The meandrous monster migrates to Utah Lake

2006-05-06T23:00:00Z The meandrous monster migrates to Utah LakeDaily Herald Daily Herald
May 06, 2006 11:00 pm  • 

D. Robert Carter

When the first Euro-American settlers came to the Great Basin in 1847, the Ute Indians told them stories of Pawapicts or Water Babies. These supernatural beings lured their human victims under the water, where they, too, became Pawapicts. The new colonists modified these Ute tales, and the Pawapicts became creatures the Euro-Americans had heard of in the Old Country -- kraken or sea monsters.

Very little public comment on these sea monsters surfaced until 1868, when Joseph C. Rich, a northern Utah correspondent to the Deseret News, wrote his now famous column entitled, "Monsters in Bear Lake." In this column, Rich asserted that a group of men and women saw a cluster of brownish-colored animals rapidly swimming through the lake's blue waters.

Toward the end of his letter, Rich suggested that some enterprising soul could likely become rich by catching one of these strange animals and selling it to famous circus magnate and king of the freak show circuit, P.T. Barnum. Some very important people in Utah Territory cut to the chase -- including the leader of the LDS Church and former governor of Utah Territory, Brigham Young.

President Young read accounts of the Bear Lake monster in the Deseret News, and he received several "monster letters" from a number of the faithful in northern Utah and southern Idaho. A May 18, 1874, letter from William Budge, who lived in Paris, Idaho, told of a monster sighting on Bear Lake.

Budge, William Broomhead, and Molando Pratt were returning from general conference in Salt Lake City when they spotted the monster about three miles from Lake Town. Budge reported that it swam in the lake about 100 yards ahead of the party and 20 yards from shore. At first the men thought the creature in the lake might be a very large duck, but as they drove closer, the men could tell the creature was an animal they judged to be about five or six feet long.

The animal dived underwater and came up about 100 feet from the three men, giving them a good look at its strange countenance as it swam through the still water about as fast as a man could walk. Pratt's description read:

"It's face and part of it's head was distinctly seen, covered with fur, or short hair of a light snuff color. The face of the animal was apparently flat, very wide between the yes, and tapering to the nose with very full large eyes, and prominent ears, the ears resembling those of a horse, but scarcely as long. The whole face, in shape, was like that of a fox, but so large that the space between the eyes, equaled that of the distance between the eyes of a common cow."

Budge concluded his letter by stating, "As there has been considerable interest excited in regard to the 'Bear Lake Monster' I submit a description of what we have seen thinking it might be acceptable to you."

The letter from Budge must have interested Young. Sometime in the 1870s, the Mormon leader and Phineas W. Cook made plans to capture the wily animal and split the money gained from its sale, each man receiving half the profit. It appears Young was to furnish the equipment, and Cook was to do the work. Cook hired a blacksmith to manufacture a large iron hook, and he baited it with an ample chunk of meat. Then he fastened the hook to what must rank as Utah's strangest fishing gear. The unorthodox disciple of Isaac Walton attached the hook to twenty feet of chain cable and secured it to a buoy. The float allowed the heavy chain to sink into the water to the depth of 20 feet.

Then Cook fastened one end of a 300-yard-long length of one-inch rope to the buoy and attached the other end of the rope to a larger buoy. He inserted a small flag pole into the top of the bigger buoy and raised "Old Glory" to the top of the staff. A sinker attached to the bottom of the large buoy kept the flagpole and the flag upright.

As a final touch, Cook tied one end of a 300-foot-long length of three-quarter-inch rope to the larger buoy. He attached the other end of the rope to a tree on the shore of the lake. It is not difficult to believe that Cook's odd fishing experiment proved unsuccessful.

On August 24, 1876, the obviously disappointed LDS Church President penned a letter to Cook asking for the return of the hemp fishing line. In reply, Cook wrote that he had called on Young several times to discuss the situation. Each time he had waited in vain for a half hour to 45 minutes. Since Cook had other business in the capital, he finally left to take care of it.

The would be monster catcher explained to Young what happened to the rope: "You furnished me rope etc to catch the serpent in the Lake at halves. I spent my time faithfully during the season but did not succeed. Dudly Mrrit of Bennington came here fer it to streath across Bear River to ferry you and your company over. I asked you afterward in the Parent Co op (ZCMI) in your City about it You told me to let him have it fer he had well paid you fer it. . . so I shall expect you to squese the acc."

Exactly how the two men resolved this fishing dispute is lost in the depths of Utah's maritime history. Since Young died the next year, his demise likely signaled the end of this monstrous dispute.

Joseph C. Rich's fish story fooled more people than just Young and Cook. A goodly number of people, or it may be more accurate to say, a number of goodly people throughout the territory swallowed his tale -- hook, line and sinker. Others were more reluctant to take the baited hook. Many of the territory's newspapers cast their linotypes into these murky waters.

