Bear Island is the second largest of Lake Winnipesaukee’s 274 islands. It is siutated within the town of Meredith, New Hampshire, less than half a mile from the mainland at its nearest point, but is not connected by any bridge. Nearly three miles long and up to three-quarters of a mile wide, it is part of lands granted by England to John Mason as early as 1622.
The story of how Bear Island got its name comes from an early Boston Globe article, which recounts reminiscences of James Hersey, the man delegated to officially survey and name the islands granted to Governor John Wentworth-those associated with him before the Revolutionary War.
Having completed the survey of the Wentworth Islands, Hersey, five other men and a few Penacook Indian assistants were employed to survey and name that which has since been known as Big Bear Island and embarked on that undertaking early in 1772 before the snow and ice had disappeared. The North half of the island had been granted to Theodore Atkins and the South half to Thomas Packer. Crossing on the ice the narrow channel that separates the island from Meredith Neck, they worked southward and deliberated upon an appropriate name. Very soon the dogs gave unmistakable signs of the proximity of wild game and the Indian assistants in the lead began to exclaim “Big Bar!” “Yes, that’s a good name, ” the surveyors agreed, so “Big Bear” was adopted then and there as the name of the island. Excitement became more intense and the Indians began to call out, “Much bar! Much Bar!”
Investigation disclosed not only one but several bears being chased by the dogs. The bears had been routed out of the vicinity of the old “Carry,” where they had probably been feeding on scraps of food left by Indians or trapers, and were now treed on a pont of land a little to the westward. Evidently they had tried to escape across the ice to the mainland. The men, after a hard winter, were hungry for bear meat and there was no hesitation in going after the bears. Just awakened from their Winter’s nap the bears might be expected to be hungry, too, and in good fighting trim.
It was found that there were four full-brown bears in the group and just half that number of guns in the part. Each of the surveyors, however, was armed with a hunting knife. The Indians were loathe to participate in the prospective fight and retired to a safe distance. The presence of the dogs was sufficient to keep the bears treed under ordinary circumstances, but if wounded it was realized they would likely come down and fight. So the six men laid their plans carefully. Each of the men with guns selected his bear, and all fired simultaneously.
Down came the four maddened bears almost instantly, wounded and prepared to fight. There was no time to reload guns, so they were cast aside. Knives were the only weapons that could be used. The bears were met with long hunting knives. Some of the men were struck and sent sprawling, but were up again quickly and others were seized in the bear’s terrific embrace and bitten and clawed unmercifully.
Fortunately there were more men than bears, so the men were able to assist each other. Within a few minutes there were three dead bears lying around. The fourth bear got away and started across the ice toward Meredith Neck, but the ice was rotten, the bear broke through and floundered around in the water. The men finished him with a bullet and dragged his body ashore.
There was bear meat in abundance now to appease the wounded surveyors. They decided that the island had been appropriately named, “Big Bear.”