Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Lobo Girl of the Devil's River

Even a man who is pure of heart

And says his prayers by night,

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms 

And the Autumn moon is bright.

 

The werewolf legend is likely as old as mankind itself. Tales of shape-shifting shamans, skinwalkers, and unfortunate souls who were either cursed or survived an attack by one of these beasts (only to become a monster themselves) appear in nearly every culture to have ever existed on this planet. I am sure that those versed in the science of psychology could share many theories on why this may be so. I, however, tend to believe that there is something more to such stories. Something significant – and very real to those who experienced it – must have taken place at some point; otherwise, the lore of the werewolf would not have survived for these many generations.

 

What sort of event could lead to the belief that a human being could be transformed into a wolf when the moon is full? Perhaps the legend has its roots in the tales of feral children found in the forests and jungles of the world long after they were presumed dead. Some of these stories are purely fictional, of course. The wolf-suckled twins Romulus and Remus who, according to legend, founded Rome, are one such example. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which details the rescue of the “man cub” Mowgli by a she-wolf who nursed him and raised him as her own, is another. These tales are all well and good, but is there any proof that such a thing has ever really happened? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.



Throughout history, the discovery of feral children has been extremely rare, but it has happened. The previously mentioned Mowgli was inspired by the strange tale of Dina Sanichar who was raised by wolves in India’s Uttar Pradesh jungle. Found by hunters in a wolf’s den in 1867, Sanichar (named by missionaries who later took him in) walked on all fours, would only accept raw meat as food, gnawed on bones to sharpen his teeth, and could not communicate verbally other than producing decidedly wolf-like grunts, barks, and howls. Eventually, Sanichar did learn to walk upright and dress himself; however, he never did learn language and died at the age of 35. Another real-life example of this phenomenon is “Peter the Wild Boy” who was discovered in the forests of Germany in 1725. Believed to have been abandoned by his parents, the boy was estimated to be 11 years old when found. He was unable to speak and loathed wearing clothes. Within a year of his rescue, Peter was shipped off to London where he became the “human pet” of King George I. The wild boy bounded about the King’s court on all fours, which the courtiers of Kensington Palace initially found quite entertaining. It was widely believed that the boy had been raised by wolves or bears due to his behavior. Eventually, the King tired of Peter and shipped him off to a farm in Herfordshire where he was forced to wear a collar that read: “Peter the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr. Fenn at Berhamsted shall be paid for their trouble.” Peter died in 1785 and was buried in the cemetery of St. Mary’s at Northchurch. There are numerous other examples of feral children that were suspected to have been raised by animals that could be cited here, but I trust the point has been made. What many do not realize is that this very scenario may have once played out in the deserts of west Texas.



A nearly forgotten historical fact is that a group of English people once established a small settlement called Delores on the banks of the Devil’s River (part of the Rio Grande drainage basin) in southwest Texas. The community was short-lived as most of the settlers were killed by Comanches. One white couple (who had a rather colorful history of their own), who lived on the extreme edges of the settlement, survived and carried on. One day in 1835, the settler husband frantically rode up to a homestead owned by Mexican goat ranchers and asked for help as his wife was having a baby and was in great distress. According to legend, a storm was brewing and the Mexican couple wanted to wait it out before mounting up and going to the aid of the mother to be. The settler insisted they leave immediately as his wife’s need was great. The Mexican couple relented and they started toward the settler’s home on the Devil’s River. The party had hardly started out when the settler was struck by lightning and killed. This event gave the rancheros pause and they decided to wait until morning to make the trek. While understandable, the decision of the Mexican couple proved disastrous for the female settler. Her lifeless body was found beneath an open brush arbor the next morning. There were clear signs the woman had died during childbirth, yet no child could be found. The couple hastily searched for the infant but found only lobo tracks in the vicinity. The couple assumed that wolves had come upon the scene and devoured the infant. Why the lobos had left the body of the mother unmolested was puzzling to the pair, but they proceeded with burying the unfortunate woman and then made their way home.

 

Ten years later, in 1845, a boy living at San Felipe Springs (now called Del Rio) reported that he had witnessed a pack of wolves attacking a herd of goats. With them, he claimed, was a long-haired creature that resembled a naked girl. The boy was chastised greatly, but the story – as good tales are apt to do – spread throughout the region. Roughly a year later, a Mexican woman at San Felipe declared she had watched two big lobos and a naked girl ravenously devouring a freshly killed goat. The woman claimed to have gotten very close to this odd trio before they took notice of her and bolted. The naked girl, at first, ran on all fours but eventually rose up and ran on two feet. The woman reported she was positive as to what she had seen and that the child was definitely keeping company with the two wolves.

 

Again, the story spread like wildfire, but this time the memory of the unfortunate settler woman who had died during childbirth, but whose baby was never found, was recalled. Could the feral “lobo girl” be the missing child, now 10 years old? Other stories related by local Native Americans – previously dismissed as superstitious drivel by the Anglo settlers - were also recalled. The Indians had claimed more than once to have located barefoot human tracks and handprints on the sandy areas along the river. The human spoor was always found among wolf tracks. Could it be? Was such a thing even possible? It was decided by the settlers that they had to find the wolf or lobo girl and rescue her. The posse managed to pick up the wolf pack’s trail quickly and cornered the girl in a small canyon. With the feral girl was a big lobo that fled when the child wedged herself into a crevice in the canyon wall. The girl at first cowered in fear before her tormentors, but then her countenance grew fierce. She spat, hissed, and growled at the men as they approached and bit and clawed them once they took a hold of her. Once captured, the girl began to produce a “pitiful, frightful, unearthly sound…resembling both the scream of a woman and the howl of a lobo, but being neither.” Distracted by these terrifying sounds, the vaqueros nearly failed to spy a huge he-wolf, likely the pack alpha, creeping up on the group. Fortunately for the posse, one man turned in time to see the wolf as it was preparing to spring and shot it dead with his pistol. At this, the lobo girl fainted.



