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).

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library  University of California, Berkeley

First, Bears

Modoc and Shasta peoples believe that the Great Spirit created the Grizzly Bear from a piece of his walking stick—Grizzly was the largest of all the animals given life by the Great Spirit. At that time, the Grizzly Bear always stood on two feet and could speak as humans do today. The first Indians were born from the marriage of the daughter of The Great Spirit and the eldest son of the Grizzly Bear clan. At first the Great Spirit did not know of this marriage and when he found out, he cursed the bears to never speak again and to only be able to walk on two legs when their life was in danger. (Snyder, 7-9)

Western scholars believe the first bears arrived in California over a million years ago. They most likely got here from East Asia by walking over the Bering land bridge to present-day Alaska during one of the ice ages and then continuing south and spreading throughout North America. The earliest scientific evidence of bears in California was discovered in the present-day city of Fremont, where 1.3 million year-old fossils of bears were found and excavated in the 1930s.

[Bears’] remarkable adaptability to the various environments of the West allowed their race to survive the Ice Age and other vagaries of the planet over the millennia and to thrive in the marshlands, elfin forests, broad valleys, rugged seacoasts, and high mountains of California. (Snyder, 4) 

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library  University of California, Berkeley

And then people

Over one million years later[1], the first humans crossed the land bridge from Asia. By 11,488 BCE, humans had settled in parts of what is now California, the first of many waves of human settlement.

California’s diverse climates and natural abundance provided ideal habitats for its first human settlers and supported a large number of people. One estimate puts the number of indigenous Californians at around 310,000 with an estimated one hundred different language groups among them before Europeans arrived (Simmons, 48). Indeed the cultural diversity that California is known for today began thousands of years ago, supported by an abundance of food that allowed relatively small groups of people to survive and thrive.


When these first humans showed up, the grizzlies were numerous and comfortable in their position at the top of the food-chain. The new peoples of California developed many different ways of viewing the bears and how they could best co-exist:

Some tribes considered grizzlies with awe and reverence, and others actively hunted them. Although they competed for the same rich seasonal crops of berries, roots, and acorns and lived in the same valleys and riparian woodlands, and although there were casualties on both sides, it appears that a respectful distance was maintained…In some tribes the grizzly was regarded as the teacher of herbal remedies and medicine, and bears were often chosen to represent tribal moieties or to be the totem or dream helper of a group or an individual. Ceremonies were held to placate the bears and ask for protection, to appease their spirits when killed, and to celebrate an abundant harvest of acorns. (4, Snyder)

 It is impossible to know what these two great mammals—grizzlies and humans—thought of each other when they first met in the California wilderness, but overall the relationship seemed to evolve into one of careful respect:

When humans joined the grizzlies in this land of plenty, the two powerful omnivores developed a respectful yet uneasy coexistence. Little firsthand information has survived regarding the relationship between the two, however, because what annihilated the grizzlies also decimated the culture of the early California Indian communities. (4, Snyder)


[1] The land bridge theory has humans in North America about 12,000 years ago, other scholars believe there may have been earlier arrivals around 13,500 years ago (Lovgren)

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library  University of California, Berkeley

1542-1769:  The Old World Crashes the Party

For millennia before Europeans arrived, California was an inhabited land. Every part of the region had long been discovered, walked, or settled by native people by the time Spaniards first landed on the shores of San Diego Bay in 1542. (Anderson, 13-14)

 The Spanish first set foot in Alta California in 1542 when a maritime expedition led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in what is now the bay of San Diego. However, it would be over two centuries before the first serious attempts to settle in Alta California began. Represented by Father Junipero Serra, Capt. Gaspar Portola, and other members of the “Sacred Expedition”, the Spanish first settled in what is now California in 1769 (NPS). The members of this first overland expedition were a motley crew, including white peninsularesmestizos from what is now Northern Mexico, and mullatos with some African heritage. Although they were the first European subjects to set up permanent settlement in what would be one of the last colonial frontiers of the Americas, they were not the only Europeans around. Russian fur trappers, English and American traders[1], and French explorers all visited the waters and ports of Alta California with various interests in mind. At the time there were hundreds of thousands of indigenous folks living here with thriving cultures, but the religious and economic beliefs of the Spanish led them to believe that Alta California was a wilderness where only godless savages lived. The Spanish established missions to “save souls” and administer the territory. They also set up big farms, or ranchos, to produce food and other goods for the colony while controlling Native labor and teaching the Indians farming techniques.

