Brain Post: How The Gold Rush Killed 10,000 Grizzly Bears in California + The History of the California State Flag

Miles Clark | | BrainsBrains
Photograph of the original Bear Flag in
Photograph of the original Bear Flag in 1890.

The conversation regarding reintroducing grizzly bears to California, and other states, is back on the table, so we thought we’d revisit the history of grizzlies in California. I mean, they’re on the state flag, so they must have a symbiotic relationship, right?

California Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos californicus), or California Golden Bears, were once ubiquitous in California.  There were Grizzlies everywhere in California except for the Mojave desert.  

The California Girzzly Bear is reported to have been the largest of all Grizzly Bears with one specimen being killed in a town outside San Diego (Valley Center) that stood 8 feet tall and weighed 2,200 lbs in 1866.

 In 1866, a grizzly weighing 2,200 pounds
California Grizzly Bear on display in Valley Center, CA.

It’s estimated that there were around 10,000 grizzlies in California when European settlers arrived. That’s a helluva lotta Griz.

To make a fair comparison, British Columbia, which is 6 times the size of California, had about 25,000 grizzlies when the Euros showed up.  

It’s thought that California had the highest concentration of Grizzly bears on Earth.  Which would make sense since California had salmon runs every month of the year before white people killed all the salmon.

A salmon run every month of the year would support a lot of grizzly bears…

Lassoing a California Grizzly Bear
Lassoing a California Grizzly Bear



California Grizzlies and white people lived together in California for 300 years… until the gold rush of 1849.  The repeating rifled showed up in California around 1848 and it spelled death for California Grizzlies.  The population boom of the California gold rush saw miners and other immigrants killing off Grizzlies in atrocious amounts as they were considered dangerous.

Hunters viciously hunted the Grizzlies for their warm furs.  

Settlers in California often poisoned and shot bears to protect livestock.

The last California Grizzly Bear was shot in Tulare County, CA in August 1922.

Digital reproduction of the original Bear Flag
Digital reproduction of the original Bear Flag


1.  1846.  In 1846 California was located squarely inside Mexico.  It was called Alta California.  Americans had been moving into Alta California and settling there.  Mexicans and Americans didn’t exactly get along.

2.  Mexican-American War.  War between the USA & Mexico was clearly coming from Washington D.C. and was declared on May 13th, 1846.

3.  Stealing Horses.  As a result of the declaration of war, on June 11th, 1846, North Bay residents captured Mexican Lieutenant Francisco Arce’s horses…yeah, his horses.  This began the California insurgency.  This insurgency came to be called the “Bear Flag Revolt.”

4.  Taking Sonoma.  After taking the horses these CA rebels traveled to the tiny town of Sonoma.  A total of 34 men had gathered by the time they got to Sonoma on June 14th, 1846.  These men took Sonoma and captured all the Mexican officers there without firing a shot.  Mexican General Mariano was taken prisoner and sent to Sutter’s Fort (current day Sacramento).

CA State Flag
CA State Flag

5.  Making The “Bear Flag”.  The men who took Sonoma created the California Republic Flag and hoisted it on June 17th, 1846.  The flag was called the “Bear Flag” and the insurgency was called the “Bear Flag Revolt.”  These men who took Sonoma were called “Bear Flaggers.”

6.  CA Republic Lasted One Month.  The Bear Flag Revolt lasted about one month from June 14th until Junly 7th, 1846.  On July 9th, 1846 the Bear Flag was lowered in Sonoma and the USA flag was raised.

