This Legend About My Great-Great-Great
Grandfather Bears Repeating
As “The Ranch Broker,” I’ve developed an expertise of sorts wrestling bureaucrats and cutting through red tape to complete complex land sales transactions. Sometimes, by the time we close a difficult ranch sale, I am exhausted.
Yet I doubt that all of my bold strategic maneuvers and white-collar ‘bruises’ would hold a stick to the savvy and bloody wrestling my great-great-great grandfather, Prentiss Lewis Goen, did with an 8-foot tall, 1,000-pound grizzly back in March of 1850.
I heard tell of my ancestor’s epic battle with the bear since the time I was just a boy. In fact, my father, Hardy Lewis, possesses the bent, single-shot rifle that Prentiss used first to wound the bear in the face, and subsequently to club it repeatedly in mortal combat.
Only recently, as part of my project to better document the ranching and family folklore that has been passed down to me as oral tradition, have I begun to discover additional, fascinating details about Prentiss and the bear.
I’m a deep believer in the power of legacy to help us better understand our role in the world and how we got here. That applies not just to people, but to land and ranch properties that often have their own tales to tell. Capturing and sharing our legacies helps preserve the ranching culture and traditions.
Prentiss Lewis Goen, who records sometimes refer to as Gowen, or Goin, and often just “Lewis Goen,” was born on January 13, 1825; headed west in 1849 to seek gold; wrestled with the grizzly at age 25 in the California Mariposa Mountains; married Elizabeth Quinn about three years later; and had seven kids, including my great-great grandmother Florida Agnes Goen, born about 1859.
All I can say with 100% certainty is that my father keeps Prentiss’s rifle at the H.W. Lewis ranch in Leakey, which his grandfather purchased in the 1920s and remains in our family.
Some of this I know from stories my family tells; much of it comes from research I did on Ancestry.com, which I have to credit to others.
The rich, detailed story of Prentiss’s brawl with the bear comes from a 1996 newsletter published by the Gowen Research Foundation, which based its account on an 1881 story it discovered in the Cleburne (TX) Tribune.
My efforts to also find that 1881 Cleburne Tribune story, thus far, have been unsuccessful. And, as best as I can tell, whatever the Gowen Research Foundation was 21 years ago when it published this account, it’s no longer an active organization in 2017.
All I can say with 100% certainty is that my father keeps Prentiss’s rifle at the H.W. Lewis ranch in Leakey, which his grandfather purchased in the 1920s and remains in our family. Technically, the rifle belongs to my brother, but the ownership doesn’t matter as much as the thrill of being able to hold that same rifle in my hands and show it to my children 167 years after Prentiss came away from his encounter wounded, but very thankful to be alive.
The edited excerpts that follow are taken from the Gowen Research Foundation Newsletter. I can’t state for certain that the bear fight unfolded exactly as described. But I choose to believe it did.
Prentiss Goen was out deer hunting with a fellow gold digger on March 5, 1850, when he spotted a deer and chased it through a thicket.
I made a sudden halt to take a second shot at the deer when I found that I was within four feet of the largest grizzly I ever laid eyes on. He was lying in his bed, but he stood up, eight feet tall, and made right at me, with the most hideous growling that could be heard for miles.
Prentiss knew he had only one round in his rifle, so he waited until what he thought was the opportune moment, with the bear still roughly 40 feet away.
Finally I fired, but, oh my God, I missed. My ball only inflicted a slight wound in his face. At the crack of the gun, he fell to the ground and rolled over, but quickly sprang to his feet and made at me.
The bear was coming with such force that he passed on over me and fell in a tree top and broke the trunk of the tree which was at least nine inches in diameter. I was knocked almost senseless…
The young deer-hunter knew he was facing a life-or-death struggle and made up his mind to give the bear the fight of its life.
As the grizzly moved in for the kill, I clubbed my gun and let him have it with all my strength over the head, and this I repeated over and over from time to time, but never could knock him down. I think he weighed at least a thousand pounds, but I tell you he could handle himself with the agility of a cat.
In the ensuing fight, Prentiss lost his grip on the rifle and took to pounding the angry bear with a rock. For a moment, the bear was dazed, and Prentiss took off running. He’d only gotten about 30 feet when the bear caught him.
In his effort to catch me around the neck, one of his tusks struck my left shoulder, went through my coat and two shirts, inflicting a wound on my neck, threw me to the ground and broke my right hand. The bear was coming with such force that he passed on over me and fell in a tree top and broke the trunk of the tree which was at least nine inches in diameter. I was knocked almost senseless…
To escape, Prentiss tried rolling down the mountain, but once again the bear caught up to him.
I had only got a short distance from which I had tried to roll down the mountain when I fell to my knees, and the bear lit just a few feet from me. Then I gave it up. I was completely exhausted. I threw my hands up and gave a faint scream as I threw a little stone in his face.
Amazingly, just when Prentiss has given up all hope, the bear starred him straight in the face, pitched one ear forward, and then ran off – ascending the mountain.
So ends the account of my combat with the grizzly bear. It was my first and thank God my last.
The rifle used by Prentiss in his fight with the grizzly was a blue steel barreled single shot rifle. The scars and scratches made by the teeth of the bear are still plainly visible on the gun.
Prentiss Lewis Goen spent five years digging for gold in California and enjoyed enough success to depart with a “mule load” of nuggets. He eventually relocated to Texas, where he remained until his death in February 1880, at age 58. He is buried beside his wife in Grandview Cemetery.
Family history is part of our legacy. Be sure to hold onto yours.