Idaho, circa 1860. A hulking giant with an appetite for destruction lurks in the wilds of the Snake River country. His enormous footprints strike fear into the souls of men. Known only as “Bigfoot,” he can outrun a galloping horse and swim across a rushing river in seconds. He travels up to 70 miles in a single day, leaving a trail of misery in his wake.
Sounds like a Hollywood movie, right? But we’re not talking about that heralded hairy ape; this is the so-called “Chief Bigfoot,” a Native American warrior of the 19th century, to whom all of the above is attributed.
Historians believe this Bigfoot was a man named Howluck, who was a commander of the combined Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock forces during the Snake War. Howluck was a strong opponent of white settlement and led his band in a number of battles against U.S. forces. According to reports, Howluck stood 6’8″ tall and weighed 300 pounds, with a foot length of anywhere from 14-17″. The Bannocks called him “Nam-puh,” which translates as Big Foot. Whites just called him Bigfoot, or Chief Bigfoot.
Nobody’s quite sure what happened to Howluck. Some historians believe he was eventually captured and forced to relocate to a reservation, where he quietly lived out his days. But here the real Nam-puh and the legendary one diverge.
The tall-tale version of Bigfoot was a recalcitrant raider, a marauding murderer. Popular stories held Bigfoot responsible for acts of general mayhem wreaked upon white settlers throughout the 1860s. Giant footprints were allegedly found at various crime scenes in the region. Writes historian Porter Morgan Ward, “Bigfoot, man or myth, began to gather the accumulated hatred of the white population. He was the scapegoat for unsolved crimes, (and) the bogeyman for small children.”
The account of Bigfoot’s demise was written by a man who claimed to be a bystander to Bigfoot’s final moments – or, some reasonably surmise, by a newspaper editor trying to sell papers on a slow news day — and published years after its supposed occurrence.
After a bounty was allegedly placed on Bigfoot’s head, a gunfighter named John Wheeler set his sights on the reward. Wheeler ambushed Bigfoot as he traveled through an isolated canyon. After being shot over a dozen times, the mangled and bleeding Bigfoot asked Wheeler for a drink of whiskey; he downed the pint and then, theatrically, proceeded to confess his life story to the gunman. He said he was of mixed ancestry: black, Cherokee, and white. As a young man, he was rejected by his lover’s family because of his mixed blood, and the woman left him. Hurt and enraged, he turned against the world and to a life of crime.
Bigfoot was buried at the scene of his death. Wheeler, filled with sudden remorse, swore never to confess the details of Bigfoot’s death in all his days (and was conveniently dead himself when the story went to press).
Despite its utter lack of verifiable fact, this tale seems to have passed smoothly into the annals of undisputed history, at least for a time; it was later published in an 1884 book entitled History of Idaho Territory, and the site of Bigfoot’s alleged demise was commemorated with a roadside plaque, of all things.
The final resting place of the elusive Howluck remains a mystery, but the frontier legend survives.
Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series: Bigfoot. http://history.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/reference-series/0040.pdf
Gulick, Bill. Big Tracks Recalled Legendary “Bigfoot” of Idaho 100 Years Ago. Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, 1966. Reprinted on
Ward, Porter Morgan. Bigfoot: Man or Myth? Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 7, Spring 1957.