How Grizzly Adams Tamed Bears And Became America's Most Famous Mountain Man

Cast your mind back to 1970s TV shows, and you might recall a rough, tough frontiersman called Grizzly Adams. His special shtick was his unique way with wild bears — Adams rescued an infant grizzly bear and tamed the beast, who then acted as his sidekick. A bit like a bear version of Lassie! The creature then played a central part in the regular adventures that came its owner’s way. But John “Grizzly” Adams was not merely a fictional character. He was a real man that lived and breathed with bears in the 19th century.

An innocent fugitive

Adams’ depiction in the TV show — there were films, too — was entirely sympathetic. He was the good guy in his adventures. IMDb has described the television version of Adams as “an innocent fugitive from the law [who] lives in the wilderness with a grizzly bear companion and helps passers-by in the forest.”

Adams was depicted by the actor Dan Haggerty in the 37 episodes of the show, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. It ran for two seasons in 1977 and 1978.

Ben the bear

Haggerty also played Adams in the 1974 movie, also titled The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, that spawned the TV series as well as three more movies, the last of which was released in 1982. For those who need a little refresher, IMDb has summarized the 1974 plot.

“After fleeing into the mountains after he is wrongly accused of murder,” the description read, “woodsman ‘Grizzly Adams’ discovers an uncanny bond to the indigenous wildlife of the region after rescuing an orphaned grizzly bear cub whom he adopts and calls Ben.”

Heroic backwoodsman

So, Adams was portrayed as a rather heroic backwoodsman in the TV shows and movies. But the real character that the fictional Grizzly was based on was a rather more complex fellow. As we’ll see, the picture of Adams as a virtuous lover of the American wilds and an all-round good guy is far from the full story of the real man.

The true account of his life is a fascinating tale in its own right, and arguably a lot more interesting than the fictionalized Adams. The real Adams, in reality, had attitudes towards wildlife that might make you shudder.

Two presidents

So let’s take a look at the real-life character behind the mythology that was popularized nearly 50 years ago. John Capen Adams was born in 1812 in Medway, Massachusetts. He was the first of eight children that Eleazer and Sybil brought into the world.

His father Eleazer was a farmer and a shoemaker, which was a common combination at the time in Massachusetts. By some accounts, Adams had a distant kinship with the father-and-son U.S. presidents, John and John Quincy Adams.