Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Mormon Legend of Bigfoot

Many years ago, during a break in our regular class schedule at Orem High School, I attended the movie/documentary Sasquatch, The Legend of Bigfoot. The large enigmatic ape was popular at that time in Utah and the school auditorium was nearly full. We watched as an expedition outfitted by Chuck Evans trekked for several weeks into the northern wilderness of Canada’s British Colombia in the area of the Peckatoe River.

The film contained impressive footage of wildlife: black bears, a cougar attack, otters sliding down snowfields for fun, a food-stealing badger, and two grizzlies fighting each other. The expedition did not see a Bigfoot, however, but it claimed to have seen their footprints (that it filmed and took casts of), smelled their foul odor and heard their legendary scream.

Most impressive to me were the scenes of many live conifers that had been snapped in two with the top piece being turned upside down and repositioned on top of the broken trunk. I realize now that the trees we actually saw in the film were probably staged. But at the time I was duly impressed – as I am now as I consider such a possibility. It made enough of an impression that I still remember it over 30 years later.

As I look back on the film, I am surprised at how popular it was in our community. I have travelled around a good deal since then and have enrolled by children in many school districts across the country (in six states). And I find it unusual that the public high school in a conservative Mormon community would make such a film available on its own campus.

But, in fact, there is a lingering interest among Mormons regarding these creatures. I don’t mean that every member of the Mormon Church buys into the stories. But in scout camps, on hunting trips and at summer barbeques throughout the Intermountain West, Bigfoot stories abound. And I believe that there are a couple of reasons why.

Sightings of large hairy men have been reported by a couple of credible Mormon leaders. These occurred some time ago, but the stories are well-enough documented that credibility still surrounds them.

The best known account comes from a well-read book written by former Mormon president Spencer W. Kimball entitled, The Miracle of Forgiveness. He cites the biography of former apostle David W. Patten (written by Lycurgus A. Wilson) wherein Patten confronts a being that he calls Cain:

“As I was riding along the road on my mule I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me … His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing, but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. I asked him where he dwelt and he replied that he had no home, that he was a wanderer in the earth and travelled to and fro. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he had earnestly sought death during his sojourn upon the earth but that he could not die, and his mission was to destroy the souls of men. About the time he expressed himself thus, I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence, and he immediately departed out of my sight…”

Another account, though much less known, is of the encounter that President E. Wesley Smith (then president of the Hawaiian Mission) had with a creature similar to that reported by Patten. Wesley Smith was the brother of Mormon president Joseph F. Smith and served in Hawaii in the early 20th Century. My account of the incident is not dated but comes from a woman who served as Wesley Smith’s secretary in the mission home.

Chloe Hodge was the first Mormon missionary to serve from North Carolina. I met Chloe when she was in her 90’s and confined to a rest home. She was part of our faith community and every Sunday after our block of meetings I would visit her with a couple of teenage boys. I got to know Chloe quite well over a period of 3 years and enjoyed our visits together a great deal.

Early on, I learned that she had started to write a personal history but had stopped when she lost the manuscript. I encouraged her to start again, and eventually she agreed to do so with my help. She would hand-write a page every week and I would pick it up on Sunday and type it up before our next visit. In this way she wrote nearly 150 paragraph/chapters of her life’s story. One Sunday she handed me the story of Wesley Smith’s encounter with the hairy man and I was quite surprised and interested. This was all new to me. I would only learn later that the story, in abbreviated form, was already available on the internet.

The story of Wesley Smith’s encounter comes on pages 83-84 as part of Chloe’s mission account. It is tucked away as an interesting story, but is in no way highlighted. Chloe recounted the story just like she recounted the many other stories of her long and eventful life. Her mind was clear and active right up to the time of her death. Her account of the incident seems to me a bit more valuable than other versions (which are often third-hand). Chloe heard the story directly from Wesley Smith with whom she worked closely. And her account is not my interpretation of what she said. It is copied directly (and exactly) from her written account.

           “On one trip out to the temple President Smith told us of an earlier event in his life when he was serving in Hawaii.  He had served there as a young missionary and now he was back in his late 30’s as a Mission President. 
            This was at the time when plans were going forward to erect the temple.  He had become aware of a sense of unrest and contention among the members at a time when there should be great joy and harmony at the promises of a temple coming soon.
            President Smith was sitting in the far corner of his living room pondering these conditions and came to an understanding that the spirit of discontent and discord among the members was the work of Satan trying to prevent the building of the temple.
            Just as this realization came to him, he heard a noise and looked up to see a huge black man about eight feet tall entering the door.  His body was very hairy and he had large protuberant eyes – and he was coming toward President Smith with his arms outstretched as though to seize him.  President Smith threw up his hand instinctively, and as he did so, a light about the size and shape of a small dagger appeared in his right hand.  A voice said to him, “this represents your priesthood.  Use it.”  Immediately he mustered up the courage to command the personage to depart in the name of Jesus Christ; whereupon, the person stopped, backed out of the door, and was gone.  President Smith jumped up and ran to the door and looked out.  There was no one to be seen.
            President Smith wrote to his brother, Joseph Fielding Smith, who was then Church Historian.  He wrote back and said that he had undoubtedly had a visitation from Cain and enclosed a pamphlet which told of Apostle David Patton of the First Quorum of the Twelve who was riding his horse one night, along a country road, when suddenly just such a person as President Smith had described appeared walking alongside him, so tall that his head was about level with Elder Patton’s head as he sat astride his horse.  After going a little way in silence and being very afraid, Brother Patton asked, “who are you?” and the person answered, “I am Cain, of all men most miserable.”  Then he disappeared.  Brother Patton was later murdered by a mob, becoming the first martyr of the church.”

