Bigfoot casts a long shadow in Native American lore and American frontier folk legend.
Mention the name Bigfoot and most people will picture the 1987 film Harry and the Hendersons. Or maybe the controversial 1967 clip shot by filmmakers Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, where a tall, hairy, bipedal ape — or a man in an elaborate costume, depending on whom you believe — strolled across Northern California’s Bluff Creek and into America’s pop culture consciousness forever.
But the story of Bigfoot started long before the monster-crazed years of the Atomic Age. In fact, the folklore of the frontier is rich with Bigfoot tales. Newspaper accounts from the 19th century are brimming with giant wild men, wood apes, and the like, many of which bear a striking resemblance to the descriptions of the creature that persist today — tall, hairy, bipedal, somewhere between a man and an ape, and, more often than not, stinky.
On the Tule River Indian Reservation, in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, a set of giant pictographs tells an even older story — the creation tale of the Yokut people and the gatekeeper of their spiritual world, a figure known as Hairy Man.
The pictographs feature a veritable mountain menagerie, including coyote, beaver, eagle, condor, and bear, all well-documented animals who also serve a supernatural role in the tribe’s origin story.
“They’re somewhere between 3,000 and 1,800 years old,” says Kathy Strain, Forest Heritage Resource and Tribal Relations Programs Manager for Stanislaus National Forest and author of Giants, Cannibals & Monsters: Bigfoot in Native Culture. “The Hairy Man is actually 8 feet tall.
“[The Yokut] believe when you see a Bigfoot, it’s not a good sign. It means he’s coming to take somebody who’s going to pass over to the other side. There’s even a Hairy Man song that women sing during a funeral, to make sure he does take that soul over.”
The Yokut aren’t alone either. You’ll find stories of Bigfoot-like creatures in the oral tradition of dozens of North American tribes under a slew of names — Sasquatch and Skookum among them — each ascribing slightly different qualities to the creature. For the Yurok and Karuk of northwest California, Bigfoot is just another denizen of the forest, worthy of cautious respect, just like a bear or a cougar.
But for the Me-Wuk of the Yosemite area, Bigfoot is a boogeyman — not unlike the witch from Hansel and Gretel — snatching children from their tribe and eating them. There’s even a place in the Stanislaus National Forest, Pinnacle Point Cave, where the tribe believes the Bigfoot consumed its victims.
“This cave really did have human remains in it that were excavated back in the 1960s,” Strain says. “And what’s interesting is that you have to actually rappel down into this cave to see it. So how did a tribe, that didn’t have any climbing equipment, have a traditional story that the cave had bones in it?”
If that’s not strange enough, the indigenous peoples of coastal British Columbia, nearly 1,000 miles to the north, share a nearly identical legend of the cannibal Dzunukwa, “The Wild Woman of the Woods” — often depicted on totem poles displaying a behavior that comes up time and time again in Bigfoot accounts: whistling.
“I’ve had many tribes tell me, ‘If you hear whistling at night, don’t go outside,’ ” Strain says. “Because that’s a Bigfoot trying to lure you out.”
The Pacific Northwest is filled with these intriguing tales, but look across the cultural landscape and you’ll find giant footprints everywhere.
Rachel Plummer was a white woman captured by a Comanche raiding party in Texas in 1836. Two years later, she was free and published an account of her time as a Comanche prisoner across the Southwest. Included was a detailed rundown of the animals of the prairie as shown to her by the Comanche, including prairie dogs, mountain sheep, elk, wolves, bears, and finally this: “Man-Tiger. The Indians say they have found several of them in the mountains. They describe them as being of the feature and make of a man. They are said to walk erect, and are 8 or 9 feet high.”
In Buffalo Bill’s autobiography, The Life of Honorable William F. Cody, he even mentions receiving a giant thigh bone from the Pawnee Indians of the Plains, who claimed it came from “a race of man ... whose size was about three times that of an ordinary man.” They were not contemporaneous with Cody’s time, though — they were part of a creation myth that described a race of giants who were wiped out in a flood.
Buffalo Bill wasn’t the only frontiersman with such a tall tale. Daniel Boone boasted of killing a “yahoo” in Kentucky, an animal he described as a 10-foot “hairy giant.”
Even President Theodore Roosevelt had his own Bigfoot story, passed to him by a “weather-beaten old mountain hunter” named Bauman, and detailed in his book The Wilderness Hunter. Two mountain trappers walk into a wild and lonely mountain drainage in search of beaver, and — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — have their camp ransacked by a large bipedal animal with “a strong, wild beast odor.” Only in this case, Bauman’s partner ends up dead, while he hightails it out of the mountains, leaving his friend’s body behind to escape the “great goblin-beast.”
Perhaps the most fantastic Western account of Bigfoot took place in Oregon in 1924, when five gold prospectors claimed a family of “ape men” attacked them on the east side of Mount St. Helens.
Prospector Fred Beck insisted that he shot one of the Bigfoot in an initial encounter before a group of the beasts returned for revenge under cover of night — pelting the miners’ cabin with boulders, attempting to break down the door, and even knocking Beck out with a rock tossed through a hole in the roof. After sunrise, the attack stopped, at which point the prospectors made a run for civilization.
The story caused such a stir that even the U.S. Forest Service investigated it, sending two rangers back into the forest with Beck to find evidence.
“[A] ranger scrambled down the supposedly inaccessible canyon and found — nothing,” The Oregonian wrote.
The tale still resonates with those who believe, however, and the name Ape Canyon remains to this day on trail maps of the area.
Chase most of these stories and you’ll find nothing but questions and shadows. Buffalo Bill’s giant bones never made it to the Smithsonian. Ape Canyon was heavily damaged in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. And no definitive physical evidence has ever been found to support the existence of a large bipedal ape in North America.
Nevertheless, the stories endure. Wherever there’s wilderness or even a moderately thick stand of timber, from the swamps of Florida to the coastal rainforests of Alaska, you’ll find these Bigfoot tales. Passed down from generation to generation and recited around campfires, they make the woods around us seem deeper, darker, wilder — and a whole lot hairier.