The Legend of Bigfoot: A Primer On The Mysterious Sasquatch

The Legend of Bigfoot: A Primer On The Mysterious Sasquatch

What Is A Cryptid? Let’s start there!

When it comes to “cryptids”—that is, creatures alleged to exist that have not been confirmed by science—top honors for the greatest share of worldwide fame probably boil down to three. We’re talking Nessie, the plesiosaur-like lake monster of Scotland’s Loch Ness, for sure. The other two are big, hairy hominids: the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, of the Himalaya and his North American counterpart, Bigfoot or Sasquatch.

Bigfoot has become legitimately ingrained in the popular psyche in both the United States and Canada, and most especially in the hulking biped’s “classic” (but not exclusive) homeland of the Pacific Northwest. The dense, dripping, temperate rainforests of that region’s maritime realm—from Northern California up to coastal British Columbia and southeastern Alaska—are the quintessential stomping ground of Bigfoot, though a fair amount of Sasquatch lore hails from the vast backwoods of the Inland Northwest as well.

Yet Bigfoot’s also claimed to be a resident of timbered haunts far from this zone, including the Southern Rockies, the Midwest, Atlantic Canada, and the Appalachians—and meanwhile he appears to have a bevy of close cousins leaving giant spoor all the way from the Mogollon Rim of Arizona to the mosquito-swarmed swamps of Florida.

Famous Bigfoot Sightings

And, in fact, with a more international perspective, Bigfoot might be considered merely the North American representative of a whole family tree of smelly, hirsute apemen: not only frosty-coated Yeti, but also Yah Ren of western China, Quidili of the Caucasus, Almas of Central Asia, and countless others. Whether you relegate these figures to the realm of mythology or cast your allegiance to the “hominologists” who hunt for physical evidence of yet-undescribed close simian relatives of ours, it’s pretty clear that the collective human subconscious is haunted, one way or another, by visions of big, shaggy, wild versions of our own kind.

Introducing Bigfoot

Before we go any farther, we probably ought to provide a snapshot of the cryptid in question. Considered broadly, the sheer tonnage of Bigfoot descriptions suggests a basic look (and odor): a bipedal primate or primate look-alike, covered in thick hair ranging from reddish to black, standing anywhere from six to more than twice that tall, and altogether foul-smelling. While Bigfoot is often portrayed as silent in many encounters, it’s also said to emit high-pitched shrieks and howls.

And despite its imposing size and burliness, the picture of Bigfoot we get from the majority of modern accounts is one of a shy, unaggressive animal—although, as we’ll see, many of the American Indian stories often linked to Bigfoot, plus some of the 19th- and early 20th-century allegations of the cryptid, paint a somewhat more antagonistic impression.

Sasquatch in Indigenous North America

“Sasquatch” is an anglicized derivative of the Halq’emeylen (Coast Salish) word se’sxac or sasq’ets, roughly meaning “wild man.”

Part of the power of the Bigfoot story is the connections it has to American Indian legends, stories, and beliefs, in other words, it has deeper roots to this continent than the various other “man-beast” claims from Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians over merely the past few centuries. Many indigenous cultures in North America tell tales of “wild men” of one kind or another, and certainly the tribes of the Pacific Northwest have rich mythology along these lines. The Kwakiutl speak of Bukwas, the “Wild Man”; the Puyallup and Nisqually of the Puget Basin feared visits to their fishing villages by the Tsiatko, hirsute giants of the mountains with owl-like calls. The Yakima on the east sides of the Cascade Range refer to “Stick Indians,” mischievous, thieving figures that have been connected to Bigfoot.

Some tribes really love Bigfoot

An archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, Kathy Moskowitz Strain, who wrote the book Giants, Cannibals, and Monsters: Bigfoot in Native Culture, told Popular Mechanics in 2019, “Some tribes really love Bigfoot, they have a great relationship with him. To other tribes though, like the Miwoks, he’s an absolute ogre, a monster, and something best left alone.”

Famous Historic Sightings of Bigfoot

At this point, tallying the number of alleged Bigfoot sightings from all corners of the U.S. and Canada would be a fool’s errand (not that there aren’t droves of Sasquatch fanatics dutifully trying to compile them all). But it’s certainly worth describing some of the truly iconic and historical run-ins that have helped build our modern conception of this all-around celebrity of a cryptid.

