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B[ear] H[unter] Roberts

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 29, 2010

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.



14 Comments »

  1. An excellent story! And I loved that phrase, how the click of the hammer “startled his bruinship.”

    I greatly admire the men’s courage at being able to shoot a bear at nearly point-blank range. I’ve often worried that if I were that close to a bear, my nerves would get the best of me and I wouldn’t be able to get a shot off (not to mention the risk that one shot wouldn’t do the trick), and I would become the next newspaper headline (“Bear Attack!”).

    Anyhow, it’s great fun to hear about another side of B.H. Roberts. Thanks.

    Comment by David Y. — June 29, 2010 @ 8:22 am

  2. I like to picture Bro. Roberts in the study of the Eastern States Mission Home, on Gates Avenue in Brooklyn.

    Other than that, I agree with everything you wrote!

    Comment by Mark B. — June 29, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  3. Thanks, Ardis. I doubt I would have come across this story any other way and it really tickled me—and added to my admiration of Roberts.

    Comment by Mina — June 29, 2010 @ 9:22 am

  4. My favorite picture of Roberts is when he is dressed like a hobo to go retrieve the bodies of the murdered elders. I wish we had a picture of him stretched out on a dead grizzly, too. He was a tough guy in many ways.

    A great story. I’m trying to picture a future general authority carrying around a sawed-off Enfield loaded with lead slugs.

    Comment by Mark Brown — June 29, 2010 @ 9:37 am

  5. Oddly enough, I am currently reading Truman Madsen’s biography of Roberts, and he mentions this story, but not in near as much detail. I admire his courage, his intellectual integrity, and also the ability to overcome the unfortunate childhood years he had in England, after his mother left for Utah.

    From blacksmith, bearkiller, and hardrock miner to mission president, general authority, army chaplain, and church historian. Truly a renaissance man.

    Comment by kevinf — June 29, 2010 @ 11:23 am

  6. Of course, these days carrying a sawed-off weapon is against the law. Now, you wouldn’t want that sort non-law-abiding person to become a general authority, would you?

    I almost expected, in this new enlightened age, to see a disclaimer at the end of the post:

    No bears or other wildlife, including flies and mosquitoes, were harmed during the writing of this post, or in the reality underlying the accounts, pictures or descriptions of that reality as set forth in this post.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 29, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  7. Isn’t that what I keep you on retainer for, Mark? To write those disclaimers for me? :)

    And I left a real gap in describing Roberts by forgetting to imagine him as a Southern States missionary or an Eastern States mission president. The man was a marvel from whatever angle you look.

    Thanks for taking the time, all, to say that you enjoy stories like this.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 29, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

  8. Here, here for #4 Mark Brown.

    This experience undoubtedly prepared B.H. well for his Southern States mission and other tough places he might have had to be in as a special witness of Christ!

    I get the chills every time I make a point of getting off I-75 far north of Atlanta to go to Joseph Standing’s grave maintained by the church. But that’s what drove my great-grandmother to Zion out of central Alabama and made me who I am today. A proud born Westerner sojourning in the warm, hospitable South with many missions and temples as witness to the sacrifice of those martyrs in her soil.

    Allison in Atlanta

    Comment by Allison — June 29, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

  9. I thought Joseph Standing’s body was returned to Utah and that he is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — June 29, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

  10. “A night without a moon.” What a night to go bear hunting! Finding their prey by listening hard, then quickly aiming by starlight upon seeing “an object move above the tops of the sage brush!”

    What a story you found again Ardis! And I can enjoy a thrill from the safety of my bedroom. Thank you for sharing your gift! Diane Peel

    Comment by Diane Peel — June 30, 2010 @ 12:13 am

  11. #9 Jeff, I might stand corrected.

    But there is a marker where he died.

    I’ll investigate further and thanks for the heads-up.

    Allison in Atlanta

    Comment by Allison — July 2, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  12. Yes, Joseph Standing was buried in Salt Lake City after his murder in July 1879, according to the Latter-Day Saints’ Southern Star. See this installment (Dec. 1898) of the history of the Southern States Mission. He is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery, according to Find A Grave.

    Was your great grandmother from Haywood Valley, Allison? Did she settle in Manassa, Colorado? I would be quite interested if you have any family history materials about her, particularly if she was associated with either of those areas, or if there were any family memories of the mission president at the time, John Morgan.

    B.H. Roberts was, of course, more closely associated with the aftermath of the murders of Elders Berry and Gibbs and Martin Condor and J.R. Hudson at Cane Creek, Tennessee, and with fetching the bodies of Berry and Gibbs for burial in Utah. Bruce Crow has covered this event extensively on his blog Amateur Mormon Historian, which is listed on the sidebar.

    Comment by Researcher — July 2, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

  13. No, great-grandmother was not from Haywood Valley and she settled first in Franklin, ID and then she and my great-grandfather homesteaded in Star Valley, WY.

    Wish we could collaborate, but I don’t think we have what you are asking for.

    Comment by Allison — July 3, 2010 @ 11:14 am

  14. 1000 points for “his bruinship.”

    Great piece.

    “I’m trying to picture a future general authority carrying around a sawed-off Enfield loaded with lead slugs” … in western Africa.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 4, 2010 @ 11:25 am

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