The men bound the girl securely and stepped back to examine her more closely. According to the men, she was “excessively hairy, but breasts of beautiful curvature and other features showed that she was a normally formed human female. Her hands and arms were muscled in an extraordinary manner but were not ill proportioned.” The party rode to the nearest ranch where the girl was untied and placed in an isolated room for the night. The men attempted to communicate with her, offered her food, coverings for her body, and water but she reacted only with distrust and fear. The terrified girl backed herself into the farthest corner of the room where she cowered pitifully. The men decided, for the time being at least, to leave the poor creature alone. The door was closed and locked and the men nailed a thick board across the room’s only window. Things remained quiet…until darkness fell.

 

Once the sun set, the wolf girl began to emit screaming howls that were terrible to hear. Soon, her cries were answered by the long deep howls of wolves in the distance. The men’s eyes widened and fear began to creep into their souls as the cries of the lobos – seemingly approaching the ranch house from all sides - grew louder and more menacing. It wasn’t long before they were all howling in unison, “a bass-throated chorus of ferocity” the likes of which the rough and tumble vaqueros had never before heard. To the men, it seemed all of the lobos of the western world were gathering outside of the house. These rancheros, all of whom had lived their entire lives in the region, had never heard anything like it, “either from such a number of wolves now assembling or in the sullen, doom-like quality of the long, deep howling.” Back and forth the calls went. One of the men later recalled, “They (the wolves) would go silent as if waiting from some answer, and the wild girl in the dark room there would answer back with her unearthly, howling scream, a voice neither of woman nor of beast.”

 

After a while, exactly how long no one could say for sure, the pack made for the corrals and pens, attacking goats, cows, and horses. The screams of the livestock broke the spell the terrified men were under and they sprang into action in an effort to save the animals. Ordinarily, the rancheros did not fear wolves; however, on this night, the men stayed tightly packed together as they sought to run the predators off by shooting and shouting into the darkness. Eventually, the wolves retreated. When the men returned to the ranch house, they discovered that someone, or something, had managed to wrench the plank nailed across the window of the room where the lobo girl had been incarcerated loose. She was gone, presumably reunited with her pack. Not a single howl was heard for the rest of the night and, somewhat curiously, wolf sightings in the general area became exceptionally rare over the following years.

 

Six years would pass before the wolf girl was seen one final time. The year was 1852; gold had been discovered in California and travel westward had greatly increased necessitating the need for a wagon trail or road that was better watered than the Chihuahua Trail currently used by travelers heading to and/or through El Paso. A group of scouts seeking such a route came upon the lobo girl at a spot on the Rio Grande where it takes a sharp bend far above the mouth of the Devil’s River. At close range, the men caught sight of the hair-covered, naked young woman (some versions of the tale say she was holding or nursing two young wolf pups). Once she caught sight of the men, she sprang away in a flash, “dashing into the breaks at a rate no horse could follow.” The slack-jawed men sat stunned upon their mounts, knowing they had just glimpsed none other than the lobo girl of the Devil’s River.

 

As far as I can tell, the lobo girl was never seen again…at least not by white or Mexican settlers who would have left some record of the account. It is rumored that some of the handful of Apaches left in the region caught sight of her from time to time, but it cannot be confirmed. As years passed, the memory of the lobo girl faded. What happened to her will likely never be known. Some would later claim the entire story had been fabricated as it was simply not possible; however, the vaquerosrancheros, and scouts who did see her never recanted their stories and stuck to their guns until the day they died.



Texas does have werewolf legends of the more classic shapeshifting type: The Beast of Bear Creek, The Converse Werewolf, and the Cajun Rougarou all come to mind. To me, however, the tale of the lobo girl of the Devil’s River may be the strangest and most unsettling of them all. If scenarios where feral children raised by animals in other parts of the world have proven to be true, why could it not also have happened in the arid deserts and scrubland of frontier west Texas? Was she a true werewolf? No. To the rancheros that encountered the lobo girl and her fiercely protective pack, however, it mattered little. She was wolf enough to them.

 

West Texas remains sparsely populated to this very day. It is a wild and lonesome country where nature still reigns supreme. It is a region where all manner of strange goings on continue to be reported; a place where it is easier to believe in such things as the lobo girl of the Devil’s River than it might be in other locales. Should you ever find yourself there, alone on the night of a full moon, you might still hear the howl of a wayward wolf or coyote and recall the legend of the lobo girl. On such a night, even though you do not believe in such things, another stanza of the famous werewolf poem might come to mind:

 

To hear her cry in the dead of night

And strain to see the terrible sight,

Is to know the meaning of dreadful fright.

 

Sleep well.

 

 

Sources: 


Dobie, J. F., & Boatright, M. C. (1966). Straight Texas. Southern Methodist University Press.

Sawyer, B. J. (2017, November 22). The Devils River is an Off-Grid Paradise for Adventurers. Wide Open Country. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.wideopencountry.com/devils-river-off-grid-rugged-texas-paradise/ 

Lee, A. (2021, August 12). Dina Sanichar – a wild Indian feral child who was raised by wolves. Mysteriesrunsolved. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://mysteriesrunsolved.com/2020/04/dina-sanichar-real-mowgli.html 

Lane, M. (2011, August 8). Who was peter the wild boy? BBC News. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14215171 

Zimmerman, J. (2014, March 24). Wolf Boys and girls. Jean Zimmerman. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://jeanzimmerman.com/bio/savage-girl/wolf-boys-and-girls/ 

 

 

 

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Headless Horseman of the Nueces

 Human kind has always been a superstitious lot. Tales of ghosts, monsters, witches, and other “haints” are universal and cross all cultural divides and borders. Especially terrifying are tales where the alleged spectre in question met his/her end in the most gruesome of ways: decapitation. Tales of ghosts cursed to search for their missing heads on this earthly plane abound. One such example of this particular mythos is the tale behind the ghost lights of Bragg Road in East Texas. Some who believe in such things claim the lights are tied to a long dead conductor or railway worker who slipped under the train that used to run along the road and lost his head beneath the wheels of a tanker car or caboose.  While all such stories are frightening, the terror seems to ratchet up a notch when the headless spirit is astride an equally ghostly horse. Images of Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane fleeing for his life from the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow are those most commonly dredged up from the minds of most when the topic is broached. But it is all in good fun, such things are just campfire stories meant to thrill and delight the younger members of families. Headless riders are not real.

