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May 22, 2020

The Grizzly Bear Chair Made for American President Andrew Johnson by Seth Kinman, 1865

Everyone knows about the Oval Office, the pictures of past Presidents, the Kennedy Room, the Lincoln Room, but do you know about the Presidential Grizzly Bear Chair?

Made from two grizzly bears captured by California hunter and trapper Seth Kinman. The four legs and claws were those of a huge grizzly and the back and sides ornamented with immense claws. The seat was soft and exceedingly comfortable, but the great feature of the chair was that, by touching a cord, the head of the monster grizzly bear with jaws extended, would dart out in front from under the seat, snapping and gnashing its teeth as natural as life. The chair was presented by Seth to President Andrew Johnson on September 8, 1865. Johnson kept the chair in his White House library, the Yellow Oval Room.

Bear chair and mule skull fiddle made by Seth Kinman and displayed at World Columbian Exhibition, 1893.

Seth Kinman (September 29, 1815 – February 24, 1888) was an early settler of Humboldt County, California, a hunter based in Fort Humboldt, a famous chair maker, and a nationally recognized entertainer. He stood over 6 ft (1.83 m) tall and was known for his hunting prowess and his brutality toward bears and Indians. Kinman claimed to have shot a total of over 800 grizzly bears, and, in a single month, over 50 elk. He was also a hotel keeper, saloon keeper, and a musician who performed for President Lincoln on a fiddle made from the skull of a mule.

Known for his publicity seeking, Kinman appeared as a stereotypical mountain man dressed in buckskins on the U.S. east coast and selling cartes de visites of himself and his famous chairs. The chairs were made from elkhorns and grizzly bear skins and given to U.S. Presidents. Presidents so honored include James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Rutherford Hayes. He may have had a special relationship with President Lincoln, appearing in at least two of Lincoln's funeral corteges, and claiming to have witnessed Lincoln's assassination.

His autobiography, dictated to a scribe in 1876, was first published in 2010 and is noted for putting “the entertainment value of a story ahead of the strict facts.” His descriptions of events change with his retelling of them. Contemporary journalists and modern writers were clearly aware of the stories contained in the autobiography, “but each chooses which version to accept.”

Photo of Seth Kinman in 1864 by Matthew Brady.

Kinman in the chair he presented to President Andrew Johnson in 1865.

Kinman in the chair he presented to President Andrew Johnson in 1865. Photo by Matthew Brady.

Seth Kinman reclining in Mathew Brady’s studio in Washington, D.C., 1864. Photo includes a bow with arrows, a hatchet, Kinman’s gun “Old Cottonblossum”, some scalps (presumably from Indians), a set of elkhorns, and 2 grizzly bear feet. Kinman sold these photos and many similar ones.

Kinman’s bar in Table Bluff in 1889, with three chairs displayed.

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