This post is the second entry in a series of four:
First: Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: A California Blood Sport (1800s)
Third: Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: Lassoing Grizzlies (1904)
Fourth: Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: Sport of Roping Grizzlies (1911)
“When I came here this country was a howling wilderness. It was infested with wolves, coyotes and grizzly bears; and they did a lot of damage to our livestock.”
—Jacinto Damien Reyes referring to his arrival in California’s upper Cuyama River valley around 1887
Born in 1871, J.D. Reyes lived most of his life in Ventura County’s upper Cuyama River valley. He spent over 30 years working as a US Forest Service ranger patrolling the Cuyama District of what was then known as the Santa Barbara National Forest.
During this time grizzly bears inhabited the forest and many of the few people that lived, worked or recreated in the area respected them mostly out of fear and considered them little else but a nuisance.
In 1939, the Automobile Club of Southern California published an interview with J.D. Reyes in which he recounts memories of growing up in the unpopulated and wild hinterlands of Ventura County. His anecdotes reflect the prevailing social attitude toward grizzly bears in nineteenth century California.
Reyes tells of his three uncles who “could all ride like burrs in a horse’s tail.” He elaborates on the adventures of his uncle Ramon Ortega in particular, who was the best vaquero of them all, and whose “favorite sport was tying up grizzly bears.” A pastime he came to appreciate because of the damage they inflicted to the family’s livestock.
Ramon would ride after every bear whose trail he crossed, track it down and “just rope Mr. Bear and plug him with a six-shooter.” Once after a grizzly had killed three horses he rode out the following day on the hunt with rope and a six-gun. Several hours later he returned with “one of the biggest grizzlies seen in the Cuyama country.” He had lassoed the bear and hobbled and muzzled it by himself.
One day, when J.D. Reyes was nine, Ramon brought a grizzly back to the ranch and began prodding Reyes’ father by saying the bear could whip one of his famous fighting bulls. Reyes’ dad bred them for bull fights in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles. The argument ended with a bet and a plan to match the grizzly against a Reyes fighting bull in the upcoming fiesta. People came from miles around to see the animals attack each other and cheer them on.
“At first, the bull did not seem to realize what it was all about. He danced around the corral shaking his head and horns at the bear until the bear began to take it seriously and made several clumsy swings at him. That seemed to anger the bull a bit, and he made several vicious lunges at the bear without doing any serious damage. Finally the bear got in a jab with his forepaw that took the bull down the face. His claws started the blood. There were wild cheers from the audience and cries of “Sangre! Sangre!” For a moment the bull stood there licking the blood from his nose. Then the blood got into his eyes and he was furious! With a bellow that was almost a squeal of rage he lunged at the bear. The bear met this charge standing erect, and it rolled him flat on his back. Like a streak of lightning the bull was astride the fallen bear with his forelegs, and with lowered head ripped a horn into the bear’s chest. That was the end of the bear.”