That’s the question I started asking last week after revisiting Giacomo Beltrami’s narrative, "A Pilgrimage in Europe and America V2: Leading to the Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi and Bloody River", where he mentions “white bears” in Northern Minnesota. Surely he’s not referencing polar bears. Perhaps albino black bears?
Here’s what Beltrami had to say about these mysterious “white bears”:
“The white bear is the only wild beast of these regions that is dangerous."
"I have in my possession a magnificent skin of a yellow bear…”
"I then carefully put my gun in order, to be able to defend myself against the attack of white bears, which abound near the Red River."
I contacted two bear experts. David Mather, National Register Archaeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society, thinks Beltrami is referring to grizzly bears, since historically grizzlies were called “white or yellow bears” because of the light colored tips of the fur, and, “the fear factor makes me think that he’s referring to grizzlies.”
Andrew Derocher, professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and a polar bear specialist said, “Minnesota seems a long way south and inland for polar bears. There is some evidence for polar bears to have been as far south as Maine but this would likely have been rare and coastal.”
The shades and colors of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis ) fur are as varied as human hair, ranging from dark brown to white. In fact, white grizzlies (not albinos) are not uncommon in portions of Alberta and Montana, and in south-central British Columbia.
A simultaneous literature review led me to this interesting tidbit from the Lewis and Clark Journals:
“Goodrich and Willard visited the indian [sic] Village this morning and returned in the evening Willard brought with him the dressed Skin of a bear which he had purchased for me. this Skin was of a uniform pale redish[sic] brown colour, the indians[sic] inform us that it was not the Hoh-host or white bear, that it was the Yâck-kâh this distinction of the Indians induced us to make further enquiry relative to their oppinions [sic] of the defferent [sic] Species of bear in this country. We produced the Several Skins of the bear which our hunters had killed at this place and one very nearly white which Capt Lewis had purchased. the White, the deep and pale red grizzle, the dark brown grizzle, and all those that had the extremities of the hair of a White or frosty Colour without reguard [sic] to the Colour of the ground of the poil, [sic] they designated Hoh-host and assured us that they were the Same with the White bear, that they associated together, were very vicisious, [sic] never climb the trees, and had much longer nails than the others."
Indigenous words referenced in Lewis and Clark’s journals include “Matocha” (Mato means grey bear) and “hoh-host”. At this point, I needed a Dakota linguistic specialist, so I contacted Leonard Wabasha, Director of Cultural Resources for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Tribe to get his opinion. Leonard thinks Lewis and Clark might have misinterpreted the Dakota speakers, who,
“may have been trying to say that the bears had a smoky color/tint or "Hota" which is also part of the word for sage (peji-hota) although considered to represent the color grey/gray it is visually nearly white.”
So, it appears for the Beltrami text, “white bears” are grizzlies. During his three months in Minnesota in 1823, Beltrami’s main method for staying warm was the “white bear robe” he procured from an Ojibwe person. To date, there aren’t any indications the bear robe survived in the Beltrami Museum collections here in Italy, but I’ll keep searching.
More on White Bears
White Bear Lake, MN
Leonard Wabasha, David Mather and I all decided this linguistic information gives a whole new interpretation to White Bear Lake, MN, a town that is associated with the legend of star-crossed Ojibwe and Dakota lovers being attacked by a “white bear”. The town’s logo is—you guessed it— a polar bear.
White black bears
There is a rare white color phase of the American black bear. John Tanner reports seeing one on the Canadian/Minnesota border in the early 19th century. The Kermode bear, or “Spirit Bear” is a white bear and a sub-species to the American Black Bear.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kermode_bear and http://www.bearbiology.com/index.php?id=37