The name “Bigfoot” wasn’t applied to the hairy forest giants of the North American wilderness until 1958, when a bulldoze operator named Gerry Crew made plaster casts of epic footprints he found along a muddy road near Bluff Creek in the backlands of Northern California. He referred to whatever hefty brute made the tracks as “Bigfoot,” and the name stuck. (It’s worth noting that “Bigfoot” was, nonetheless, a moniker in pretty wide currency in the American West earlier than this, as it was used more than once to label large grizzly bears that became infamous for killing livestock and/or eluding hunters.)

But tales of Bigfoot-esque beasts certainly predate Crew’s footprints in the annals of early white settlement of the North American continent. In 1811, David Thompson wrote of finding huge footprints, some 14 inches by 8 inches, in the drainage of the Athabasca River in the Canadian Rockies—often pegged as an early reference to Sasquatch, though Thompson reckoned they were likely left by a bear.

Bauman’s Tale, via T.R.

Theodore Roosevelt recorded a chilling story in his 1893 tract The Wilderness Hunter that he heard from an old mountain man named Bauman. It concerned a beaver-trapping expedition Bauman and a companion had taken long before into a remote Rocky Mountain valley in the Montana Territory. An unseen animal leaving large bipedal tracks trashed their camp and made unearthly noises around it at night—unnerving developments that ultimately convinced the two trappers to get out of dodge. On their day of departure, after Bauman had gone out alone to retrieve the last of their traps, he returned to camp to find his partner dead, with a broken neck showing fang marks.

Theodore Roosevelt heard about the Bigfoot

The Ape Canyon “Fight”

Certain corners of the Pacific Northwest are especially rife with Sasquatch lore, among the most notable (along with Northern California) being the vicinity of Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington. Mount St. Helens—known in native Salishan tongue as Loowit—is, of course, best-known today for being the most active and volatile of the Cascade Range volcanoes, having unleashed a catastrophic eruption, in May 1980, that ranks among the most significant natural disasters in modern U.S. history. But this brooding stratovolcano, set off by her lonesome well west of the main Cascade Crest, might also be considered a nexus of Bigfoot activity.

Pacific Northwest are rife with Sasquatch lore

Spend much time exploring the isolated country around Mount St. Helens—rugged and bedraggled timberlands snarled with logging roads—and it’s easy to fall under the Bigfoot spell. That’s especially so if you know some of the local folklore. Native peoples referred to a cannibalistic race, skoocums, resident in this vicinity. And in 1924, one of the most famous—and dramatic—alleged Bigfoot encounters went down within shouting distance of Loowit. That summer, a group of gold prospectors claimed to have run into four “gorilla men” about eight miles from Spirit Lake, the large body of water northeast of Mount St. Helens (then widely known for its postcard beauty, later for becoming clogged with sediment and blasted logs after the 1980 eruption). The men fired on these ape creatures, and believed one had been killed in the encounter.

That night, back at their cabin in the defile now known as Ape Canyon, the prospectors were allegedly set upon by the vengeful “gorilla men,” who hurled large rocks at the structure and tore open a hole in the roof. Their story was widely shared in the press and even prompted an investigation by the Forest Service, which, needless to say, didn’t go anywhere. An Oregonian story from the time relayed the miners’ description of those gorilla men, which were estimated to be on the order of 400 pounds each: “They are covered with long, black hair. Their ears are about four inches long and stick straight up. They have four toes, short and stubby.”

Abducted by Sasquatch

In the 1950s, one Albert Ostman claimed he’d been kidnapped by a Sasquatch family in 1924 when he was camping by himself in coastal British Columbia. This was a multi-day ordeal that, in Ostman’s telling, ends up sounding really rather laidback—though it started off, he claimed, with a large Bigfoot throwing him over his shoulder and hauling him roughly to the family cave. There Ostman was held captive for days, guarded over by females and impressing the gang by cooking meat brought back by the male ‘Squatches over a fire. He eventually escaped after one of his captors ingested some of Ostman’s snuff and the whole apeman crew became distracted.

Squatches over a fire

The Patterson-Gimlin Film

There’s no more famous piece of Bigfoot evidence than the so-called Patterson-Gimlin Film, a short length of footage captured in 1967 in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California by Robert Patterson and Bob Gimlin. Along Bluff Creek in the Six Rivers National Forest—the very same drainage where Gerry Crew found those footprints nearly a decade before–the two men caught about a minute of film showing what Patterson claimed was a female Bigfoot (since nicknamed “Patty”), striding rather unhurriedly away and tossing a few glances over her shoulder.