The Mormon owned Deseret News somewhat reluctantly admitted that the serpent story might be true and continued to print corroborating evidence, while the Salt Lake Tribune, the paper representing Utah's gentiles, attacked the truthfulness of Rich's story. The Tribune caustically remarked concerning the monster, "He's twin brother to the devil and cousin to Brigham."

The Tribune and the Corinne Reporter knew the monster stories they printed were fictitious, and generally used them to belittle the Mormon church, but the Deseret News and the Utah County Enquirer remained uncertain about the validity of the stories they printed.

The copious publicity, both pro and con, given to Rich's Bear Lake Monster story opened the floodgate of folklore and unleashed a deluge of water monster tales that inundated Utah from north to south. The power of suggestion is an amazing thing. It caused many honest people to watch for water monsters and find their presence in many unusual quirks of nature.

Not many years passed before all of Utah's major lakes had monsters, and their stories too were reported in the territory's newspapers. The tone of some of the stories was sarcastic, while other articles were serious.

The Corinne Reporter told of an aquatic thief on the Great Salt Lake. The newspaper stated that in 1870 many cattle belonging to the LDS Church had disappeared from Antelope Island where the church kept its herd. The Reporter suggested that some people thought a subterranean cavern connected Bear Lake and the Great Salt Lake, and that a migratory Bear Lake Monster was responsible for the disappearance of the cattle. The article ended with this gentile, but not very genteel, jab at the leader of Utah's predominant religion: "The faithful say that they (the cattle) were eaten by the Bear Lake Monster (but some people) think the whole affair an invention of the prophet to keep the people in the dark while he gets away with the cattle on the island."

Making fun of earlier Bear Lake Monster stories and hoping to gain for Corinne its share of publicity, the Corinne Record published the report of a monster located off Monument Point on the northern shores of the Great Salt Lake. The newspaper claimed that salt boilers working the night shift for Barnes & Co. heard noises from the lake and looked up to see:

"A huge mass of hide and fin rapidly approaching, and when within a few yards of the shore it raised its enormous head and uttered a terrible bellow ... (It was) a great animal like a crocodile or alligator ... but much larger ... It must have been seventy-five feet long, but its head was not like an alligator's -- it was more like a horse's."

The men ran to the mountains and didn't come back down until daylight. They were horrified when they returned to see large rocks turned over and the ground badly torn up along the trail taken by the monster. The story ended with this editorial comment mimicking Joseph C. Rich's first monster story: "The story is probably a hoax; however, the editor of the Record vouches for the correspondent as 'a man whose veracity cannot be impeached.' "

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the Salt Lake Tribune also aped Rich's original story by writing that a gentleman who had recently returned from Sevier Lake reported seeing several monsters in Central Utah's salty sea. The largest animal was 50 feet long and 20 feet in circumference. It's back was visible 10 feet above water. Other, smaller species of its kind sported and spouted in the distance. The writer suggested that since a huge inland sea once covered Utah, all the territory's lake monsters were surely related.

Fish Lake was also heard from. The Sevier Stake Historical Record contains the following information about a monster in that lake: "This Lake too, has its monster, according to the Indian's report, years ago, it made great havoc with the native's papooses, but latterly it is better behaved. It is 300 feet long."

The residents of Utah County were no exception when it came to lake monster stories. Joseph Rich's report of a monster sighting on Bear Lake caused a few dwellers of Happy Valley to reflect upon former monster sightings on Utah Lake. It appears that settlers had detected strange creatures in Utah's Sea of Galilee years earlier, but word of these discoveries had not appeared in the newspapers. It was likely nothing but true Utah Valley modesty that kept these sightings from being reported earlier.

Toward the end of August 1868, Henry Walker, a resident of Lehi, sent a letter to the Deseret News. He claimed that in about 1864 Isaac Fox was hunting along the shore of Utah Lake just east of the mouth of the Jordan River. Fox was in the water and quietly moving around a point where some rushes grew when he heard a noise and glanced eastward toward what he supposed to be an animal.

To his fear and surprise, he saw what looked like a large snake with dark, piercing eyes and a head that looked like that of a greyhound. The frightened Fox moved toward shore, and the animal followed until it came to within 35 feet of him. It then turned and, being joined by another of its breed, swam straight across the lake faster than a man could run. Fox estimated that the creatures were about 25 or 30 feet long. The following year, a young son of Canute Peterson saw similar creatures near where Fox had seen them earlier.

Walker also stated that in 1866 a white man and an Indian were searching the lake shore about two miles east of the Jordan River for some wild hay to cut. They heard splashing in the water and thought it was their dog chasing after something. The men went into the rushes near the water to investigate. According to their story, they were startled by a creature that raised itself up about 50 feet away and "looked them full in the face." The Indian ran off and his companion retreated about 35 feet to higher ground where he turned and looked again.

