Most of us probably remember B.H. Roberts best as a scholar – perhaps you imagine him in the Church Historian’s Office poring over old documents, or in his study penning manuscripts, or behind the speaker’s podium at either General Conference or a political rally. Or maybe you think of him as the older man who accompanied his Mormon troops to France during World War I, ministering to their spiritual needs and comforting them when their friends died of the flu.
Betcha don’t think of him as a 20-year-old outdoorsman, building the health and stamina that helped him keep up with his troops when he was a man of 60.
Roberts was apprenticed to a Centerville, Utah blacksmith when he was a teenager, and he spent three years tending the forge, pounding iron, and developing his massive upper body strength. He hated the work, though, and couldn’t wait until his commitment was filled so that he could move on to try something else. That day finally came in the spring of 1877 just after he had turned 20.
That spring the cheese factory located in Morgan County, Utah, on a tributary of the Weber River changed management and greatly expanded its operations. The factory needed lots of new hands for all kinds of work, and Roberts jumped at the chance to ride the range for the new company, hunting lost cattle and generally keeping an eye on the herds. He would be free to roam the hills on horseback, sleep outdoors, and never swing a blacksmith’s hammer again. Lots of other young people were taking jobs with that company, too, which meant that when he did want company, he would be with high-spirited young men and women living away from home, full of adventure.
So all that summer, from April to September, he lived largely on horseback, taking most of his meals from what he carried in his saddlebags. Although most of the other riders shared the bunkhouse, he preferred to take his blankets outside where he could practice identifying the constellations in the heavens above. He tracked down wandering cattle, he returned lost calves to their mothers, he kept an eye on anything that might prove a danger to the herd.
One morning that potential danger took the form of bear tracks – tracks of a very large bear – in the canyon about two miles above the company bunkhouse. While he saw no further sign of the bear on his way up the canyon that day, he noticed the tracks again on his way down that afternoon and decided to follow them. They led to an aspen grove that had been fenced off as the company’s corral, and beyond it to the carcass of a horse that had died of injuries a few days earlier. Noting that very little of the carcass had been consumed, Roberts guessed that the bear might return.
He reported his find to the other ranch hands that evening and one of them – Alma Peterson, about 33 – convinced Roberts that the two of them ought to go after the bear by spending the night watching the carcass and waiting for the bear’s return.
So they did. About ten o’clock that night, the two young men carrying their rifles – Peterson a breech-loading Ballard like those used by soldiers in the Civil War, and Roberts an old Enfield from which he had sawed several inches off the end and used chiefly for hunting rabbits and geese. The two men found some brush in which to hide and watch for the bear.
Hours later, with the sun coming up, both men discovered they had fallen asleep on their watch. The bear had indeed come, apparently sniffed out their presence, bypassed their camp, and finished off the carcass at his leisure.
Later that day, while riding the range as usual (why not? he was well rested!), Roberts came across bear tracks again, and this time found that the bear had killed and eaten one of the calves Roberts was responsible for. He and Peterson decided to go bear hunting again that night – a night without a moon, intensely dark. The men carried their usual weapons – Roberts had loaded his with so much powder, buckshot, and extra lead slugs that the other ranch hands teased him about whether the gun would prove more dangerous to the bear or to the man – but they were also armed with knives.
Cautiously they approached the corral where the bear had previously spent time. They crouched in the brush, listening intently since they could barely see in the darkness. Peterson laid a hand on Roberts’s shoulder “I think he is coming.” “Be sure it’s not a calf,” Roberts whispered back, thinking of the ribbing they would take from their bunkmates if their “bear” turned out to be anything but the grizzly they thought he was.
“Just then,” Roberts later wrote, “I saw an object move above the tops of the sage brush, and quickly raised the hammer of my gun. The loud click, click, of the hammer as it went to half and full cock startled his bruinship, and he rose to his haunches with a tremendous whoof! whoof! Two rifle reports rang out at the same instant (though Al always contended that his barked a hundredth part of a second before mine roared). The shots were answered by such a mingled scream of fear, rage and pain as I had neber heard before, and would not care to hear again.”
The huge bear fell literally at their feet, writing and twisting, as the two men jumped back. It was only at that instant that Roberts realized he had brought only the single load for his rifle and could not fire again – and he saw that Peterson was in the same position as Peterson reversed his gun to use it as a club. Roberts pulled his knife.
“Don’t you think we had better get out of this?” croaked Peterson.
“You bet I do,” responded Roberts, and they both ran.
When daylight came, Roberts and Peterson returned to the scene, accompanied by all the other hands at the bunkhouse. Sure enough, they found the bear stiff in death where it had fallen at the two young men’s feet. Wrote Roberts, “I was accounted broad-shouldered in those days, but when I stretched myself at full length on the carcass, my shoulders between the brute’s front legs, there were several inches between my shoulders and each foreleg – so broad was he across the chest.”
The men made a drag-litter from aspen poles, tied their lariats to it, and dragged the bear back to the ranch, where he tipped the scales at 550 pounds.
The bear was skinned and the hide tanned, and Roberts and Peterson set a price on the hide. Roberts sold his share to Peterson. “I have always regretted selling, however, for what would I not now give for that trophy of my young manhood days? But, during the summer on the range the determination had been slowly forming in my mind to attend the then-Deseret, now the Utah, University, for a year at least, and this made it necessary to augment my savings … certainly I could take nothing from my savings to buy shares in bear skins, while selling would add a little to them; and so I sold. I have always regretted the selling of the skin, however.”
But if his regret was the price of getting Roberts to school and launching him on his career of scholarship, I for one feel no regret. Frontier Utah had plenty of hunters and ranchers and blacksmiths. The church and the world had only one B.H. Roberts.