 

Except when they are.

 

In the mid 1800s, not long after the Mexican-American War wrapped up, settlers around the Nueces River in South Texas began to report sightings of a headless horseman roaming the countryside. Witnesses claimed the rider, dubbed "El Muerto," carried his head (still wearing a sombrero) tied to the horn of his saddle. About his shoulders, the rider wore a brush-torn serape over a buckskin jacket. The legs of the apparition were covered by rawhide leggings of the kind worn by Mexican vaqueros. The horseman was always seen astride a black mustang stallion so wild it seemed to have erupted onto the Texas plains straight from the mouth of hell. The rider was seen both day and night and there seemed to be no pattern to when and where he might appear next. The only constant was that he always rode alone and brought a paralyzing terror to any unlucky enough to lay eyes upon him. The Indians of the region, who rarely agreed with the Anglo settlers on much of anything, concurred that the rider was real and endeavored to keep their distance from him. Tribes on the hunt for bison or wild horses would range hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid entering the territory of the headless spirit.



Mayne Reid, stationed at Fort Inge on the Leona River, wrote, “No one denied that that thing had been seen. The only question was how to account for a spectacle so peculiar as to give the lie to all known laws of creation.” Reid went on to list the many theories that had sprung up in an effort to explain the rider. An Indian dodge, a lay figure, a normal rider disguised with his head beneath a serape that shrouded his shoulders, and the possibility that the headless horseman was none other than Lucifer himself were the most common explanations bandied about by settlers and soldiers in the region. One theory not expounded upon by Reid was that the rider was the patron, or ghostly guard, of the lost mine of the long-abandoned Candelaria Mission on the Nueces River. The debate raged on but the mystery as to the rider’s identity remained.

 

Finally, a group of settlers – tired of being afraid – managed to ambush the headless horseman at a watering hole near the present day town of Alice. The rider seemed impervious to their firearms. One man in the posse said, “Our bullets passed through him as easily as through a paper target.” A change in tactics was in order and the settlers shifted their fire from the seemingly invulnerable rider to the black mustang. The horse, it seemed, did not share the rider’s ability to weather gunfire and was felled quickly. Upon inspection, the settlers found a desiccated human carcass – one riddled by bullet holes and arrows – lashed to the back of the mustang. The mystery was solved but it birthed another question: who was the headless rider?

 

It was learned some time later exactly how the headless horseman of the Nueces had come to be. The answer came from none other than legendary Texas Ranger Bigfoot Wallace himself. Years before, during the Texas Revolution, Texian militias laid siege to the city of San Antonio. On the night of December 4, 1835, a Mexican lieutenant named Vidal deserted, joined the Texians, and provided them with valuable intelligence that helped lead to the surrender of the city by General Cos (the Mexican military would later return and avenge their humiliation at the Battle of the Alamo). After the Texians won their independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto, Vidal took to stealing horses in order to make a living. He proved quite adept at this endeavor and became the head of several rings of horse thieves operating in South Texas. The Texians were slow to suspect Vidal – despite mounting evidence – due to his reputation as a Texas patriot. Vidal was able to further deflect suspicion by deftly planting evidence that suggested the Comanches – who often raided settlements and homesteads for horses – were the true culprits.

 

Despite his best efforts, a couple of ranchers named Flores and Taylor began to suspect Vidal of the thievery and struck out to follow the trail of the rustlers. While camping on the Frio River, Flores and Taylor met up with Bigfoot Wallace – not one to tolerate a horse thief – who decided to join the hunt. As they drew nearer to the stolen herd, the hunters came across cattle that had been shot with arrows. “Vidal’s trick to make greenhorns smell Indians,” Taylor wrote. The three men did not fall for the ruse and pressed on, finally catching up to Vidal and his men near the Leona, only twelve miles from Fort Inge. To make a long story a bit shorter, the three men sneaked into the rustler’s camp and made short work of Vidal and his men that very night.



The next morning, Wallace – always a bit on the eccentric side – made a faithful decision. He chose a black mustang stallion from the recovered caballada, one that had been herd-broken but never saddled. Wallace roped the stallion, saddled him, and – after decapitating Vidal – lashed the horse thief’s body securely to the mustang. Wallace then laced Vidal’s head, sombrero and all, to the horn of the saddle. The three men then stepped back to admire their work. Before them, the lifeless and headless body of the king of South Texas horse thieves sat bolt upright on the back of a stallion so wild that Satan himself could not ride him. Bigfoot Wallace would declare years later that he had seen many pitching horses, but had never witnessed any other animal act like that black stallion with the dead horse thief on his back. After the mustang had pitched, bucked, snorted, squealed, pawed the air, and reared up and fallen over backwards, it seemed to accept its fate and fled into the Texas wilderness away from its tormentors and into legend.

 

It is often said that even the hardest to believe legends contain within them a grain of truth. Such is the case with the tale of the Headless Horseman of the Nueces. The witnesses were telling the truth; the rider was real. Perhaps it is a lesson we should recall when confronted with something that seems unbelievable today. Maybe we should pause before dismissing the outrageous claims of a witness who insists they saw a black panther, a wood ape, or some other creature that is not supposed to exist. Maybe we can treat those witnesses with respect and dignity and help them get to the bottom of what they saw.

