A giant and a really big story, 1829

February 11, 2015

Root around in early 19th-century American newspapers for 90 seconds, and you’re likely to find at least one story of some mysterious critter or other (sea serpents were a New England specialty).  Though we still love sea monsters, the “wild man of the woods” is today more popular, as “Bigfoot,” the “Skunk Ape,” “MoMo,” or any of a host of modern regional variations.

Large, hairy, barefoot—the wild man hasn’t changed much in 200 years.  Neither have audiences, who seem to enjoy that tingle of skepticism mingling with the thought that there really might be something out there in the woods.

This story—copied from a Georgia newspaper—is a classic.  It has the huge beast (13 feet tall!); it has action (five men decapitated!); it’s just a great story.

But is it a true story?  Well, it certainly wasn’t intended to be taken literally.  Early newspapers didn’t always print just news; early editors certainly didn’t thoroughly research the stories.  Some later stories of wild men are clearly pranks.

A note:  “Dr. Morse”—named in the footnote—was Jedidiah Morse, whose geographies were standard texts for decades; early editions listed the mastodon as possibly still living somewhere in North America, but, then, every textbook has a flaw.

“A Giant Story” (from Connecticut Herald [New Haven, Connecticut] 26 [3 Feb 1829]: p. 3, col 3.)

Darby, Didst ever see a Whale?
From the Milledgeville (Geo) Statesman.

There is a tradition among the Creek Indians that there is, in the trackless gloom of the Okefenokee Swamp, an island of enchanting beauty, more blissful than any place on earth. While it is generally tho’t that this murky fen—this Black Sea of Avernus, containing nothing higher in the order of beings than countless swarms of mosquitos, snakes, frogs and aligators: the Indians say that in the terrestial [sic] paradise on this island there dwells a race of mortals of super-human dimensions and incomparable beauty. This island though sometimes seen, is represented as inaccessible from the attribute which it possesses of locomotion; thus eluding approach—or from the ever varying labyrinths of fens and bogs by which it is entrenched, and in which the bold invader is confounded who ventures too near this enchanted spot. Thus lost in inextricable sloughs, a few intrepid hunters were once saved from per[i]shing by a company of women from this island, of surprising beauty, whom they denominated the daughters of the sun, or children of the Great Spirit. Having kindly supplied them with refreshments and pointed out to them a way of retreat, they admonished them to fly for safety—for that their husbands were fierce men and cruel to strangers. *

This legend we have hitherto regarded as fabulous; but Mr. John Os[t?]can, residing on the borders of this swamp, in Ware co. and some of his neighbors over the line in Florida, have become satisfied from ocular reality, and they so aver, that it is, mainly, a matter of fact! We have their statement in writing, tested by a respectable witness, who has put the paper in our hand containing the following facts—we beg the gentleman’s pardon—truths we should say.

Not long ago, two men and a boy, in the vicinity of this swamp, like our friend Paul Pry, “had a curiosity to know, you know,” what could be seen by two or three weeks pilgrimage into the accessible regions o[f] this dismal empire. The season being unusually dry, they pushed their exploration far into the interior, and at the end of little more than two weeks, found their progress suddenly arrested at the appearance of the print of a foot step, so unearthly in its dimensions, so ominous of power, and terrible in form, that they were at once reminded of the legend we have mentioned above, and began seriously to apprehend its solemn reality. The length of the foot was eighteen, and the breadth nine inches.—The monster, from every appearance, must have moved forward in an easy or hesitating gait; his stride, from heel to toe, being but a trifle over six feet. Our adventurers had seen enough! and began to think of securing a retreat, without waiting to salute his majesty, not doubting but the other part of the story might also prove true—of his fierceness and cruelty. They happily effected their escape, returned home and related the history of their adventures, and what they had seen of the “man mountain.” A company of Florida hunters, half horse and half alligator—nine in number, determined, a few months since, to make this gentleman a visit—to ascertain if he had a family, and his manner of living. Following, for some days, the direction of their guide, they came at length upon the track first discovered; some vestiges of which were still remaining; pursuing these traces several days longer they came to a half on a little eminence, and determined to pitch their camp and refresh themselves for the day. The report of their rifles, as one or two of them were simultaneously discharged at an advancing and ferocious wild beast, made the still solitudes of these dismal lakes reverbrate [sic] with deafening roar. Echo beyond echo, took up and prolonged the sound, which seemed to die away and revive in successive peals for several minutes. The report had reached and startled from his lair, the genius of the swamp, and the next minute he was full in their view, advancing upon them with a terrible look and a ferocious mien. Our little band, instinctively gathered close in a body, and presented their rifles. The huge being, nothing daunted, bounded upon his victims, and in the same instant received the contents of seven rifles. But he did not fall alone; nor until he had glutted his wrath with the death of five of them, which he effected by wringing off the head from the body. Writhing and exhausted at length he fell, with his hapless prey beneath his grasp. The surviving four had opportunity to examine the dreadful being as he lay extended on the earth, some time, wallowing and roaring.

His length was thirteen feet, and his breadth and volume of just proportions.—Fearing, lest the report of their rifles, and the stentorian yells of the expiring giant, should bring suddenly upon them the avengers of his blood, they betook themselves to flight, having first secured the rifles of their headless comrades, and returned home with this account of their adventures.

The story of the report, as related above, is matter of fact, and the truth of it is accredited, we are told, by persons living on the borders of this swamp, and in the neighborhood of the surviving adventurers.

* This tradition is mentioned by Dr. Morse, in 1806—Se[e] his Geography of that date.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: