JUNE 15, 1814
200 years ago today, Ursus Americanus [Black Bear] was still living in Washington County, Indiana Territory. The heavy old growth forest cover of the area with its abundant supply of water and rocky shelter and a small human population provided an ideal habitat for these bears. The male Black Bear ranged over a territory of approximately 60 square miles while the female ranged over a smaller territory of 15 square miles. A tributary flowing northeast into the Mutton Fork of Blue River was named Bear Creek by the early settlers of Washington County due to the presence of bears in the area. Bear meat was a delicacy to the early settlers and bear fat was used for cooking and candles.
Many of the first settlers of the area had encounters with bears that became part of our local lore. Some of these encounters are set out in the Goodspeed History of 1884 and in the Stevens Centennial History. George Beck and his sons often hunted bear along Blue River near to their mill. On Christmas Day 1808, they killed one in a cave after waking it from its hibernation. The cave was probably Charles Cave which is presently owned by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Thomas Hopper who was the first acknowledged settler in the area in 1803 claimed to have killed a female bear and then have taken in her cubs for a brief time. In 1811, Catherine Karnes found 6 bear cubs about a quarter of a mile from her home near Dutch Creek and took them home. She raised one of them with her children until the bear was 3 years old. Jacob Garrett who settled east of Royse’s Lick near the present day boundary between Washington and Franklin Townships, was attacked by a bear without serious injury. Nathaniel Chambers who was born in Virginia and came to this area from Madison County, Ky settled along Walnut Ridge between the waters of Rush Creek and Buffalo Creek was rescued by his son John from a bear mauling. Chambers had found the bear in a hollow tree. His mangled leg caused him to limp for the remainder of his lengthy life as he lived beyond the age of 99.
The last bear in Washington County was killed near Salem in 1825. The bear was seen in the cemetery that was established in 1824 in the southwestern part of the unplatted land of the acreage purchased by John DePauw from Benjamin and Catherine Brewer in 1814. The bear was probably attracted to the smell of human remains recently reburied from a previous cemetery located in the southeast part of DePauw’s plat. An impromptu posse of citizens armed themselves and took pursuit. The bear was fatally shot by Felix D. Badger
who later became the Postmaster at Saltillo. The bear was brought to Salem on a sled pulled by a team of horses. It weighed over 400 pounds. It was skinned, dressed and prepared for a feast attended by about 100 residents of the immediate area.
Bears marked their territory in different ways. Although the Black Bear was no longer native to this area, Washington County residents would still find bear claw marks etched into beech trees for the remainder of the 19th century.
Charles Major who grew up in Shelby County, Indiana wrote a novel in 1901 about the life of the early settlers of his community that became a Hoosier classic. The life described in this novel is a good representation of pioneer times in Southern Indiana. If you haven't read "The Bears of Blue River" it might be time.