Among the more striking US state flags is that of California. It features not a simple grizzly bear, as some assume, but a California golden bear, a subspecies of the brown bear that once inhabited most of the Golden State.
The California golden bear, or California grizzly (Ursus arctos californicus), disappeared in the early 20th century, a victim of development, relentless hunting and its own fearlessness.
The bear, which could grow to more than 8 feet tall and weigh more than 2,000 pounds, thrived in California’s great valleys and low mountains, and there were probably more bears in California prior to European settlement than anywhere else in what would become the United States.
Indeed, California golden bears were strikingly abundant prior to European settlement.
When Gaspar de Portolà’s Spanish expedition passed through an area near today’s Morro Bay, Calif., in 1769, a Franciscan missionary noted in his diary that the expedition saw “troops of bears (osos)” in the valley, which became known as the La Canada de los osos, or Los Osos Valley (the valley of the bears).
A few years later the inhabitants of Mission Carmel in today’s Carmel, Calif., were near starvation, so a hunting expedition was dispatched to the Los Osos Valley. Many bears were killed and several thousand pounds of bear meat was brought back, saving the people of the mission.
It’s been estimated that some 10,000 California bears inhabited the state prior to European settlement.
Much like the Native Americans who called California home, the Gold Rush that began in 1848 rang the death knell for Ursus arctos californicus.
By the late 1800s, settlers commonly shot and poisoned bears to protect their livestock.
The largest California golden bear ever killed was a 2,200-pound behemoth shot in 1866 in San Diego County.
Ultimately, the California golden bear didn’t have much chance in the rapidly changing environment of post-Gold Rush California.
“As humans began to populate California, the grizzly stood its ground, refusing to retreat in the face of advancing civilization,” according to information found on the California State Library’s website. “It killed livestock and interfered with settlers. Less than 75 years after the discovery of gold, every grizzly bear in California had been tracked down and killed.”
The last remaining California golden bear was shot in Tulare County, in the south-central part of the state, in 1922.
While the iconic flag featuring the California golden bear was adopted in 1911, Ursus arctos californicus wasn’t designated as California’s state animal until 1953.
(Above: Native Californians Lassoing a Bear, 1873. Credit: Library of Congress.)