The arrival of the Spanish in Alta California marked the beginning of a period of crisis for the indigenous population that has continued to today. Hundreds of thousands of Native Californians died within the first hundred years of Spanish settlement in Alta California, largely through murder, disease, and overwork. The indigenous population of around 300,000 in 1769 dropped to only 30,000 by 1860 (Anderson et al., 18). Those Indians that did survive saw their cultures shattered under the weight of the death and dislocation brought by the Spanish conquest; the emotional, political, and social tolls were devastating. Indigenous folks were often treated harshly and were not given the rights to life, property, or self-determination enjoyed by “gente de razon”, or ‘people of reason’ as the Spanish referred to themselves.

Although they were successful in devestating Native Californian ways of life and setting up a string of missions, presidios, and pueblos, the Spanish never controlled Alta California as completely as they would have liked. They were constantly competing with other European colonial powers that lurked nearby, struggling with Native resistance in many forms including a handful of armed revolts at the missions and stiff resistance to Spanish forays into the interior of the territory, and fighting amongst themselves over land and Native labor.


[1] At this time the United States of America was only a collection of a few former colonies on the East Coast just having declared independence from Great Britain. 

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library  University of California, Berkeley

1810-1821:  La Madrugada de Mexico

After only 52 years of nominally Spanish control of Alta California, a war for independence broke out in the heart of New Spain and in 1821, when it was over, the Spanish were kicked out and a new nation, The Republic of Mexico, was born. Mexico now controlled remote Alta California, but like Spain, not very convincingly nor for very long. Alta California had always been on the periphery of the Spanish colonies in the Americas and the connection between Alta California and Madrid was never strong. Even before the Mexican War of Independence started in 1810, official supply ships which were to bring food, tools, and farm animals to Alta California were unreliable and few and far between. Things only got worse during the war, with only one official supply ship making it to Alta California between the start of the war in 1810 and the end of it in 1821(Hackel).  Unable to get goods from the official supply ships, Californios turned to illegal trade with Anglo-American, Russian, and British ships that came to the California coast. Jose Dario Arguello, who was acting governor of Alta California between 1814 and 1815, explained the illegal trade succinctly: “Necessity makes licit was is not licit by law.” (Hackel)

The main cultural and economic shifts that came with independence from Spain were the secularization of the missions[1] and rise of civilian political power. Mission ranchos were broken up and distributed almost exclusively to Spanish-descended settlers (although they were supposed to be mainly given to the Indians who had worked them) and the power that the Fathers at the missions used to wield gave way to the increasingly powerful civilian ranchers and military personnel.  Although the Californio culture continued to develop, the still small population of non-Native people and the relative isolation from the government in Mexico City and emerging global markets kept Alta California largely a quiet backwater.


[1] The “secularization of the missions” was the process in which Church properties, especially ranchos, were broken up and distributed amongst civilians and soldiers. This ‘secularization’ started after Mexico had taken over control of Alta California from Spain. Although most of the lands were intended to be given to native people who had worked it during the mission period, in fact most of the land went to Spanish-descended soldiers and civilians.

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library  University of California, Berkeley

1846-1848: Yankee Takeover

As the middle of the 1800s approached, American’s ideas of Manifest Destiny changed the population and political dynamics of Alta California very quickly. The United States was a young nation, hungry for territorial expansion and quick to justify the taking of land from Native folks and anybody else, really. Many Americans, including President James Polk, believed that it was the destiny of the Nation to stretch from the Atlantic Ocean all the way across the continent to Alta California’s Pacific coast.

When it came to Alta California, Americans[1] used culturally biased judgments to explain why they could steal land that had been claimed by Spanish, Mexican, and Native peoples. Contemporary lawyer Richard Henry Dana gives us a glimpse of popular American attitudes of the time:

 The [Californio] men are thriftless, proud, extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality of course is none the best… In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be! (Monroy)

 American settlement in California had begun in small numbers before the 1840s with little official support from the U.S. government. The United States was very interested in what was going on in California, but wanted to appear not as instigators of aggressive land grabs, but as guardians of the continent against European colonial powers. United States Secretary of State James Buchanan explained as much in a letter responding to Thomas Larkin, an American trader who had settled in California:

 [The United States] would vigorously interpose to prevent…[California] from becoming a British or French Colony…whilst the President will make no effort and use no influence to induce California to become one of the free and independent States of this Union, yet if the People should desire to unite their destiny with ours, they would be received as brethren. (Nunis)

 Although American politicians were in the habit of using lofty language of ‘enterprise’, ‘freedom’, and ‘independence’, it was an ugly war that actually settled the matter of who would control Alta California going forward. The Mexican-American War was manufactured by American settlers in Texas in 1846 and ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 which gave the United States possession of the land that now includes the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Ulysses S. Grant, who soon went on to fame as a celebrated general during the U.S. Civil War and later became the 18th President of the United States, was a junior officer during the Mexican American War. While no peace dove himself, the celebrated American warrior was clear that the war against Mexico was nothing more than a land grab to create more slave states. In his memoirs, Grant remarks that:

 For myself, I was bitterly opposed to [the annexation of Texas], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory…The occupation, separation, and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union. (Grant)

 And so, in 1848, after a two-year war against its neighbor, The United States took control of Alta California. The balance of power had shifted, but it was not until a year later when gold was discovered at Sutter’s mill[2], that the Americans started showing up in California in large numbers.


[1] “Americans” were a fairly culturally and ethnically diverse group that included people of European, East Asian, and African descent under the umbrella of Anglo-American hegemony.

[2] Sutter’s mill is where gold was first discovered by non-Natives in California, kicking off the Gold Rush. The mill is located in present-day Coloma, California.

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library  University of California, Berkeley

1848-1850: Gold, Swindlers, and Statehood.

Soon after the discovery of gold in 1848, California swelled with prospectors from every populated continent in the world. People poured into the territory in numbers never seen before, all seeking to find fortune in the gold fields and haphazard supply camps that sprung up around them. It was a time of great uncertainty and violence—the old political and social orders of the Californios were being trampled and replaced by American ways. Prominent Californio families were swindled out of the land that had been granted them by the Spanish crown, or, more recently, the Mexican government. Killings over gambling or gold field claims were common and the lives of Indians and Californios were expendable in the eyes of many of the new settlers. William B. Ide, himself an enthusiastic supporter of the American takeover of California, lamented what came when the ‘Gold Rush’ crowd showed up:

All law and civil process is suspended—thefts, robbery, manslaughter and murder are perpetrated without inquest. Our cattle and hogs are killed to feed a foreign banditti, and ourselves are threatened with assassination if we resist. (Rosenus, 201)

Mariano Vallejo, a prominent Californio, echoed Ide’s estimation of the gold prospectors by labeling them a “swollen torrent of shysters who came from Missouri and other states of the Union.”(Rosenus, 200)

In 1850, California was admitted as the 31st State of the United States. Most Americans felt that the death of certain cultures, peoples, and animals was the natural cost of modernization. The grizzly bear was hunted to extinction in California and genocide was perpetrated against the remaining Native population. Peter Hardeman Burnett, the first Governor of American California, declared in 1851, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian races become extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert”(Lucas).  Others were more enthusiastic about the prospect of exterminating Native peoples, and for decades Indigenous Californians were hunted, murdered, kidnapped, and enslaved with support from local, state, and federal governments (gjohnsits). Even in this official push to exterminate Indigenous men, women, and children, the new California political and social elites sought to cast the state in a light of progress and respectability. In this landscape, the violent spectacle of the bear and bull fights were considered uncouth and soon they were banned.

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 happening and changing. The bear and bull fights of this period provide a metaphor for a period of time when foreign and native forces struggled to determine the destiny of Alta California and the lives they had created in it, violence was seemingly everywhere, and certain creatures and cultures were pushed to the brink of extinction and beyond.