In an October 1807 letter to President Thomas Jefferson that accompanied a gift of two grizzly bear cubs, Capt. Zebulon Pike wrote that the bears were of “a different species of bear from that found in the East” and that they were considered to be the “most ferocious animals of the continent.”
According to the book Jefferson and the Gun-Men: How the West Was Almost Lost, by M.R. Montgomery and Peter Gandy, Pike had purchased the two cubs from an Indian man. The bears were carried by horseback hundreds of miles to Washington.
Jefferson had already heard about grizzlies from Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. He wrote to his granddaughter: “These [bears] are too dangerous and troublesome for me to keep. I shall therefore send them to Peale’s Museum.”
Jefferson’s friend Charles Peale had opened a museum in Philadelphia to house his growing collection of natural history objects, and according to Jefferson, “[Peale was] always glad to receive living animals which are rare.” In a letter written to Peale, Jefferson described the cubs, one male and one female, as “perfectly gentle” and “quite good humored.”
Bears — Yes, Bears! — at the White House
Charles Peal accepted the offer of the bear cubs, calling it an honor. However, in the meantime they stayed for two more months at the White House, where they were kept in a cage on public view on the front lawn.
Jefferson’s political opponents jokingly referred to the president’s “bear-garden,” a term dating back to the Elizabethan-era that connotes a rough and rowdy area.
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The Two Bears Grow Up
The bears arrived at Charles Peale’s museum in late January 1808.
Peale knew from a bearskin given to him by Meriwether Lewis that grizzlies could grow to be quite large. “We hope to see them get their full growth,” he wrote to Jefferson, “and also to ascertain what they may weigh when they acquire their full size.”
The bears must have gotten too big and strong for their cage at the museum — because at some point, one of them got out and ran loose in the museum before being shot dead in a kitchen. Both bears were mounted and put on display for visitors.