One very persistent legend and phenomenon among many tribes of the northern parts of North America is that of what is called the Wendigo, or also sometimes spelled "Weetigo" and also known as a plethora of other regional names. These entities are supposedly evil spirits that roam the land looking for flesh, and are both feared and sacred in the lore of many tribes. One prominent feature of these legends is that they can possess the living and turn them into ravenous beasts akin to vampires, and there is no shortage of such historical tales.
One series of Wendigo accounts comes from The 19th fur trader George Nelson, who began his long-spanning career in 1802 when he joined the XY Company fur trading outfit in Montreal, Quebec. From there he would embark on a long and illustrious career in fur trading and become a fixture of Canadian history, and he provided many insights into his era through the numerous meticulously detailed journals, letters, and memoirs he wrote. Here among the pages of tales of his adventures and life in the far north are some very peculiar accounts involving the cannibalistic Wendigo of Native tradition. Nelson would tell of what the Natives believed about this creature in one of his many letters, writing:
There is a kind of disease… peculiar to the Crees and Sauteaux’s, and of which they have the greatest dread and horror; and certainly not without the very greatest cause, the consequences 49 times out of 50 being death unfortunately to many besides the subjects or objects, themselves. They term this Win-digo… the proper signification of which… is Giant… Suffice it to say that the Windigo are of uncommon size- Goliath is an unborn infant to them… Their head reaching to the tops of the highest Poplars they are of proportionate size, of course they must be very heavy: their gait tho’ grand and majestic, at every step the Earth shakes. They frequently pursue their Prey… invisibly, yet they cannot so completely divest themselves of all the incommodities of nature as to prevent their approach being known. A secret and unaccountable horror pervades the whole system of one, several, or the whole band, of those of whom he is in pursuit… These Giants as far as I can learn reside somewhere about the North Pole; and even at this day frequently pay their unwelcome visits. It seems also that they delegate their Power to the Indians occasionally; and this occasions that cannibalism… proceeds… from a sort of distemper much resembling mania.
Nelson also told of how human beings could be infected or possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo, and that this typically happened when a tribesperson engaged in cannibalism, which was thought to be a great sin and was forbidden among the natives. He explained that he had personally seen people fall under this curse, and he writes of it:
I believe that those who have once preyed upon their fellows, ever after feel a great desire for the same nourishment, and are not so scrupulous about the means of procuring it. I have seen several that had been reduced to this disturbing alternative, and tho’ many years after, there appeared to me a wildness in their eyes, a confusion in their countenances much resembling that of reprieved murderers.
Nelson wrote of many of his encounters with these supposed Wendigo possessions, and his memoirs and journals are peppered with several strange stories of this. One supposedly occurred in December of 1812, while he was working at the Pigeon River near Lake Winnipeg. He claims that a Cree man had begun acting bizarrely, smashing his teeth together, screaming and moaning, and stripping naked to run out into the night. His daughter and son-in-law urged him to come back inside, but the man merely snarled like an animal, expressed a desire to eat the flesh of his married daughter, and then curled up in a fetal position out in the cold. Nelson would write:
Thus did he every night for about a month,” Nelson wrote, “and every time slept out naked; nor would he eat, excepting at times a little raw flesh. In the day time he was more composed, but his face bore the appearance of one possessed of the Devil.
He related another story that happened to him as he was working at the trading post at Lac La Ronge. One evening, a wild-eyed, disheveled woman appeared out of the forest, trailed by a dog carrying a piece of human flesh. Although there was no way to know if this had any connection with the woman herself, the tribesmen were immediately on guard, suspecting her to be possibly a Wendigo. They nevertheless took her in out of the cold, and Nelson says of it:
Her appearance was haggard, wild, and distressed. As soon as she made her appearance, the Indians immediately conceived what was the matter; but thro’ charity as well as for safety and to find the truth they gave her to eat, principally marrow-fat. She was taken into the house- questions put as usual, but the answers, vague, indefinite and contradictory. The traders gave the women some good food, but although she appeared to be ravenous, she only feigned eating, slipping morsels down the neck of her gown. The woman refused the refreshment. She proceeded to kiss and embrace her hosts’ children, as was customary, and was unable to conceal the voracious appetite that this courtesy aroused in her. This roused suspicion. But what added to this was the extraordinary stench she emitted.
