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Adventures from the Archives - Ben Lilly’s Black Bear

Louisiana 1904 

For over a century, Ben Lilly’s Louisiana black bear has remained the state record, but it hardly compares to the stories behind the Lilly legend. 


Ben Lilly’s sole purpose in life was predator control: bears, lions, and to some extent, wolves. If you were a rancher in the Southwest around the turn of the 20th century, you needed Lilly’s special set of skills. When President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to hunt black bears in the bayous of Louisiana in 1907, Lilly served as his guide. 

This isn’t the story of one hunt for one particular bear. Instead, this is the story of a most unordinary man who made it his life’s work to live, hunt, and kill predators. Benjamin Vernon Lilly (B.V. Lilly in the records) has two entries for black bears in the record book, and both reflect the footprint of his travels. The paper trail for these records is scant, but the first record-book bear attributed to Lilly was supposedly killed near Indian Lake, Louisiana in 1904. There are at least two Indian Lakes in the state, and it’s unclear which lake was home to the 21-1/16-inch bear. Both Indian Lakes are located within the historical range of the Louisana black bear, a subspecies that was removed from the endangered species list in 2016 thanks to conservation efforts by private landowners and public agencies. Lilly’s other bear was killed in 1906 in the Mexican state of Coahuila along the Texas border. That bear also measured 21-1/16 and is Coahuila’s only black bear entry. 

Predator Hitman for Hire 

Born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1856, Lilly could never sit still. His parents attempted to send him to military school when he was 12, but he ran away. His uncle recognized him years later while in Memphis and invited Lilly to work on his Louisiana cotton farm, which he accepted.  When his uncle died, Lilly inherited the farm. 

Portrait of Ben Lilly.

Marriage and family life didn’t settle Lilly down. He bounced around the South and found his calling in eradicating every lion and black bear in his path. He was a devout Christian—hunting every day except Sunday—and preferred life on the move in the outdoors. “Every man and woman ought to get out and be alone with the elements a while every day, even if only for five minutes. I can’t think at all except when I am out,” Lilly said in a conversation with author J. Frank Dobie. 

When Ben Lilly showed up for a job, he had little more than the clothes on his back, some tracking hounds, a Winchester .30-30 lever action for lions, a .33 for bears, and his famous Lilly knife. “It had to be sharp on both edges so when he got inside the bear, it would cut in every direction,” wrote Dobie in The Ben Lilly Legend. Not every kill ended in hand-to-hand combat, but it did happen. And Lilly won every time.

President Roosevelt’s Guide 

Lilly’s reputation as a skilled tracker and bear slayer had made it to the White House in 1907. After a failed effort in Mississippi, President Theodore Roosevelt was eager to kill a black bear and planned a hunt in northeastern Louisiana. A telegram was sent to Lilly asking him to be the chief guide. 

“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."

— Theodore Roosevelt on Ben Lilly 

Lilly arrived at the hunting camp on the Tensas River in East Carroll Parish on October 5, 1907. The hounds pursued and lost bears in the impenetrable canebrakes for a week. Lilly suggested they pack up and move south to Bear Lake in Madison Parish. There, President Roosevelt finally bagged his Louisiana black bear. The presidential bear hunt was the last of Lilly’s Louisiana adventures. He drifted back to Texas and into Mexico, always pursuing cougars and bears. 

From Swamps to the Southwest 

At 55, Lilly worked with managers on the Apache National Forest, which borders the Gila National Forest to the west. He was getting paid to kill predators, and he was good. Working the Arizona-New Mexico line, Lilly averaged 50 lions and bears annually. Ranchers in the area revered Lilly’s intimate knowledge of the land and its predators. He could tell a lion’s age, sex, and size from a week-old track. Once, while sitting on top of Escudilla Mountain, Lilly pointed out every fold and wrinkle in the landscape. The rancher beside him had hired Lilly to kill the bears eating his cows. Lilly pointed to one fold in the mountain and said all bears would pass there. Lilly then tracked and killed every bear and lion in the range.

Lilly with his coon hounds in New Mexico.

In 1913, at 57, while tracking a wise old grizzly in the White Mountains of western Arizona, Ben Lilly nearly ran himself to death. He was following the biggest grizzly tracks he’d ever seen and didn’t bother to eat for three days. Lilly eventually caught sight of the bear and shot it in the same hip three times at long range. Lilly kept a tracking hound tied to his waist all the while. When they closed in on the bear, the spruce got thick as his hound’s fur. Then, 15 feet away, the bear sprang and charged. It took a .33 caliber bullet to the chest, then one under the eye from three feet. The bear fell into the snow, still alive. Lilly drew his curved 18-inch dagger and drove it deep into the bear’s heart. 

“After this bear died, I felt weak,” he wrote. “My dogs and I both needed water.” Yet he cut lion tracks on the way to a frozen creek and was a “new man.” He killed the lion, found water, and returned to the grizzly bear. He skinned it, wrapped himself in the hide, and “slept as warm as if I were in a stove.”

Ben Lilly (second from the left) with boys from the U.S. Biological Survey in the Gila around 1920. 

From 1920 until he was roughly 80, Lilly’s closest thing to home was the GOS Ranch just northeast of Silver City. From there, he hunted along the Gila River so often that Lilly Park now bears his name between the west and middle forks of the river.

When Ben Lilly died of natural causes on a farm near Silver City, he was seemingly at peace with his life and the world. Two hours before his death, it is reported that he said, “I’ll be better off.” His friends erected a bronze plaque on the Gila National Forest in tribute to the man. On it, a portrait of Lilly has a lion on one side and a bear on the other. 

Ben Lilly died at 80 in 1936. A plaque on the Gila National Forest memorializes his unquenchable thirst to kill every bear and lion that walked the earth. His portrait is placed in the middle of a bear and lion on the plaque, presumably to keep an eye on them. 



SCORE: 21-1/16 B&C points

LOCATION: Indian Lake, Louisiana 

HUNTER: B.V. Lilly

DATE: 1904 

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Louisiana Black Bears: An ESA Success Story

Times have changed since the days of Ben Lilly and the all-out war on predators. In fact, the very same subspecies of black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) credited to Lilly in the records was listed as threatened on the endangered species list in 1992. Thanks to the cooperative efforts of private landowners, conservation groups, and policymakers, the Louisiana black bear was removed from the list of endangered species. You can read more about the Club’s role in those efforts in our latest Impact Series article. 

About Adventures from the Archives

The Boone and Crockett Club’s records contain more than 70,000 big game entries, from musk ox to mule deer. Among those entries are more than a few stories of adventures afield. To celebrate those trophies, their habitat, and the hunter, we’re bringing those stories back to life with each installment of Boone and Crockett’s Adventures from the Archives.

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt