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Legendary Arkansas Monsters

Have Deep Roots in History

Tales of monsters and bizarre events have been a part of Arkansas lore for centuries. All ancient cultures, including Native Americans, have passed their mysterious legends from one generation to the next. But, when Europeans appeared in Arkansas, their wild stories were recorded on paper and spread across the seas.

In an attempt to entertain readers, a French writer traveling with Benard de la Harpe on his exploration of the Arkansas River in 1722 noted that the region had monster-sized bullfrogs and giant turtles. Big bear and panther stories from Arkansas became so popular that they were reprinted in Germany, France, Italy and even India. Early newspapers, including the Arkansas Gazette, attempted to correct the unfavorable reputation the wild tales had bestowed, but the legends continued to grow.

The fact that Arkansas was sparsely settled in the early 19th century helped create many of the original legends. Isolated and with virtually no social activities, families entertained themselves with folktales they had heard or ones they fabricated on the spot. Also, in an effort to keep children from dangerous bluffs, streams and caves, parents often invented frightening stories about those dangerous places.

An example is at Sharp County’s Cave City, where a cavern with an underground river is located. As the area was settled after the Civil War, the walk-in cave became a favorite rendezvous for youngsters until a story made the rounds that a “Mr. Jones” had entered the underground stream in a boat and never returned. This may have deterred some youthful explorers, but the cave remained a gathering place, even after the entrance was covered with steel bars in the 1930s.

Folklorist Vance Randolph (1892-1980) recorded some of the state’s oldest “monster” legends in his early writings. The Gowrow, a 20-ft long lizard-type monster with tusks, reportedly lurked along rocky ledges and roamed caves in the Ozarks during the late 1800s. One story reports that a Gowrow was actually killed in Searcy County in 1897, but the carcass was reportedly lost in shipment to the Smithsonian Institute. Other legendary highland creatures included the Galliwampus, a greatly oversized panther or mountain lion, and the Giasticutus that walked upright and moved like a large bird.

The White River Monster legend can be traced to Native American folklore, according to some news features about the Newport-area creature. The first recorded sighting was in 1915, followed by another report in 1924. The first national publicity about “Whitey” appeared in 1937 when farmer Bramblett Bateman reported to the media that he had watched a gigantic sea serpent-like beast frolic in the river near his home.

Newsreel cameramen, reporters and curiosity seekers lined the river downstream from Newport for weeks hoping to get a glimpse of the gray, slimy beast. In addition to Bateman, three other local residents signed affidavits stating they also had seen the creature. Reports of and interest in the river monster eventually subsided, and the incident was almost forgotten.

Then, in 1972, several people along the White - between Jacksonport and Newport - reported sighting strange objects in the river. “As big as a boxcar and 30 feet long…gray all over, with fins,” one excited witness reported. At least seven sightings were recorded, and one witness offered a blurred Polaroid snapshot he’d taken of the elusive monster.

Once again, the national media focused on the small community of 8,000. A Japanese filmmaker arrived with the intentions of making a movie and hundreds of media interviews were staged. Local merchants cashed in on the hype by staging “Monster Sidewalk Sales,” and a local restaurant placed “Monsterburgers” on the menu. Folksinger Jimmy Driftwood debuted a tune about the White River serpent during a Newport appearance.

To ensure nothing tragic would happen to the seemingly friendly creature, the 1973 Arkansas Legislature passed a resolution declaring a section of the White River a “refuge” for the creature and banned anyone from “molesting, killing, trampling, or harming” Arkansas’s proclaimed cousin to Scotland’s Loch Ness monster.

Chicago biologist and creature investigator Dr. Roy Mackal believes the creature is a known aquatic animal outside its normal habitat. After studies of eyewitness accounts, Mackal believes “Whitey” is actually a northern elephant seal that somehow found its way into the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi and eventually up Arkansas’s White River. Elephant seals may attain a length of 22 feet.

Occasional sightings were reported until the late 1970s, then the river legend faded from the news. But it has not become completely forgotten among locals. The “magic dragon” sometimes reappears on souvenir T-shirts sold in Newport shops and at local festivals. 

The most famous of monster legends in Arkansas is the Fouke Monster. Its fame was assured by three movies about a hairy, ape-like creature that supposedly haunts the swampy Sulphur River bottoms of Miller County. The first reported sightings of the “Boggy Creek” monster were in 1946, and it was seen again in 1965. But it was an alleged attack on a farmhouse near the Fouke community in 1971 that brought state and national attention to the region south of Texarkana.

Shaggy-haired, stinky and well over six-feet tall, the creature allegedly clawed its way through a screened window before the men of the house chased the creature back into the woods. Law enforcement officers were called and investigated the scene, taking casts of some strange footprints. Soon after the lawmen departed, the beast returned and was met with gunfire from the homeowners, according to reports.

In 1972, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced a low-budget movie called “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” which assured a place in folklore history for the Fouke Monster. The pseudo-documentary film became a cult hit and reportedly grossed $22 million in ticket sales, mostly at drive-in theaters.

The hairy humanoid, with arms extending almost to the ground, was accused of stealing hogs, chickens and a calf as its fame expanded. The Fouke Monster also grew in stature after the movie appeared. By the late 1970s, some eyewitnesses reported the creature to be about 10 feet tall and weigh some 800 pounds. They also noted that it left a odor worse than that of a skunk.

Two sequel films have been made about Arkansas’s version of Sasquatch - also known as Bigfoot - but it has been several years since a reported sighting. Motorists traveling U.S. 71 through Fouke may stop and purchase monster T-shirts and memorabilia at a local shop.

Not to be overlooked, residents in both northwest Arkansas and the Pine Bluff area have reported Bigfoot-type creatures.

Perhaps the most overlooked monster legend in The Natural State is the Heber Springs Water Panther. A weird cross between the Bigfoot and a puma, the creature reportedly can breathe both on land and underwater.  It is man-like with a covering of fur, and gives off a “hellish scream” when roaming the deep forests around Greers Ferry Lake and the Little Red River. Like the others, the Water Panther has not been seen in recent years.

Perhaps fewer people are venturing through the woods and swamps at midnight in the 21st century, accounting for fewer sightings. And maybe high-tech video games and movies have obscured the legends and folktales of a few decades ago.

But, if - as crytozoologists maintain - monster sightings come in 30-year cycles, the beastly season may be just ahead.

For more information on family attractions in Arkansas go to Arkansas Family Attractions

 

For more information on Hotels and Resorts in Arkansas go to Arkansas Hotels and Resorts

By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer

Department of Parks and Tourism

 

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