7.  Bear Flag Becomes California State Flag.  “In January and February 1911, these events came to fruition and on February 3, 1911 the Bear Flag became California’s State flag at the signing of State Senate Bill 291 by Governor Hiram Johnson.  The Bear Flag has remained the California Flag since that time.” –

Modern California State Flag
Modern California State Flag


At a company meeting it was determined that we should raise a flag, and that it should be a bear en passant [French: ‘in passing’], with one star. One of the ladies at the garrison gave us a piece of brown domestic, and Mrs. Captain John Sears gave us some strips of red flannel about 4 inches wide. The domestic was new, but the flannel was said to have been part of a petticoat worn by Mrs. Sears across the mountains…I took a pen, and with ink drew the outline of the bear and star upon the white cloth. Linseed oil andVenetian red were found in the garrison, and I painted the bear and star…Underneath the bear and star were printed with a pen the words ‘California Republic’ in Roman letters. In painting the words I first lined out the letters with a pen, leaving out the letter ‘i’ and putting ‘c’ where ‘i’ should have been, and afterwards the ‘i’ over the ‘c’. It was made with ink, and we had nothing to remove the marks.
—William L. “Bill” Todd, artist of original Bear Fla
Historic and present grizzly bear population maps
Historic, post glacier,  and present grizzly bear natural range maps



The stock market connection:

Spanish caballeros roped grizzlies in California, dragging them into doomed public battles with wild bulls.

This popular spectator sport inspired betting as to whether the bear or the bull would win.

This gave the modern stock market its “bear” and “bull” nicknames — the bear swipes downward while the bull hooks upward.

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23 thoughts on “Brain Post: How The Gold Rush Killed 10,000 Grizzly Bears in California + The History of the California State Flag

  1. If the grizzly bear could be 14 feet standing up and 8 ft on all four then the front paws should be 16 inches across with 6-7inches claws??

    1. I’m not sure about the width of the paws nor length of claws, but normal grizzlies now can have 7″ wide paws and 4″ claws. Thanks

  2. Well Mexican ARE Spanish the word “Mexican” just means mixed from a word in Aztec language From Spanish and indigenous but mostly on Spanish side

  3. I recall reading long, long ago that the “war” for independence from Mexico was really just a couple of skirmishes with fewer than 50 combatants on each side and only a few shots fired. I believe that both were in the area of what is now the Los Angeles basin. The ‘Californios’ in the Sonoma area were mostly observers as the flag raising and replacement events took place. There was a contingent of over a thousand Mormons that marched to California to assist in the battle but all was over when they arrived. They did not like the established rout that they used to get here so they returned via a path that Kit Carson favored–now basically followed by the USFS Route “Mormon Emigrant Trail”

  4. I know nothing abut grizzlys, except that they arethe most intriguing creature one ever seen.
    I loved reading this article and the comments that followed. From beginning to end, I felt so close to them that I dreaded to stop reading at the end.
    Please tell me, are their any books or videos that I can get lost in on this subject? !
    Thanks for sharing these amazing stories and comments!!