 

Well, it’s just a thought.

 

 

Source:

 

Dobie, J. F. (Ed.). (1995). I'll Tell You a Tale - An Anthology. University of Texas Press. 

 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Historical Jaguar Sightings in Texas

My wife’s birthday was this week. She did not want a traditional gift; instead, she wanted to start redecorating our home (I blame Chip and Joanna of Fixer Upper and Ben and Erin of Hometown for infecting her with this renovation fever). I realized that this was going to cost me a lot more than a pair of earrings and an Olive Garden dinner but I love my wife and, begrudgingly, had to admit that a bit of “modernizing” was probably in order. The work started today with the arrival of a crew who were charged with painting the kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, and living room. I, of course, said that there was no need to hire painters as I could do the work myself. My lovely wife replied, “Honey, I don’t want you to spend your summer off working on the house. Why don’t you go get some writing done at the library?” Translated, this means, “I don’t want this job to cost twice as much as it should have after you mess it up and we have to hire these guys anyway. Now, make yourself scarce.”

 

Though deeply wounded (not really, but still…), I was glad to have blundered into a free afternoon and did, indeed, make my way to the Townsend Memorial Library on the campus of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. While not a large library, Townsend does have a robust folklore section and I am nowhere close to having gone through it all. As I sat down with a copy of From Hell to Breakfast, a collection of old Texas tales published in 1944, I came across a chapter titled “Panther Yarns.” Intrigued, I dug in and started reading. For the most part, I did not come across anything I was not already familiar with in regard to historical Texas panther sightings. I did some pretty exhaustive digging into this topic while researching my book Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America several years ago. Still, I read on hoping to come across something new. Luck was with me as I came across two accounts with which I was not familiar. While not true black panther accounts, the two news articles do document the killing of two very large spotted cats that I suspect were jaguars (one of the suspects in the black panther mystery since they carry the genetics for melanism). 



The first tale comes from an 1854 newspaper account detailing an encounter with a “Mexican Lion,” one of the terms Texans in the 1800s used to describe jaguars (“Mexican Tiger” or “Mexican Tigre” were also used periodically). Following is an excerpt from the article:


MEXICAN LION - We wish to inform you of a varmint of awful size, that was taken in camps, or killed, as I should say, at the above named place (Hays County), on the night of the 15th. It came down in the settlements of Blackwell’s Valley, and surprised the natives by taking a two-year-old hog out of the pen, (fat at that) and carrying it off. Its pursuers were Mrs. Stockman, Mrs. Thomas, and Miss Winters, who, with the aid of some dogs, caused it to take a tree; after which Mrs. Stockman procured a gun, and made an attempt to shoot it. When in the act of firing, the Mexican Lion -  for this is the name of the animal – made a spring at her; she dropped the gun without firing, just in time to save herself from his claws…Mr. J.H. Blackwell, with his dogs, came to their aid, and made it take a tree again. When just in the act of shooting, it made a second attempt to spring on its assailants, but Mr. B., more fortunate than Mrs. S., fired and brought the monster to the ground, dead. It measured nine feet in length, three and a half in height, and weighed 220 pounds. Its claws were two inches in length, and its teeth about the same. The skin, claws, and teeth of the animal can at any time be seen at my residence, on the Blanco, fifteen miles above San Marcos.

                                                                                                G.W. Blackwell

 

The second article comes from a story printed in the Telegraph and Texas Register on December 31, 1840. The article describes a “leopard.” I strongly suspect what was seen was actually a jaguar. Following is an excerpt from this article:

 

Texian Leopard - We were shown a few days since the skin of a leopard which was killed near Bexar (San Antonio), some weeks since. The animal to which the skin belonged must have been about ten feet long from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, and his body of proportional dimensions. The skin is beautifully variegated with black spots, upon a yellowish brown and white ground; and so closely resembles the skin of an African Leopard, that it would be difficult to distinguish it, if found among several skins of that animal. Many persons in the United States have doubted that statements made by travelers that the leopard exists in Texas; but if they could visit Bexar and its vicinity, their skepticism would soon vanish. It is said that great numbers of those Leopards are found in the vicinity of the Nueces and the Rio Grande…


I think it is safe to assume that the “Mexican Lion” in the first account and the “Texian Leopard” described in the second article were almost certainly jaguars. Though the sizes described seem unusually large – mainly in length – every other characteristic mentioned fits the jaguar perfectly (I think the unusual lengths mentioned could be due to the skins of the animals having been measured and not the actual animal). These accounts solidify what we already knew: jaguars were once native to Texas and more numerous in the southern reaches of the state (or in the case of the second account discussed above, the Republic). 



I have long felt that jaguars were the number one suspect in the Lone Star State’s black panther mystery. Jaguars fit the size profile most often reported (6+ feet in length nose to tail, 100-150 lbs, etc.), are native to the region, and also can be black (melanistic). The two articles provide more evidence – anecdotal though it may be – that early Texas settlers and residents in the 1800s were encountering jaguars. If so, it is possible a remnant population, one in which melanism has taken hold, lives here still and is responsible for at least some of the black panther sightings that Texans continue to report to this very day.

 

Now, back home I go. If I beat my wife back to the house, I might add my own little touch to the redecorating. Maybe a nice jaguar mural on one wall would look good…

 

Source:

Boatright, M. C., & Day, D. (1944). From hell to breakfast. Texas Folk-Lore Society. 

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Book Announcement

It has been too long since I posted here on the blog; however, I am happy to say that I have not been idle during my time away. For the last year, or so, I have been trying to finish up my latest book project. It has pretty well eaten up all of my “free” time but I am happy to say that the book is now complete and mere days away from being available to the public.

