Saturday, December 5, 2015

Seth Kinman & the Bear Chairs

Seth Kinman testing the bear chair

When my family visited Washington, D.C. during the 1960s, we brought back a book called The Story of the White House. I pored over it so often that some of the pictures and captions remain stuck in my head. One is an etching of Theodore Roosevelt toasting the Prince of Prussia. Another is a photograph of sheep grazing on the lawn of the mansion during World War I.  

But not a bear chair in sight.

The story goes like something like this. During the decades before the Civil War, far up in northern California near the Oregon border, amidst mountains, glades, and marshland, the trappers of Humboldt County were famous for their bloodthirsty pursuit of wild animals and Indians. Mad River, Wild Cat Creek, the Siskiyou country; turn left at the second gulch you come to. Cold fog rolled in from the bay while sheep ran among redwoods and oaks. And cozy cabins were inhabited by tough men who would tell you to “git back to San Francisco.”  

Perhaps the most famous of these mountain men was Seth Kinman, born in Pennsylvania in 1815, who wended his way west to find gold and bring grizzly bears to their knees. (That story may be apocryphal.) A consummate hunter who supplied meat to the officers at Fort Humboldt, he led unspeakably brutal Indian massacres.

When James Buchanan was elected president in 1856, an elated Kinman celebrated his fellow Pennsylvanian’s fortune. He decided to make a gift for Buchanan, who is one of the lowest ranked presidents in American history. Kinman assembled elk horns and connected them with iron clamps to create a chair, then traveled by boat to New York and on to Washington to present it to the president.  

The six-foot trapper, who dressed in buckskin and carried a rifle and Bowie knife, enjoyed the trip so much that he decided to make chairs for President Lincoln and President Andrew Johnson. He took a break during the Grant administration but made another elk horn chair for President Hayes.

Kinman outdid himself with a grizzly bear chair for Andrew Johnson, also ranked as one of our worst presidents. The chair’s special feature was a cord that could be pulled so that the bear’s head would surge out from under the seat with its teeth bared.

All of the chairs are lost to history except the last, which is on display in the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio. Although one is tempted to visit Fremont to see the elk horn chair, a trip to the Johnson Homestead in Greeneville, Tennessee might be a better choice. I know because I have been there not once but twice.

Andrew Johnson began his career as a tailor. Our first visit focused on his original shop with all of its furnishings and examples of his work, now located inside a museum. Also, we had the opportunity to vote on whether to impeach Andrew Johnson.

During the second visit, a National Park Service ranger led us on an extended tour. She candidly told us about how alcoholism ran in the Johnson family and Mrs. Johnson’s lifelong deep depression. The one family member who held things together was the Johnsons’ daughter, Martha, who married a U.S. Senator. A natural protectress, Martha died too soon to go to war over some family papers, but she surely knew what became of the bear chair. As they say, the secret went to the grave.

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