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Mike Watson: Bears once were everywhere in Adair

An Ancient Bear Story of Adair County--

By Mike Watson

Bears are upon our turf once more, it appears. There was a time, in ancient time, if you will, when the bear and other animals of the wild were everywhere and there are a few tales from those years that have survived in one form or other. Here is one from the pioneer era, likely before 1789, as told by Adair County Jurist and Historian Judge Rollin T. Hurt in his newspaper history of the area. This is likely as true a tale as can be found anywhere for it was often told around the hearths for generations. Judge Hurt was a grandson of pioneers and certainly was privy to these stories from those who knew the participants very well.

Upon one occasion when [Major Nathan] Montgomery and Captain John Butler were doing duty as spies [diligent watch for Indian sign], they started from Logan's Fort, near the present site of Stanford, with the purpose of visiting the country which is now in middle Tennessee; and when upon the waters of Casey's Creek in [what became] Adair County they killed a bear, which they skinned and dressed; and, taking a small quantity of the meat for use, they sewed the remainder of it in the skin of the bear, which they hung in the boughs of a tree.

Continuing their journey, the small portion of the meat of the bear which they took with them was accidentally lost. This accident left them nothing for substance except fried venison, unless, perchance, they should have the fortune of killing another bear.

Butler was unwell and positively declared that he could not continue the journey without bear meat to sustain him. Montgomery persuaded him to continue forward upon the suggestion that they would soon have the opportunity to kill another bear.

When they arrived in what is now Barren County, Butler rebelled and declared that he could not live upon the "d--d dried venison" and would not proceed forward another step without bear meat upon which to subsist. Montgomery persuaded, but Butler's determination was unalterable, and they turned upon their tracks with the purpose of proceeding until they should kill a bear or until they should arrive at the place where they had hung up the carcass of the bear.

At the end of the day, however, they had arrived within three or four miles of the westward of the present site of Gradyville, in Adair County, where they prepared to bivouac for the night. While Montgomery was gathering some particles of dry wood for fuel, he heard a report of Butler's rifle; and apprehending that he was beset by Indians, ran to his assistance. It was not an Indian, however, at which Butler had shot, but a bear, and the bear was wounded and fleeing. Butler did not take the time to reload his rifle, fearing that he would lose site of the bear, but drew his knife and ran after the bear at the same time shouting loudly for Montgomery.

Montgomery attempted to discharge his rifle at the bear, but it flashed in the pan, after the manner of the ancient flintlock, and failed to discharge. Repriming his rifle as best he could, he followed Butler and the bear in a headlong chase.

This continued until the bear was coming down a steep point to a ridge between two prongs of Big Creek at a place where the two prongs came together just above Gradyville, when Butler's pursuit became so close that the bear turned to fight his pursuer, and, standing upon its hind legs, made for Butler when Montgomery shot and killed it.

They skinned and dressed the carcass, and making a fire at the foot of a steep point near the waters of the creek, cooked a portion of the meat and greedily ate it and spent the night there. They placed the whole of the ribs of one side of the bear before the fire so that it might cook during the night for their morning meal. When they composed themselves for the night near the fire, which they reduced to the smallest quantity so as to escape detection by the Indians if any should chance to be in that neighborhood, Butler lay very close to the fire. Unwell and weary from the day's tramp and his exertions in the pursuit of the bear, Butler very soon fell heavily asleep.

In the middle of the night, Montgomery, who was sleeping lightly, awakened, seized his rifle, discharged it, and at the same time cried to Butler that the Indians were upon them. Butler, unable to cast off his heavy sleep at once, and only partially awakened, mistook the ribs of the bear for a gun, seized the hot ribs of the bear, drew it aside his face as though it was a rifle and muttered in an undertone, "shoot, shoot, shoot!" It was not until the roasted flesh had severely burned his cheek that he was awakened sufficiently to realize that the Indians were not near, and that the whole affair was only a prank of Montgomery's.

When the morning came, Butler loaded himself with a sufficiency of the meat to furnish substance for a number of days and declared his readiness to proceed on the proposed tour of spying upon the Indians. They then retraced their steps toward the country of Tennessee and completed the tour without any further hindrance.

In after years, at log rollings and other gatherings of the people, Montgomery would relate the circumstance of the prank played by him upon Butler to the accompaniment of the loud roars of laughter by the crowds present. Our forefathers viewed the circumstances as worthy of great merriment. Butler never, however, joined in the merriment which was indulged at his expense, but would dryly say that it was a piece of bad judgment and recklessness upon the part of Montgomery as the noise made by him upon the occasion was could have brought the Indians upon them and, thus, exposed them to unnecessary dangers.

Look out for the 2020 bears, for they might get you!

This story was posted on 2020-07-19 06:40:34
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