Just 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt was the country’s chief executive and favorite son. His personality was larger than life. His exploits captured people’s imaginations worldwide. After the death of his first wife in 1884, Roosevelt spent two years as a rancher and hunter on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory. He climbed down from the saddle long enough to pen three books during this period. In 1893, he published a lengthy and most entertaining narrative entitled The Wilderness Hunter: An Account of the Big Game of the United States and Its Chase with Horse, Hound, and Rifle, a memoir of sorts of his days in the territories. Among the stories recorded here is what seems to have been a 19th-century Bigfoot encounter.
The Frontiersman’s Tale
The report came to Roosevelt from the lips of a grizzled old mountain man named Bauman, who had spent the entirety of his very long life on the frontier. As he recollected the details of the event, Bauman had difficulty controlling his emotions. The event was very real to him.
Bauman was a trapper as a young man. His strange encounter occurred sometime between 1810 and 1840 when he and a partner were trapping in an area around the forks of the Salmon and Wisdom rivers in the Bitteroot Mountains, near the border of Idaho and Montana. The trapping business was rather lean so the two frontiersmen decided to try their skills in a remote area around a small mountain stream that seemed to have a lot of beaver signs.
This area had a rather sinister reputation. A year earlier, a lone hunter had wandered into the area and been slain by a wild beast. His half-eaten remains were discovered by a prospector. People who knew of the strange killing gave that area a wide berth, but this did not deter the two adventuresome trappers.
Bauman and his partner rode to within a four-hour hike of the area where they were going to trap. They hobbled their mountain ponies in a beaver meadow and set off on foot into the underbrush of the Bitteroot Range.
The trappers hastily erected a lean-to where they stowed their packs, then hurried upstream to set a few traps and explore for signs before nightfall. When they returned to their makeshift camp at dusk, they made an unpleasant discovery. Their packs had been vandalized, and their gear thrown in every direction. Whatever attacked the camp had been vigorous in its assault, churning up the ground and completely destroying the lean-to.
Such vandalism was completely out of place. Frontiersmen knew of the hardship of survival. Lean-tos might stand for years as hunter after hunter used them and passed on their way. Packs were far too valuable to be recklessly strewn on the ground; they might be purloined by the unscrupulous, but never vandalized. Bears and other creatures might be drawn to food, but this was evidently not the case. It appeared someone was bent on destroying their packs.
As the unfortunate trappers gathered up their possessions, they noticed footprints in the ground that were “quite plain.” The urgency of salvaging their goods and rebuilding the lean-to required their immediate energies. The footprints, plain or otherwise, would have to wait.
Two Long Nights
When the camp was restored, Bauman began cooking a meal while his partner examined the footprints by torchlight. Returning for another firebrand, he remarked that the attacker walked on two legs. Bauman broke into laughter at the idea of a marauding bear walking upright as it demolished the camp. His partner insisted the bear must have walked on its hind legs and took a larger firebrand to examine the tracks in more detail. The prints clearly indicated that they were made by a creature that walked upright, having been made by two paws or feet.
Around midnight, Bauman was awakened by a noise. An awful stench filled his nostrils, the strong odor of a wild beast. By the opening of the lean-to, he saw the menacing shadow of a great body lurking in the darkness. He fired his rifle. The shot either missed its intended mark or did little harm to the towering form, but whatever it was ran off. The curtain of night could not obscure the sounds of something very large forcing its way through the thick underbrush surrounding the camp.
The second half of the night passed slowly as the trappers watchfully tended the fire. Nothing more of the great thing was heard, seen, or smelled that night.
When daylight came the two men set out to check their traps and make additional sets. Both were experienced mountain men, but instead of separating and covering twice as much area, they worked together all day. The events of the previous night obviously impacted them enough to alter their behavior.
As the last light of the afternoon began to give way to the ensuing night, the men reached their camp. It was déjà vu: again the camp had been destroyed. All their possessions had been rummaged and tossed about. The earth was churned up, indicating a great deal of furious activity. In the soft, damp earth near the stream were found clear footprints as crisp as if made in snow. The tracks were made by a creature that was obviously bipedal.
As darkness surrounded them, the trappers restored their camp as best they could, concentrating their efforts on building a roaring fire. That night, they could hear branches breaking in the underbrush, indicating that it was near. Occasionally it emitted long, drawn-out groans and moans, sounds that proved to be terrifying to the two men.
With the arrival of the new day came a decision. Although the area showed signs of an abundance of game, very little had been taken so far. Combined with the harassment of the unwelcome camp follower, the trappers decided to leave.
As the two men collected the traps they had set the day before, they felt the presence of someone or something watching them, dogging them. Their awareness of this phantom seemed to intensify their resolve to leave the area.
A Fatal Decision
But the light of day began to work on their manhood. They felt embarrassed about sticking so close together. Both men were experienced in wilderness survival. Both had faced danger from man, beast, and the elements before and had prevailed. Perhaps this reasoning influenced their next move. They decided to separate. Bauman was to check the remaining traps while his partner returned to camp and pack. They would meet at the camp and move somewhere else.
Fortune blossomed at the wrong time: each of the three remaining sets had caught a beaver. One of the poor creatures had fought with the trap and tangled the chain in a beaver lodge, requiring extra time to untangle. By the time Bauman had skinned the beaver carcasses and stretched the pelts, most of the afternoon was gone. As the last moments of daylight were disappearing, he neared the camp.
An eerie silence seemed to envelop the site. No birds could be heard. Bauman’s steps were muted by the pine needles and even the perpetual breeze of the mountains was still. He whistled, expecting a reply from his partner. No acknowledgement was heard. All was silent.
Within sight of the camp, Bauman saw that the fire was out, a thin blue smoke trailing from the dying embers. His partner’s lifeless body lay stretched on the ground by the trunk of a fallen tree. The body was still warm. The poor man’s neck had been broken. Four fang-like incisions marked the throat. Footprints indicated the attack was from an animal that walked on two legs.
Upon completion of packing, the unfortunate trapper must have sat on the tree trunk facing the fire waiting for Bauman to return. Reaching out from behind the resting man, the unknown creature must have wrenched the trapper’s neck. Evidence indicated that whatever killed the lone trapper had thrown the body about and rolled on it.
Bauman abandoned the camp, taking only his rifle. He made his way down the mountain pass to the hobbled ponies in the beaver meadow, then rode beyond the point of pursuit.
Roosevelt noted that Bauman was of German ancestry, and would have heard many a ghost and goblin story as a child. In his years on the frontier he would have heard tales of the unexplained and of the magic of the Indian medicine man. As a hunter and trapper he would have learned the track of every animal in the area. Roosevelt did not doubt that an incident took place, but he gives the impression that a psychological explanation would account for the unexplainable part of the story.
According to this report, a large, foul-smelling creature that appeared to be bipedal repeatedly attacked two young frontiersmen in the region of the Bitterroot Mountains. What was it? Roosevelt did not say. However, something about the story of the old mountain man must have impressed the future president deeply for him to include it in his great narrative of the frontier West.
Written by Gary W. Hemphill, a writer living in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Story published in FATE Feb/Jan 2009.