He was doing everything he could against that bear. He did men of his days did, fight. Fight against the elements fight against fear and fight against the creatures of the frontier. The bear didn't win and the man didn't lose. And The Story Goes they found the switch that he used to whip the bear close by
Yes, in some ways people were tougher in the 1800s. They had to survive using their wits and their physical strength. People had to fend off wild animals. They had to plow the land without the use of heavy equipment. They had to build their own homes. They sure were tough!
Yes, people were tougher in the 1800s, they had to face survival without the help of electricity, computers etc. They had to grow or kill the bulk of their food and a lot more manual labor was involved in building homes, making clothes and weapons etc. So yes, they were physically tougher.
Simply being alive in the 19th century required a greater degree of toughness. There were no immediate care clinics or bottles of aspirin for aches and pains. That doesn't even take into account that many things we take for granted being able to purchase at Wal-Mart were not commercially available at all in that era.
Frank Devereaux was a crazy man who though he could fight a bear. He could not. There are people today who might think they can do the same thing, but they cannot. Almost no one can fight against a bear and win. If someone tired to wrestle a bear they would die.