Monstrous hominids have always haunted our imaginations. In North America, the most discussed and celebrated man-beast goes by the names Sasquatch and Bigfoot. The creature’s size varies, but it generally stands taller than a human, has hair growing on its body, and wears a face that falls somewhere between human and simian.
The most influential reports of Sasquatch/Bigfoot, curiously, follow sightings of the similar Yeti or Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. The first modern reports of the Yeti reach western ears in the early 1920s1, along with the popular name abominable snowman. A few years later, the first serious article introduces the word Sasquatch to Canadian readers. Interest in the Yeti was renewed in the 1950s; in the late 1950s, the modern Bigfoot craze is born. This could be coincidence. Alternatively, reports of one such creature might have elicited reports—- real, imagined, or hoaxed—- of the other.
Before the Twentieth Century
Reports and legends of something like the Sasquatch exist before the 1920s. David Thompson, a fur trader and Canadian surveyor reported seeing unidentified large footprints in Alberta in 1811. They did not match the prints of any creature he knew, and he wondered about their origin. Other, infrequent reports appear throughout the nineteenth century; most include vague references to hairy creatures and could easily be references to bears on their hind legs. Other stories of "wild men" range from plausible-sounding encounters with something odd to those with the unmistakable ring of the tall tale.
Some of the reports often included in lists of pre-twentieth century sightings suggest desperation on the part of researchers. For example, in 1878, a captured Wild Man was displayed for the public at Louisville, Kentucky’s Metropolitan Theatre. Since many people saw the creature and the newspapers duly reported the fact, the story has become a favourite among many Sasquatch researchers. The creature, however, had fishlike scales and does not sound much like a Sasquatch. No scientific or medical records survive, despite the astonishing creature’s captivity. Local historians regard the incident as a hoax perpetrated for profit. The creature briefly on display was likely a person in a theatrical costume.
"Jacko," an ape of less than human stature found by British Columbian loggers in 1884, comes closer to the mark. First reported in Victoria’s The Colonist, Jacko mysteriously vanished shortly after the reports of his capture. Rival reporters at the time investigated the story and drew the conclusion that it was a hoax. Others have suggested that the miners may have encountered an ape or monkey captured elsewhere by sailors (the practice is not unknown) and later abandoned. In the end we have only a report, and no corroborating evidence.
We don’t know how many people in the 1800s connected these sporadic reports and twice-told tales, nor whether many associated them with various Native myths. Certainly, the Wild Man of the North American wilderness would not take hold of the popular imagination until the twentieth century.
Sasquatch: the 1920s to the 1950s
A schoolteacher and government Indian Agent, J.W. Burns adapted the name Sasquatch in the 1920s from several similar-sounding words in Native languages. The original words refer to everything from long-haired giants to apparent nature spirits, but Burns claims to have found testimony of recent encounters with something resembling the modern conception of Sasquatch, and suggested, as many have since, that a large primate might exist (or have, until recently, existed) in the forests of British Columbia. His article, first published in Macleans in 1929 and later republished, with revisions, by The Wide World in 1940, marks the first significant modern exposure of the Sasquatch story.
Sightings trickle in during the years that follow, including a beguiling report from Ruby Creek, British Columbia in 1941. That year, a Native family, the Chapmans, claimed to have encountered a savage animal, described as a "bear" but said to be "ten feet tall" with a "flat snout" (Green).
Most significant reports ascribed to the early twentieth-century, however, do not surface until after the popularization of Bigfoot in the 1950s. Albert Ostman claims to have been kidnapped by a family of Sasquatch in 1924, but he did not tell the oft-repeated story until 1957. Also in 1924, some miners supposedly fought an attack by Sasquatches in Ape Canyon, Washington. Fred Beck, on whose account comes our knowledge of this encounter, did not tell his tale until 1967. His story includes references to psychic phenomena; make of it what you will. In either case, we have only one individual’s testimony, reported decades later, upon which to rely.
Bigfoot: 1950s to the Present
The name Bigfoot may have been used as far back as the 1920s, but only gained widespread currency in the 1950s.
