Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sasquatch Classics: The Wild Woman of the Navidad

As rivers go, the Navidad doesn't amount to much. It's not particularly scenic nor is it impressively long or wide. In fact, the Navidad stretches only 74 miles --90 if you count the two creeks that join to form the main river-- and meanders through Fayette, Lavaca, Colorado, and Jackson Counties before pouring itself into its sister river; the Lavaca. The Navidad is not spring fed so it depends solely on rainwater runoff for its flow. Rain can often be scarce in south Texas and, as a result, the Navidad is often too shallow for navigation and its sluggish waters are apt to be clogged with debris.

However, what the Navidad lacks in grandeur it more than makes up for in history and legend. An old Spanish trail that ran from Louisiana to Mexico, known as the Gonzales-San Felipe Road, crossed the Navidad near the present day town of Oakland. The Mexican army, commanded by Santa Anna himself, crossed the Navidad here on April 7, 1836, just a month after defeating a ragtag collection of Texas militia and Tennessee volunteers at the Alamo. It took a lot of money to keep an army supplied and legend has it that Santa Anna was carrying a lot of gold for this purpose. What he had not counted on was the unusually heavy amount of rainfall that spring. The Gonzales-San Felipe Road was little more than a bog and wagons were sinking hub deep into the mud. Gold is heavy and the legend lives on to this very day that, in order to lighten the load, Santa Anna ordered a significant amount of the gold buried somewhere in the vicinity of the river. According to the story, Santa Anna intended to return and retrieve his treasure once he had caught up to and defeated General Sam Houston's army of Texas regulars. Of course, that didn't happen and Santa Anna never returned to the banks of the Navidad River. Generations of treasure hunters have searched for the cache ever since, but to no avail.



The legend of Santa Anna's gold is not the most famous tale centered around this river, however. That honor belongs to the strange legend of the wild woman of the Navidad. The story may very well be the tale of one of the earliest recorded sasquatch sightings in the history of the Lone Star State. While not well known in other parts of the country, the legend has achieved mythical status here in Texas. It goes something like this:

It all began in 1837, shortly after Sam Houston and his army had secured independence from Mexico for Texas by defeating Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Settlers who had fled from the advancing Mexican army during the "Runaway Scrape" had returned to their homesteads and were starting over. It was about this time that odd tracks began turning up near various settlements and homes along the Navidad River. There were usually two sets of tracks; one pair larger than the other and always barefoot, so it was widely assumed the prints belonged to a male and a female. Sometimes they appeared in the sweet potato or cornfields where the pair helped themselves to some of the bounty secured by the labors of the sod-busting settlers. No one ever saw this pair. It seemed they took great pains to avoid detection and, other than helping themselves to some of the crops, avoided mischief of any kind. Speculation ran rampant as to who the mysterious barefoot couple could be. Some thought they were runaway slaves while others posited they were children, a brother and sister perhaps, who had been separated from their family during the war for Texas independence and had gone feral. Of course, many assumed they were a pair of wandering Indians. There were holes in all of these theories but it didn't keep many a lively debate from being enjoyed by the locals who defended their position regarding the possible origin of these two mysterious visitors.

A couple of years passed and the barefoot tracks of the larger individual ceased to be seen. The smaller tracks continued to be spotted, however, so it was assumed the larger male had died. Indeed, skeletal remains of what appeared to be a man were found by local hunters when they noticed bones protruding from a pile of sticks and leaves in a wooded area near the Navidad River. Logic seemed to dictate that these remains belonged to the male recluse who had so often frequented the fields of the area.

The tracks of the smaller individual continued to appear in the potato fields of the area unabated. In fact, the visits seemed to increase in frequency. The people of the community wondered if this might not be due to the fact that the "woman" was not as adept at finding game as her mate had been. For various reasons, ranging from a desire to help this recluse to mere curiosity, a plan was hatched by several of the young men in the area to lie in wait and capture the wild woman. One night, as they hunkered down in a potato field, she came. The night was dark but the men claimed they could discern the figure of a woman, apparently unclothed, cautiously approaching their location. When she had drawn near to them they sprang in an effort to capture her with their bare hands. They drew nothing but air, however, as the woman, exhibiting impressive agility, dodged, ducked, and quickly bounded away without their ever laying a hand upon her. No sign of the wild woman was seen for several months afterward.



