Bigfoot legends of Idaho

History Corner

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Bigfoot legends are interesting stories found in many cultures that blurr the line between true history and legend. Never-theless, people find them fascinating and organizations think there's enough credibility to spend time and money investigating.

Most are about some giant hairy ape-like creature described as mysterious and elusive. One list has 175 names for Bigfoot from all over the world. Best known are Sasquatch, the Abominable Snowman and Yeti, but in China he's called Gin-sung, Amomongo in the Philippines, Yowie in Australia, Mono Grande in South America, Doko in Africa, and Texans call him the Lake Worth Monster.

American Indians also have their Bigfoot stories. The Salish tribes call him Saskets, and he's known as Tsoapittse by the Idaho Shoshones.

Outside Scotland and Russia however, the Bigfoot story seems to be ignored by European countries and none are listed from the Middle East.

Idaho too has its own Bigfoot legends, and one of them is probably mostly true:

Nampa, Idaho, was named after a chief of the combined Bannock, Paiute and Shoshone Indian tribes called Nam-Puh. He was also known as Howluck, Oulux, Qualuck, Howlark, Howlash, We-ah-we-ha and Nampu. According to John Hailey in The History of Idaho, he was "six foot eight inches tall, and weighing two hundred and eighty pounds." Because his footprint was seventeen and a half inches long, he earned the nickname Bigfoot.

But there was another Nampa. As an uncertain but well-publicized story goes, he was a Cherokee Indian named Starr Wilkinson who was just a baby in 1839 when his family was forced by the U.S. Government to join the historic "Trail of Tears" and leave their ancestral homes in the Carolinas and walk all the way to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma.

Starr's father was white but his mother was half-Cherokee and half black. That was enough Indian to evict the whole family.

Starr grew into a strapping seven-foot young man on the Oklahoma reservation and then left to find better opportunities elsewhere. After some odd jobs along the way, he joined a wagon train in St. Joseph, Mo., heading west on the Oregon Trail. He spoke perfect English, dressed and groomed himself like a white man, worked hard helping the train and was well liked by the pioneers. Then something went wrong that forever changed his destiny.

He met the daughter of one of the pioneer families on the trek and a heated love affair ensued. Near New Jerusalem (now called Nampa) in Idaho, he asked her father for her hand in marriage. His answer was swift and to the point. He would not allow his daughter to marry a "half-breed" and recommended he leave the wagon train.

Then to protect her own reputation, the girl disclaimed any feelings for him, telling everyone that he misjudged her interest.

Stunned and angry, Wilkinson left and headed south toward the Snake River, seething over the rejection and bigotry.

Then, according to one account, a few days after the confrontation with the girl's father, Wilkinson encountered the man while rounding up stray cattle. Harsh words were exchanged and the father drew his gun and shot him in the side. That didn't stop the big man, who then grabbed his assailant by the throat and choked him to death.

Not long after leaving the wagon train, Wilkinson came across a band of 10 Shoshone who immediately attacked him. They were no match against his size and strength and he pummeled all 10. Then he pulled his knife and threatened to kill them.

Cowed into submission, they pleaded for their lives and vowed to follow him if he would be their leader. They called him Chief Nampa, the name being a Bannock word for big moccasin.

With his new band of Shoshones, he stalked the wagon train that he left and in the dark of night attacked, killing everyone - including the girl he wanted to marry.

Nampa's band grew and in the next five years, they terrorized the area between Idaho City, Boise and Silver City, raiding and plundering wagon trains and travelers.

The first signs of giant footprints found at sites of Indian raids were in 1862. Historian John Hailey in his book The History of Idaho quotes Indian fighter T.J. Sutton about the big footprints: "We also discovered and measured Bigfoot's track, which was 17 and one-half inches long by six inches wide," he wrote. "At that time we had no knowledge of the man, but the enormous size of his track attracted our attention and so roused our curiosity that careful measurements of its dimensions were made, and no little discussion indulged in as to whether it was a human track."

Over the years, Wilkinson's notoriety spread and everyone knew him as Chief Bigfoot. Efforts to catch him failed and he continued to rob and kill. Then in 1882, his rampage ended in a shootout with a highway robber named John W. Wheeler who tracked him down to claim the bounty on his head.

He found his quarry in a canyon south of the Snake River. Wheeler shot him 16 times. While Wilkinson lay dying, a newspaper reporter heard about it and rushed to interview him - and here the story stretches credulity.