In 1958, the Wallace Construction Company, owned by Ray Wallace, were clearing roads in the forested Bluff Creek region of northern California. Jerry Crew, a bulldozer operator working for Wallace found footprints, each about sixteen inches in length and a stride nearly twice that of the average person. The news media picked up the story, and popularized the name, Bigfoot. Workers found other footprints, and Wallace himself would later produce several photographs that resemble uncannily someone frolicking in a gorilla suit. Most Bigfoot enthusiasts dismiss, at least, these later items, but the fact remains, without Wallace, Bigfoot might never have become a household name.
In the wake of the unprecedented publicity, numerous footprints have been found, and casts have been made of many of these. Bigfoot enthusiasts like to stress the similarity of the footprints, and the sheer number, often found in remote locations. Could so very many people be perpetrating so many hoaxes over so long a period of time? Detractors note significant differences in the shape, size, and configuration of the footprints, which suggest "many independent pranksters" (Dennett 1996). Sceptic Benjamin Radford indicates that it has become easier, over time, to make consistent tracks, because existing examples are so prevalent, and casts of supposedly authentic Bigfoot tracks can be ordered online.
The apotheosis of late-twentieth century Bigfoot sightings is the Patterson film, grainy 16 mm footage taken by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin on October 20, 1967 in the Bluff Creek area. The question of what, exactly, shambles across that film remains unresolved. What is clear is that the film (contrary to the claims of many Bigfoot enthusiasts) easily could have been faked, and the evidence tends to point in the direction of a hoax:
- Patterson and Gimlin set out to get footage of a Bigfoot. They then immediately succeed. They subsequently fail to follow the creature (despite its ambling pace), and do not return to this apparent fruitful hunting ground in their later quests (Chorvinsky).
- Patterson had earlier published a book on Bigfoot (Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist? Yakima: Franklin Press, 1966) which features drawings that resemble the creature in his film, down to the stance and the large, hairy breasts.
- The film manages to be just grainy enough to make a definite identification impossible.
- Bigfoot enthusiasts are fond of saying that the suit is too good to be faked, but a good many make-up and effects artists have said that such an outfit would, in fact, be fairly easy to fabricate (Chorvinsky).
- The movement and footprints resemble those made by a person walking with an exaggerated stride.
- The film was taken in the Bluff Creek area, where Ray Wallace appears to have perpetrated many Bigfoot hoaxes.
Ray Wallace later claimed that the film was a hoax, and often said he knew the identity of the person in the suit, though he would not reveal it. Popular Hollywood rumour has identified make-up artist John Chambers as the suit's maker; he has always denied the allegation. Certainly, Wallace would, over the years, become a problematic figure in the hunt for Bigfoot.
The Passing of Bigfoot?
In 2002, many news sources announced the death of Bigfoot. Ray Wallace passed away in November of that year, and his relatives confirmed that he had been involved in many hoaxes. They claim he created the footprints found at the construction site in 1958, and many more over the years. They also stated that he arranged several sightings, including the one caught on film by Patterson. Wallace certainly had an established history of Bigfoot-related hoaxes, but whether he was entirely responsible for the phenomenon remains up for debate. Sasquatch enthusiasts question whether we should believe the deathbed confession of an acknowledged hoaxer.
On April 16, 2005, footage was taken of a Bigfoot-like figure moving in the northern Manitoba wilderness. The image is not at all clear, however, and the original videotape has since gone missing.
In 2007, bigfoot researcher Todd Standing released a documentary, Sylvanic, which he claims proves conclusively that the creatures exist. His central evidence: inconclusive footage showing a shadowy figure from a distance.
Other problems plague the case for Bigfoot’s existence.
Footprints aside, the creature, if it exists, has left a surprising lack of physical evidence. No carcasses have been found. The physical evidence that does appear inevitably turns out to be from known animals. In 2005, someone discovered Sasquatch hair in British Columbia; it was identified as a buffalo's (Harding). Sasquatch also remain notably absent from the fossil record of North America.
Bigfoot and Popular Culture
If evidence is lacking, recreations and representations are not hard to find. From the late 1960s on, Sasquatch gained a firm, bigfoothold in popular culture. His popularity has bred movies, roadside attractions, souvenirs, festivals, and dubious imitators.
Bigfoot: Man or Beast? (1971), a mediocre documentary garnered reasonable box office and introduced many people to the Patterson film, and to the oft-quoted, rightly ridiculed claim that no one could possibly have faked the suit. It also features footage of many of the people involved in the original Bigfoot reports. Since then our beast has featured in too many low-budget documentaries and Unsolved Mysteries-style shows to list. Sasquatch Odyssey: The Hunt for Bigfoot (1999), which focuses on those who have dedicated their lives to proving the creature exists, ranks among the most entertaining.
