Monday, August 19, 2013

The White Grizzly of Missouri

I received the comment below from a blog reader, responding to last November's blog, Grizzly Bear in Missouri?  It concerns the presence of grizzly bears on the Missouri state seal.  This began an intriguing chase. 
"When I was a kid I heard a story of how the white grizzly bear was used on the state flag because of sightings during that era. Well a question of white grizzlies in MO was brought up today and I said it was true hardly remembering that story. Now trying to find info on the truth of it seems difficult. I was wondering if you could help me with this. Have you ever heard of white grizzlies in MO? Thanks, Andrew on Grizzly Bear in Missouri?"
Was there a documented white grizzly in Missouri history?  Why did it get called a "white grizzly" when they are brown on the seal?  And just why was there any grizzly on the state flag and seal?

The Centennial History of Missouri (1921) p. 195 has the following:
"the specifications for the great seal, as adopted by the legislature in January, 1822, are mystifying to the average democratic American but a delight to the students of heraldry."  It goes on to describe it in the flowery technical language of heraldry.  "Arms - parted per pale; on the dexter side, gules, the white or grizzly bear of Missouri, passant, guardant, proper;" *
It continues to interpret its supposed meaning.
"Quadrupeds are the most honorable bearing.  The great grizzly bear being almost peculiar to the Missouri river and its tributaries, and remarkable for its prodigious size, strength and courage, is borne as the principal charge of our shield."
It appears that the term "white or grizzly bear" was only meant to differentiate it from our black bear.  However, this name wasn't unique as it was mentioned in Lewis and Clark's expedition journals.  Bears encountered during the Lewis and Clark Expedition reports their descriptions of the common black bear in what is now Missouri.  They then encountered the "cinnamon bear."
"The classification of the cinnamon bear as a separate species is still a matter of doubt today, as it was for the expedition. Lewis and Clark were puzzled by the different-colored fur of this animal, calling it variously a brown bear or a reddish brown black bear. They knew of the variations of color in black bears brought about by age, moulting, and other factors, but so many differences in color confused them. According to the Nez Perce Indians, Lewis wrote, "the uniform redish [sic] brown black bear etc. are a speceis [sic] distinct from our black bear and from the black bear of the Pacific coast." During their return journey the party killed several cinnamon bears in May and June 1806 along the Clearwater River.
Long regarded as a subspecies of the black bear, the cinnamon bear was classified as a separate species (Ursus cinnamomeus) in 1893, then reclassified again as a subspecies, and then relabeled again as a full member of the black-bear family. Its current status is that of a subspecies (Ursus americanus cinnamomum)."
The expedition's journals called grizzly bears by different names at different times- "white yellow or grizzly bear - probably based on the fur color of the animal encountered."  The first mention of the grizzly in the expedition's journals is Lewis's note of September 1, 1804, when they were near Bon Homme Island, near the current Nebraska-South Dakota border.
"This clift [cliff] is called White Bear Clift, one of those animals having been killed in a whole in it." Tracks of a "white bear" were seen at the mouth of the Moreau River on October 7, 1804, but the first to be encountered was on October 20, 1804, near the mouth of the Heart River. Here William Clark recorded that the hunters wounded a white bear, whose tracks were "3 times as large as a man's tracks." 
Grizzly bears occurred in Missouri in the post glacial period, and within historical times in Western Missouri. ***  So is there a white grizzly?  The bears on the Missouri state seal are brown, equipped with the typical grizzly hump and a bit of a middle aged spread.  Aside from one report of a possible albino grizzly, there doesn't seem to be a white grizzly as such.


*    The Centennial History of Missouri is available as an eBook on line for free.
**  The remaining quotes are from the  Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition .

***  Wikipedia
8-29-2013  cbc.ca/news describes the 5th known occurrence of a grizzly bear eating a black bear. 

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