  5. This is the stupidest, most ignorant tripe I’ve ever heard. This guy exemplifies the “pee on the same fireplug” knee jerk ignorance that is pervasive in our society today. The California grizzly, Ursus Horribilis (which means horrible bear) was the largest carnivore in the western hemisphere. The male California grizzly could attain the height of 12 to 14 feet standing erect with a weight of between 1500 and two thousand pounds being average. They were also about 8 feet high at the shoulder when standing on all fours. Only immature grizzly would have been used to fight bulls because of the difficulty of trying to control an animal capable of tearing your cabin apart and killing a bull elk with one swipe of it’s powerful arm, not to mention the jaws which could crush the leg bone of and ox. Grizzlies were not hunted by miners unless a problem bear was near and causing havoc such as ripping the roof off a frozen cabin in winter and killing and eating the hapless souls inside (which happened many times and is documented in the diaries of men who lived at the time and in the editorials of the area newspapers. The last grizzly “officially” killed in California was indeed 1922…However there are between 12 and twenty sightings of grizzly every year and the biologists (are there any real ones in California?) are aware of it. As to the 10,000 bears number being thrown about by the truly ignorant, think about this FACT; a male grizzly in California stakes out a domain of 50 to 100 SQUARE MILES and will kill any male who trespasses. You do the math. Remember that all terrain is not grizzly habitat. A California grizzly (that I am personally familiar with) killed an thousand pound thoroughbred and dragged and carried it up the side of a mountain that was so steep that the rancher and his hands broke off the hunt because they couldn’t go any farther. (Its fortunate for them, because even though they had high powered rifles, the bear would have surely killed most (if not all) of them before he died from wounds. California grizzly were notorious for running three hundred yards with it’s heart and lungs shot out and killing several hunters and their mounts before succumbing to wounds. It was most assuredly not a romanticized name…HORRIBLE BEAR (Ursus Horribils) If you come across a paw print 12 to 14 inches across with claw marks deep into the soil about six inches from the pad print and find a pile of bear scat that looks like a bucket full, you’re getting close to reality…or if you come across a wrangler in the mountains who tells you he’s there to get the last strays from the herd that they grazed up there that summer and is looking for signs of the 6 to 8 that just disappeared without a trace (“..neither hide nor hoof”) and your walking just below a ridge line and find a giant redwood with it’s bark torn off about 8 feet from the ground in what is obviously a side to side pattern and there are slash marks across the face of that great scar and there is still sap dripping out of some of them and you can get around the side of the tree and use one of the exposed tree roots to gain access on tip toes to stick the 3 1’/2″ blade of your Puma Game Warden in one of those cuts…you will find that the knife does not reach the bottom. You will also notice that the ground at the base of the tree has been excavated and is very soft. Walk up toward the top of that ridge and you will find the trail, just below the ridge, the trail, well traveled. If you are armed with a high powered rifle…..leave…and live to remember all that you just witnessed. You all need to realize that most of these “experts” are just telling you what they read or were told by someone else. You need to learn how to think…research for yourself. By the way…Tulare STILL has …at least one.

    1. Russ, I hear ya. But you can’t deny, the California Grizzly died because of gold. Gold is why the white men came. Without the gold, they wouldn’t have come. Without the white man, there would still be grizzlies in CA.

      Also, in California, as in current coastal Alaska, Grizzly bears may not have had such large territories. When there is a lot of food around, Grizz will tolerate each other in close quarters.

      There very well may have been 10,000 grizzlies in California. No one knows for sure, so it’s tough to have a bulletproof answer either way.

      Regardless, I love you comment. Do you have any interest in writing a piece for us about Grizzly bears? You clearly are knowledgable on the subject and have some terrific stories.

      Please email me: thanks.

  6. I enjoyed reading your article as I have read numerous books/accounts of the Grizzly Bear. To add to this great read, the term Bull/Bear Market also has to do with the way the two animals would fight in the “doomed” fights (which are absolutely horrific and a disgusting thought to think humans did this), the bull would charge forward at the Grizzly (“Bull” market moving forward, busting ahead) while the Grizzly Bear would lay back and wait for the Bull’s charge (“Bear” market, laying back, not moving forward like the Bull).

    Great read! Thanks!

    1. The star was made to represent Texas (The Lone Star State) because they had a lot in common in their fight for Mexican Independence.

  7. Why do European Americans call the Mexicans of the era “Spanish” they where not Spanish they where Mexicans! and Anglos refer to Mexicans as Californios as if wanting to separate them altoghether from the Mexicans. They where Mexicans period! And yes Mexicans lassoed Grizzlies something Gov Pacheco would do in his leisure time calling the attention of Anglos in Washington D.C
    When inquisitive anglos asked if he used bait or guns or traps he responded in their disbelief: nope, just a lasso nothing more.
    Anglos could not believe their legendary David Crockett who was no more than a loose tounge and an oportunist had been outmatched by this Californio.

  8. I think you meant Mojave, 🙂
    It’s interesting that our flag boosting the great grizzly became our state flag after the last griz was shot dead in Tulare.
    Great article!

  9. Great write up. CA history is something else. The real old west. That Griz musta been wild to deal with. California used to have a salmon run 12 months of the year. Good for Griz.

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