In 1970, the inevitable drive-in exploitation film appeared; this Bigfoot fought some outlaw motorcyclists out to rescue kidnapped females. It features David Carradine and two members of Robert Mitchum’s immediate family. Other titles include Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot (1977), Revenge of Bigfoot (1978), The Capture of Bigfoot (1979), Bigfoot: The Unforgettable Encounter (1994), and Little Bigfoot (1997). Sid and Marty Krofft combined the legend with Tarzan and trotted out one small-screen season of Bigfoot and Wild Boy in 1976. Around the same time, Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman encountered Sasquatch; he proved to be a hairy robot built by aliens2. The popular film and subsequent television series, Harry and the Hendersons took a lighthearted look at its title Sasquatch, who is adopted by a human family. The original 1987 film was ripped off by a made-for-television movie, simply called Bigfoot. In June of 2012, another made-for-tv Bigfoot appeared; this one featured Danny "Partridge" Bonaduce, Barry "Greg Brady" Williams, and Alice Cooper.
A number of small towns, including Carson, Washington and Honobia, Oklahoma hold Bigfoot-themed festivals. Other regions have bred their own Bigfoot-inspired monsters. Florida’s Skunk Ape or Swamp Ape, first popularized in the early 1970s, ranks among the most famous. Sightings trickled off by the end of the 1970s and then resumed in the 1990s. Evidence points to a hoax. Certainly, the Ape’s convenient appearances for guided tours near Ochopee, Florida make one suspicious.
The evidence for Sasquatch/Bigfoot’s existence may seem wanting, but that does not mean the creature will not endure. If it exists, we shall find proof; if it does not, it will be impossible to disprove its existence. As Benjamin Radford has written, "if Bigfoot exist, then the mystery will be solved; if they don’t exist, the mystery will endure. So far it has endured for at least half a century."
1. Reports by westerners in fact go back to 1889, but these received little notice. The Yeti legend, is of course, older.
2. The Bionic Bigfoot was played, BrooksMarlin reminds me, by Andre the Giant. The character was available as an action figure.
The Bigfoot Casebook. Janet and Colin Bord. New York: Grenada Publishing, 1982.
Bigfoot: Man or Beast? Dir. Lawrence Crowley. BijouxFlix. 1971.
J.W. Burns. "The Hairy Giants of British Columbia." The Wide World: A Magazine for Men January 1940. Reprinted at Bigfoot Encounters, http://www.bigfootencounters.com/legends/jwburns.htm. (The original article is itself a revision of an article Burns had first published in Macleans, April 1929.)
Mark Chorvinsky. "Some thoughts on the Patterson Film on Its Thirtieth Anniversary." Strange Magazine. Fall, 1997. http://www.strangemag.com/pattersonfilm30th.html
"The Make-up Man and the Monster: John Chambers and the Patterson Suit." Strange Magazine Fall 1996.
M. Dennett "Evidence for Bigfoot? An investigation of the Mill Creek 'Sasquatch Prints.'" Skeptical Inquirer 13(3), Spring 1989: 264-272.
John Green. "Meet the Sasquatch" (On the Track of the Sasquatch. Agassiz, British Columbia: Cheam Publishing, 1969. 1-8). Bigfoot Encounters. http://www.bigfootencounters.com/articles/meetsasquatch.htm
Katherine Harding. "Tuft Luck: Sasquatch is a Bison." The Globe and Mail. July 29, 2005. A9.
"Legends." Falls of the Ohio Archeological Society. http://www.falls-society.org/legends.php
Benjamin Radford: "Bigfoot at Fifty: Evaluating a Half-Century of Bigfoot Evidence." Skeptical Inquirer March/April 2002. http://www.csicop.org/si/2002-03/bigfoot.html.
Bobbie Short. "The Story of Jacko." Bigfoot Encounters. http://www.bigfootencounters.com/creatures/jacko.htm
Bryan Stevenson. "On the Trail of the Sasquatch." True Frontier December 1975. http://www.bigfootencounters.com/articles/truefrontier.htm
"A Wild Man." Knoxville Daily Tribune. November 2, 1878. http://www.tngenweb.org/white/wildman.html.