Benjamin Vernon Lilly

1_MAIN_Hearst_Grizzly_Gulch_-_San_Francisco_Zoob_resultEditor Pete Carr looks back on the career of one of the last mountain men of America’s South-West – ‘Ol’ Lilly’

Ben Lilly was born in the winter of 1856, and would become one of the most famous American hunters of all time, known to all by his simple nickname ‘Ol’ Lilly’. After running away from a military career his parents had envisaged, Lilly trained as a blacksmith and with this skill he would later fashion a variant of the Bowie knife, known not surprisingly as the Lilly knife, which found much favour with his contemporary hunters. His career at the forge was forsaken after he inherited a Louisiana cotton farm from an uncle Lilly had met by chance. Soon after this good fortune, Lilly killed his first black bear with a knife. It was an event that set Lilly on his prolific hunting career, much to the regret of his new wife. After she sent him off to shoot a chicken-hawk that was bothering her egg providers, ‘Ol’ Lilly went missing for nearly two years, and upon his return, answered his wife’s challenge to his extended errand with a very laconic answer: “That hawk just kept flying!”

” I never met any other man so indifferent to fatigue and hardship”

2_MUGSHOT Ben_Benjamin_Lilly_Portrait_resultLilly hunted extensively in the Southern and North Western States of America, and also in Mexico, mostly killing rogue bears and cougars for local ranchers and government. He also hunted for the US Biological survey where many of his skins found their way to national museums. One record grizzly trophy taken in north-east Arizona was famously placed in the Smithsonian Institution. Lilly also acted as a hunting guide for a while, pairing up with famous hunting contemporary Ben Hook. During this time he became friend, guide and confidant of Theodore Roosevelt. Lilly was revered by the former president who famously summed up his initial impression of the mountain man’s qualities in a single paragraph:

“I never met any other man so indifferent to fatigue and hardship. The morning he joined us in camp, he had come on foot through the thick woods, followed by his two dogs, and had neither eaten nor drunk for twenty-four hours; for he did not like to drink the swamp water. It had rained hard throughout the night and he had no shelter, no rubber coat, nothing but the clothes he was wearing and the ground was too wet for him to lie on, so he perched in a crooked tree in the beating rain, much as if he had been a wild turkey. He equalled Cooper’s Deerslayer in woodcraft, in hardihood, in simplicity–and also in loquacity.”

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Posted in In Memoriam

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