Bear Necessities

By:  S.L. Wendt

American Black Bear (Greg hume(Surviving all the challenges that Mother Nature threw at Native Americans and early colonists can be summed up in one word—resourcefulness.  Living in the truly remote wilderness, the best way to survive was to use what you foraged, hunted, and grew in as many ways as possible.  And that’s where black bears became indispensable.    

Over the millennia, aboriginal people used bear fat for culinary, cultural, functional, and medicinal purposes.  It was the principal source of dietary fats.  Diaries from the cruel De Soto’s 1539-41 “expedition” across Southeastern U.S. exclaimed: “There was abundance of lard in calabashes drawn like olive oil… the fat of the bear”. The famous Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806) repeatedly referenced it. Natives relied on a high-carbohydrate mixtures as a survival ration (pemmican) made of dried pounded meat blended with bear fat, nuts and dried berries.  

The thick 12-in. x 3-6-in. thick creamy slab that runs along the bear’s spine from the neck to the rump was gold. This fat is completely different from waxy deer tallow and simple to heat-render into clear oil with lots of culinary opportunities.  Because bears are omnivores, the flavor of their meat and fat is dependent on what they’ve been eating: blueberries, grasses, acorns: excellent; salmon: awful.

Culturally, Native Americans mixed bear oil with ground minerals to create face paints for personal display, ceremonies and intertribal war.  An interesting account from 1714 described Native men commonly painting their faces red, and encircling one eye in black and the other in white, while women never painting their own faces (ironic today).  Bear oil was a prime ingredient in many tribal hair pomades for ceremonies and battle. The Pawnee stiffened their Mohawk ridges with bear grease and red paint, whereas bear grease gained popularity in the New World beginning in the mid-1600s as a treatment for hair loss.

Native Americans revered bear oil’s medicinal value as skin conditioners and to treat joint pain, swelling, and inflammation.  It was commonly mixed with healing plants to create first aid salves and balms also referenced in the Lewis and Clark journals. Its unique qualities also made it a favorite for conditioning buckskin goods, drum heads, and especially Natives’ highly prized bows critical to hunting and protection.  Ritual seasoning of their bows with bears grease rendered them reliably strong, pliable and waterproof.

With the American chestnut forest still intact, black bears were very plentiful.  For centuries, settlers’ depended on bear grease as a: gun and instrument lubricant, waterproofing agent, smokeless lamp oil, leather and wood conditioner, skin moisturizer, hair pomade, soap, and frying and baking oils.  Their fat was the only such raw material anywhere in the wilderness. It could be easily rendered and kept in root cellars and wells, meaning you either shot or trapped bears, or risked survival with rusty flintlock rifles and traps.

There was no butter in early colonial Virginia, and vegetable oil was a hundred to hundreds of years from being invented. Today we’re fixated on removing fat from our diets—but before the 1900s, Virginian’s hungered for more fat, especially from bears as a premium in the backwoods frontier. 

 Cameo of American Black BearAmerican Black Bear Range
American Black Bear Range

Salmon Color:  Present Day Range
Tan Color:  Extirpated

American Black Bear Meat:  “The flesh of the [black] bear is savory, but rather luscious, and tastes not unlike pork. It was once so common an article of food in New-York as to have given the name of Bear Market to one of the principal markets of the city.”  (1)

Cosmetic Use:  American black bear fat was once valued as a cosmetic article that promoted hair growth and gloss. The fat most favored for this purpose was the hard white fat found in the body's interior. As only a small portion of this fat could be harvested for this purpose, the oil was often mixed with large quantities of hog lard. (2)

Healing Powers:  Bear grease is known to heal minor burns and bug bites.  It can help heal cuts in the skin, and relieve sunburns.  Some have found it helpful in relieving sunburn and it helps to fight inflammation while adding moisture to the skin.

Hair Fashion: Native Americans across North America smeared bear grease and other oils on their hair to make it shine.  Both men and women used bear grease or buffalo dung to stiffen curls made with a heated stick, and applied cactus pulp to make their hair shine and other oils soaked with herbs to perfume the hair

Rendering:  Bear grease is rendered by cleaning off the fat, cutting into small 1 inch squares.  Place in a stock pot with an inch of water and slowly simmer (keep the heat low) stirring occasionally to keep from burning.  Pour fat through a strainer and cheesecloth and then into glass jars.  Allow to cool.  It can be frozen for up to six months or kept refrigerated for up to two.                               


Nutritional Value of Bear Meat per 100 grams (3.5 oz.)

(1)   Frank Forester's Field Sports of the United States, and British Provinces, of North America p. 186                 

(2)   Wood, Gerald (1983). The Guinness Book of Animal Facts & Feats. Sterling Publishing Co             

(3)  Above Cameo of Bear (Diginatur)

(4) File:Hildegard_von_Bingen.jpgFile:Hildegard_von_Bingen.jpg

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Black Bear's DietAmerican black bear's diet consists of insects, such as bees, yellow jackets, ants and their larvae.  They are also fond of honey.  They will eat bird eggs, berries, will fish for salmon during the night, and will regularly prey on mule deer and white tailed deer fawns in the spring.  

Illumination from Liber Scivias

Illumination from Liber Scivias showing Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision, dictating to her scribe and sketching
on a wax tablet.

Bears grease by which Russian support is mean the French King Louis XVIII

In spite of the "Bears grease" (by which Russian support is meant), the French king Louis XVIII is not able to put on Napoleon's boots. Napoleon's son stands ready to catch the Bourbon crown if it might fall. In the background, a guillotine topped with a liberty cap appears out of the fog.(5)

Brown Creeper: By User:Mdf - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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