 

Valley of the Apes: The Search for Sasquatch in Area X chronicles my time in the North American Wood Ape Conservancy, the evolution of the group from its old TBRC days, the difficulties inherent to hunting the most elusive animal on the North American continent, and the amazing events/encounters experienced by NAWAC members in the eerily named Area X and other locations over the last decade.

 

I truly enjoyed reliving the many incredible events documented in the book – many of which I had not thought about in years - and hope that, even in a small way, my efforts help in legitimizing the efforts to document this most amazing creature. Perhaps a primatologist, wild life biologist, or famous naturalist – should any deem the book worthy of reading – will see similarities between the wood ape behaviors documented and the behaviors of the known great apes. If so, maybe it will give them pause and cause them to consider the possibility that the existence of the sasquatch is not so outlandish after all. If my efforts help remove even a small part of the stigma associated with seriously researching this topic, then I will consider the book a success.

 

A guy can hope, right?


*Check here on the blog, the Texas Cryptid Hunter Facebook and Twitter pages, and my personal author's page (michaelcmayes.com) for updates on when Valley of the Apes: The Search for Sasquatch in Area X is available for purchase.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Sasquatch Classics: Daniel Boone and the Yahoo

Daniel Boone was born on November 2, 1734 near the present-day town of Reading, Pennsylvania. The sixth of eleven children born to Squire Boone and the former Sarah Morgan, he would go on to earn great fame as a hunter, soldier, politician, statesman, woodsman, and guide. To this day, his is a household name that inspires images of trailblazing adventure and life on a frontier now long gone. Volumes have been written on this legendary figure’s life and of late, I have read through several tomes about this American legend. While doing so, one incident related by the great man himself kept popping up that seems to have been given short-shrift by each his biographers: Boone’s claim that he once shot and killed a ten-foot tall, hair-covered beast, called a “yeahoa” or “yahoo,” in the region that would one day become Kentucky or West Virginia.



     It is easy to see why a biographer of Boone would not know what to think about such a claim. The man did not suffer fools gladly, nor did he tolerate being thought of as one. This is obvious to anyone who reads about how Boone handled being dragged through a humiliating court-martial in 1778. Though he was found not guilty - and was even given a promotion in rank after the court heard his testimony about the matter in question – the frontiersman remained bitter about the entire affair and rarely spoke of it. The grudge against his accusers is one Boone held until the day he died. Yes, Boone was very conscious of his reputation and public image. That being the case, it seems odd he would make a claim as bizarre as having killed a monster.

     Some biographers go into more detail than others about the alleged incident; however, all seem to agree on the basic details of how the story came to light. Late in his life, Boone was holding court with a group of distinguished citizens at a dinner held in his honor at an inn in Missouri. At the conclusion of the meal, a question-and-answer session of sorts seems to have taken place. It was at this time that one of the men in attendance asked for a story. It is unclear if the gentleman asked for the particular yarn he ended up hearing or if Boone decided on the tale to be told. Either way, the story Boone shared was one of having come upon and shooting a ten-foot tall, hair-covered “yahoo” in the Appalachian wilderness many years before. The old frontiersman did not get too deep into the tale before one of the men listening laughed out loud and declared the story “impossible.” Accounts indicate that Boone was deeply offended and refused to continue despite the requests of the others in attendance. The awkwardness of the situation led to the premature end of the get-together and people began making their exits. After most of the others had left, the innkeeper’s son petitioned Boone to finish. 

“I would not have opened my lips had that man remained,” said Boone. 

“Well, we are alone now,” the boy replied. 

The frontiersman is said to have smiled wryly before saying, “You shall have it…” and finishing the story for the lad and the few holdouts who quietly made their way back into the room once it was obvious the story-telling had recommenced.



     While Boone never received much in the way of formal schooling – and his spelling was notoriously “creative” – he read well. His early favorites were history books. It is also said Boone took a strong liking to Robinson Crusoe. Later, two books dominated the frontiersman’s reading time: the Bible and Gulliver’s Travels. Written by Irish writer and clergyman, Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels became an instant hit upon publication in 1726. Most likely think they are familiar with the plot of Gulliver’s Travels in which the main character finds himself shipwrecked on the shores of an island nation called Lilliput and is taken prisoner by a horde of the island’s tiny inhabitants. It is true this is the most well-known part of Swift’s masterpiece; however, the tale of Lemuel Gulliver’s trials and tribulations among the Lilliputians is just part of the overall work. It is actually the story of Gulliver’s fourth voyage that concerns us in regards to the tale told by Daniel Boone.

     In Part 4 of the book, titled “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” Gulliver – who has tired of his life as a surgeon – returns to the sea as captain of a merchant vessel. After several crew members die, Gulliver hires replacements out of Barbados and the Leeward Islands. Unfortunately, the new hires turn out to be buccaneers and soon mutiny. The pirates strand Gulliver on the first piece of land they come across and sail away in his ship. It is now that the story becomes relevant to the Boone tale as the fictional Gulliver soon encounters some terrifying creatures:

 

“At last I beheld several animals in a field, and one or two and deformed, which a little discomposed me, so that I lay down behind a thicket to observe them better…their heads and breasts were covered with thick hair, some frizzled and others lank; they had beards like goats, and a long ridge of hair down their backs…they often stood on their hind feet…”

 

Another passage reads:

 

“My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure: the face of it indeed was flat and broad, the nose depressed, the lips large, and the mouth wide…the forefeet (arms) of the Yahoo differed from my hands in nothing else but the length of the nails, the coarseness and browness (sic) of the palms, and the hairiness of the backs. There was the same resemblance between our feet, with the same differences…the same in every part of our bodies except as to the hairiness and colour (sic)…I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them the more hateful they grew…”

 

Daniel Boone was intimately familiar with the yahoos described in Gulliver’s Travels. If he had ever come into contact with a huge, hair-covered, human-like beast in his years of traversing the American wilderness, calling the beast a yahoo – based on the description of the creatures written by Swift – seems natural enough. To this day, the names Yeahoh and Yahoo are used to describe sasquatch-like creatures said to roam the mountains and forests of Appalachia.

