The great Puslinch Township bear hunt of 1853

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

My previous columns outlining incidents with bears, wolves and wildcats have been popular with readers, invariably provoking calls and correspondence.

This week, I will return to the subject again, to mark the 150th anniversary of a memorable bear hunt in Puslinch Township (note: it is now 163 years ago).

Although Puslinch was one of the first townships of Wellington County to be settled, it retained a frontier atmosphere for decades due to the many swampy areas that proved difficult to clear and drain. These swamps became refuges for wildlife of various sorts.

Largest of the marshy areas was the vast Beverley Swamp. It barely touched Puslinch on the west and south, but it was so large and difficult to traverse that fleeing criminals, and even draft dodgers in the First World War, found it a haven from their pursuers.

Through the 19th century, bears and wildcats emerged occasionally from the Beverley Swamp.

The bear that is the subject of this week’s story resided not in the Beverley, but in a smaller swampy area, part of which still exists, to the northwest of Aberfoyle.

John Cockburn spotted a bruin prowling around his homestead early in the first week of January 1853. He grabbed a musket and gave chase, but soon lost the bear in the swamp to the south of his property. Cockburn was 56 at the time. He was slowing down a little, and he realized it would be foolish to chase the bear through a half-frozen swamp at night.

Cockburn was reeve of Puslinch at the time, and one of the old settlers of the township. He had been in Puslinch since 1834, when he arrived with his wife Janet and the first four of what eventually became a family of nine children. With the help of his sons he had established a very successful farming operation. Eventually he acquired 600 acres of land, consisting of parts of lots 17, 18 and 19, Concession 8 of Puslinch, not far from Aberfoyle.

Cockburn’s neighbour to the west, Richard Ellis, had a reputation as a bear hunter following a spectacular incident some years before. Ellis had pursued and wounded a bear, which then turned on him. Ellis swung his single-shot musket at the bear’s head. It smashed to pieces, and only enraged the animal further. As a couple of spectators looked on, frozen in horror, Ellis wrestled with the bear, then managed to pull out his hunting knife and stab the beast in the throat.

The triumph of Richard Ellis was all the more remarkable because he had only one hand. A millwright by trade, Ellis lost his hand in an accident.

On Jan. 8, the Saturday following Cockburn’s initial encounter, Ellis organized a hunting party, which spent four hours tramping through the swamp. As it was getting dark, one of the men spotted the bear about 100 feet away. He fired his musket, but apparently missed. The bear retreated farther into the wilderness. Ellis and his party decided to call it a day.

A few minutes later, Ellis thought he spotted the bear, and immediately fired a shot. On examination, he found that he had hit a log, neatly and squarely.

The failure to bag the bear only made Dick Ellis more determined. After all, he had a reputation to maintain as the leading bear hunter of the township. Two days later he assembled another party, numbering about ten, all young men excited about the adventure.

Early in the morning they set out for the swamp, armed with muskets and accompanied by the best tracking dogs in Puslinch.

Ellis was certain that he knew the area where the bear had its den. He divided his party, picketing pairs of men on four sides of the swamp. With the remaining two, he entered the swamp to flush out the bear. He carried an ox bell to frighten the bear, and to alert the four teams as to his whereabouts in the swamp.

Ellis had good instincts. He correctly located the bear’s den, and soon had it scurrying around the swamp. Soon it came dashing out of the swamp at full speed, almost face-to-face with one of the teams of guards, consisting of Tom Cockburn, son of the reeve, and Tom Ellis, Dick’s own son.

Both men fired. Both musket balls met their mark, bringing the bear to the ground. Tom Cockburn reloaded and finished off the bear with a third shot.

By this time, Dick Ellis had emerged from the swamp. The men fired signal shots to alert the other teams. The reassembled squad tied the dead bear to a couple of poles. Six of them raised the bear to their shoulders, and carried the beast to the Cockburn residence.

John Cockburn expressed delight at the quick success of the mission, while Janet Cockburn bustled about the kitchen, preparing an ample lunch for the men. They spent the rest of the afternoon celebrating.

The bear measured just shy of eight feet in length. The forelegs were “equal to any ordinary man’s leg,” according to one report of the escapade. Otherwise, though, the bear was thin and emaciated, suffering either from a lack of adequate food or some disease.

The next day, Cockburn sent the carcass to the Hamilton market, where Duff the Butcher purchased it for $12, an amount equal to about 75 times as much today. Duff apologized for the low price, stating that the quantity of fat on the animal was below what normally would be found on a bear of that size.

Both the bear hides and bear fat found ready markets in the 1850s. The fat was an ingredient of various patent medicines, in making soaps, and was also used in hair tonics. A few tanners used it in their processes. Another major use was as a leather preservative. When mixed with beeswax, bear fat acted as a very effective waterproofing compound for shoes and boots.

It is easy to forget that settlers shot bears not only because they presented a danger to themselves and to livestock. A bear could provide a substantial cash injection to the household budget.

The 1853 bear hunt was one of the most publicized occurrences of its type in the history of the county, and it confirmed the reputation of Richard Ellis as the champion bear hunter of Puslinch, if not all of Wellington.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 17, 2003.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015