Allegedly, Bigfoot was interviewed for two hours while first drinking a quart and a half of water, then quaffing a pint of whiskey offered by Wheeler. He confessed to the killing and plundering, which he did for revenge against a white world that rejected him. "I have done all the mischief I can, and I am glad of it," he said.

He claimed that at one time he tried to give up the violence, married a white woman and had a son. The wife was killed and the son abducted, never to be seen again. Then he told a story that could be straight from a paperback western:

The gold, silver and jewelry that was his share of the plunder he hid somewhere in the Owyhee Mountains south of Nampa, but he died without revealing the exact location. No one has found it.

One account reported, "Wheeler refused to collect the $1,000 reward. There's an old superstition among thieves - that to collect a reward for a dead man who had been a fellow criminal, was to be haunted by him."

Most of the Starr Wilkinson Bigfoot story seems to come from a writer named William T. Anderson who wrote a serialized article in the Idaho Statesman, Nov. 14-16, 1878 (10 years after "Bigfoot" was supposedly killed) and the story took root - even reprinted in Eastern papers.

However, a different Bigfoot story in Idaho was about Snake Indian Chief Howluck who terrorized both white settlers and Indians. He "Was a large, tall man," according to the Idaho State Historical Society, "distinguished mostly for his oversize 14 3/4" foot (and 59-inch chest). By 1866 the whites (generally unaware of any Indian name for their adversary) were calling him Bigfoot."

Historian Gregory Michno writes, "A mountaineer named Reid, who occasionally scouted for (General George R.) Crook, and who had a personal encounter with Bigfoot, attested to his dimensions and prowess."

At numerous sites of Indian raids, giant moccasin prints were found, but historians suggest they may have been placed either by pranksters, or Indians seeking to frighten settlers or rival Nez Perce.

Like Starr Wilkinson, Howluck too hated the whites and fought the U.S. Army in the Snake War in late 1866. The campaign to kill hostile Indians or force them onto reservations ended in victory for General Crook of Civil War fame. The Historical Society says Bigfoot Howluck settled on an Oregon reservation, where he is remembered for being able to run down and catch jackrabbits with his cane.

The Society also writes that Starr Wilkinson - the other Bigfoot - "may or may not have existed in Oklahoma, but for whose existence in Idaho there is no historical evidence at all - at least in the literature which has grown up around the legend."

In Parma, Idaho, enough people believed the Starr Wilkinson story to memorialize him with a statue at Old Fort Boise State Park, dedicated on Aug. 22, 1974, by then Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus.

Paul Bunyan is also a giant remembered with statues.

Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at

Utopia in Idaho?

In 1885, Alexander and Hannah Duffes homesteaded 160 acres along the Oregon Trail in southwestern Idaho and planned to build a Christian community, forbidding saloons, gambling, alcohol and loose women. They would call it New Jerusalem. That was the beginning of Nampa, Idaho. The exact meaning of Nampa is still debated.

Death of Chief Howluck (Bigfoot)

Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in his 1888 book History of Oregon (Vol. II 1848-1888) writes, "Bigfoot was killed by an assassin, who lay in wait for him, and his murderer promised him to guard from the public the secret of his death, of which he was ashamed." But Idaho State Historical Society says he retired on an Indian reservation in Oregon.

Chief Paulina a casualty of the Snake War

In September 1866, Paulina and his band of 14 attacked James N. Clark's ranch in Oregon. Seven months later, Clark and rancher Howard Maupin and Californian William Ragan (one account names William Pagan and John Atterbury) tracked Paulina down near the town of Madras. Both Clark and Howard shot and scalped him. Maupin nailed the scalp on the wall of his barn as a trophy. Historical accounts disagree on who actually shot the fatal bullet and who did the scalping.

Failed peace talks with Chief Bigfoot

Chief Howluck fought the whites for some four years, encouraging other tribes to join him. At the urging of an Indian agent, Northern Paiute Chief Paulina tried to convince Howluck to stop the fighting and settle down on the reservation, but the plea was rejected. Paulina then offered to join the campaign against Howluck.

Explanation of big moccasin prints

Idaho State Historical Society says, "Indians of the region were wont to stuff their moccasins, during cold weather, with sage brush leaves. This would enlarge to unusual size, the tracks of Indians wearing such stuffed moccasins."

Bigfoot in Indian lore

Bigfoot - or Sasquatch - is a large, hairy, bipedal ape-like creature supposedly living in forests and mountains, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Most Northwest Native American tribes have Bigfoot legends, claiming that the giants act as go-betweens linking man and nature.

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