I was duly impressed with the story and I have given much thought to it since then. Chloe made no reference to Bigfoot, or to the possibility that this creature might be an unknown ape. Her story and the story of David Patten are completely independent of Bigfoot legends. How they became connected is still not clear to me. I believe they became part of Mormon Bigfoot lore as a natural extension of the Bigfoot accounts that became more frequent later in the 20th century.

David Daegling, in his account of the social significance of Bigfoot, identifies 1958 as a watershed year in the creature’s popularity. This was the year that a wire service picked up the story of large footprints around a road construction site in Northern California. Casts were taken of the prints and pictures of the casts were broadcast around the country.

After this exposure, accounts of Bigfoot sightings (and footprints) became much more common. Just a couple of years later, Ivan Sanderson’s popular book Abominable Snowman: Legend comes to Life was published which told stories of large ape-men from all around the world. By this time, Bigfoot was a well-known entity in America. My guess is that the conflation of the large hairy man of Mormon legend with Bigfoot happened around this time (although this is just speculation).

I don’t mean to imply that stories of Bigfoot started in 1958. This is hardly the case. In fact there seems to be a higher proportion of credible accounts before that time. And most of them are from the Pacific Northwest where the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was taken. Two stories that have been told several times include accounts by Teddy Roosevelt and Albert Ostman.

Teddy Roosevelt’s telling (second hand) of an encounter in the Bitterroot Mountains was narrated in his 1893 book Wilderness Hunter (vol.2). The incident involved two trappers (one ended up being killed) and probably took place in the late 19th Century.

The less credible account (at least to me) of Albert Ostman tells of a presumed encounter that happened in 1924. Ostman had been camping and noticed that some of this things were being taken at night from his pack in a tidier manner than a bear, or other known mammal, would have managed. Then one night while sleeping, a large hairy beast carried him away while he was still in his sleeping bag. He was taken to a place where he was held captive by the creature and its presumed family. Ostman claimed to have escaped when the animal got sick from eating his chewing tobacco.  

Other accounts have been uncovered including one of a miner that shot a large ape-man near Mount Saint Helens (also in 1924). Another story told of a juvenile great ape being shot in British Columbia in 1884. It isn’t clear to me, however, that any of these stories ever made it to Utah, or were known to Mormons generally.

However it happened, these stories are now part of a larger Mormon conception of Bigfoot that includes the Biblical murderer Cain. As a result, Mormons often tell stories that are similar to other versions, but also unique. If Bigfoot is Cain, then it is only expected that a single being exists. If Bigfoot is, instead, the Sasquatch of Native American tradition, then it is to be expected that an entire population (perhaps several populations) exist as a valid un-described species. This distinction is usually not made. And the possibility that Bigfoot, as a species; and Cain, as a wondering hairy man, remain two independent phenomena also remains an infrequent supposition in Mormon culture.

Recently I decided to make a trip to Bigfoot country in order to experience the area and the culture for myself. My nephew Jon came with me. “Bigfoot country”, of course, is a pretty ambiguous term. Sightings have been made of the legendary creature all over North America. Nonetheless, the Pacific Northwest (ranging from northern California to Southern British Columbia) has long been recognized as the oldest and most likely place to hear about Bigfoot. As a biologist, I also find this region more satisfying as it can be fairly well defined and represents a particular kind of ecosystem. Many other creatures also live exclusively in this area. The Pacific Northwest is a moist forest ecosystem – a rainforest in essence. It is a place with such a profusion of plant life that an unknown creature might feasibly remain undetected within its dense canopies. It is one of only a couple of places in North America like this.

Jon and I wanted to see Bluff Creek where the Patterson-Gimlin film was taken and to visit the town of Willow Creek on the Bigfoot Highway where the Bigfoot museum is located (as it turned out, it was closed for the season). Before we got there, we passed through the town of Weaverville (west of Redding) and stopped at the Forest Service office there. I needed a couple of maps but I also wanted to talk to a ranger about Bigfoot sightings.

This first stop in the area proved to be quite enlightening. I had expected to find a good deal of cynicism among the locals – especially when talking with outsiders like us. Accordingly, I had decided to be coy about my Bigfoot interest and present myself as a naturalist looking for good camping and hiking sites – all of which was true. In short, I wanted to have a meaningful conversation and not be snickered at.

