Arkansas Folklore: The Big Bear of Arkansas
December 9-15, 2019
By Corey Womack
The holidays means food. And for many Arkansans, year-end family meals mean weeks of hunting, dressing and preparing unique dishes from the wild bounty of the Natural State. I am not much of a hunter. However, one pastime I might love more than eating is the inevitable hunting stories shared over the dinner table.
Hunting stories are unique. Whereas lore is completely fantastic, hunting stories walk a line between being impressively outlandish, yet still plausible. Oftentimes the hunter is surrounded by competitors eager to “poke a hole” in his narrative. If the embellishments become too grand, the possums are ready to pounce. Gunning down a fellow hunter’s exploits is a sport almost as old as hunting, itself.
Arkansas’ greatest hunting story, “The Big Bear of Arkansas” was first published in 1841. New Englanders feverishly awaited any personal letter, journal entry or published account of the ongoing crusades through the American frontier. Thomas Bangs Thrope was eager to answer the call.
A native of Massachusetts, Thorpe was born in 1815. He lived and worked in the Northeast, as a painter and politician, but found his true calling as a writer after moving to the “Southwest” in 1838. Thorpe was a fan of the region for its beauty, but more notably for the raucous and flamboyant personalities who called the region home.
One such character was the hunter from Thorpe’s most famous short story. In the story, a narrator boards a northbound steamboat on the Mississippi River. The dry and quiet “social room” is set on its head, when a loud Arkansan Hunter arrives on board.
With his feet on the stove and his back to his audience, the man holds-forth about his adventures as the greatest hunter in the Arkansas territory. He explains the bear in Arkansas live in fear of the sound of his rifle and the scent of his dog. According to him, no hunter is a real hunter if he doesn’t hunt bear.
The black bear population in the Arkansas territory was booming. Stories like “The Big Bear of Arkansas” or even “Pete Whetstone’s Bear Hunt” by Charles Noland are responsible for earning Arkansas the early moniker of The Bear State.
Quickly the men in the cabin begin to question the hunter’s exploits and try to poke holes in his narrative. When the man claims to have killed a forty-pound turkey, the possums pounce and demand to know where. The hunter exclaims,
[...] but in the creation State, the finishing-up country a State where the sile runs down to the centre of the ‘arth, and government gives you a title to every inch of it? Then its airs just breathe them, and they will make you snort like a horse. Arkansas. It’s a State without a fault, it is.
Finally, intrigued, the narrator speaks up and asks the mighty hunter for his most impressive bear hunting story. The man thinks and recounts a few lesser tales before stating, “Once I met with a match, though, and I will tell you about it; for a common hunt would not be worth relating.”
The hunter commences to tell the three-year saga of chasing a monster bear across the Arkansas wilderness. Many of the man’s hunts could be retold simply as, “A bear is started, and he was killed.” However this bear outran and outwitted the man countless times. The hunter even recounts diving into a lake in pursuit of the beast and catching it, only to surface with a much smaller, more docile “she-bear.”
On the hunter’s final pursuit of the monstrous bear things become truly interesting. When a pack of dogs had treed the bear, the man’s hunting partner raised his rifle and took aim, “and blazed away, hitting the critter in the centre of his forehead. The bear shook his head as the ball struck it, and then walked down from that tree, as gently as a lady would from a carriage.” This is the first time the story bends into the realm of impossibility. This is the moment that the tale ceases as just another hunting story and becomes Arkansas lore. However, the hunter’s tale has been so masterfully spun, the cynical naysayers in the cabin are silent.
The hunter continues on to his last encounter with the beast. A few days after the bear escaped sure death, the hunter spotted him heading for his very own hog pen,
The old varmint was within a hundred yards, and the way he walked over that fence stranger; he loomed up like a black mist, he seemed so large, and he walked right towards me. I raised myself, took deliberate aim, and fired. Instantly the varmint wheeled, gave a yell, and walked through the fence, as easy as a falling tree would through a cobweb.
In the hunter’s mind, the creature has ceased to be a bear. It has ceased to be an animal, altogether. Finally the hunter sums up with,
But, stranger, I never liked the way I hunted him, and missed him. There is something curious about it, that I never could understand [...] My private opinion is, that that bear was an unhuntable bear, and died when his time come.
And in one short sentence, Arkansas ceases to be simply, “a land without fault,” and becomes a land of mythical battles with predestined endings. Suddenly our hunter is no longer a wildman from the American frontier, but a hero destined to face-off with the country’s most vicious black bear. Thorpe sums the story up with the observation:
Our hero sat some minutes with his auditors, in a grave silence; I saw there was a mystery to him connected with the bear whose death he had just related, that had evidently made a strong impression on his mind. It was also evident that there was some superstitious awe connected with the affair, a feeling common with all “children of the wood,” when they meet with anything out of their every-day experience.
With these final words, Thorpe gives us the greatest hunting tale of Arkansas’ storied past, while at the same time giving us possibly the state’s first monster story. Arkansas’ greatest hunter meets with a creature beyond his reckoning and it leaves him shaken. The Big Bear of Arkansas – while mostly forgotten – deserves to be remembered alongside the Beast of Boggy Creek and Ozark Howler as another mythical resident of the Natural State.
In Arkansas, black bears are predominately found in the oak-hickory forests of the Interior Highlands and on lowland hardwood and swamp sites in the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain (the Delta). (Source: Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)