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With a cast of characters that includes a Confederate General, a former slave, and a President of the United States, the most famous bear hunters in American history were a pretty diverse group.
To an even greater extent than other big game animals, it takes a great deal of skill as a hunter to match wits with a predator and come out ahead time after time. This is particularly true for really formidable species like grizzly bears, brown bears, and polar bears.
For this reason, the most famous bear hunters were certainly skilled woodsmen by necessity.
However, it’s sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction when researching their exploits. This task is made even more difficult by the fact that most of these bear hunters lived a century or more ago, as well as the fact that some of these men were known to exaggerate their exploits.
Needless to say, the subject of the most famous bear hunters is fertile ground for tall tales. That being said, their deeds are still pretty impressive, even when taken with a grain of salt.
One last thing: these men lived during a day and age where people had enormously different views on hunting, conservation, and predator management. Bears, wolves, and mountain lions were considered “varmints” or nuisance animals in many places in North America, and most of these famous bear hunters were actively trying to remove them from the landscape.
This article is not a commentary on the ethics or morality of their actions. Instead, it’s merely a chronicling of the most famous bear hunters of all-time.
1. Davy Crockett
No list of the most famous bear hunters of all time would be complete without the legendary David Crockett. Though they were far from the only animal he hunted, he made quite a name for himself pursuing black bears in the forests of Tennessee.
By his own account, Crockett killed 105 bears over the course of a year in 1825 and 1826.
However, Crockett was also known for telling tall tales. He probably killed a staggering number of bears in his life, but nobody really knows for sure how many.
2. Wiley Carrol
Though Wiley Carrol might be best known for his skills as a mountain lion hunter, he was also an incredibly accomplished bear hunter and is the only man on this list of the most famous bear hunters to have done the majority of his work in the second half of the 20th Century.
Carrol hunted on foot or on horseback with his hounds and possessed a dogged determination to catch the animal he was tracking, regardless of the terrain or weather. He is reputed to have killed over 500 bears during his time working for the Nevada Fish & Game Department from 1951 until his retirement in 1981.
3. James “Tiger” Whitehead
Hailing from east Tennessee, Tiger Whitehead might be the second most famous sportsman from the state behind Davy Crockett. As chronicled on his tombstone, he claimed to have killed 99 bears during the course of his life.
Johnny Cash even wrote a song about Whitehead. According to legend and Cash’s song, Whitehead’s friends captured a bear and brought it to him on his deathbed so that he could kill his 100th bear. Whitehead refused and said he couldn’t kill the bear since it wasn’t running wild.
4. Wilburn Waters
Waters made a name for himself doing predator control on wolves and black bears in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia in the mid-1800s. Stories of his exploits chasing bear in the mountains still abound in that part of the country and he is reputed to have killed over over 100 bears during the course of his hunting career.
5. Daniel Boone
Like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone is an iconic figure in American history whose story has grown to epic proportions. In fact, his story is surrounded by so much myth and legend that it’s incredibly difficult to determine what’s true and what’s not. It’s certainly true that he is one of America’s most famous bear hunters and it’s also true that he carved his name into many of the trees that he killed bears in over the years.
The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky has a section of tree trunk from an American beech tree with “D. Boon kilt a bar 1803” carved into it. While it’s very likely that Boone himself did indeed make that particular carving, there are a number of forgeries out there as well (perhaps even the one in the photo displayed above).
6. William Pickett
William Pickett moved out west after the Civil War and eventually made Wyoming his home. He was one of the first members of the Boone & Crockett Club and served as vice-president of the organization for a time. During his time in the Cowboy State, Pickett spent a great deal of time hunting grizzly bears. George Bird Grinnell wrote that Pickett “has had an experience hunting grizzly bear greater probably than that of any man who ever lived.”
7. Wade Hampton III
Though he’s probably best known for being a Lieutenant General in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, the Governor of South Carolina, or for representing the state in the Senate, Wade Hampton was also an avid bear hunter. As was common with many wealthy Southerners of that era, Hampton was an incredibly skilled horseman. He enjoyed hunting on horseback with hounds for bears and killed a great number of bears with a knife.
In his book The Wilderness Hunter (p258-259) Theodore Roosevelt credited Hampton with having “…killed, or been in at the death of, five hundred bears, at least two thirds of them falling by his own hand.” Roosevelt also claimed that Hampton once killed 68 bears in five months and four bears in a single day.
8. Theodore Roosevelt
Speaking of Theodore Roosevelt, he was also an avid big game hunter. He killed a number of bears to be sure, but he’s most famous for the one that he didn’t kill.
You’ve probably heard the story: he was on a bear hunt in Mississippi when he refused to shoot a black bear cub that had been captured and tied to a tree. The event was later chronicled in a famous political cartoon and led to the creation of the Teddy Bear.
Though the basic premise of the story is true, the details have gotten a little mixed up over the years.
In actuality, Roosevelt was hunting with the legendary bear hunter Holt Collier (more on him in a minute) in Mississippi in 1902 when Collier’s hounds bayed a large male bear. While waiting for Roosevelt to arrive and shoot the bear, it killed one of the hounds in the pack. Collier then lassoed the bear and tied it to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot.
Roosevelt did indeed refuse to shoot the bear, but it wasn’t a cub and it didn’t survive the encounter: the bear was injured, so Roosevelt apparently asked that it be put out of its misery and another hunter in their party killed it instead.
9. Holt Collier
Born a slave in Mississippi, Collier’s first job was caring for the pack of hunting dogs his master owned. He was later tasked with hunting to obtain meat for the other plantation workers. These two jobs helped lay the foundation of knowledge that would help him become one of the most famous bear hunters in American history.
He is credited with killing over 3,000 bears during the course of his life. In case you were wondering, that’s more bears than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone combined.
10. Ben Lilly
Lilly originally learned to hunt bears in the swamps of Louisiana. He later travelled to a number of states in the American West to include Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as down into the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. During this time, he collected specimens of animals like the Mexican Grey Wolf and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, the Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution.
He also worked for local ranchers who were having issues with varmints like bears and mountain lions. Lilly hunted grizzly bears with hounds for years all over North America, eventually killing hundreds with the classic lever action rifles of the day as well as an Arkansas toothpick.
Lilly also helped guide several famous hunting expeditions, including a 1907 hunt with Theodore Roosevelt in Louisiana for black bear that was much more successful than his hunt in Mississippi five years earlier.
He particularly impressed Roosevelt not only with his skills as a hunter, but also for his toughness and his rugged, stoic demeanor. Roosevelt’s writings about Lilly have helped establish him as archetypical mountain man in the same mold as men like Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith.
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