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The Mystery of Peter Lebec - Part 1

A Page of History

Series: The Mystery of Peter Lebec | Story 1

I recently traveled to Fort Tejon to attend a dinner put on by the Kern Economic Development group. When we exited the freeway we drove past Fort Tejon.

I told the group I was riding with that I had not been there since I was about 10 years old, and remembered the tree with the epitaph carved in it about the death of Peter Lebec. No one knew what I was talking about.

Coincidentally as I was once again working on boxes brought home from my storage unit I found a book entitled “The Life and Death of Peter Lebec.”

The book was written by Raymund F. Wood in 1954 and was sold for $1.

The book was signed by Glen Settle, founder of the Kern-Antelope Historical Society and presented to my dad, Paul Deaver, May 25, 1963.

In the beginning all anyone knew about Peter Lebec was that he was “Killed by a X bear Oct. 17, 1837”. This inscription was carved on the tree that grew above the grave of Lebec at Fort Tejon, CA.

That was all anyone knew about him. His grave managed to stay preserved for over 100 years. I remember Glen Settle telling us at Lebec’s gravesite that no one knew what the “X” meant. Was the bear angry and “cross”? Did the bear have a marking that resembled a “X” such as a grizzly bear had on his neck? It was all a mystery and remains so today.

Wood in his book, which only included 75 pages, noted that “there are probably few in history individuals about whom less is known than Peter Lebec.”

Wood went on to say that, “We do not know who he was, nor whence he came; we know nothing about his appearance, the country of his birth, or the language that he spoke. It was just chance that his grave later became part of the site chosen for Fort Tejon nearly 20 years after he was buried beneath the tree.”

The fort was abandoned in 1864. A group of individuals in Kern County in the 1930s helped bring about the acquisition of the Fort as a state park. The nearby town of Lebec carries his name and his grave and the park have been preserved.

Because there were no facts about Peter Lebec many legends have sprung up over the years, including that Lebec was from Louisiana and was sent to negotiate with the Indians to bring that area into the Republic of Texas but was killed by the bear.

Another legend was that Lebec was one of France’s bravest soldiers during the Napoleonic Empire, and eventually made his way to America (I am paraphrasing here) and one day while out hunting for meat for his family was killed by the bear.

Wood claimed that the most plausible explanation was that Lebec was employed by the Hudson Bay Company and was one of the many French Canadian “voyageurs” who came every year with the permission of the Governor of California to hunt and trap in the Valley of the Tulares in the southern part of what is now known as the San Joaquin Valley.

This theory may be correct because of a religious symbol carved at the top of the epitaph which is the letters I H S. These letters are the first three letters of the word Jesus in Greek and have been a respected symbol of the Catholic Church, according to Wood. This could mean that Lebec was a French-Canadian Catholic and that those who buried him were Catholic as well.

As the tree grew over the years the smooth area of the tree was grown over by new bark. The inscription was barely visible. The bark covered it and the letters became raised on the new bark. The bark was removed and stored in a vault in Bakersfield by General Beale.

At the time of this writing by Wood the bark was placed in a glass case at the Beale Library, but by this time was only partly legible.

The bark was replaced by a sign on the tree. A headstone was later placed at the foot of the grave.

But Lebec still remains an enigma.