David Costley equipped Britain’s royal guard with bearskin caps, and became pen pals with Queen Victoria in the process
THE ORIGIN STORY
According to Costley’s great-grandson Carman Legge, the legendary outdoorsman’s bear-hunting career was inspired by two childhood incidents. Some accounts suggest that when he was around age 14, Costley saw a bear attack and drag off a heifer calf—a calf he had raised and considered as much of a pet as a cow can be. It was the 1850s and bears were numerous, constantly attacking livestock.
Shortly after that incident, Costley himself was treed by a bear. “He said, ‘I’m not putting up with that,’ and vowed to take care of that bear,” Legge says. Some liken the promise to a personal vendetta against the entire bear population. Perhaps they were right. After he killed that bear—his first—Costley went on to be known as “the Bear Hunter.”
A great-great grandson, Eric Keddy, once did a school project on Costley. He interviewed his uncle Milt Costley, a trapper and one of the family members said to have paid attention to the Bear Hunter’s stories. Keddy learned from his uncle that Costley killed most of his bears after catching them in a leg-hold trap, which he was big and strong enough to carry and set by himself. When he approached a trapped bear, it would rise up and Costley would whack it on the nose with a pole, killing it. That saved ammunition, as well as avoided damaging the skin. It helped that Costley, aside from being fearless, was six feet four inches tall and weighed 275 pounds.
When Costley did shoot, he was sure to make it count. “David would only take two shells with him,” Legge says. “He said, ‘If you can’t bring down a bear in two shots, you won’t have time to make a third.’”
The Bear Hunter’s frugality was matched by his patience and perseverance. One evening, Legge says, Costley came across a bear sleeping in a hole. He couldn’t get a clear shot, so he slept in another nearby hole. The next morning, he woke early, waited for the bear to climb out and shot it.
On nights when he had a fresh kill, Costley sometimes used the bearskin to keep warm
Costley often spent entire nights in the woods stalking his prey, and sometimes bears challenged him. Once a bear blocked his path home, so Costley pulled a fence post from the ground and beat the bear to death with it. He certainly was tough—on those nights when he had a fresh kill, he’d sometimes use the bearskin to keep warm. Other times, he’d wander home regardless of the hour. Revealing his independent streak, he once chastised his family for searching for him. “You didn’t find me,” he said. “I wasn’t lost.”
After harvesting his bears, Costley would take the skins down what passes for a mountain in Nova Scotia to the buyers in Kentville, the county seat of Kings County. According to family lore, he once boasted, “Ain’t nobody going to get more bear than me.” History suggests he was right, and his record still holds.