It seems that our city has a special affinity for bears. We have the new $11,000,000 Grizzly Ridge at the zoo, we make bears and cheer on the Gateway Grizzlies as well as the Washington University Bears. Sage says it all began with a silly gift from William Clark, an explorer. He gave a bear cub to the Marquis de Lafayette as a gesture of generosity, polite prank, or exercise in one-upmanship.
Those of us who loved the French would have known the marquis as Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. But today, most people just call him Lafayette. He was born into the French aristocracy and became a part of the revolutionary fever. At age 19, he sailed to France, eventually serving as a major general in our Continental Army. Many believe that the father-son bond he established with George Washington was what helped us win our Revolution. His courage is legendary. You can hear it in the Broadway hit Hamilton.
After his work was completed, Lafayette returned home to fight in France’s Revolution. In 1825, however, he returned to the American battlefields and made it as far west as St. Louis. Nearly the entire city waited on the wharf for him, and there was a roar when he appeared. Pierre Chouteau’s home was our destination. We took him to his house in an open barouche. The Mansion House Hotel would host a fancy ball with toasts that evening. Lafayette first wanted to visit Clark and tour nearby Indian mounds.
Clark, then superintendent of Indian Affairs, had his museum with Native American artifacts. He included four necklaces made of huge, pale-to-dark brown claws. Lafayette was astonished when he pointed out that the London Cabinet of Natural History contained only one claw of America’s most dangerous beast.
Clark had seen grizzly bears for the first time two decades before he set out west. He kept the memories of Lafayette’s amazement in his mind as he presented Clark with a thick buffalo-skin robe that was made into a Russian riding jacket. He gave Clark, in turn, the mahogany mess box (made with sterling, crystal, and bone china) he had carried throughout the war.
Lafayette returned to France with a gift: a baby grizzly bear. He was so impressed by the gentleness of the cub that he wanted to keep him company, but he was advised against it. The cub was donated to the Jardin Des Plantes, Paris’ 60-acre botanical garden and menagerie. As the bear grew to 1,400 pounds, Lafayette wrote to Clark: “His large vileness and ferocious temperament have since been developed.”