Critics say Boone’s tale of shooting a bigfoot-like creature is just a campfire story meant to entertain his rapt followers who hung on his every word. Boone biographer, Robert Morgan, would seem to concur and wrote, “He (Boone) was also known to tell tales about encountering great hairy monsters like the yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels. Most likely it never happened.” It is hard to blame Morgan for having doubts about such a fantastic claim, but he dismisses the tale without any elaboration. While the story might be hard to take at face value, Morgan himself writes about the integrity of Boone and how much he valued his reputation. It would seem proper for the author to explain why the famous woodsman would veer from his character and fabricate a story about having killed a monster, especially when it seems all scholars agree regarding how offended the frontiersman became when his story was challenged.



Boone is said to have related the tale of the yahoo on multiple occasions, most often during the last year of his life. Some have speculated that he might have been losing his faculties during his 85th and final year on this earth. Others correctly point out that the “deathbed confession” is a real phenomenon. People confess all manner of things when they realize the end of life is near. Such confessions are thought to help alleviate feelings of guilt or regret the dying person may have been harboring during their lifetime. Too, the “deathbed declaration” - when a dying person shares some secret knowledge - is not an unusual occurrence. Usually, these declarations have to do with feelings the dying individual has for another person; however, sometimes knowledge is shared which the person has been holding onto for years, decades even. Such dying declarations have sometimes been used in court as evidence; indeed, at times, the final words of a dying man/woman are given more credence in such a scenario, as common sense would seem to indicate that they no longer have anything to lose or gain by sharing what they know.

It is true Boone told the story of the yahoo multiple times over his final year(s), but not on his literal deathbed. Still, Boone’s health was beginning to wane and any man once he reached the age of 85 would realize that there was precious little time ahead of him. Too, men of a certain age often get to a point where they could not care less about what others think of them and no longer concern themselves with how they might be ridiculed. Could the knowledge that his time on earth was short have motivated Boone to relate his incredible tale while he still could? Was it important for him to share the story – one he had kept to himself for years – before leaving this mortal plane? Perhaps.

It is highly doubtful that the truth about whether or not Daniel Boone shot and killed a sasquatch-like creature will ever be known. What is inarguable is that Boone spent more time in the American wilderness than just about any white man who has ever lived. That being the case, if the sasquatch is a real creature, who would have been more likely to eventually come across one than Daniel Boone?

 

 

Sources:

Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. The Easton Press, 1995. 

Morgan, Robert. Boone a Biography. Recorded Books, 2008. 

Mart, T. S. The Legend of Bigfoot: Leaving His Mark on the World. Indiana University Press, 2020. 

Swift, Jonathan, and David Womersley. Gulliver's Travels. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. 

“Daniel Boones' Sasquatch.” Daniel Boones' Sasquatch Story, enigmose.com/daniel-boone-sasquatch.html. 

Peacock, Lee. “Did Pioneer Daniel Boone Really Kill a Bigfoot-like Creature Prior to 1820?” Did Pioneer Daniel Boone Really Kill a Bigfoot-like Creature Prior to 1820?, 1 Jan. 1970, leepeacock2010.blogspot.com/2017/05/did-pioneer-daniel-boone-really-kill.html. 

 

      

Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Legend of the Belled Buzzard

Going on ten years ago, I was out checking on some game cameras here in Central Texas. I had placed my cameras along the Lampasas River below the Stillhouse Hollow Dam. My cameras never captured anything unusual while in this location, but I did experience something a bit odd one day while servicing them. I was changing out batteries on one of the cameras when I thought I heard the tinkling of a bell. It was a sound akin to that made by a small, round “sleigh bell.” I turned to look around, but saw nothing. I started to get on with the task at hand when I heard the bell again. This time, the sound seemed to emanate from somewhere above me. I looked up into the trees but saw only a few black vultures (Coragyps atratus) lingering about. The whole thing was a bit odd, but – and you know this if you have followed the blog for any length of time – I have had much stranger experiences while out in the woods so I just finished the chore of refreshing my trail camera. I did not hear the sound again that day, or on any of my subsequent trips to the location, and thought so little of it I did not mention it in the blog post I made later regarding the photos I had captured on that particular set. I had not thought about that day in years, but a recent discovery brought it all back and made me wonder about what I might have heard that day.


            Recently, I was thumbing through a book called Unexplained! By Jerome Clark at the Temple Public Library. I was flipping through the usual chapters on the UFOs, sasquatches, yetis, and Loch Ness monsters of the world when my eyes fell upon an entry titled “Belled Buzzard.” Never having heard of such a thing, I began reading. Imagine my surprise to find out that many odd stories have been published over the years – most between 1860 and 1950 – about a “belled buzzard.” Reports spanned the continent from the Dakotas to Florida, but a couple of locales popped up more than any others: Indiana and, you guessed it, Texas.



            The origin of the belled buzzard legend is hazy at best. The earliest sightings seem to have occurred in 1869 in Tennessee. These encounters were documented in the Memphis Appeal in the early summer months of that year and the stories were picked up and reprinted by other newspapers across the country. The term belled buzzard is not used in the articles, but related were the tales of two separate accounts where multiple people spotted a buzzard (a colloquial term for a vulture) with a small bell around its neck. The sightings took place on a farm near Burnsville and witnesses described the bird seen as seeming “more than usually wild.” 


