The story turns to Griz

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Barney Pettyjohn and family in front of a train at Dulce. The Pettyjohns later moved to Pagosa Springs, where they engaged in a variety of businesses. They later moved to Texas.

Fur trappers and mountain men entered Pagosa Country starting in the early 1820s. By the end of the 1830s, beaver trapping as a major industry had pretty much ended, largely because “gentlemen” in the USA and Europe had quit wearing beaver hats. It was also true that most of the beaver in the Far West, including Pagosa Country, had been trapped out.
Consequently, mountain men were looking around for other things to do. When nothing else to do was available, mountain men were great storytellers. And because grizzly bears were an ever-present danger, their story subject always turned to “Griz.”
Most history buffs know the Southern or Taos trappers worked the San Juan Country.
And so, today’s story begins in Taos, N.M.
It seems a passel of trapper storytellers were chug-a-lugging Taos lightning and telling stories to pass the time of day. Many history buffs might not know that Taos lightning was an especially spicy brand of whiskey created by trapper Peg-Leg Smith in 1827. Another trapper, Simeon Turley, took over the brand in the 1830s and sold the brew, also known as aguardiente (fire water), until he died in 1847. I don’t think there was a coroner’s report on the cause of his death because such a report would have been unnecessary. Why? Because all mountain man died of natural causes, i.e. rowdy horses, unforgiving wives, grizzly bear maulings, buffalo gorings, poison arrow penetrations, falling off cliffs, a variety of untreated infections and overindulging in such mysterious concoctions as Taos lightning.
After the storytelling indulgence almost surpassed the grog-guzzling indulgence, the storytelling baton was passed to Frenchy Grenouille — about half the trappers were of French origin. Grenouille focused on an adventure he’d had while trapping in the “San Jean Mountains.” It seems he was following this trail that got narrower and narrower as it circled higher and higher around South River Peak. Looking up was as steep and eye-boggling as looking down.
Finally, Grenouille reported to his trapper amigos in a slow whisper, “La Vache monsieurs! I stretched my neck out to look around a sharp curve and, sacre bleu, I stuck my head plumb down the gullet of the biggest ol’ Griz I ever seed. I was his entrée!”
Then Grenouille closed his mouth, stretched out his arms with hands clasped together and popped his knuckles, and stared silently at his moccasin-clad feet.
The silence reverberated around the room for a few minutes as the suddenly sober mountain men gathered in a ring around Grenouille for more. Finally, one of the beaver-faced trappers cleared his throat and demanded of the patiently waiting Frenchman, “Hurry up! We can’t wait any longer! What happened?”
Grenouille’s reply was measured, slow and sorrowful. “He ate me.”
Next week we’ll return to southeastern Archuleta County, where pioneer Will Price told of his personal encounters with Old Griz.

This story was posted on September 11, 2018.