THE TRAGEDY IN HAMLIN’S CANYON
On a certain day in June, 1867, a man trudged his weary way over the Donner Summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, en route to any place that would assure him of work during the ensuing summer and autumn.
Down the almost cliff like eastern side of the Pass wound the road made by emigrants of the “forties” to Donner Lake, and noted as the place where perished, by starvation, the major portion of the celebrated Donner party, during the winter of ’46 and ’47, and immortalized by C. F. McGlashen in his “History of the Donner Party,” past this most beautiful of all lakes and on to the then bustling town of Truckee, California.
Samuel Berry was a quiet man of studious habits, and was seldom seen alone without a book, magazine or newspaper in his hand. He was from the north of Ireland, of Scottish parentage, and came to America in his early youth. He was, at the time we are introducing him, about thirty years of age.
While in the reading room of the Truckee Hotel, he learned of the great Sierra Valley thirty miles to the north, as the most likely locality for a farm hand to secure permanent employment. The next evening found him in the little town of Sierraville. The day following, Abram D. Church of Church’s Corner (now Sattley), desiring a helping hand, drove into town from his ranch four miles away.
He met our traveling friend and secured his services for the summer and autumn’s labor.
Sam’s ability so commended itself to Mr. Church, that, when the season’s work was over, he exacted a promise from him to return the following spring. This he did, and for several seasons faithfully served the three Church brothers in their farming operations. During this time, he formed the acquaintance of Joseph and Sanford Morrison and George Pettingill, all farm-hands from the state of Maine.
Finally, Mr. Berry, or Sam, as we shall now call him, became so enamored with the country, that he decided to make Sierra Valley his future home. He located, for a time, on what was afterward known as the Hapgood place between Sierra and Mohawk valleys but soon gave up this location and rented the old Ewer place near where Hamlin’s Canyon debouches into Sierra Valley, with the intention of making it his future home.
There being, at this time, so many small fur-bearing animals, pine marten (American sable), mink, otter, foxes, coyotes and even lynxes in the many ramifications of this broad but deep and gloomy canyon, it occurred to Sam to trap for these animals during the long dreary winter months. This he did with good results during his first winter’s stay in the new home.
Sometime during the next summer, while grouse hunting in the canyon’s vastness, Sam suddenly came across the fresh tracks of an immense grizzly bear. Being armed only with a shotgun, he wisely decided to take the back track. The tracks led back to a point near an old log cabin where he found the carcass of a young heifer upon which his bearship had been feeding. He inspected the cabin, and found it to be poor protection against an infuriated grizzly. However, he decided to secure a rifle and lay in wait for the bear. After nearly a week’s waiting, his vigil was at length rewarded, but the bear was of such enormous size, the night so intensely dark and the cabin at such a distance from the target, he dared not attempt a shot at this time. The bear failed to put in an appearance after this.
For company’s sake, Sam shared his home with Sanford Morrison during the winter of ’74 and ’75. Early in the morning of November 29, 1874, Sam shouldered his skis and pole and entered the depths of Hamlin’s Canyon to collect the trapped animals and to reset and rebait the traps. That afternoon he failed to return at the usual hour. Morrison, at the time, thought nothing of this, as snow to a depth of four or five feet had lately fallen in the upper reaches of the canyon, necessitating very slow traveling even on skis. But, as nine, ten, eleven and finally twelve o’clock passed and still no welcome footstep, Sanford became thoroughly alarmed. Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, he entered the canyon in an attempt to solve the puzzling absence. He was of the opinion that Sam had become disabled by falling or by having been thrown from his swiftly running skis. After a fruitless, all day search through the deep snow, and with another storm threatening, he hastened to the Corner and sounded the alarm. He was able, on the second day of the search, to gather, at most, but about twelve or fourteen men. With six inches of new snow as an additional hamper to their operations, these men searched as thoroughly as was possible under the circumstances, but to no purpose. The whole community being now thoroughly aroused, the third day of the search found more than two hundred men floundering through the deep snow in every part of the canyon. All were armed, for the signal, if Berry was found, was to be three shots.
