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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Mystery of Peter Lebeck

No one really knows who Peter Lebeck was, but we do know that he died in the wilds of the Tehachapi Mountains, the victim of a grizzly bear attack. We know this because his companions—whoever they were—peeled several inches of bark from the oak tree above his grave to create a make-shift tombstone, then deeply carved an inscription which read, “IHS PETER LEBECK KILLED BY A X BEAR OCTR 17, 1837.”


Lebeck’s violent demise occurred when California was a scantily-populated province of Mexico. Years passed, during which a few men—passing through the mountains that separated the southern California settlements from the great Central Valley—happened upon the gravesite, and mentioned the tree’s inscription in their personal diaries. Lebeck had been dead a little more than ten years when two near-simultaneous events forever changed an isolated, pastoral province: the United States acquired California in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War; and gold was discovered in its foothills, causing thousands of miners, merchants, and other entrepreneurs to move in. In 1850, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state, which led to its further social, industrial, and agricultural development.


Back at Lebeck’s lonely mountain-top burial site, a military post named Fort Tehon was established in 1854, its layout so configured that the Lebeck oak stood on the north side of its parade ground. Fort Tehon was abandoned in 1864, and fell into disrepair. Through it all, Peter Lebeck’s remains lay undisturbed—and over time, forgotten.


Mostly forgotten, that is, until 1888, when General Edward Beale, formerly the Surveyor General of California and a Civil War officer, spoke at a pioneers’ banquet in Bakersfield. Decades earlier, Beale had acquired four contiguous Mexican land grants to found his Rancho El Tehon, a 270,000-acre property that encompassed the former site of the old military fort. That evening Beale related an interesting tale of the old oak on his property, the words carved therein for a dead man, and what little those engraved words told of the grave’s occupant.


By then, however, new bark had overgrown the roughly-lettered, though deeply-cut, inscription. In 1889, with Beale’s encouragement, a group from Bakersfield calling themselves the Foxtail Rangers, found the oak tree and opened the old grave. They found the skeletal remains of a six-foot-tall man—taller than the average 19th century male—with broken ribs; and also missing a right forearm, left hand and both feet, all consistent with a bear attack. One of the Foxtail Rangers stripped away the overlying bark, exposing the entire inscription on the inside of the new bark in raised letters, and the original, incised letters that had been on the tree’s surface since 1837. They saved the bark for posterity and reburied the corpse, none the wiser about its life beyond the confirmed manner of its death.


So, who was Peter Lebeck? Most likely a fur trapper, perhaps employed by the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company, headquartered in jointly-held, American-British Oregon Territory before and after the 1830s, and known to have sent their brigades south into Mexican California. Many Hudson’s Bay trappers and hunters of the period were French-Canadian; furthermore, the letters “IHS” before the deceased’s name generally meant he was a Catholic French-Canadian. However, the inscription in English suggests that this particular group, if indeed they were Hudson Bay employees, only spoke English.


Still. In the 1830s, there were several independent fur trappers traversing Mexican California, some of them American. Lebeck might have been an American-born mountain-man of French descent, traveling with English-speaking hunter/trappers from anywhere on the American frontier. And what about the certainty that the bear was a grizzly? Well, that part is simple: in bygone days, the California grizzly was often referred to as an “X Bear” because of the shape of the hair along the beast’s back and shoulders.


Peter Lebeck the man might forever remain a mystery. Nevertheless, there is a town named in his honor, albeit missing the last “k” carved into the long-ago cenotaph. Today Lebec, California, is one of the small mountain communities of the Tehon Pass, and that old oak tree still stands on the grounds of Fort Tehon State Historic Park.


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