Volume 1, Number 1 Fall1961
As told by Alexander Majors
Seventy Years on the Frontier
(Editor's Note: Few Ozarkians connect the Alexander Majors of wagon train and Pony Express fame with the Missouri frontier. However, he was brought to western Missouri about the close of the War of 1812 by his parents, who were among the first settlers in Jackson County. In his later years he wrote of his experiences as a young Missourian as well as of his later career. The following excerpt from his book records an adventure in Taney County, Missouri, on December 15, 1839, immediately after the first snowfall of the season.)
I had provided myself with some bread, a piece of fat bear meat, and a little salt, and some corn for my horse, and unaccompanied except by my horse and four dogs, I started out to try and kill a bear. On reaching that part of the mountains where I expected to find them, I came across a number of trails, and soon found one which I knew must have been made by a very fat bear. Hunters know by the trail whether the bear is fat, for if fat he makes two rows of tracks about a foot apart, while a lean bear makes only one row of tracks, similar to that of a dog.
I spent part of one day in tracking this animal, which I was sure to be well worth my pains. While on this trail, I was led to the deserted bed of one of the largest bears I ever saw, for I afterward had ample opportunity of judging of its size and weight. He had lain in his temporary bed during the falling of the snow, after which he had gone in a bee-line to the cave for his intended hibernation. Feeling sure he was such a large animal, I followed the trail four or five miles, going as straight as if I had followed the bearings of a 'compass.
On a very high peak at the mouth of one of those caves, of which there are so many in that country, his trail disappeared. The openings of many of these caves are so small that it is often with great difficulty a large boar effects an entrance. However, though the openings are so small, the caves are broad and spacious. In these caves bears hibernate. This particular cave had a very small and irregular opening, so that I could not enter it with my gun; but, as is the custom with bear-hunters, I cut a pole ten or twelve feet long, sharpened one end, and to this tied a piece of fat bear meat, set fire to it, and made another attempt to enter the cave. Finding I could not do this, on account of the opening being so irregular, I abandoned the idea of shooting him in his cave, and proceeded to kindle a fire at the mouth, and putting a pole across the opening, hung my saddle-blanket and a green buckskin that I procured the day before, when getting meat for my dogs, up on it. This covering drove the smoke from the fire into the cave, which soon disturbed the animal, so that he came and put the fire out by striking it with his paws.
Instead of coming out of the cave as I supposed he would, after putting out the fire, he went back to his bed. He had gotten such draughts of the suffocating smoke that he made no other attempts to get to the mouth of the cave, where my four dogs were standing ready, nervous, and trembling, watching for him, and I was standing on one side of the mouth of the cave, prepared to put a whole charge into him if he made his appearance. I waited a few moments after I heard him box the fire for him to return, but as he did not, I took the covering from the mouth of the cave and found the fire was entirely out.
I then rekindled it and replaced the coverings, and it was not long after until I heard him groaning, like some strongchested old man in pain. I listened eagerly for his moanings to cease, knowing that he must die of suffocation. It was not, however, very long until all was still. I then uncovered the mouth of the cave to let the smoke out. It was some time before
I could venture in; before I did so, I relit my light, and going in I found
my victim not twenty feet from the mouth of the cave, lying on his back dead;
and, as before stated, he was the largest animal of the kind I ever saw or killed.
It took me seven or eight hours to slaughter him, and carry the meat out of
the cave, as I could not carry more than fifty pounds at a time and crawl out
When I opened the chest of this big bear, I found two bullets. These were entirely disconnected with any solid matter. They had been shot into him by some hunter who knew precisely the location of a bear's heart, which is different from what it is in other animals. His heart lies much farther back in his body, being precisely in the center of the same, while the heart of all other quadrupeds, and I think I have known all those of North America, lies just back of their shoulders; in other words, in the front part of the chest. These bullets, from the necessity of the case, must have been shot into the animal when he was the very fattest, and when he was ready for hibernation, because they were not lodged in the flesh, but entirely loose in the chest, each one covered with a white film, and tied with a little ligament about the size of a rye straw, to the sack that contained the heart. . . I cut out the piece containing both the bullets, and taking it in my fingers reminded me of two large cherries with the stems almost touching at the point where they were broken from the limb.
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