Bears in Richland County: A Natural, Mythical, Historical, Literary Field Guide

There are more and more sightings of bears in Richland County all the time, which is just about right really, because this place was theirs long before we ever showed up.

If footprints could mark the land in such a way as to transcend time it would be easy to see that there were bears all over this county for thousands of years.

Their tracks would be found in every field, along every stream, in every rocky grotto.

When the first county histories were compiled in the 1850s there were bear stories from every township.  Most of these stories did not have a happy ending for the bear.

The historical response to bears around here takes on distinctly different timbres depending on which eras of local history you focus your lens through. 

Folks in the 1810s had a very different response to bears than folks in the 1910s. The farmers in both those decades would be astounded to see the wonder with which these critters are regarded in the 2010s.

American Black Bear Plate 141, John James Audubon (1785-1851), Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, 1848.

The First 100 Years

Pioneers in Richland County never had much good to report about their bear sightings.  Most often it focused on their pig or sheep that was missing, and the bear tracks that were left behind.

A farmer near Bellville heard his hog squealing one day and when he went to check on it a neighbor boy told him he saw “a man with a black coat carrying the hog away.”

If there was more to the story than simply thieving bears, then it involved somebody following the bear with a rifle. The main part of the story was what happened when the bear turned around.

An artist’s paint box decorated with classic folk art bear fight, circa 1875-1895.

In Monroe Township the bear turned around and chased his young pursuer up a tree.  It was not a very big tree though, so when the bear started gnawing on the roots the young man said he couldn’t tell whether it was himself or the tree who shook worse.

As his tale unfolded it happened that a wild boar burst out of the forest at the critical moment and, fortunately for the treed hunter, the bear took off after the pig.

The narrative went on though.  As soon as the kid told his father about his bear adventure the old man grabbed his rifle, a couple of pals, and stormed out in angry pursuit.

They caught up with their hairy adversary about nightfall, and saw it climb high up a huge old tree.  The irony of the situation was a large part of the storytelling: that both of the hunted—first the boy and then the bear—went up a tree imagining they had escaped their doom.

The hunting men sat down and built a campfire at the base of the tree, and slept there that night waiting for the bear to come down and face them.

This story ended, as do nearly all the bear tales in the county histories, with a tally of how many bullets it took to fell the bear.

Generally speaking, the ‘one-shot’ endings were considered the most heroic or commendable.

There was one bear however, whose bullet tally legend inspired tremendous awe and reverence among the early settlers.

He was called “the old one,” and referred to as “chief among bears.”  There were any number of men who reported shooting him, and even more who claimed to have fired directly at him but unaccountably missed.

He always got away.  He had a reputation of being perhaps not of this world.

When the mythic beast was finally taken down some years later near Butler the bear had 11 rifle balls in his old hide.  Mr. Simmons, who ultimately ate the bear, unplugged all the ammunition from his dinner and returned each lead ball to its owner.

Local literary bears first appeared in a historical novel called Philip Seymour, or Pioneer Life in Richland County, by James M’Gaw. (1857)  The very first chapter includes the adventure of Kanotche and the Bear.

Before the First 100 Years

The European settlers from whom we glean our county histories were not the first folks who dealt with Richland’s bear population.

When pioneers in 1812 went to the tribal village of Greentown to eat dinner with their Wyandot guests, one of the delicacies on the menu was bear meat. 

From evidence of artifacts found in the Richland dirt, and from those discovered within walking distance of our hills, it is amply apparent that tribal cultures who lived here before us also had intimate knowledge of, and relationship with, ursus americanus.

A ceremonial effigy pipe with the image of a black bear carved by a Hopewell craftsman (200 BC-500 AD) was unearthed roughly a day’s walk from Richland County.

Interestingly enough, it is the image of the bear that provides perhaps the only cultural connection we share with our Richland neighbors who lived here thousands of years ago.

When European settlers arrived in the forks of the Mohican River they looked in to the night sky and identified the cluster of stars in the north as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor: the big bear and the little bear.

Miraculously, the Native American people who lived here before the settlers arrived, and whose cultural paradigm was utterly different from the settlers’ in every way, also recognized the northern star grouping as the mythic image of the bear.

The Lenape, and other Algonquian tribal descendants who lived at Greentown called the stars of Ursa Major “the bear followers.”


The Second 100 Years

The bears of Richland County were pretty much eliminated from our hills and hollows 150 years ago.

The most significant bears related to local history since then were those who came to life from the imagination of a local boy: Frank VerBeck.

He was a highly respected illustrator whose legacy in American literature spans the decades from the 1890s through the 1920s.

He is often noted for illustrating some of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and some of the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus books.

But he is most loved for his own books about bears.

It started when he drew the pictures for a book by Albert Bigelow Paine called The Arkansas Bear.  The pictures were so much better than the story that there was a huge demand for more “VerBeck Bears.”

He subsequently did at least 7 more books featuring his lovable bears.

Frank VerBeck (1858-1933) was most widely loved for his bears.  Illustration from The Arkansaw Bear (1898).

Frank VerBeck grew up in and around Mansfield, and developed his artistic talents under the tutelage of a Mansfield sign painter.  After he got famous in New York and England he came back here often to visit his family. 

To our benefit today he left a number of his bears in local collections, and on the walls of his friends.

Frank often visited the Library when he was in town to talk with children who loved his bears.  He gave original illustration art to the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library.

Within Recent Generations

The only other major Richland migration of bears in the 20th century happened in Lexington.  They were polar bears.  They lived in a refrigerated basement on east Main Street inside a storefront that was painted artic blue.

This was during the 1960s and, fortunately or unfortunately for the bears, the place never particularly caught on as a very consequential tourist attraction.


Footnotes

The other annotations regarding bears in Richland County seem self-evident, but probably are worth citing nonetheless.

A number of generations in Monroe Township have had countless sightings and encounters with Lucas Cubs.

And there have been multiple sightings all over the county during the last 70 years of Smokey the Bear.

Smokey the Bear stopped at the local state parks a few years ago.


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