Close Quarters with Old Ephraim, an illustration from Theodore Roosevelt’s Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885). Old Ephraim was a general term used for grizzly bears in the late nineteenth century.
(USU Special Collections & Archives, Book Collection 16, R-67)
Like any great legend, the Old Ephraim story is a mix of danger, excitement, and a little honest exaggeration. The earliest published account, a 1928 Nature Magazine interview with Frank Clark entitled “A Wasatch Grizzly,” is the closest we have to a contemporary retelling of the event, but we now know even some of these claims were likely clouded by the intensity of the moment and the fogginess of time. Subsequent retellings have further blurred the line between fact and fiction.
For example, there is some confusion surrounding the bear’s name. “Old Ephraim” was not in fact a name unique to the Utah bear; it was a general term for grizzlies used in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American West. In his 1885 book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Teddy Roosevelt used the name to identify a different bear that roamed Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, though Clark claimed the Utah grizzly was named after a bear in a P. T. Barnum story. Either way, the name was probably derived from Ephraim, a figure in the Bible’s book of Genesis.
It is also unlikely that Old Ephraim stood 9 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed over half a ton. Judging by the size of his skull, experts at the University of Montana’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Program estimate that Old Ephraim was 7 feet, 6.5 inches tall and around 550 pounds. He was still a larger than average grizzly, just not as big as the stories suggest.
Frank Clark letter to the Forest Service, November 1922. The letter mentions an encounter with a troublesome bear, which could possibly be Old Ephraim. [click to enlarge; click again to browse all pages]
(USU Special Collections & Archives, Utah Agriculture Experiment Station Directors files archive collection, USU 18:17, Box 3, Folder 10a)
The Smithsonian inventory tag on Old Ephraim’s skull. The tag places Old Ephraim’s death in July 1922. [click to enlarge]
(Photograph by Becky Skeen, USU Special Collections & Archives)
“Old Ephraim: Finding the Truth in Folklore” newspaper article written by Ron Steward and other writings, 1985 [click to enlarge; click again to browse all pages]
(USU Special Collections & Archives, Nelson B. Wadsworth papers, MSS 458, Box 19, Folder Old Ephraim)
Even the year Clark killed the bear is uncertain. Most versions of the story, including Clark’s later accounts, say that Old Ephraim died in August 1923, a claim repeated on the monument and signage at the bear’s gravesite. In a letter to the Forest Service in November 1923, Clark said he killed a bear “that gave [him] . . . trouble for 9 years” in the summer of that year. However, a 1928 Nature Magazine retelling of the story places the event in July 1922, a date supported by the Smithsonian tag on Old Ephraim’s skull.
Finally, later accounts imply that Old Ephraim was the last grizzly bear in Utah. The evidence suggests that he was probably not the very last, but he was certainly one of the last. In 1925, the United States Forest Service estimated that there were still ten grizzly bears in Cache National Forest, but by 1930, there were none. Clark’s own account suggests he saw evidence of grizzlies in the Bear River Range as late as 1941.