According to Nelson, that evening some tribal warriors kept a close eye on the mysterious woman, and their dark suspicions were confirmed when she awoke in the middle of the night to approach one of the sleeping children. Apparently one of the warriors confronted her, after which she snarled, bit, and scratched at him like a ravenous wild animal, and even when he buried his tomahawk into her head she continued to come at him unfazed, with her only finally being killed after several more warriors joined the melee and attacked in unison. Nelson suggests in his account that the woman showed extraordinary strength for her size and withstood far more damage than any ordinary human being before finally falling.
In his journals, Nelson said that another way to become a Wendigo was for one of them to invade one’s dreams and seduce them into becoming one, usually by tricking them into eating human flesh. He would write of one such account of this happening when a Native man on one of his expeditions told them that he had been having these dreams, and implored the others that they should kill him if he started to change into a Wendigo, and that he would upon changing be too strong to be killed. The tribesmen agreed, and when he started to show signs, they took it upon themselves to kill him. At one point as they were out in the forest, they ambushed the afflicted man and fired on him with muskets, yet the bullets purportedly had no effect, forcing them to hack him to pieces with tomahawks and ice picks. They then put the remains on a fire but found them to be uncommonly resistant to being burned. Nelson would write of it:
According to his desire, they had collected a large pile of dry wood, and laid him upon it. The body was soon consumed, but the heart remained perfect and entire: it rolled several times off the Pile – they replaced it as often: fear ceased seized them – then with their ice chisels they cut and hacked it into small bits, but yet with difficulty was it consumed!!!
This extreme durability and difficulty to kill is common in Wendigo stories, with some versions saying that they can only be killed with a silver bullet or by being decapitated or hacked to pieces. Even then it will sometimes not do the job, and it is said to be imperative that the body be burned, lest it spring back to life. A Native language interpreter by the name of Louis Goulet would write of this:
The Indians believe that when a person is about to turn wendigo, he or she lets out a scream and anybody within earshot is paralyzed. You don’t even have to hear it, because it’s not the wendigo’s fault if people don’t hear! You just have to be close enough, that’s all it takes. The wendigo’s scream paralyzes people, and that’s how he can eat a whole camp, even if it takes a month or two to swallow everybody! That’s not the most serious part of the whole business, though. When a person shows wendigo symptoms, he must be killed before the change actually takes place because it’s difficult to kill a full-fledged wendigo! They have hearts of ice and the power to rejoin parts of their body and come back to life, even after their head’s been cut off and they’ve been hacked to pieces. The best way to get rid of them is to have a Catholic kill them or else load the gun with some kind of holy object.
Goulet would relate a personal story involving one of the Wendigo during his time as a prisoner of the Cree. In late May of 1885, an elderly Plains Cree woman with the war party that had captured him was said to be turning into a Wendigo, and that the tribesmen were afraid that she would soon become too powerful to kill. Goulet would even see her for himself, and would write of it:
Now, during the time we were camped in the spruce bluff, an old lady started ranting and raving in a fever, telling her daughter that if somebody didn’t do away with her, she’d turn wendigo after the sun went down. Well, let me tell you those Indians were scared, and with good reason. Just think of it, a wendigo in the camp! Quick, somebody had to kill the old woman right away before she changed over! She was seated on the ground Indian-fashion, with her legs crossed, nothing but skin and bones, probably less than a hundred pounds of her. She was delirious… Just from the look of her we decided she wasn’t dangerous enough to need chaining up, but the Indians, they weren’t so sure. So we had to take every possible precaution and chained her before we took her out.
