The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

Court Hall Remembers . . .

Wash Obenchain vs. the Grizzly

Court Hall Remembers---
(Recollections of Jackson County Sporting Events by Veteran Sportsman.)

    In the year 1875 three brothers by the name of Obenchain lived on the summit of what is now known as the Obenchain Mountain, a sub-range of the Cascades. Their first names were John, Mat and Wash. They were of the hardy pioneer stock of the early days. They settled on the mountain that bears their name for the purpose of raising cattle and enjoying the great outdoor life that was to be had in those days. At that time the old government road passed their ranch, thence on by way of Rancherie and crossed over the Cascades just north of Mt. Pitt and on to Fort Klamath. Soon after the Modoc War the road from Mt. Pitt east was neglected and soon grew up with underbrush and filled with small fallen pines. This made the road impassable for traveling, even on horseback.
    Speaking of the government road recalls an incident to my mind which I will digress long enough from my main story to relate. In the late '80s while my cousin and I were caring for the stock on Rancherie three Indian maidens ran off from the Indian school at Fort Klamath. They headed for Rogue River Valley on foot, by way of Mt. Pitt. After numerous hardships they reached Rancherie one evening just as my cousin and I were about to eat, their clothing being literally in shreds and barely hanging to their bodies. A drizzling rain had chilled the girls until they were almost exhausted. We built a roaring fire and encased the girls in big warm coats. In less than an hour they had recovered sufficiently to enjoy hot coffee and venison steak dinner. They talked very good English and said they were tired of school and wanted to see the world. We had decided to take the girls on to Jacksonville the next morning, but two Indian policemen with extra horses were on the girls' trail and arrived at Rancherie just as the maidens had finished their dinner. We gave our beds over to the girls and furnished quarters for the policemen in the haymow with us. Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, the Indian maidens with their police escort departed for Fort Klamath and were never again heard from by us.
    Again to my main story. The Obenchain boys were far and wide noted for their kind hospitality; no weary traveler ever left their domicile hungry. In the middle eighties I frequently passed by the Obenchain ranch. Mat Obenchain, who had lost an arm from an attack by one of his own vicious bear dogs, always gave me a hearty welcome. And here is the story he told me of the great bear fight that almost killed his brother Wash, which story was refreshed in my memory by Bud Obenchain of Butte Falls. On a warm July day in 1875 the three Obenchain brothers, with three big savage bear dogs, went over to Eighty Acre Prairie to look after some stock. Wash had gotten ahead of his two brothers and [was] accompanied by one of the dogs, when he suddenly run onto a huge old grizzly that had just killed a two-year-old steer. The grizzly, not wanting to be disturbed from such a dainty repast, immediately showed fight. Wash had an old-fashioned one-barrel shotgun loaded with fine birdshot. He immediately let fly, but the birdshot only infuriated the old grizzly to such a degree that he tore great strips of bark off a pine tree that could be seen for many years afterwards. The grizzly, standing on his hind legs, was tackled by the dog. The old bear kept turning around and around as the dog tried to tackle him in the rear. Finally the old grizzly got a good swipe at the dog and knocked him twenty feet. Wash, thinking to attract the bear's attention from the dog and also give his brothers Mat and John time to get there, spurred his horse and made a dash to go past the bear. Wash got a little closer to the old grizzly than he intended, which the old fellow took advantage of by giving the horse a swipe and badly lacerating its hip. Hurt and frightened, the horse dashed between two saplings which dragged Wash off the horse to the ground. While Wash was still down the old grizzly grabbed his arm and crushed it like a cinder. There was a big log near that Wash tried to crawl over. Three times he got on this log only to be dragged back again by the grizzly. During this struggle the old bear, with his wide-open jaws, had crushed Wash's right thigh. As the old grizzly stood gloating over his victim, Wash managed to cry out: "Hurry boys, hurry!" Mat, with a muzzle-loading rifle, ran up to within ten feet of the bear; only one shot to save his brother's life. Would he be equal to the occasion? Cool and collected, with all his iron nerve in reserve, Mat, without hurrying, took careful aim and fired, shooting the old grizzly just behind the left shoulder. The bullet pierced the old fellow's heart and over he fell, dead. Wash was suffering great pain and begged his brothers to kill him to end his agony. Mat and John managed to get Wash on a horse and by holding him on finally reached home. Then a thirty-mile ride to Jacksonville after Dr. Aiken, who after many trips managed to pull brave old Wash through again. As strong and hardy a man as Wash was, he never forgot the horror of this bear fight. All the rest of his life Wash at times would cry out in his sleep, "Hurry boys, hurry." Many times he suffered the conflict with the old grizzly over and over again. It is not often that one single shot will kill a grizzly.
    Dear readers, imagine yourself in Mat Obenchain's position, trying to save a brother, by one shot, who was being mangled by a grizzly. Nine out of ten men would have tried to shoot the old grizzly in the head, but Mat Obenchain, with his calmness and cunning, knew if he shot the bear's head there was a chance for the bullet to glance off. With only one shot he took the only safe way. Two days after the killing of the grizzly Mat and John visited the scene of the battle. Streams of fat, melted by the hot sun, had oozed from the bear's body and run down the mountainside. This grizzly measured sixteen inches from ear to ear.
Medford Mail Tribune, April 13, 1930, page 6   For a contemporary, less heroic, version, click here.

Last revised October 11, 2020