If you love Adirondack legend and lore, you’ll love this gem of a poem that first appeared in 1846. Since then it has appeared in print several times, often with revisions, and with the removal of certain stanzas. It’s the exciting story of a man-versus-bear encounter. The man was Anson Allen, whose colorful past included a fifteen-year stint as owner/editor of the Keeseville Herald, the village’s first newspaper. After moving to Westport in the early 1840s, he edited the Essex Co. Times and Westport Herald for four years.
He later published a monthly titled The Old Settler, covering stories and reminiscences from the region’s earliest history. The paper literally defined him, for Allen became known widely as “the old settler.”
In 1840, he was appointed census-taker for Essex County, and was soon traipsing about the countryside and the Adirondack wilds, counting heads. One family he encountered – a mother bear and cubs – caused quite a ruckus, leaving Allen with a story to tell, which he often did. Six years later, it was immortalized in print by an anonymous poet.
The Bear Story
Of all the wonders of the day,
There’s one that I can safely say
Should stand upon the rolls of fame,
To let all know bold Allen’s name;
The greatest sight that e’er was seen,
Was “Allen’s bear fight” up in Keene.
In eighteen forty, as I’ve heard,
To take the census, off he steered;
Through bush and woods, for little gains,
He walked from Keene to Abram’s plains;
But naught of this, it is not well,
His secret motives thus to tell.
As through the woods he trudged his way,
His mind unruffled as the day;
He heard a deep, convulsive sound,
That shook the earth and trees around;
And looking up with dread amaze,
An old she bear there met his gaze.
The bear with threat’ning aspect stood,
To prove her title to the wood;
This, Allen saw—with a dark frown
He reach’d and pull’d a young tree down;
Then on his guard with cautious care,
He watched the movements of the bear.
With upward gaze and longing heart,
He asked the Lord to take his part;
For aid he called in anguish deep,
In wails that woke the woods from sleep;
“Oh, God,” he cried in deep despair,
“If you don’t help me, don’t help the bear!”
Although not noted for his zeal,
The approach of death soon made him feel,
To escape the fight with two whole eyes,
He claimed protection from the skies,
Affairs above being thus set right,
He bared himself to the fight.
Into her mouth he drove the stick,
That touch’d the old bear to the quick;
’Twas hard to tell, I do declare,
The cubs from Allen or the bear;
’Twas rough-and-tumble, tit for tat,—
The nut-cakes fell from his old hat.
Against the rock with giant strength,
He held her out at his arm’s length;
Then from his pocket, forth he drew,
A large jack knife for her to view;
He raised his arm high in the air,
And butcher-like, he killed the bear.
Let old men talk of courage bold,
Or battles fought in days of old,
Or courage tried in these dark nights,
Of horrid ghosts, or other sights,
Ten times as bad, but none, I ween,
Can match the bear fight up in Keene.
Photo: Sketch from painting of Allen-vs.-bear encounter
Thank you for publishing the full poem. I had heard snippets of the poem before but I could never find the entire verse at my local libeary.
Interesting, your version is an expanded version from the one published by Paul Jamieson in “The Adirondack Reader”. Maybe this has become a “folk poem” where anyone can add or subtract to the content. I have memorized the Jamieson version for occasional camp fire recitations; but I don’t think I’ll try to memorize your version – the shorter version seems to work just as well.
The version I used was the first to appear in print. Yes, it appeared in many forms over the years, often shortened by newspapers, perhaps because they thought the shorter version sounded better. One early version even added a stanza at the end as an advertisement. It’s also attributed to “anonymous,” but there’s evidence suggesting that the author of the poem was Allen himself.
I once heard something about this poem. But I am reading it for the first time. I really liked this version.
Hi, Lawrence. I love that poem, and am glad to see it in the Almanack. I first heard it from Marjorie Lansing Porter when we worked together in 1953 or’54. I’m always pleased to see your historical writings, and look forward to them.
Thanks for sharing, Larry!
I ‘felt’ as if I was in the fight!
An interesting corollary to this poem is the question as to where the the bear fight actually occurred. Donaldson has it happening on the “Tight Nipping Road,” which supposedly went from Keene to North Elba via Railroad Notch between Cascade and the Brothers (and very close to my beloved Lost Brook Tract!). Legendary Lake Placid Historian Mary MacKenzie pretty much debunked that story – and the road along with it – in a letter to James Bailey. She has the encounter occurring on the Old Mountain Road, somewhere along Tony Goodwin’s beloved Jackrabbit Ski Trail. Journalist and occasional Almanack contributor Lee Manchester compiled MacKenzie’s writings, which are available here, including that letter: Mary MacKenzie Project.
For me, the poem’s setting and most dramatic one I can envision, has always seemed to be at the height of land on the Old Mountain Road where it crosses a southern hillside shelf of the Sentinels and looks across at the rocky ramparts and cliffs of Pitchoff, with the beaver pond below.
Thanks Ann, Terry, and everyone else. I’m just now catching up with the comments after days and days of hectic book sales (the new one has gone wild). I appreciate everyone contributing, so thank you all again.