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Legendary “Chief Bigfoot” as elusive as his modern namesake

1860s Bannock leader disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared, leaving behind nothing but frontier folklore and a trail of 17-inch-long moccasin prints; a probably-untrue rumor claims Nampa, Idaho, was named after him.

An illustration by Frederic Remington of a Bannock Indian hunting party fording the Snake River, published Aug. 10, 1895, in Harper’s Weekly.

Nearly every Oregonian knows a story or two about Bigfoot — the legendary and elusive ape-creature that supposedly lives deep in the wilderness and serves as an inspiration to crypto-zoologists and bad reality TV producers nationwide. More than a few Oregonians have claimed to have seen the elusive fellow — or, at least, to know somebody who has.

Down in the desert country on the southeast border of Oregon, though, if you ask the right people, you’ll hear about another Bigfoot — one “Chief Bigfoot.”

Very little is really known about Chief Bigfoot; even his name is questionable, and nobody really knows if he was an actual Indian chief. But he was one of the participants in the Native American raids that years later would ripen into the Bannock War, in the high lonesome country where the borders of Oregon, Idaho and Nevada come together, and for some time he was a pretty successful raider.

Chief Bigfoot’s presence was first detected at the scene of an Indian raid in 1862. Over the following year or two, parties sent to the scenes of massacres, raids and moonlight stock thefts started noticing that one of the perpetrators had left freakishly large footprints behind.

Historian John Hailey quotes T.J. Sutton, an Indian fighter attached to an expedition in 1863, describing the tracks:

“We also discovered and measured Bigfoot’s track, which was 17 and one-half inches long by six inches wide,” Sutton 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.”

Sutton soon became more familiar with the mammoth moccasin tracks. Soon, it seemed, Bigfoot’s footprints were at every crime scene in southeast Oregon and southwest Idaho. But then, this may have had something to do with the obvious interest which the locals were taking in the tracks. Young lads, historian Bill Gulick relates, soon tumbled to the idea of making a moccasin 17 inches long and using it to leave “Bigfoot tracks” at the scenes of their pranks; perhaps other marauding bands of Bannocks had the same idea.

Over the years from 1863 to 1868, Chief Bigfoot started taking on some of the trappings of myth. Gulick found about a dozen references to his exploits in newspaper archives, all of them secondhand or hearsay; nobody seems to have witnessed the man in person. The newspapers claimed he was not a true Indian chief, but a part-white, part-Indian desperado who had risen to command of local Indians sworn to exterminate the white settlers and gold miners in the area.

Traces of Chief Bigfoot vanished after 1868, after the end of General George Crook’s campaign to force all the Indians onto reservations. During that campaign, Gulick says, Bigfoot was reported to have been killed half a dozen times; perhaps one of those times it really was him.

But according to T.J. Sutton’s account (quoted in Hailey’s book), the mysterious marauder actually died that year at the hands of a highway robber named John Wheeler, who presumably was after the big chief for the hefty bounty on his head.

Chief Bigfoot’s encounter with Wheeler is told in high dramatic style by a writer in the Idaho Statesman in November 1878, ten years after the event it claims to recount, and several years after Wheeler was safely dead and therefore unable to object (he was killed trying to rob a stagecoach in Arizona). Gulick refers to it as a “piece of folklore that incorporates many tall tales of the day, lightly salted with facts” — and he is surely right about that; but it’s the only record we have, and for many years it was believed to be accurate. In fact, there’s a plaque commemorating the alleged event on Idaho Highway 45, near the north shore of the Snake, put there by a local pioneer society.

According to the story, Wheeler set out to trap Bigfoot in a canyon south of the Snake River, in Idaho Territory; when he captured his quarry, a gun battle broke out, in which the mammoth Indian was mortally wounded.

As he lay dying, the story says, Bigfoot first drank a quart and a half of water and a pint of whisky, both offered to him by his killer. Then he told his story: His name was Starr Wilkinson, a member of the Cherokee Nation back east; he was half white and a quarter each Cherokee and African-American. He was a giant of a man, nearly seven feet tall and over 300 pounds, with a 56-inch chest and, of course, 17-inch-long feet. He’d come east on a wagon train most of the way to Oregon, but as they neared their goal, trouble had broken out: He’d fallen in love with a young lady on the train, and had asked her father for her hand in marriage.

The father made it clear to young Starr that it was all well and good to be kind to a young, friendly “half-breed,” but that under no circumstances would he allow his daughter to marry such an inferior creature.

Then one of the other young men on the wagon train started moving in on the girl, and — perhaps motivated by a speech from her father — she shifted her affections to him.

A few days later, Starr found himself rounding up stray stock with his rival. Words were exchanged; then the rival pulled a pistol and shot him in the side as Starr closed in and grabbed him by the throat and throttled him to death.

Then, knowing he was as good as dead back at the wagon train, Starr took it on the lam, fell in with some Bannock raiders, thrashed them with his bare hands, was accepted as their leader, and launched the five-year reign of terror that had ended with Wheeler’s gunshots.

So, how much of that story is true? Well, it’s entirely possible that the whole thing was made up by a journalist looking for a little fame. It’s a fine and delightful piece of frontier folklore, but that’s really all it is.

That leaves us with little more than a name, some big footprints and a whole lot of sketchy secondhand information — a situation very familiar to scholars interested in that other notorious Oregon recluse known as Bigfoot, good old Sasquatch. We can only hope that when some modern-day Homer finally gets around to writing a mythology for the old Oregon country, he or she will include a story of the two Bigfoots meeting, maybe one summer day in a juniper or aspen forest on the flank of the Steens, to make common cause against the march of settlement.

By the way, some historians think the city of Nampa, Idaho, was named after Chief Bigfoot — “Nampa” being a word from the Bannock dialect that supposedly means “Big moccasin.” Others, pointing out the unlikeliness of naming a city after an outlaw raider, believe the name is a coincidence.

(Gulick, Bill. “Big tracks recalled legendary ‘Bigfoot’ of Idaho,” Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Oct. 16, 1966; Hailey, John. The History of Idaho. New York: Syms, 1910; Gulick, Bill. Outlaws of the Pacific Northwest. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2000)