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Bulls vs. Bears

08/30/2010 05:00PM ● Published by Style

Citizens of early Gold Rush California looked forward to some free time when they could seek diversion from the business of gold mining, keeping the store, or serving hungry, thirsty and weary travelers.

Entertainment was scarce, to say the least, but the people in communities throughout the Mother Lode managed to amuse themselves.

One of the clear favorite leisure-time activities was the bull and bear fight. Many mining camps played host to the gruesome event at least once during its brief popularity. Like monte, the cultural tradition of the bull and bear fight originated in Mexico. The Sierra Nevada foothills proved particularly suited to the “blood sport” because of the availability of grizzly, brown, and black bears, and their location within trading distance of valley ranchers.

Eager citizens along the Georgetown Divide placed their bets at the circular arena located on the east side of Georgetown. Hangtown (Placerville) crowds swarmed the showground atop Circus Hill, later McCormick’s Hill, north of today’s Highway 50 between Conrad and Spring Street. The probable builder of Hangtown’s fighting ring, Ben Nickerson, apparently made a good stake from the arena, for he soon opened the largest gambling den in Hangtown – the enormous, canvas-topped Trio Hall.

While practices varied from camp to camp, proprietors generally roped or chained bears to a post in the middle of the ring and gave it 10 to 20 feet of slack with which to maneuver. Sometimes bulls were similarly restrained, and some managers sawed off the tips of the bull’s horns. Spectators gasped, whooped and shouted as the fight began, often with a charge by the bull that was met by a snout-crushing chomp of the bear’s teeth. The bulls were the real crowd pleasers, however, and men and women alike reveled in their daring determination.

Easy to obtain and prone to kick, donkeys became another favored contestant in these fights. The “Champion Jackass of California,” claimed to have whipped a bull in Sonora and another in San Andreas – once appearing in Hangtown where he knocked out a mountain lion.

Public agitation eventually put an end to the bloody sport; but, initial efforts to shut down the arenas did not necessarily meet with unanimity. In January 1855, for example, citizens in Georgetown expressed their concern over the problem as evidenced in this amusing ad printed in the Georgetown News:

On last Saturday and Sunday a Bull Fight came off at an amphitheater constructed for the purpose in the suburbs of Georgetown. Upon the transaction of such occurrences among us, and especially on the Sabbath, many of our influential citizens have plainly expressed to us their disgust upon the recurrence of such scenes. Now in reference to this we can only say: Should they be disgusting to you, your only available resource for protection from them, is to withhold your patronage. We cannot do the work ourself, it being to the people . . .

P.S. Another of these beastly fights will come off next Sunday, providing the weather is favorable.

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