Bear stories got the best of Sierra man
Echoes From the Past
The Sierra Nevada in the 1850s was still a near wilderness full of danger and adventure. It took a man with a large ego, a sense of adventure and a sense of humor to survive the wild mountains. James Culbertson was just such a man.
Culbertson was a spinner of tall tales that matched the granite peaks of the Yuba and Bear river regions. At the time it was only accessible by foot and pack animals. Culbertson and Lige Thompkins were tenders on a ditch belonging to the South Yuba Canal Company that took water from the South Fork of the Yuba at present day Lake Spaulding and carried it to the Bear River. Thompkins also owned a small ranch in nearby Bear Valley.
Culbertson was a notorious story teller who always portrayed himself as the hero in battles with wild animals of the Sierra. According to Jim, he had survived more hand-to-hand combat with California grizzlies and mountain lions than any man alive. Culbertson, armed with only a pocket knife, claimed to have escaped hundreds of times from being hugged or clawed to death solely based on his wonderful presence of mind, strength, and dexterity.
Thompkins and another ditch tender listened for months as Culbertson told how he never retreated, flinched or yielded an inch of ground. However, they began to doubt Culbertson’s courage and his incredible yarns, and decided to test Old Jim.
They had at one of the remote crude cabins the complete skins of two grizzly bears complete with heads and claws. Knowing Culbertson’s routine, they set about to spring a perfect surprise on the yarn spinner.
They wrapped themselves in the skins, and set up a dusk ambush. They separated slightly and hid in the brush where the only avenue of escape for Culbertson was to climb a 40-foot pine tree.
Culbertson walked along the trail, intent on getting back to camp before dark, unaware of the prank about to be sprung on him. At just the right moment the front “bear” jumped up and let out a ferocious roar. Jim didn’t pull out his famous pocketknife, nor did he stand his ground, instead he started to run back down the trail. The second “bear” then blocked the trail and roared even louder.
Culbertson quickly scrambled to the only safe place by climbing up the pine tree. He climbed halfway up as the two “bears” surrounded the tree, growling and roaring. Climbing the 20-inch diameter pine was no small feat for most men, but Jim, a six-foot man with long arms, managed to get up high enough to rest for a split second.
The fun of the sham bears was supreme, and it was all they could do to keep from bursting out laughing. The prowled around the ground as dark began to settle in, and decided to move off as Jim struggled painfully to climb the tree to get up to the first branches.
Just as the two “bears” were about to let Culbertson in on the prank, a startling event occurred that turned the tables on Thompkins and his cohort. A real grizzly burst from the chaparral 40 yards from the men, and headed directly for the two sham bears. There was no mistake about this being a genuine animal and the men were unarmed. They fled down the trail as fast as the bearskins allowed them to run.
The real grizzly was so startled that it ran the other direction right under the pine tree that held the quaking Culbertson. He thought he was “done for” with the third grizzly on the scene, so he continued to try to climb even higher in the tree.
It was a superhuman struggle for Jim to hang on to the trunk and climb up to the top of the tree. He stopped only when the top started to sway. By then his clothes were in tatters and his body was lacerated, bruised and bleeding. But Jim felt that he had cheated another horrible death. He couldn’t see or hear the bears, but still he stayed in the tree.
Once arriving back in camp, Thompkins and the other ditch tender shed their skins, picked up their rifles and pistols and leashed up their dogs. They feared that Culbertson had been attacked by the real grizzly, and with pine pitch torches to light the way they hurried back to the ambush location.
They did not believe that it was possible for Jim to climb high enough to the first branch and hang on long enough to escape the bear. They feared the probable result of their prank and expected to see a mangled corpse at the base of the tree.
Jim saw them coming through the dark and shouted at them. They were ecstatic to see that Jim was alive and well, but decided not to let him in on the ambush, fearing his rage at barely escaping death from the real bear. They effected great surprise and wanted to know what in thunder he was doing up in a tree in the dark.
Culbertson’s story telling ability was not affected by the incident, and still in the tree, he came up with a reasonable explanation. “Well, I confess this is one of the strangest affairs that has ever happened to me. When I was on my way down to your cabin, and passing by this infernal tree, I thought to myself that it takes a mighty smart man to climb it. And then I became possessed with desire to see if there was anything Jim Culbertson couldn’t do, and I didn’t stop to think more than two seconds before I found myself climbing up.
Before I had got ten feet, I verily believe there were fifty grizzlies at the foot of the tree, and made such a noise as they were tearing out the roots of the tree. I had my knife in my pocket and might have slid down and drove the devils away or killed them, but you know I made up my mind to take a trip up this tree.
I have made a rule in my life, as you are well aware, that when I start in to do anything, to complete it. No matter if there were fifty or a five hundred bears in my way. You know me well enough to understand that I never back out, but I believe I shall have to back down this tree. It is going to be an almighty hard job to get down even if it is only one-tenth as hard as it was coming up.”
Culbertson made the descent in about a half hour’s time, taking it leisurely, and avoiding the bruised portions of his body as much as possible. When he finally landed on terra firma, he offered Thompkins and his confederate a $500 bet that neither of them could climb that tree and gave them six months to practice in.
They wager was declined and for a long time afterwards, Culbertson challenged anyone in the mountains to perform the feat for $500. When asked whether he would ever climb that tree again, he replied “no, nor for a hundred times $500.”
Thompkins and the unnamed ditch tender kept their secret for months afterwards until the legend of Culbertson tree climb had circulated through the scattered camps of the Sierra. By them Jim guffawed at the joke played on him and added it to the stories he told.
Jim Culbertson remained in the area for several decades, telling tales and living a fine mountain life. In 1863 Culbertson was a major partner in the construction of the Pacific Turnpike wagon road. It ran from the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road near Bear Valley and Emigrant Gap north to Bowman Reservoir, and over the mountains to Jackson’s Ranch on the Middle Fork of the Yuba River, where it connected to the Henness Pass Road.
For a few years, until the Central Pacific Railroad was completed over Donner Pass, freight and stage traffic going to and from Virginia City paid handsome tolls to Culbertson, making him a wealthy man. This route avoided the steep narrow road through Donner Pass, but also ran through an area thick with real grizzlies and black bears.
Jim loved to thrill his overnight guests at his roadhouse on the South Fork of the Yuba River with his exploits with the wild animals of the Sierra. Jim Culbertson was a true mountain man who continued to groom his own legend.
Gordon Richards is the Historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at Sierra Sun. Com in the archives.