It happened, during the afternoon that George Pettingill, Abram D. Church and Frank Rowland met far up in the upper reaches of the canyon, and while resting, Pettingill mentioned the fact that he had discovered what he believed to be bear tracks further down the canyon, and that if they were bear tracks, he was a monster. Mr. Rowland suggested that they examine the tracks, so the three retraced Pettingill’s steps down the canyon to the point where he had made the discovery. After clearing one of the deep depressions of its accumulated snow, the imprint of a bear’s foot and claws was plainly to be seen. The bear was evidently making his way down the canyon. A suspicion came into their minds that perhaps the tracks might lead to a solving of the disappearance. Tired as they were, they decided to trace the track back up the canyon. They met with some difficulty in following the tracks, as, in many places, they were all but obliterated by masses of snow falling from the windblown trees of the dense pine forest that clothes this portion of the canyon. They were but a short distance away from and within sight of what proved to be the death scene, when they saw Isaac S. Church and H. F. Turner in the canyon above them.
By this time many had become exhausted by the heavy traveling and had given up the search for the day and were leaving the canyon, when, from far up in the dark recesses of the gloomy canyon, came the boom, boom, boom, of a distant shotgun. Isaac S. Church and H. F. Turner, who had been searching together during the day, in passing by an immense, dead and burned out pine, stumbled over Sam’s skis and pole. They shouted to the party toiling up the canyon and in a few moments Pettingill, having a shotgun, fired the signal that the search was over.
They examined the tree and found that it had been the winter home of a large grizzly bear. A few steps down the mountainside, blood began to stain the snow. Fifty feet down the canyon, in a grove of small fir trees, the body lay, torn and mangled beyond recognition. Soon, grim visage mountaineers began to assemble, and preparations for removing the body were quickly made by lashing it to a small fir sapling. Four men, working in relays, then shouldered the burden, and poor Sam was borne to the home he was destined never again to enter alive.
Isaac S. Church, and others, in commenting on what probably occurred at the time of the tragedy, believed that the bear, when he sprang from his den, would have run away, had he not been confronted by two large trees that had fallen across each other immediately in front of his den. He sprang directly into this V shaped trap and could go no further in this direction. He evidently saw Sam running and started in pursuit. Sam ran too and leaped over one of the fallen trees, and, as he did so, must have fallen, and before he could again regain his feet, the bear was upon him, striking him first in the back, tearing off his coat, vest, shirts and flesh from neck to waist, laying bare the ribs. Then the one-sided struggle began. In order to protect his face, Sam, to all appearances, had attempted to ward off the fierce onslaughts of the bear by using his bare hands, as the hands and fingers were broken, mangled and torn to shreds. After struggling into the grove of small fir saplings, Sam had grasped one of them with his mangled hands, and then around and around the tree they struggled until Sam sank, probably unconscious. The bear had then clawed and torn him into an unrecognizable mass. So fierce and sudden had been the bear’s onslaught, that Sam had no opportunity to draw a weapon, as his knife and hatchet were still in their scabbards attached to his belt.
The next day Bill Gogle and Doc Sargant, two hunters and trappers of those days, who lived in Sierraville, took the bear’s track and followed it back to Weber Lake, but did not overtake him. It was supposed to be the bear called “Old Club-Foot.” Club-Foot was a grizzly bear that had been caught in a steel trap, and lost two or three toes. He was killed in Shasta County some years later, and weighed over sixteen hundred pounds, and of the men who were on the hunt, Lafe Blatchley, of Sierraville, Henry Quigley of Downieville, Sierra County Clerk, Alfred Garfield of Sattley and Levi Garfield of Golconda, Nevada, are at this writing the only men living that took part in the hunt. At that time they were young men from sixteen to eighteen years of age. C. G. Church, of Loyalton, will vouch for every word of this being a true story, as he has heard his father tell it many times and remembers the day it happened, being eleven years of age. – (Written by Obadiah Sattley Church)
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
Source: Wooldridge, J.W.Major History of Sacramento Valley California, Vol. 3 Pages 308-311. Pioneer Historical Publishing Co. Chicago 1931.
© 2010 Gerald Iaquinta.