PEI

There were bears on P.E.I. in the Bygone Days

Did you know there were once black bears on P.E.I., along with deer, wildcats and other long-gone wildlife? 

The last bear on P.E.I. is thought to have been killed by the Leslie family from Souris Line Road

Black bears were not uncommon on P.E.I. until the 1900s. (CBC)

Did you know there were once black bears on P.E.I., along with deer, wildcats and other long-gone wildlife? 

People used to tell stories of being chased by bears. One such chase happened to some students in Meadowbank, P.E.I., while cutting through the woods to get to school — they threw down their lunches and the bear left them alone.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Deadly encounters 

A woman named Banks, who came to P.E.I. in 1775 aboard the ship Lovely Nelly, was eaten by a bear as she walked through the woods between Georgetown and Mount Stewart.

And a little girl from the Mutch family was killed by a bear in Mount Herbert, where a large birch tree marked the spot in the middle of a field until just last year when it finally fell down.  

Samuel Hutchinson was a Jesuit priest in Glasgow, Scotland, who came to P.E.I. in 1790 with Father Angus MacEachern, who later became a much-beloved bishop. 

On the voyage, Hutchinson fell in love with Elizabeth Wilder, gave up the priesthood and they married in 1792. Several years later, Hutchinson was hauling logs with an ox when he was attacked by a bear.

His dog fought the bear but was killed, then the bear killed Hutchinson, who is buried in the community of Southport in Stratford, P.E.I. Elizabeth later ran a tavern in Charlottetown and in 1855 their son, Robert Hutchinson, became the first mayor of Charlottetown.

Robert Hutchinson was the first mayor of Charlottetown. His father Samuel was killed by a bear on P.E.I. (City of Charlottetown Archives)

Rev. Donald Nicholson was born in 1906, an old-fashioned Presbyterian minister who preached all over the Island — Hartsville, South Granville, Belfast — he learned Gaelic from his great-grandparents who were first-generation immigrants from Scotland.

"They had bears not that long ago. There was a MacDonald man, his people were in Nine Mile Creek, they were called 'bear MacDonalds,'" Nicholson recalled. 

"Evidently the grandfather met a bear in the woods and he killed the bear with a stick and ever afterwards he was referred to as bear MacDonald. All the descendants, in order to clarify which family they belonged to, it was the bear MacDonalds," Nicholson said.       

'Bears were quite a problem'

And bear meat was in demand. In 1832 an advertisement appeared in the British American newspaper on the Island: P.E.I.'s first hairdresser James Roue "dresser, peruquizer, perfumer and ornamental hair cutter" — also grinds razors & knives, and "will purchase bear meat if delivered sweet."

A dancing bear with trainers and onlookers in Charlottetown circa 1894. (PARO)

Lots of folks would have been able to supply Roue with bear meat, like Gordon Dockendorff.
                
"The bears were quite a problem at that time, they used to kill livestock, chickens. So some of the neighbours got together and they built a platform up in a spruce tree where they could go up and wait at night for the bear to come, and they'd shoot him. But they got a little nervous and they took off before daybreak came — they never saw the bear yet," Dockendorff said. 

Dockendorff's ancestors came to P.E.I. in 1784 as United Empire Loyalists and settled on the tip of York Point across the harbour from Charlottetown. Everyone west of Charlottetown travelled through the Dockendorf farm when crossing over the ice to Charlottetown — they just called it "the shortcut through Dockendorff's farm."

"When we were kids we used to hear about the bear who broke into the farm compound and the old dog — every time the bear tried to jump over the fence the dog would grab him by the tail and pull him back. I think he got away — the men got a gun and shot at him but I don't think they wanted to kill him, or they weren't very good shots."

'Cleaned up all the bears '

John Robertson's wife died young and left him with 14 children to raise alone in Kingsboro, P.E.I. One of those children was Robbie Robertson, born in 1904. He told Dutch his father fished cod and hake off Souris, and even worked on a Grand Banks schooner out of Gloucester, Mass., as a doryman. Fish was cheap and money was scarce and he did whatever he could to put food on the table.

Rev. Donald Nicholson recalled neighbours called the 'bear MacDonalds' because one of their family members was famous for having killed a bear with a stick. (Dutch Thompson)

"My father cleaned up all the bears on the Island. He was christened 'Johnny Jim the bear killer,'" said Robertson, who said his father killed at least 14 bears on P.E.I.

"My father was a great hunter alright. He always carried a gun with him. The main thing was, they'd kill sheep," he said. "When they'd find a [sheep] carcass, they'd get my father. He'd climb a tree at night and wait for the bear to come, shoot the bear ... there was quite a trick to it."   

Robertson recalled his father making different sizes of lead shot for different animals including ducks, geese, and partridge. The shot for the bear was half an inch across, he said.

If you missed, the old muzzle-loading shotguns took forever to reload and there was no guarantee the bear would wait. Eventually Robertson bought a rifle from Holman's department store in Charlottetown.

R.T. Holman's store in Summerside, P.E.I., circa 1900, where 'Johnny Jim the bear-killer' Robertson bought a rifle. (PARO)

Last bear?

The last bear on P.E.I. was killed by the Leslie family from Souris Line Road. After a snowfall in the winter of 1927, Harold Leslie's grandfather saw bear tracks in the snow. The next day his two teenage sons set off tracking the bear.

"My uncles, there was two of them, George and Bernard ... they left early in the morning," said Leslie. "Could be around noontime perhaps or a little later when they found him under a tree. He was a big male bear, a black bear, They said there was some old wound marks on him. 

"They skinned him that day too and took the skin home. After that they got quite a bit of money for the oil. Word got around and somebody wrote them from England looking for bear oil, or grease. I really don't know what it was for at that time but anyway, they got quite a bit of money — I think they got near a gallon of grease."

Fisherman Robbie Robertson's father John killed at least 14 bears, he says. (Dutch Thompson)

Bear grease was used for lots of different home remedies in Britain. It was highly prized, and was mixed with oil of wintergreen and other medicines and used to treat rheumatism and arthritis.

But the so-called last bear might not in fact have been the very last one. 

People also told Dutch about the sighting of a bear in the Bunbury area as late as 1930, on a silver fox farm close to Dutch's own backyard.

One night a farm's caretaker looked out his back window and saw a large brown animal lumbering off into the woods. They tracked it to the nearby Hillsborough River but found nothing except smudged tracks around the meat fed to the foxes. 

And Louis Cantelo from Seven Mile Road near Bridgetown, P.E.I., told Dutch his bear story.

"There was one bear after that — one night my mother heard the dog barking and she went to the bedroom window and looked and saw the bear walking down through the grain field. And that was about 1935. And that was the last bear on Prince Edward Island — we expect he died of old age," said Cantelo, who was born in 1904 and lived to be 102.  

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