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Belief in Bigfoot: Historical Evidence Versus Popular Opinion

“Belief,” the Fortean writer John Keel once said, “is the enemy.” For a researcher who many in skeptical communities would call a credulous writer of bunk-subjects and speculation, this simple adage might appear to stand in contrast to those critical perspectives taken against Keel and his work.

It should be noted that Keel, while choosing to write about the strange and fantastic, often did so with his own decidedly skeptical approach. From his first book, Jadoo, the war between belief and skepticism seemed to battle it out within Keel’s thought processes, presenting a researcher who lacked a fundamental fear of broaching the unusual (unlike most of his contemporary newspapermen of the era). And yet, while he was willing to wade right in and address the unconventional, he remained overtly willing to call “bunk” himself, if necessary.

When it came to the discussion of Bigfoot, Keel was occasionally known to cede to the temptation of cynicism, awarding alleged mystery-hominids nicknames the likes of “Abominable Swamp Slobs”, which lent to the creation of an irreverent abbreviation when presented in acronymic form. And yet, despite his occasional trickery, Keel nonetheless dealt with the subject with genuine interest, and with a complete knowledge of the subject at hand. The latter of these is key, because it represents something that can be sharply contrasted against many writers who seek to address the topic today. The sad result is a misrepresentation of various historical phenomena–in this case, the belief in an alleged creature known as “Bigfoot”–based on a lack of knowledge by mainstream writers who provide commentary on the subject.

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For instance, a recent article discussing belief in Bigfoot appeared at the Pacific Standard website, in an piece asserting that the “origins of the mythical beast are based around a hoax.” Specifically, this is a reference to a now-famous prank a man named Ray Wallace played on his coworkers in 1958, where he strapped large molded casts to his feet which left huge, humanlike footprints around a logging camp near Bluff Creek, California.

Author Katie Heaney concludes of the incident that, “The person responsible for ushering the name ‘Bigfoot’ into the popular lexicon was playing a joke on us all. The modern myth of Bigfoot, the tall, furry hominid with giant feet and an unparalleled knack for camouflage, was inextricably linked to the practice of hoaxing from the very start.” She goes on to critique the culture of belief surrounding the supposed beasts, noting later that, “The circumstances of the legend’s origins don’t matter so much; it’s still here, converting people.”

For anyone less knowledgeable than Heaney on the history surrounding the alleged existence of Bigfoot, this argument might indeed come across as compelling. However, all too often in popular media op-eds and articles today, the writers who seek to address claims of unexplained or “paranormal” phenomenon in such a point-click fashion display that they possess only a cursory knowledge of the subject they address.

Our purpose here is not to launch a critique of Heaney’s research or writing; however, in fairness, there is a much more complex story that should be addressed here, regarding the history of belief in Bigfoot in North America. It is true that the story of Ray Wallace certainly did lead to members of the press popularizing the name “Big Foot” (later combining the two words to reflect the Bigfoot used in contemporary writing), as well as combining various Native American words to formulate the term Sasquatch. However, Wallace’s hijinks were not the genesis of the legend that Heaney makes them out to be. In fact, there are far older traditions in the Pacific Northwest that deal with alleged wild men said to inhabit the region.

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One of the finer skeptical presentations on the study of Bigfoot (and in the opinion of this writer, perhaps one of the finest books ever written on the subject) was penned by the British primatologist John Napier in 1972, who had served as Conservator of the Division of Mammals and Director of the Unit of Primatology and Human Evolution at the Smithsonian Institute from 1967-1969. Rather simply titled, his book, Bigfoot, picked and prodded its way through all the best evidence available to him at the time, resolving that the Himalayan Yeti probably didn’t exist, and that the best evidence promoting the existence of a Bigfoot, while circumstantial, still warranted some attention.

Napier, being thorough as he was, provided the reader with a much clearer background on the subject than the aforementioned Pacific Standard article, which effectively only brings us in medias res, if anything. “The term ‘Bigfoot’ has been in colloquial use since the early 1920s and in the first instance was a brain-child of the press,” Napier wrote. “The earliest record of large mysterious footprints in North America dates back to 1811 when a well known explorer and trader, David Thompson, was attempting to reach the mouth of the Columbia River by crossing the Rockies at the site of what is now Jasper, Alberta.” This report, borrowed from the writing of Bigfoot researcher John Green, more likely describes the discovery of a grizzly bear paw print in fresh snow, but Napier does go on to mention other reports that divulge information about mystery beasts which pre-date the Wallace hoax by a number of decades:

In 1918, a story appeared in the Seattle Times of July 16th concerning the ‘mountain devils’ who attacked a prospector’s shack at Mount St. Lawrence, near Kelso, Washington State… Canadian reports occur sporadically through the ‘twenties, ‘thirties, and ‘forties, but it is only in the middle and late ‘fifties that Bigfoot affairs began to develop thick and fast.

But prior to the 1958 discovery of Wallace’s hoax by Jerry Crew, Napier cites two others, the rather plaintive encounter known as The Ruby Creek Incident, which told of the ransacking of the Chapman family home by a curious (and obviously a hungry) male Sasquatch that supposedly occurred in 1940, and the more believable William Roe encounter that took place in 1955; of the latter, it should be noted that William Roe, who provided careful details about a female Sasquatch he claimed to observe near the vicinity of Mica Mountain, also signed an affidavit to verify his testimony.

While the Wallace incident was not conclusively revealed to be a hoax until years after Napier’s published offerings on the Sasquatch subject, he also didn’t particularly dwell on the retelling of this story, focusing instead on a number of the more credible testimonies, and of course, the castings of certain footprints which had similarly compelled one of Napier’s contemporaries, the late anthropologist Grover Krantz.

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“I am convinced that the Sasquatch exists,” Napier would go on to write toward the end of the book, “but whether it is all that it is cracked up to be is another matter altogether. There must be something in north-west America that needs explaining, and that something leaves manlike footprints. The evidence I have adduced in favor of the reality of the Sasquatch is not hard evidence; few physicists, biologists or chemists would accept it, but nevertheless it is evidence and cannot be ignored.”

In properly adducing this evidence, we must remember that Napier also completed the fullest survey of the subject that could be afforded at the time. In doing so, he also presented one of the finest, most skeptical, and academically presented studies on the likelihood of the existence of Sasquatch and similar manlike beasts. His conclusion, as we can see, was quite different from that of the cursory examinations presented by mainstream writers of today, which almost routinely dismiss the subject based on the public perception created by programs like Finding Bigfoot, paired with only a sparing knowledge of the actual history of Sasquatch in America.

It is quite easy to create an argument against a subject when presenting only certain facts, cherry picked from a larger base of knowledge. It’s also fair to say that the lowest hanging fruit are typically the ones that will be picked first; hence, many writers today err exclusively to “conventional” knowledge, while typically remaining oblivious to the broader data that exists. But when it comes to presenting truly knowledgable information on any subject, whether you are a believer, or are of a more skeptical disposition (as yours truly has become increasingly with time), sometimes the full story won’t be retrieved without climbing into the damned cherry tree; in fact, I advocate using a ladder to get there, if necessary.

Climbing into the tree, as I’ve outlined rather dryly in the passage above, is precisely the approach Napier took, and it led him to an unusual determination for a skeptical man of science to make. Whether he was right or wrong, that determination was based on a full understanding of the literature and other evidence available to him. One can’t help but wonder if others might not take a similar stance–that is, accepting there is indeed some phenomenon at work, whether or not it can be defined conclusively–if they, too, took the time to become more familiar with the subject they were attacking.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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