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The Santa Maria Valley’s earliest settlers not only battled the elements in hopes of surviving, but wild animals were depleting their stock and causing much fear among the earliest and Spanish settlers.

Even though roping grizzlies was a sport, it was dangerous and not recommended for the novice. Since a wounded grizzly fears nothing, the vaquero’s life often depended on his own expertise as well as the speed of his horse.

Later, when Americans began to settle in the area, bull and bear fights became sporting events that proved to be both horrifying and fascinating to the newcomers.

After capturing a grizzly, the vaquero hauled it into camp and set it up for a fight with a vicious horse-goring and snorting bull.

The resulting gory spectacle delighted the spectators who had come to make money from the battle of the beasts.

The bear, which had two of its paws tied, crouched as low as it could, sometimes even digging a hole beneath it so that it might bring the bull down to a position vulnerable to its teeth and claws.

In the meantime, the bull tried to get the bear up on its hind legs so that it could spear the bear with its horns. The flight continued until one or both of the beasts were dead.

Later, when the new financial capital in San Francisco opened, the money brokers adopted “bear” and “bull” investment language: The “bear” speculator would hold off buying until prices fell to his supposed advantage.

On the other hand, the “bull" speculator would purchase stock, confident that its price would continue to rise and increase in value.

Those terms eventually found their way back to the American Stock Exchange in New York.

However, grizzlies were dangerous animals and were much to be feared.

Winston Wickenden once told me that his great-grandfather, Benjamin Foxen, had a bear chained to a tree in front of his house.

When the stage came through, the passengers were fascinated. They wanted to know why and how the bear happened to be chained to the tree, who chained it and who not only released it, but also how. These were questions that Wickenden could not answer.

A grizzly bear that was killing both calves and cows on his ranch once infuriated Francis Z. Branch to the point that he decided drastic remedies were necessary.

One day, after finding another dead cow, Branch decided to tackle this problem head on, and get rid of this grizzly for good.

Since bears were notorious for returning to the sight of a kill for one last meal, Branch had a hole dug near the dead cow.

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After filling the hole with brush and covering it with heavy timbers, he and a friend lowered themselves down into this pit and waited with their rifles, ready to shoot when the bothersome cattle-killer returned.

After crouching in the pit for some hours, the men caught site of an immense bear and her cub approaching the dead cow.

Carefully poking their guns through the concealed cover of the pit, the hunters fired shots, but instead of hitting the mother bear, they killed the cub.

The pitiful cries of the dying cub so enraged the mother that she furiously circled her dead cub, looking up into the tree and tearing great chunks of bark and wood from it with her long claws and teeth, trying to destroy whatever it was that had killed her cub.

The two frightened men who were huddled in the pit didn’t dare make a noise. They spent the entire night and half of the next day crouched in their narrow quarters praying that the bear would not find them.

When the bear finally went away, the men made a dash for home.

Years later, when Branch was reminiscing, he said, “Right then and there was when I decided to always hunt bears above ground. It’s safer.”

Because of the hunting and killing, bull and bear fights, and women leaving poison-laced animal fat outside for the bears to eat, around the 1870s, grizzlies became a rarity on the Central Coast. Still, though, occasional reports of people sighting bears appear in the news.

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Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.

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