Following are snippets of the earliest Texas accounts I could locate:

 

 Pilot Point, April 25, 1893. “The belled buzzard was seen…by Mrs. Keys and family on their farm near town and as usual it was not accompanied by any of its kind” (Dallas Morning News, April 30)

 

Erath County, March 18, 1894. “Col. J. L. Hansel…always doubted reports concerning the famous ‘belled buzzard.’ He did not believe until yesterday afternoon that such a buzzard existed. He was out in his yard when above him he heard a bell ringing. Looking up he saw a buzzard with a bell hanging on its neck” (Dallas Morning News, March 20).

 

Nunn, early June, 1894. “M. K. Ownsly and Will James caught a belled buzzard… The bell was branded ‘J’ and was attached to the buzzard’s neck by a leather collar” (Dallas Morning News, June 15)

 

Longview, June 27, 1894. “A buzzard wearing a sheep bell was seen by several citizens yesterday morning. The belled buzzard has been seen at numerous places in this state…Mr. O. H. Methvin and his son, over whose corn field he circled several times, thought it was a belled sheep or calf in their corn and tried some time to find it” (Dallas Morning News, June 29).



Chatfield, April 3, 1898. “’The belled buzzard’ has been captured. It was caught…last Sunday. The bell consisted of an oyster can securely tied about the bird’s neck with a ten-penny nail as the bell clapper. It was trapped on the farm of Mr. T. B. Roberts, liberated from the burden, which had cut into the flesh, and the bird turned loose. The can is on exhibition at Shook’s drug store” (Dallas Morning News, April 10, quoting the Corsicana Chronicle, Texas).

 

Woodbury, October 29, 1900. “J. C. Goldfrey…informed The News correspondent that the celebrated belled buzzard spent the day on his farm yesterday. He saw it several times and distinctly heard the bell which he described as having a tin sound” (Dallas Morning News, October 31).

 

Falfurrias, early February, 1931. “A belled buzzard may be seen daily in the Flowella section…Mrs. J. F. Dawson and her son, Jimmie, were working in the yard…when suddenly they heard the tinkle of a small bell, seemingly out of the blue sky. After straining their eyes in every direction for a short time, they discovered  his buzzardship lazily floating along, while with each flap of his wings the little bell tinkled” (San Antonio Express, February 15).

 

Just where did this belled bird or birds - for surely it had to have been more than one vulture responsible for the plethora of sightings - come from? One of the origin stories that seems the most credible came from physician C. A. Tindall of Shelbyville, Indiana. While being interviewed by an International News Service Reporter in March of 1930, the good doctor – after discussing a recent sighting – said, “It calls to mind an incident that occurred about 1879 or 1880 on the old home farm four miles out of Shelbyville.” Dr. Tindall goes on to say that he and his brothers discovered a buzzard’s nest on the family property and were able to catch a hen guarding her eggs. “We put a sheep bell with a leather strap around the body of the buzzard,” he said. “In front of one wing and behind the other. As the buzzard soared away the bell tinkled.”


            The other story of the how the belled buzzard got its start caught my eye as it originates from Belton, Texas. (I teach school in the Belton ISD.) In a 1968 interview with the Belton Journal, eighty-year-old Irma Sanford Eddleman was coerced by her daughter to tell a unique story from her childhood. One day (the specific year is not mentioned), a young Irma and her little brother noticed several vultures circling the carcass of a recently deceased chicken that had been disposed of behind their house. “My little brother and I decided to catch one,” Irma said. “I did. It jerked me almost two feet off the ground, trying to get away, and how it stank. But I held on, and sent my brother into the barn to get a length of wire that had a bell on it. We wrapped the wire around that bird’s neck, and let it go. My father worried for days about a bell ringing up in the air; he could hear it in the early morning up in the sky. My brother and I did not say a word.” Ms. Eddleman went on to express regret for the prank. “I’m not at all proud of that,” she said. “It was the unthinking act of a child, and not a kind one.”


            While the origin story of the belled buzzard may be hazy, what can be said for sure is that for the better part of four decades sightings of the unfortunate vulture were reported in newspapers on a semi-regular basis. After that, newspaper stories regarding the famous belled buzzard became increasingly rare, though they never went away completely.


            As might be expected, the belled buzzard achieved something akin to mythical status among rural Americans living through the heyday of sightings. To some, the appearance of this belled vulture was a harbinger of misfortune or even death. In other places, however, the sighting of the belled buzzard was anything but a bad omen. To some, the appearance of the famous bird over a rural homestead was “regarded as an infallible sign that there was to be an addition to the family. Mothers instead of telling their children of the stork’s visit informed them that the belled buzzard was the bearer of the little one” (Philadelphia Record, 1908). The legend became so well-known that a story, written by Irvin S. Cobb, about it was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1912.



            Like today, skeptics abounded during the belled buzzard craze. Witnesses were often ridiculed and public questioning regarding their state of mental health and drinking habits were standard. The possible existence of such a bird was deemed too ridiculous to take seriously and, therefore, had to be figments of fevered/drunken imaginations or outright fabrications. Clark writes in his book, “In 1897, when mystery airships (a late nineteenth-century equivalent to modern UFOs) were reported in various parts of the country, witnesses received the same treatment. In fact, mystery airships and belled buzzards were sometimes mentioned in the same humorous or unflattering sentences.”


            As a native Texan, I can tell you that there is no tradition of belling buzzards – nor any other type of bird – here. Neither has it ever been a common practice across the American South or Midwest. I find it plausible – as the previously mentioned origin stories relate - that someone somewhere caught and attached a bell to either a black or turkey vulture at some point as a prank, inadvertently birthing a legend. No doubt, there were some copycats who duplicated the stunt. (It is the only way so many birds could have been seen across such a vast amount of the continent over so many years.) For whatever reason, sightings of belled buzzards are all but non-existent now, but in their day the existence of these mysterious vultures was as hotly debated and controversial as the possible existence of the sasquatch or UFOs are today.


