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1924, July 10: How Ape Canyon Got its Name

On July 12, 1924, a very strange story was reported by The Oregonian -- newspaper of Portland, Oregon, USA. Five prospectors had arrived the day before in Kelso, Washington, stating that they had abandoned their claim near Mt. St. Helens after a night-long battle with "Mountain Devils!"

        The men involved were Marion Smith, his son Roy Smith, Fred Beck, Gabe Lefever and John Peterson, and they had been working a claim on the 'Muddy,' a branch of the Lewis River, about eight miles from Spirit Lake. They claimed they had seen tracks that displayed feet 13 to 14 inches in length with four short and stubby toes off and on over six years in the area, and that they had heard stories of "Mountain Devils" from local Native Americans for sixty years (presumably the oldest member of the party said this). Sometime recent to the reported attack, the men saw a large animal at four different times that looked like a huge gorilla, covered in long, black hair... except this creature also had ears about four inches long that stuck straight up, it walked erect, was about seven feet tall, and was presumed to weigh around 400 pounds. One of the Smiths said he had met the beast and fired at it with his revolver; but that's not what started the trouble.

        On Thursday, July 10, Fred Beck shot the strange creature they had been seeing and it fell off a cliff. That night the new cabin the prospectors had just built came under assault. The men stated that large rocks were thrown at the cabin, some taking chunks out of the wood and some falling in through a hole in the roof. Beck was struck by two of the rocks that came in, and was unconscious for nearly two hours. Later reports stated that up to thirty of the strange creatures had been hurling stones at the cabin, and that the men escaped after the sun had risen.

        One of the Smiths (presumably the older man, Marion) stated that he believed the cabin was near a cave occupied by the strange beasts, and that he knew the location of the cave.

        Newspapers across the country soon picked up the story, spreading it far and wide. The public at large was, to say the least, skeptical; but the men stuck to their story, stating "We expected people would disbelieve us. But we ran into the beast -- whatever it was -- four times and left a perfectly good mine to get away from it." An expedition was thrown together to go investigate the scene.

A Native Perspective

        Four days after the first article, The Oregonian newspaper followed up with a feature written by Jorg Totsgi, of the Klallam Tribe, explaining what the Native Americans in the area felt the prospectors had encountered. The attackers were identified by Totsgi as members of a tribe called the Seeahtik (or also Seeahtkeh), a group that Northwestern Native Americans were said to have been keeping quiet about for two reasons. First, the existence of the Seeahtik was a sort of tribal "skeleton in the closet," as the newspaper described it; second, the Native Americans basically knew the White settlers wouldn't believe the stories about the Seeahtik anyway. This second assumption appears to have been valid, as the newspaper then reported that they checked with three other tribal representatives -- Henry Napoleon of the Klallam Tribe, L.J. James of the Lummi Tribe, and George Hyasman of the Quinault Tribe -- to confirm agreement on what Totsgi was claiming.

        According to this strange report, Seeahtik adults typically ranged in height from seven to eight feet, and they were entirely covered with hair. They possessed many supernatural powers, such as the ability to kill game entirely by hypnotism, or to communicate long distances telepathically, and could make themselves invisible with a combination of a strange ointment and their hypnotic powers. They were also ventriloquists of such skill that they could fool the local Native Americans who were accustomed to tracking animals in the woods. The Seeahtik had a keen sense of smell, could imitate any bird of the Northwest, spoke almost every Northwest tribal language of the Native Americans... and had a tendency to steal dried meat, salmon, and women from said tribes.

        There was some disagreement on where the Seeahtik lived -- either in or near Mount Ranier, or at Vancouver Island, B.C. -- but if the tales are true, then it could be supposed there were just more than one group of these unusual beings. It was believed that the tribe lived mainly underground in caves that were reached from secret tunnels. It was felt by the Oregon and Washington Native American tribes that the Seeahtik were "just about extinct," as it had been fifteen years since their tracks had been seen at the Brinnon River where they fished for salmon. Given the Seeahtik's abilities to vanish, the Native Americans were predicting that the then-current searches would turn up nothing.

        If left alone, the Seeahtik were harmless... but if one of their number was killed, they would kill twelve of their enemies in retaliation.

Bigfoot Beginnings

        I don't know what the canyon was called before the prospectors reported their strange encounter, but the place was soon named "Ape Canyon" afterwards. This event is now often credited as one of the earliest and best attested encounters with what are called 'Bigfoot' or 'Sasquatch,' a proposed race of hairy humanoids believed to still live in the wilds of North America. Of course, most modern reporting on this matter tends to shave out details that don't match modern ideas about these hairy wildmen... such as the ears pointing straight up. What is undeniable is that this incident appears to be the event that first started people actively going out to search for evidence of giant hairy humanoids in the North American wilds. I'm still digging for more information on how the initial investigation went; but it doesn't seem to matter, as the whole story was given two new spins years later.

