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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
be overlooked, residents in both northwest Arkansas and the Pine Bluff area have
reported Bigfoot-type creatures.
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
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
For more information on Hotels
and Resorts in Arkansas go to Arkansas Hotels and
Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Department of Parks and Tourism