At length, the wild woman returned though her tactics changed a bit. She continued to visit the potato fields but became more bold and started entering the cabins of the settlers on her visits. The settlers thought that this must be a sign of desperation as she was risking her life by entering homesteads at night while the occupants slept. In addition to owning firearms, nearly all the settlers kept two or more large and fiercely protective dogs. The dogs were the alarm systems of the day and were kept to protect the families from interlopers be they man, big cat, bear, or something else. The wild woman, seemingly, was able to step right over these dogs and enter the premises. Once inside, she would take only what she needed. It was widely reported that she would tear a loaf of bread in two and take only one half. Her motive always seemed to have been hunger. Several times the wild woman had the opportunity to take gold watches, silverware, guns, and powder but never did so. She only took some, never all, of the food. All the while, nary a settler awoke during her intrusions nor did a dog so much as whimper upon her trespasses. This ability to sneak in and out of occupied homes gave rise to much superstition regarding just who, or what, the wild woman actually was. The slaves in particular were greatly disturbed at the prospect of receiving a nighttime visit from the wild woman and took to calling her "that thing that comes."

It was soon discovered that the wild woman would often enter a crib, or storage building, in the area that housed harvested corn. As always, she took only a trivial amount; but the curious felt this was just the way to catch her. All that need be done was have someone hide within the crib and shut the wild woman inside once she had entered. For several nights the watch was kept to no avail. The locals were not discouraged, however, and their patience was rewarded when the wild woman returned to the crib. The man on watch that night was lightly dozing when he heard the soft rustling of the cornhusks. All he needed to do was close the door, slide the bolt, and call out to his friends; however, he was overcome by an unexplainable dread and could not bring himself to stay even one more second inside the crib with "that thing that comes." He cried out in his fear before making his move and the creature tore out of the door with blinding speed. Another opportunity had been lost.

Years passed and the wild woman of the Navidad continued to haunt the fields, homes, and animal pens of the settlers. It is said that she began to take things other than food; a chain, a hacksaw, forks, a pitcher, etc. What she might have done with these things is not clear. The possibility that the wild woman became a convenient foil for those who had misplaced items must also be considered. One thing remained constant, however, and that is that during all her comings and goings never a bark, growl, or whimper was ever raised by even a single dog when she paid her visits. This baffled the settlers and began to weigh heavy on their minds. Just what kind of being was this "thing that comes?"

All of this had been going on for roughly eight years when a crude camp was found in the heavily wooded area near the river. Many of the items that had come up missing over the last year or so were found there. Among the items in the camp was a Bible. Could the wild woman read? No clothing was found and the only bedding was a pile of moss and leaves. Once again, pity for this wretched creature welled up within the hearts of the settlers. How could they just leave this poor woman alone out in the wilderness? It was resolved then and there that this mystery had to be solved. A new plan was devised by the locals that was more systematic and sophisticated than previous plans to capture the wild woman. A number of hunters would form extended lines and drive through the woods with leashed hounds. Other mounted men, lassos in hand, would take "stands" outside the brush line in the hopes of roping the woman once she had been flushed out of the woods and onto the open prairie.

The plan was implemented without success several times. The hunters got a break when a settler found fresh sign of the wild woman and took up positions that very night in the area. Their quarry was, indeed, in the area. It is generally known that hounds bark, bay, and cry in different ways depending on the animal whose scent they are following. That night under a bright moon, the hounds raised a cry that their owners had never heard before. They were on the scent of "that thing that comes." Shortly after the hounds were on the track there came a rustling of brush near one of the lasso men who was waiting outside the timberline. Suddenly, there she was, the wild woman of the Navidad. The creature sprinted out of the brush at an amazing rate of speed. She was attempting to reach another heavily wooded area several hundred yards across the open prairie. The rider spurred his horse to full speed in an attempt to catch the sprinting figure. To his amazement, the rider had to push his mount to a full gallop to get within range of the fleeing woman. He pulled to within lasso range several times but each time his horse, obviously afraid of this strange creature, shied and his throws came up short. Within moments the wild woman reached the safety of the woods and the chase was over.

The disappointed hunters regrouped and the rider who had pursued the wild woman gave his account. He had drawn close to her several times before his horse shied away and had gotten a good look. She had long hair, almost down to her feet, that flew behind her as she ran. She wore no clothing of any kind and was covered completely in short brown hair. The rider had not been able to get a very good look at her face as she only took a few frightened glances over her shoulder at him. The rider said that initially she had been carrying an object of some kind but had dropped it during the pursuit. The hunters spread out to look and found what was described as a club, roughly five feet long. Additional searches were made with no luck. The wild woman of the Navidad had vanished.