The Indians then took her out into the forest to execute her, and whether she was really possessed by a Wendigo or not, they really seem to have made sure she died and stayed dead. Not only did they bash her head in with a club, but they also shot her several times and decapitated her for good measure, making sure to keep the head well away from the body. Goulet would say of it:
Then, clutching it by the braids, he tried to throw the head over the clump of willows, but the braids caught in the branches, and the head stayed hanging there with its hideous face swinging three or four feet above the ground, striking blind terror into the Indians, who ran away as fast as their legs would take them, without risking so much as a backward glance! Without a doubt the old woman was dead, decapitated, but the gruesome business was still only half done because the head must, at all costs, be prevented from reuniting with the torso or the old woman could come to life again, even more dangerous than before. We made a pile of dry branches all round and over the body, placing the head on the pile and covering it with a second layer of dry branches. Then the whole works was set blazing. The superstitious savages were determined there should be no possibility of the resurrection of the weetigo.
A fur trader named Frank Beatton was at a remote Hudson’s Bay Company post at what is now the hamlet of Wabisca, Alberta, when some of the Cree he was in the company of explained that one of their tribe had become a Wendigo, and that he should be careful. Beatton was very familiar with the legend, having lived among the Cree for some time, and he joined the band on their mission to kill the man before he changed. The Canadian historian Philip H. Godsell would explain what had happened to Beatton as follows:
The weetigo is an evil spirit that enters the body of a sick man converting him, unless he is destroyed, into a cannibal, endangering the lives of every member of the band. Hardly a spring goes by but some wandering band of nomad hunters become obsessed with the idea that there is one of these cannibal spirits haunting the outskirts of the camp, anxious to become domiciled within the person of some sick Indian. Loaning them muzzle-loaders, powder and ball, he dispatched them on their grisly errand. First they riddled the poor sick creature with trade-bullets, then, lest the evil spirit again re-enter the body and revive it, they drove a stake through it, deep into the mud floor of the cabin. Finally, to make assurances doubly sure, they set a torch to the building, fired off their guns to drive lurking spirits away and hurried from the haunted spot.
Another German explorer and writer by the name of George Kohl wrote of some accounts of this phenomenon in his 1859 travel memoir, Kitchi-gami: Wanderings Round Lake Superior:
I was told of a man who wandered about in the forests on the northern bank of the lake. He was known perfectly well, and his name was even mentioned to me. I learnt that during a hard winter he had killed and eaten his squaw: after that he had attacked, killed, and also devoured a girl. This man always went about hunting by himself, and whenever his canoe was seen, the sight produced terror and alarm, and all the world fled from him. He was equally a burden to himself as to the others, and, in consequence of all the agony he endured, he had fallen into a state of brooding melancholy and a fearful affection of the brain. The murder of his wife was the result of a state of delirium, produced by his sufferings; and now, report added, his brain was quite softened, and the sutures of his temple had begun to give way. He was regularly hunted down, so people said, and he would before long receive a vengeful bullet from society…
It is a universal tradition among the Indians that in the primitive ages there were anthropophagous giants, called Windigos. The people’s fancy is so busy with them, as well as with the isolated cases of real cannibalism, that they begin to dream of them, and these dreams, here and there, degenerate to such a point that a man is gained over to the idea that he is fated to be a windigo. Such dreams vary greatly. At times a man will merely dream that he must kill so many persons during his life; another dream adds that he must also devour them; and as these strange beings believe in their dreams as they do in the stars, they act in accordance with their gloomy suggestions. The windigo mania rarely breaks out spontaneously; it must have its predecessors and degrees. If a man lives much apart and out of the world, if he appear to be melancholy and is tortured by evil dreams, then people begin to fear he may end by becoming a windigo, and he is himself attacked by the fatalistic apprehensions, and is driven towards a gloomy fate. At times, when a man is quarrelling with his wife, he will say, ‘Squaw, take care. Thou wilt drive me too far that I shall turn windigo’…
They believe that the windigos have an understanding with the evil spirits, who help them. Hence, a windigo can go on for a long time before a punishment fall on him and the avenger appear. They imagine that a real windigo is very difficult to kill, and that, in order to destroy him thoroughly, he must be torn to pieces. Otherwise, he may easily come to life again. A Canadian Voyageur, of the name of Le Riche, was once busy fishing near his hut. He had set one net, and was making another on the beach. All at once, when he looked up, he saw, to his terror, a strange woman, an old witch, une femme windigo, standing in the water near his net. She was taking out the fish he had just caught, and eating them raw. Le Riche, in his horror, took up his gun and killed her on the spot. Then his squaws ran out of the adjoining wigwam and shouted ‘Nish!’ – (this was the name Le Riche had received, as the Indians cannot pronounce the letter ‘r’) – ‘Nish! Cut her up at once, or else she’ll come to life again, and we shall all fare ill.’ I do not know where Le Riche obtained his ‘firm conviction’ that the old woman he shot was really a ‘femme windigo.’ But it seems as if people’s eyes and minds were practiced here in the matter, for another half-breed told me how he met a windigo and fired on him at once, like a rattlesnake.