The Great Ape Hunt
Illustration from the 1952 Seattle Times article [Larger version here]

        The first new take on the story was published in 1952, in the Seattle Times. The Times article revealed that two men, Orville Hunt and Al Coleman, were claiming to have led two troops of boys from a YMCA camp located just a quarter mile from the location of the prospectors' cabin along the Pine Creek Trail on the night of the assault... which happens to travel on the cliff just above the very cabin in question. Hunt stated that the boys in the second group had started throwing rocks down onto the cliff, and that had started loose rocks tumbling down; he claimed that this was what the whole "attack" was. The same article also claimed that the 'footprints' were easily duplicated by a Forest Ranger with the knuckles and palm of his hand. While many people have touted the YMCA explanation since this article was published, they generally ignore that the men also reported seeing and shooting one of the hairy humanoids during the day before the attack, either assuming the prospectors were mistaken or lying... which is a very convenient attitude for trying to disprove the story.

        The next re-emergence of the story came in 1966. Fred Beck -- one of the original prospectors -- was interviewed, and his telling of the event was published in the oddly titled book "Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist?" The reason for the odd title was the then-popular accounts from the Himalayas and Tibet that appeared to support the existence of a tall hairy wildman in those snowy regions, called by newspapers "The Abominable Snowman"... so the book was trying to relate the lesser known reports of the North American hairy humanoid to the better known Asian one [check the 'See Also' link below for more].

        A read of the interview with Beck shows new details that must be noted. Beck claimed that for two years previous to the attack, they had all seen big footprints in the area; and that he knew a man who had been fishing in the area when he encountered a "hairy great fella." Beck also stated that he and the other prospectors had heard noises like whistling, and something pounding on its chest (a behavior commonly attributed to actual apes).

        More extraordinary, Beck claimed to have been with Marion Smith when one of the hairy humanoids was shot by Smith at least three times in the head... yet the creature still escaped, making leaps of up to fourteen feet. Beck estimated that the footprints were about 19 inches in length, which is greater than was originally reported; which raises the question of whether Beck's memory was changing over time and with re-tellings.

        Two important changes to turn up first in this telling of the story. Beck claimed that the beasts were actively trying to get into the cabin, and that the prospectors shot at them; some got on the roof, and they fired up through the ceiling to chase them off... which is not mentioned in any way in the earlier 1924 sources. The other big change -- and one not reported in the modern tellings of the story -- is that Beck claimed that he only shot a hairy creature after the night attack, in the morning when the men were packing up to leave. In all previous tellings of the account, Beck shooting the individual creature was the event said to have started the attack.

       So overall, Fred Beck told a new version of the story when interviewed... a more exciting version, but one that contained questionable additions and changes. It should be noted that if the men were actively attacked by the beasts and shot back at them, then the YMCA camp story is proven wrong; unfortunately though, the earliest sources for the event do not mention the active attack or the shooting back, so it's possible Beck added these details to discount the YMCA story.

        The gist of Beck's new version of the story was included in "Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist?" along with photos, maps, and newspaper clippings. And then something happened that not only made the book sell very well, but also got more of the interview printed, and even led to Beck releasing his own short book on the incident.

Pure Luck and Good Timing

        You see, the author of the 1966 "Abominable Snowman" book, the person who interviewed Fred Beck, was none other than Roger Patterson... who, along with Robert Gimlin, became famous just a year later in October 1967 when the two men claimed to have filmed a 'Bigfoot' as it walked away from them into the woods, a piece of controversial evidence now known as the "Patterson-Gimlin Film."

Frame from Patterson-Gimlin Film
A frame from the film. [Picture sources here]

        The release of this film to news services turned the claims for Bigfoot into what they are today: something that just about everyone knows. The overnight sensation of the Patterson-Gimlin Film meant that just about anything Patterson wrote on the topic of Bigfoot was instantly given extra special attention by both believers and skeptics... and the 1924 Ape Canyon encounter was definitely part of that, because the reason Patterson and Gimlin were in the woods with a movie camera to begin with was to create a film based on the Ape Canyon story!

        This media explosion mostly repeated a trimmed down version of Beck's newest telling of the Ape Canyon story, so most modern sources now claim that the beasts tried to get into the cabin, and that the men shot back at them... but the new re-tellings also stick to the earliest version of the story in that they claim Beck shot one of the beasts before the attack began. I suspect that Patterson's book, which didn't include the full interview, may not have repeated Beck's new claim about when he shot a beast.

        So, strange as it seems, one of the earliest documented claims of a Bigfoot encounter led to the capture of the most famous evidence for the existence of the strange creatures... and that evidence, ironically, insured that the 1924 encounter story would not be forgotten!