            As I close, my mind once again drifts back to that day along the Lampasas River a decade ago. I heard what I heard and numerous vultures were present. Is it possible the belled buzzard – who may have gotten his start in nearby Belton – had returned home after all these years? Surely, not.


            Right?



Sources: 


Clark, Jerome. Unexplained! Third ed., VISIBLE INK PR., 2012. 

Cobb, Irvin S. “The Belled Buzzard.” The Saturday Evening Post, 28 Sept. 1912. 

“Indiana University Bloomington.” ""Belled Buzzard" from Library", http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/images/item.htm?id=http%3A%2F%2Fpurl.dlib.indiana.edu%2Fiudl%2Flilly%2Fhohenberger%2FHoh006.091.0016. 

Lindaseccaspina, and Lindaseccaspina. “Don't Fear the Cow Bell - the Belled Vulture.” Lindaseccaspina, 31 May 2021, https://lindaseccaspina.wordpress.com/2021/05/31/dont-fear-the-cow-bell-the-belled-vulture/. 





            

            

 

            

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Once in a Lifetime: Steller's Sea Eagle Spotted in Texas

 Most of us would consider our chances of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning as highly unlikely. The odds of such an event occurring in the life of an individual are ridiculously long. Another event that would carry similar long-shot odds would be spotting a Steller’s sea eagle in south Texas; yet, it appears that event has actually taken place.


The Steller’s sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) is a striking bird of prey native to coastal northeastern Asia. It is among the largest and heaviest eagles in the world achieving lengths of 2 – 3.5 feet and weighing 11 – 20 pounds. The species sports an impressive wingspan of 7 feet on average though larger eagles are suspected to exist. Unsubstantiated reports of wingspans of up to 9 feet exist and, though not officially recognized, are not thought to be outlandish. When it comes to size, only the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) and Phillipine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) can give the Steller’s  sea eagle a run for its money. The Steller’s  eagle is a strikingly marked bird with dark brown feathers, white wings, and a white tail. The beak and eyes of this bird are a bright yellow. The feet, too, are a bright yellow, and sport talons a bit more curved than those typically seen on inland eagles. All in all, this is not a bird that is going to be easily misidentified.

 

The fun started on March 10th when a photo of a Steller’s  sea eagle was posted on the Facebook page of the Barnhart Q5 Ranch & Nature Retreat. According to the post, the bird was spotted on the Coleto Creek arm of Coleto Creek Reservoir and downstream from the Coletoville Road bridge in Goliad County. The snag on which the eagle was perched has been found and the location verified according to my contacts in the birding community. Those same contacts have told me there is no sign of photoshopping or other doctoring of the original image. More and more of the Texas birding community – who initially scoffed at the possibility of this species being seen in the Lone Star State – are coming around to the likelihood that the sighting is legitimate. 

 

If true, how could a Steller’s  sea eagle have gotten so lost? The first possibility is that it did not. Some have speculated that what was seen was a bird that escaped from a zoo or a falconer. It is a theory that would neatly sum up the mystery as to how this eagle ended up at least 5,000 miles from home; however, there are problems with this hypothesis. There are very few Steller’s  sea eagles in U.S. collections. According to several veteran Texas birders to whom I spoke, there are less than 20 of these eagles in captivity in the United States. A quick search revealed that zoos in San Diego, Cincinnati, Denver, Boise, Louisville, and New England house specimens. These are some of the heavyweights of the zoo world in North America and not roadside menageries with a ramshackle enclosures that might make escape possible. None of these zoos have reported a missing eagle. These same birders went on to address the falconer theory and said this explanation is unlikely. One said, “It would be an extremely tough bird for a falconer to even obtain.” To sum up, the idea that this bird is an escapee has lost a lot of steam.



If one considers the possibility that the photo is legitimate, we are still left to wonder how and why this magnificent bird got so far off course. While native to eastern Asia, these eagles are occasionally seen on the western-most islands of Alaska. In September of last year, however, an adult bird was seen much farther inland at Denali National Park. At the time, it was considered to be the farthest inland the species had ever been seen. If that bird lingered in Alaska over the following five months, it is possible it was forced south by the brutal Arctic front that recently assaulted Texas and caused so much havoc. If so, now that the weather has warmed, this eagle likely will not be around much longer. That being the case, many Texas birders are racing to the Goliad area as quickly as possible in the hopes of capitalizing on what is almost assuredly a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this eagle.

 

Another possibility as to how this eagle found its way to Texas is that there is something wrong with it. Occasionally, individual birds lose their ability to navigate properly. It is almost as if their internal compass suddenly ceases to operate correctly. This loss of navigational ability has led to sightings of species far outside of their normal ranges. One such recent example is the case of a great black hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga) – a bird that is native to South America, Central America, and Mexico – that ended up in Maine in 2019. This incident ended on a sad note when the hawk was found near frozen one cold January day. The bird was taken to a rehabilitation center but suffered frostbite on its feet and had to be euthanized. The only explanation for how this species managed to get 2,000 miles from its accepted home range is that something in its internal navigation system went haywire. We can only hope that a happier fate awaits the Texas Steller’s  sea eagle.

 

So, if you are in the Goliad area, you might want to take a ride out to Coleto Creek Reservoir and see if you can catch a glimpse of this magnificent, wayward eagle. While you are out, you might want to buy a lottery ticket as well. As this Steller’s  sea eagle has proven, sometimes long-shots pay off.

 

Sources:

 

Steller's sea eagle. (2021, March 02). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steller%27s_sea_eagle

Facebook. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/BQ5RANCH/photos/a.2097168407009460/4136167156442898/

Great black hawk. (2021, March 15). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_black_hawk

Maine's great Black Hawk - rescued! (2019, January 31). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from http://www.10000birds.com/maines-great-black-hawk-rescued.htm