A rather gruesome and harrowing account was related by the fur trader Alexander Henry the Elder, who in the winter of 1766 was at Lake Superior and wrote of a rather odd account in his 1809 autobiography, Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760-1776:
After being here a fortnight, we were joined by a body of Indians, flying, like ourselves, from famine. Two days after, there came a young Indian out of the woods alone, and reporting that he had left the family to which he belonged behind in a starving condition and unable, from their weakly and exhausted stae, to pursue their journey to the bay. The appearance of this youth was frightful; and from his squalid figure there issued a stench which none of us could support. His arrival struck our camp with horror and uneasiness; and it was not long before the Indians came to me, saying, that they suspected he had been eating human flesh, and even that he had killed and devoured the family which he pretended to have left behind. These charges, upon being questioned, he denied; but not without so much equivocation in his answers as to increase the presumption against him. In consequence, the Indians determined on travelling a day’s journey on his track; observing that they should be able to discover from his encampments whether he were guilty or not. The next day they returned, bringing with them a human hand and skull. The hand had been left roasting before a fire, while the intestines, taken out of the body from which it was cut, hung fresh on a neighboring tree.
The youth, being informed of these discoveries, and further questioned, confessed the crime of which he was accused. From the account he now proceeded to give it appeared that the family had consisted of his uncle and aunt, their four children, and himself. One of the children was a boy of fifteen years of age. His uncle, after firing at several beasts of the chase, all of which he missed, fell into despondence, and persuaded himself that it was the will of the Great Spirit that he should perish. In this state of mind, he requested his wife to kill him. The woman refused to comply; but the two lads, one of them, as has been said, the nephew, and the other the son of the unhappy man, agreed between themselves to murder him, to prevent, as our informant wished us to believe, his murdering them. Accomplishing their detestable purpose, they devoured the body; and famine pressing upon them still closer, they successively killed the three younger children, upon whose flesh they subsisted for some time, and with a part of which the parricides at length set out for the lake, leaving the woman, who was too feeble to travel, to her fate. On their way, their foul victuals failed; the youth before us killed his companion; and it was a part of the remains of this last victim that had been discovered at the fire.
The Indians entertain an opinion that the man who has once made human flesh his food will never afterward be satisfied with any other. It is probable that we saw things in some measure through the medium of our prejudices; but I confess that this distressing object appeared to verify the doctrine. He ate with relish nothing that was given him; but, indifferent to the food prepared, fixed his eyes continually on the children which were in the Indian lodge, and frequently exclaimed, ‘How fat they are!’ It was perhaps not unnatural that after long acquaintance with no human form but such as was gaunt and pale from want of food, a man’s eyes should be almost riveted upon anything where misery had not made such inroads, and still more upon the bloom and plumpness of childhood; and the exclamation might be the most innocent, and might proceed from an involuntary and unconquerable sentiment of admiration. Be this as it may, his behavior was considered, and not less naturally, as marked with the most alarming symptoms; and the Indians, apprehensive that he would prey upon their children, resolved on putting him to death. They did this the next day with the single stroke of an axe, aimed at his head from behind, and of the approach of which he had not the smallest intimation.
These are all curious accounts, indeed, and there are many more like them. What are we to make of such accounts? Is this all just spooky Native lore, or is there perhaps something more to it? No matter what the case may be, these cases and more like them certainly shine a light on some strange corners of history, and they serve to further provide a glimpse into the Wendigo legends of these peoples.