In 1850, during a particularly harsh winter, fresh prints were found. Rejuvenated by this find, the hunters were soon back on the hoof. The hounds were quickly on the trail though it was noted their cries were of a more familiar nature this time. To the delight of the hunters, their quarry was treed in short order. Instead of the wild woman, however, they found a black man, completely naked and frightened, clinging to the tree. It was discovered, with the help of a local who had worked in the slave trade, that he was a runaway slave who had escaped from his owner some years before along with a male counterpart. The slave did not speak much English, as he had but recently been brought over from Africa when he made good his escape, but the interpreter was able to discern how his partner had died some years earlier and he had been forced to steal food in order to supplement his diet as his counterpart had been the more adept of the two at capturing game. The slave was taken back to town where he was held for a good while. His feet were measured and found to match the dimensions of the recently discovered tracks perfectly. He was quite the attraction among the locals who wanted a glimpse of "that thing that comes." Public notices were posted in various newspapers throughout the region, but no slave owner ever stepped forward to claim the captive. It was decided to put this runaway up for sale at public auction. He was sold back into slavery and the mysterious nighttime visitations ceased. Likewise, no more barefoot tracks were found in the area. It seemed the wild "woman" of the Navidad was no more.

What is to be made of this tale? My own opinion is that the pair of runaway slaves was responsible for most of the mischief attributed to the wild woman. It was the feet of this pair that made the barefoot tracks found around homes and in the fields of the region. It all makes sense. The visitors who tore loaves of bread in two and only took one half, who stole the hacksaw, chain, silverware, and pitcher were human and not some "thing that comes." The fact that the mysterious pair were escaped slaves explains their desire to remain hidden. The fate awaiting a runaway who was captured was often a brutal one. Many have wondered why these two did not seek help and comfort from the slaves of the region. The fact is they, at least at times, may have sought and received aide. I strongly doubt that the slaves would have been inclined to share this with their owners. It is documented, however, that the two runaways did not speak English well. They, it was learned, were not born on some plantation in the New World but had been sold by their own African tribe into bondage. The language barrier could very well have been enough of an obstacle to keep the pair from approaching the slaves of the area. So, you see, the whole thing was eventually wrapped up quite tidily and the odd goings-on of a decade or more were explained.

Or were they?

What of the description of the wild woman given by the horseman who had pursued her across the plains that night years before? He never backed off his story of an upright hair-covered creature sprinting as fast as his horse at a full gallop. Even at night, and this one was a bright moonlit one, it would be all but impossible to mistake a fleeing human for a hair-covered creature. Remember, too, it was noted that the hounds cried out that fateful night in a manner the hunters had never heard before. They were on the trail of something with which they were unfamiliar. In contrast, the baying of the hounds the night the runaway slave was treed was familiar to the hunters and different from the night in question years before. The rider who pursued the wild woman that night mentioned how his horse would shy away from the figure each time he got close. Why would his horse have been afraid of a human? The creature the rider pursued that night behaved differently from the slave as well once the hounds were on its trail. The hair-covered figure crashed out of the brush at full speed and showed no inclination of slowing down for any reason. It did not seek refuge in the bough of a tree as the slave did. Instead, it crashed headlong back into a heavily wooded area, into which the rider could not follow, and kept going.

I suppose it is possible that the rider who described the wild woman as a hair-covered creature could have been telling a tale to make up for his failure to lasso and capture the runaway slave. Maybe, he figured, he would not look as bad in the eyes of his hunting partners for not being able to successfully rope his quarry if said quarry was described as an unknown ape-like animal with exceptional powers of speed and agility. On the other hand, I believe it is possible that the hunters stumbled upon a sasquatch that night who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This creature was likely not responsible for any of the mischief attributed to the wild woman but found itself flushed from cover from the drive initiated by those seeking her. Maybe, just maybe, that horseman pursued an unknown North American primate across the prairie that night. Perhaps, had the rider's horse had a bit more grit, he would have successfully roped this creature and the sasquatch would be more than a myth today. One final fact should be noted regarding this whole incident. The slave, once captured, readily admitted to all the trespasses attributed to the wild woman. What he did not mention was ever being chased across the open prairie by a lasso-wielding horseman.

Yes, I believe this pair of runaway slaves was responsible for the petty larceny going on up and down the Navidad River back in the early to mid 1800's. I also believe it to be very possible that the creature flushed out of the woods that night was not a human being at all. Whether that fleeing, hair-covered figure was, indeed, a sasquatch we will never know. Like many tales, time has blurred the lines of what is fact and what is reality. Any who could have set the record straight are long dead and gone. We must be reconciled to the fact that we will never know the whole truth behind the legend of the wild woman of the Navidad.

This is one Texas tale that is destined to remain shrouded in mystery.

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