But when I asked about wildlife, the gentleman in the office assumed that we wanted to see Bigfoot. I hesitated at this presumption and said we just wanted to know if there were any interesting animals around. Eventually we were directed to a woman with more knowledge of the area. She was helpful but merely professional until I stated bluntly that we would like to know of any sightings by locals.

I was surprised at the change in the woman’s attitude. She became more solicitously helpful and told us that, in fact, a sighting had been made recently near the Swift Creek campground above Trinity Lake. She was very willing to tell us about Bigfoot as soon as she could tell that we were respectfully interested.

Over the next couple of days, Jon and I would talk with a couple more rangers, with people along the side of the road, with the owner of Bigfoot Books (a used bookstore just south of Willow Creek), and with a backpacker that was out looking for Bigfoot. In each case, we were treated with the same casual regard that you might expect if you were asking for directions to a gas station.

And in fact we were told about several Bigfoot encounters made by people in town through the years. But we were never given names. I was told by the ranger at the Willow Creek office that people were hesitant to divulge their identities because of a historic disrespect from enquiring writers and publicists. The people of Willow Creek were not out on a campaign to confirm the reality of Bigfoot. But the creatures’ existence was taken for granted and people were very willing to talk with someone they could trust.
As our conversations proceeded, it was surprising to us how many stories there were. Recently a Forest service employee on his way to work had seen a Bigfoot looking into a river. Our backpacker friend had been recently spooked by a Bigfoot in the area near Bluff Creek. I was particularly interested in the story of a child that had seen one at fairly close range for several moments and had pointed it out to her father who couldn’t make it out. Later, there were footprints located in the spot identified by the child.

I was particularly interested in this child’s story because of its numinous implications. The more I have thought on the Mormon Bigfoot legend, the more I see the similarities between them and the mystical elements surrounding many of the Bigfoot stories. Daegling’s seemingly fair yet skeptical study of Bigfoot culture comes to the conclusion that whether or not Bigfoot turns out to be real, it certainly has become part of American mythology in a real way.

The two Mormon accounts of the large hairy wildman (the only two that I know of) fall neatly into Daegling’s categorization. This categorization is comprised of two parts - it includes a belief in a real creature but is often alluded to in religious contexts or in some other form of transcendent experience. In both Mormon accounts the man identified as Cain is thwarted by priesthood power. Yet he is always considered a real being.

What light this sheds, if any, on the legend of Bigfoot is not clear to me. For sure it places the Mormon stories in line with the traditions of many cultures that tell of wildmen. I don’t think, however, that these stories generate more interest in the broader Mormon community than do Bigfoot stories in American culture in general.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Mormons do not seem to be overly concerned about them. My experience is that these stories rarely come up in religious classes or formal worship services. And the growing Mormon Church is full of members that have never even heard of them. Nor does it appear that Utah, with its predominant Mormon population, has any more Bigfoot sightings than would be expected by its location.

You can find a listing of reported Bigfoot sightings by state at The Bigfoot Field Research Organization website. I have calculated the number of sightings by state population to determine which states have the most sightings per capita. Here are my rough calculations (rounded to the nearest 10, out of a standardized 100,000 persons) for the NW states (and a few other random states for comparison): Washington, 80; Oregon, 60; Wyoming, 50; Idaho, 40; Alaska, 30; Utah, 20; Colorado, 20; California, 10; Arizona, 10; Kansas, 10; Florida, 10; New York, 5; Nevada, 3; Connecticut, 2.

These numbers are certainly not exact. They only represent the number of sightings officially reported. I know of several sighting from Utah from a couple of decades ago that are not on the list – they just weren’t reported. That said, the rough numbers do show that there is a real concentration in the Pacific Northwest with numbers diminishing with distance from this area. The number for California might seem low. This is, after all, the state from which the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was taken. If you look on the map, though, you discover quickly that Bluff Creek (in Humboldt County where the footage was taken) in not far from Oregon. In fact the habitat of the area is much more like that of Oregon and Washington than it is of the rest of the state of California. California’s high population comes from the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban centers which are a long way from Bluff Creek.

Utah doesn’t stand out as any more remarkable than any other nearby state. In this sense a predisposed credulity doesn’t seem to be at issue here. That said, however, Mormon interest in the large hairy wildman continues at multiple levels. It is perceived as a curiosity, as a legend, and also as a scriptural apology. It brings the ancient stories of the Old Testament to our times and gives them a contemporary relevance. And in a community with sacred traditions extending back to Adam and Eve, Bigfoot seems to have found a guarded acceptance.     


The Bigfoot Field Research Organization website is The reference in The Miracle of Forgiveness comes from Chapter 9 (Point of No Return, pages 127-128 in my 1969 edition from Bookcraft). The autobiography of Chloe Hodge was privately published in 2008 as A Whale of a Tale, My Life Story by Chloe Belle Hodge. Daegling’s The Social History of Bigfoot is Chapter 3 in his Bigfoot Exposed (published in 2004 by Altamira Press). See also Chapter 11, the Phenomenon.

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