Gold Rush account paints graphic picture of bull and bear fights in Mokelumne Hill

J.D. Borthwick drew these sketches of a bull and bear fight in Mokelumne Hill in 1852.

As J.D. Borthwick, a Scottish artist and writer, walked the wagon road between Jackson and Mokelumne Hill in March of 1852, he came across several unusual advertisements posted to rocks and trees.

“War! War!! War!!!,” they exclaimed. “The celebrated Bull-killing Bear, GENERAL SCOTT, will fight a Bull on Sunday the 15th inst., at 2 P.M., at Moquelumne Hill. The Bear will be chained with a twenty-foot chain in the middle of the arena. The Bull will be perfectly wild, young, of the Spanish breed, and the best that can be found in the country. The Bull’s horns will be of their natural length, and not ‘sawed off to prevent accidents.’ The Bull will be quite free in the arena, and not hampered in any way whatever.”

Borthwick was well aware that there were grizzly bears in California. Passing through Jackson earlier that day, he had almost tripped over a grizzly cub that was chained to a stump in the middle of the street.

“He was the pet of the village, and was delighted when he could get anyone to play with, though he was rather beyond the age at which such a playmate is at all desirable,” Borthwick wrote.

But Borthwick had never seen a bull and bear fight, and on Sunday, curiosity getting the better of him, he made his way to the arena.

The arena was 40-feet wide and enclosed with a strong iron fence. Surrounding this were raised tiers of seats for the audience. The arena and bleachers were both enclosed by a 100-foot wide wooden structure 10 feet in height.

The bear sat in a wooden cage, reinforced with iron, at the end of a 20-foot chain that was pinned to the center of the arena. Two bulls were enclosed in pens underneath the bleachers, where the bar was also located.

“The scene was gay and brilliant, and was one which would have made a crowded opera-house gloomy and dull by comparison,” Borthwick wrote. “The shelving bank of human beings which encircled the place was like a mass of bright flowers. The most conspicuous objects were the shirts of the miners, red, white and blue being the fashionable colors, among which appeared bronzed and bearded faces under hats of every hue.

“Revolvers and silver-handled bowie-knives glanced in the bright sunshine, and among the crowd were a number of gay Mexican blankets, and red and blue French bonnets, while here and there the fair sex was represented by a few Mexican women in snowy-white dresses, puffing their cigaritas in anticipation of the exciting scene which was to be enacted.

“Over the heads of the highest circle of spectators was seen mountain upon mountain fading away into the distance, and on the green turf of the arena lay the great center of attraction, the hero of the day, General Scott.”

While the bull seemed to be the favorite of the crowd, betting was mostly in favor of the bear.

A man sitting next to Borthwick opined, “nary bull in Calaforny as could whip that bar.”

Borthwick estimated the bear’s weight at 1,200 pounds, and thought he was probably worth $1,500.

To get the bear to leave his cage, it was rolled backwards on a small track until the length of his chain forced him into the arena.

At this point, the bull was also driven from his pen.

“The bull was a very beautiful animal of a dark purple color marked with white,” Borthwick observed. “His horns were regular and sharp, and his coat was as smooth and glossy as a racer’s.”

After surveying his surroundings for a moment, the bull made a mad dash back for his pen, breaking through the gate “with as much ease as the man in the circus leaps through a hoop of brown paper.”

A stronger barricade was quickly erected, and the bull was forced back into the arena.

“By this time he had made up his mind to fight, and after looking steadily at the bear for a few minutes as if taking aim at him, he put down his head and charged furiously at him across the arena,” Borthwick wrote. “The bear received him crouching down as low as he could, and though one could hear the bump of the bull’s head and horns upon his ribs, he was quick enough to seize the bull by the nose before he could retreat.”

The beginning of the fight was greeted with uproarious applause.

“In the meantime, the bear, lying on his back, held the bull’s nose firmly between his teeth, and embraced him around the neck with his fore-paws, while the bull made the most of his opportunities in stamping on the bear with his hind-feet.

“At last, the General became exasperated with such treatment, and shook the bull savagely by the nose, when a promiscuous scuffle ensued, which resulted in the bear throwing his antagonist to the ground with his fore-paws.”

This was met with another round of enthusiastic applause.

The bull eventually struggled to his feet and retreated to the side of the arena. Neither animal seemed badly injured, although “the bull’s nose had a rather ragged and bloody appearance.”

The charge and scuffle were repeated several times.

The bull “showed no inclination to renew the combat; but by goading him, and waving a red flag over the bear, he was eventually worked up to such a state of fury as to make another charge.”

Afterwards, the bull “seemed to be quite used up, and to have lost all chance of victory.”

At this point, the master of ceremonies climbed the barrier and addressed the crowd. He asked if the bull had been given a fair chance, and the crowd agreed that he had. He went on to say that for “$200 he would let in the other bull, and the three should fight it out till one or all were killed.”

The funds were quickly secured, and the second part of the fight commenced.

Upon entering the arena, the second bull quickly charged the bear.

“The bear, as usual, pinned him by the nose, but this bull did not take such treatment so quietly as the other: struggling violently, he soon freed himself, and, wheeling around as he did so, he caught the bear on the hind-quarters and knocked him over,” Borthwick wrote.

The other bull, seeing his opportunity, quickly charged the bear from the side before he could recover.

“The poor General between the two did not know what to do, but struck out blindly with his fore-paws with such a suppliant and pitiable look that I thought this the most disgusting part of the whole exhibition,” Borthwick wrote.

Several rounds later, the crowd agreed that the bear was the victor, and the battle finally came to an end. Both wounded bulls were put down with rifles.

Borthwick, along with many of his contemporaries, was somewhat repulsed by the spectacle, writing, “so long as the animals fought with spirit, they might have been supposed to be following their natural instincts; but when the bull had to be urged and goaded on to return to the charge, the cruelty of the whole proceeding was too apparent; and when the two bulls at once were let in upon the bear, all idea of sport or fair play was at an end, and it became a scene which one would rather have prevented than witnessed.”

Bull and bear fights were held in Spain for centuries before the practice was brought to California.

During the American period, the fights degenerated into garish spectacles held only to make money, and public opposition led to the banning of the practice across the state in the latter years of the Gold Rush.

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