That encounter—which also turned up some footprints in the alluvium—has been vigorously debated ever since, but no question that the Patterson-Gimlin Film has inspired multiple generations of cryptozoologists and Bigfoot obsessives.

Patterson-Gimlin Film has inspired multiple generations of cryptozoologists

The Controversy

Is it really possible that, in this day and age, a creature as large as Bigfoot can remain mostly hidden from view—and completely outside formal scientific verification? Why don’t we have confirmed Bigfoot carcasses or bones, as we do of every other living mammal?

Needless to say, these are questions to which the conventional scientific community has a ready answer: because Bigfoot isn’t real. It’s a myth that dreamers, suckers, charlatans, and snake-oil salesmen have perpetuated all these decades—driven, variously, by overactive imaginations, mystical or paranormal proclivities, gullible personalities, or old-fashioned, get-rich-quick greed.

The footprints? Mostly faked, and otherwise mistakenly identified bear tracks. The pictures, videos, and eyewitness sightings? When they aren’t all-out fraudulent (accomplices wearing cheap gorilla suits) or imagined, explainable as glimpses of black bears dashing across boondock roads.

We mentioned earlier those footprints found by Gerry Crew in 1958 that launched the whole “Bigfoot” name—well, those, as it happens, were fakes. The hoax was revealed by its perpetrator, construction worker Ray Wallace, just before his death in 2002. Many other Bigfoot reports have been definitely exposed as deliberate frauds.

Yet, believers remain in abundance, all around the world, and not all scientists are so quick to flat-out deny Bigfoot’s existence. Such high-profile biologists as George Schaller and Jane Goodall have at least entertained the possibility that Bigfoot—whatever it might be—is a flesh-and-blood creature.

finding the true bigfoot

Bigfoot Sightings Across The South East

Among the most prominent Bigfoot researchers is a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, who edits a journal called The Relict Hominoid Inquiry; he doesn’t self-classify as a Bigfoot “believer,” because he’s convinced the beast exists based on the physical evidence.

The Patterson-Gimlin Film is interesting in that it has, thus far, been impossible to completely explain away, despite the prevailing opinion that it shows nothing more than a person in a gorilla suit (or analogous outfit). Indeed, in 2005, a National Geographic Channel documentary featured the supposed confession of one Bob Hieronimous, who claimed to be, wearing a costume, the lady Bigfoot in that much-scrutinized reel. Yet Hieronimous’s testimony has itself come under heavy question, and it’s safe to say the matter’s far from settled. Many have tried to duplicate the basic look and gait of “Patty” in the Patterson-Gimlin footage—the walking pattern, the play of sunshine on the fur, the shift of alleged muscle under said fur—with prosthetics, and it’s been surprisingly hard.

Many who are convinced that Bigfoot is real believe the shaggy giant to be some primate relative of ours—maybe even a very close cousin. It’s often been suggested that Sasquatch is a relict population of an ancient hominid line: perhaps a surviving stock of the titanic Pleistocene ape known as Gigantopithecus, or even the descendant of some hideout australopithecine lineage that made it over to North America.

Even in this day and age of Google Earth, the terrain of the Pacific Northwest—dominated by rough and steep mountains cloaked in some of the thickest, most tangled temperate forest in the world—and its dark, rainy weather make for a mysterious landscape with plenty of remote, hard-to-access corners. This eternal frontier, Bigfoot believers contest, provides—like the alpine wilderness of the Himalaya, supposed haunt of the Yeti—a sanctuary for a creature that may also be behaviorally disposed to staying out of sight. 

Sasquatch is highly savvy primate

If Sasquatch is some yet-undescribed, highly savvy primate, the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization suggests, “this species, having likely evolved alongside humans, became astonishingly adept at avoiding human contact through a process of natural selection.”

Sasquatch Kin

We’ll close here by noting that Bigfoot’s apparent cousins aren’t only to be found in remote taiga and snowfields in Asia: there’s a whole cast of hairy characters in America sharing physical characteristics with Sasquatch and boasting their own local mythos. Perhaps the most widely known of the Bigfoot brethren is the Skunk Ape, an ill-smelling denizen of the swamps, backwaters, and brush of the American Southeast and particularly Florida. Another bottomland-dwelling, apelike character is the Honey Island Swamp Monster of Louisiana.

Then there are the Fouke Monster of southwestern Arkansas’ Piney Woods, the Mogollon Monster of the extensive ponderosa woodlands along Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, Ohio’s Grassman—no shortage, in other words, of Sasquatchian lookalikes in places far removed from the conifer cathedrals of the Northwest.