory, I noticed many Spanish maids and matrons, who manifested as much enthusiasm and delight in anticipation of what was to follow as the most enthusiastic sportsman on the ground. Crying children, too, in the arms of self-satisfied and admiring mothers, were there, full of noise and mischief…Of men, there were all sizes, colors and classes, such as California, and California alone, can bring together.

It was a stirring sight to see these infuriated and muscular antagonists struggling to take each other’s life…It was a mighty contest—a desperate struggle for victory!

Finally, however, fatigued, exhausted, writhing with pain and weltering in sweat and gore, they waived the quarrel and separated, as if by mutual consent. Neither was subdued; yet both felt a desire to suspend, for a time at least, all further hostilities. The bull, now exhausted and panting, cast a pacific glance towards the bear, and seemed to sue for an armistice; the bear, bleeding and languid after his furious contest, raised his eyes to the bull, and seemed to assent to the proposition. But, alas! man, cruel man, more brutal than the brutes themselves, would not permit them to carry out their pacific intentions. The two attendants or managers, Ignacio and Gomez, stepped up behind them, goading them with spears till they again rushed upon each other, and fought with renewed desperation. During this scuffle, the bull shattered the lower jaw of the bear, and we could see the shivered bones dangling from their bloody recesses!…neither the bull nor bear could stand any longer—their limbs refused to support their bodies; they had worried and lacerated each other so much that their strength had completely failed, and they dropped upon the earth, gasping as if in the last agony. While in this helpless condition the chain was removed from their feet, horses were hitched to them, and they were dragged without the arena, there to end their miseries in death.(Snyder, 123-5)

Although the Spanish were the first to pit Grizzly Bears against bulls in California, they were not the last. The spectacles continued when Alta California became part of the newly independent Republic of Mexico in 1821 and after California was taken as a spoil of war by the United States in 1848. But eventually the fights were outlawed; Bear in Mind editor Susan Snyder explains why:

Later, as the new citizens of the state sought respectability, and as both grizzlies and wild Spanish bulls became more difficult to find, these life-and-death struggles gradually fell into disrepute, first being prohibited on Sundays only, then within city limits, and finally outlawed altogether. (Snyder, 116) 

Bear & Bull Fights…. So What?


It was less than one hundred years from the time the Spanish came to Alta California with their bulls to the time The United States took the territory over and bear and bull fights were outlawed. Within this time in California’s history a whole lot was going on. The bear and bull fights of this era provide us a window into a period of time when foreign and native forces struggled to determine the destiny of Alta California and the lives they created in it, violence was seemingly everywhere, and certain creatures and cultures were pushed to the brink of extinction and beyond.

California is a crazy place today, as it was in the days of the bear and bull fights. It’s only been a couple hundred years, but things look much different around these parts than they used to. The savage violence and other rough edges of the 1849 ‘gold rush’ prospectors have been smoothed out into the tough but lovable images such as the 49ers mascot, Sourdough Sam. Many of the missions, once centers of a Spanish colonial economy based on forced Native labor, fell into disrepair and came back as quaint relics haunted by tourists and historians. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles that used to be dusty shantytowns with a few hundred residents have grown into international metropolises. But for all the differences between then and now, there are common threads that connect the times. The realities of California today, including each and every one of our places in it, have been shaped by what went down here in the past. How can we better understand gun violence in Oakland today by understanding gun violence in Oakland in the 1850s, when pieces of the society we now live in were being born? How have different people’s struggles for equal rights in California been shaped by the killings, discrimination, and dislocation faced by California’s first peoples and the example it set? What lessons does California’s past hold that will help us make California the best it can be today and a little better tomorrow?

[1]  The group of people who are commonly referred to as ‘Spanish’ in Alta California was actually a pretty ethnically mixed group. Indeed very few were ‘Penisulares’ or people actually from Spain. The majority were born in the ‘New World’ and had mixed ancestry drawing from Spain and other European peoples, Indigenous group from ‘New Spain’ (present-day Mexico), people of African descent—largely arrived in the Americas as slaves—and other folks as well.  

[2]  After watching a bear and bull fight in Toulumne County, California in the 1850s, New York time writer Horace Greeley coined the terms “bear market” and “bull market” based on these fighting styles to describe stock market performance (“bear market” is when stock are down like where the bear tries to pull the bull and “bull market” refers to when the market is up much like where the bull tries to fling the bear after goring it).

Learn More!

Alta California:  HOME

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First, Bears.

And Then People.

And Then People.

The Old World Crashes the Party.

The Old World Crashes the Party.
La Madrugada de Mexico.

La Madrugada de Mexico.

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Gold, Shysters, and Statehood.

1848-1850: Gold, Shysters, and Statehood.