Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bigfoot in Maine, Part 1

On a quarterly basis, I put out a print version of this blog, in the form of the Strange Maine Gazette. Often the stories in it derive from material previously posted here on the blog, but occasionally the material is new and the print version is its first incarnation. I try to remember to post that material here as well, but sometimes I get distracted. Ha!

This past April, I started a series of articles in the Gazette about Bigfoot in Maine. Of course, as I start work on the second installment in the series, it occurs to me that I haven't posted the first part here yet. Some of the material you may recognize from tidbits I've posted before, but the bulk of this is all new to the blog.

So here you go! Enjoy...

The Wild and Hairy Woods : Part 1 - The Older End of the Forest, and the Leaves That Came from It
by Michelle Souliere

Although famed on the West Coast, Bigfoot has a long history in Maine that few know about. But where did it all start? At least as far back as the 1850s, stories of strange apelike creatures were around... and in Maine literature of the turn of the 19th century, a great hairy shape makes itself known repeatedly. This literary echo of the woods is what we will listen to today.

The Maine author who registered these waves of woolly wonderment most frequently and with great vigor was C.A. Stephens, frequent contributor to Ballou’s Monthly Magazine and author of the Knockabout Boys book series. In his introduction to the 1876 story, “Was It an Indian Devil,” the narrator mulls over questions that mirror to a surprising extent the questions about Bigfoot that I and others are still pondering over 100 years later:
Can a myth come into existence spontaneously? Can a story, utterly truthless, obtain widespread belief through hundreds of years, and thus become a tradition?

At the close of a five-years’ residence among the hunters, lumbermen and river-drivers of the Northern Maine forests, in connection with the lumbering business of my uncle’s firm, I find myself puzzling at these questions, as I recall the persistent and ever-recurring tales and accounts which everywhere come to my ears, of that strange being, or animal, which the Indians used to call “Pomoola,” and which the white woodsmen have translated “Indian Devil.”
Stephens stands out because he wrote repeatedly about the “injun devil” in his short stories, which are told with such realism that Bigfoot enthusiasts have even listed one of them among historical accounts of Maine Bigfoot, with the slight caveat that it is “possibly fiction.”

After reading Stephens’ tales, I can see where the acceptance of them as being from life comes from. His tales appear to be drawn directly from the experiences of himself and those around him, and he tells them in such a straightforward and descriptive manner that readers feel as though they, too, have been there. (More on Stephens’ history later!)

Stephens’ most famous Bigfoot story is from Chapter 10 in his book Camping Out, Volume 1. In this, Cluey’s own story of the Indian Devil is told. Out trapping furs as a young fellow with two other men, he encountered something circling their campsite at night that terrified him:
...the moon was pouring down brightly; and I distinctly saw its shape, — the figure of a man, looking brown and naked, save where a hairy outline showed against the light. A feeling of sickness or of horror came over me.
On getting up the next morning, Cluey tells the older trapper accompanying them about the sighting, to which he receives this response:
“It’s an Indian devil! It’s old Pomoola! That’s just as I’ve heard the Oldtown Indians describe it a hundred times; but I always thought it was all a lie. They always left a place as soon as they’d seen one of these things; and I reckon we’d better!”
According to Stephens’ tales, Pomoola (more commonly known today as Pamola) would kill anyone who set foot on the peak of Mount Katahdin. This guardian spirit has become an amalgamation of both native and white men’s lore over the years, until today it is hard to figure out exactly what it is supposed to be. But around the turn of the century, it is plain to see that the old men of the woods had their own ideas of what Pamola was.

Stephens’ wasn’t the only Victorian-era writer to mention hairy monsters lurking in the dark of the Maine woods. In Holman F. Day’s 1901 book, Up in Maine: Stories of Yankee Life Told in Verse, he regaled his readers with one particularly creepy tale in the form of his poem, “Ha’nts of the Kingdom of Spruce,” from which this excerpt stands out:
He’ll mock the fears of mystic and he’ll scorn the bookish tales
Of the fearsome apparitions of the past, but courage fails
In the night when he awakens,
all a-shiver in his bunk,
And with ear against the logging
hears the steady, muffled thunk
Of the hairy fists of monsters,
beating there in grisly play,
--Horrid things that stroll o’ night-times,
never, never seen by day,
For he knows that though the spectres of the storied past are vain,
There is true and ghostly ravage in the forest depths of Maine.
Where did all this material come from? Were there actual sightings reported by wilderness dwellers such as Cluey that never made it into the early newspapers of the region? Or was the idea of this manbeast extrapolated from tales told of the Yahoo, a “ten-foot hairy giant,” by pioneer hero Daniel Boone? He, in turn, may have taken liberties with Jonathan Swift’s own race of bestial bipeds, mentioned in Gulliver’s Travels, and called by that same name. Other potential sources include Native American folklore of the Wendigo, according to Loren Coleman.

We may never know whether fact or fiction instigated the scores of reported sightings in Maine that date back into the early 1800s, and which continue to this very day. We do, however, know that there is a faint and mysterious trail that leads through the wilderness and tantalizes us at every turn with the possibility that we might see or hear something that wakes us out of our everyday modern world funk.

I’ll explore early reported Maine sightings of the creature in the next installation of this series, as well as more folklore. Stay tuned!

Illustration (c)Michelle Souliere. All rights reserved.

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