He reported "its head was a foot across and shaped like a greyhound's; and it had the wickedest looking black eyes he had ever seen. It darted its tongue out which was red and forked. The color of the 'snake' was a deep yellow with black spots."

The Deseret News responded to Walker's revelations by saying they made "a character for Utah Lake as the abode of monsters almost rivaling those in Bear Lake." The News continued, "One thing somewhat noteworthy with regard to both lakes, we believe, is that an Indian cannot be got to go into either, as from personal knowledge, or tradition, they believe monsters do exist in each. They say that at Pelican point, in Utah Lake, one of these monsters swallowed an Indian whole, scalp lock and all!"

While some Utah Valley people believed these stories about monsters in the lake, there were also many skeptics. Peter Madsen, a pioneer fisherman of Utah Lake, was one such disbeliever. His opinion was reported in the October 30, 1868, Deseret Evening News.

According to Madsen, there was living on Utah Lake a peculiar type of duck-like bird he called a "hell diver." The bird, which was probably an American coot, had short wings with very few feathers and neither flew nor walked very well. It could, however, dive and stay underwater for as many as 15 minutes.

Madsen described another peculiarity of the bird: "It sometimes makes its way across the water with great velocity, flapping its short and almost featherless wings, and leaving a wake behind it that gives the appearance of a serpent dashing along." He thought it may have been this condition that led some people to believe they had seen a strange creature.

Madsen added that in the 14 years he had spent fishing the lake, he had never seen the monster. In spite of his attempt to discredit the idea that strange creatures lived in the lake, reports of monster sightings remained in circulation, although interest in the strange beasts temporarily waned.

To be continued ...

D. Robert Carter is a historian from Springville. He can be reached at 489-8256.

"Tales From Utah Valley" is now available at Borders, Pioneer Books and BYU Bookstore, all in Provo and The Read Leaf in Springville.

Material for Captions

Mouth of Provo River

During the 1860s and later, some residents of Utah Valley believed strange water creatures resided in Utah Lake and its tributaries. This scene from an early postcard shows the willow-lines banks at the mouth of the Provo River.

Courtesy of Author

Peter Madsen & Wife

Early Utah Lake fisherman Peter Madsen is seen here with one of his wives, Wilhelmina Jorgensen Madsen. In 1868, Madsen tried to refute the existence of the Utah Lake Monster. Madsen thought it was possible some people mistook a bird he called a "hell diver" for a water serpent of some kind. In his decade and a half of fishing on Utah Lake, he had never seen a monster.

Boyd Adams

Please put on history page:

Utah Valley Historical Society Announcement of Meeting Tuesday, May 9,2006, 7:00 p.m.

Prove Public Library, Young Activities and Special Events Room Speaker: Brian Cannon Native American Children, Indentured Servitude and the Mormons in Utah

Summer is coming and with the May meeting the Utah Valley Historical Society finishes its series of lectures for the season. We will meet on Tuesday, May 9, at 7:00 p.m. in the Young Activities and Special Events Room on the second floor of the Prove Public Library in the restored Brigham Young Academy section of the building. For this last lecture and meeting. Dr. Brian Cannon of the BYU history department addresses the issue of the slave trade in Utah. However, he will not be discussing the owning of Afro-American slaves;

Instead he will tell us about the capture, sell, purchase and ownership of Indian children in Utah Territory, particularly focusing on Indian children in Mormon pioneer homes. This is an intriguing subject, one about which few modem inhabitants of Utah are aware, but some families have stories of Indian children being raised in the homes of their ancestors. Although we are aware of the enslavement of Africans to work in pre- Civil War America, especially the South, and although many of us have read or heard about the indentured servitude arrangements that in essence brought slave labor to the British colonies in America, most of us are only vaguely familiar, if acquainted at all, with the traffic in Indian children as slaves and servants in Utah. In the early to mid 1800s, Ute raiding parties, particularly those led by Walkara, invaded Paiute and Gosiute camps and captured children and young women to trade as slaves and servants to Mexican traders from New Mexico for horses, guns, and supplies. When Mormon settlers arrived in Utah and especially when they spread into southern Utah, they found themselves, like it or not, in the middle of the business. Dr. Cannon's program will educate us about this issue in Utah's past. As always, the lecture is free and open to the public, so we invite you to bring others with you to this thought-provoking presentation. For more information, call Robert Carter, 489-8256. A new series of lectures will begin again in September. Long before Mormon settlers arrived in Utah, Indians in the region were involved in a lucrative slave trade. Recognizing a potential new market, Indian traders approached the Mormons soon after their arrival in Salt Lake Valley and attempted to sell some of their captives. The Mormons' awareness of the business grew as they began to establish settlements southward. In 1852 under Brigham Young's urging, the Mormons attempted to suppress the trade of Indian children as slaves and servants. What resulted was the outlawing of Indian slavery, but indentured servitude for twenty year terms became permitted and regulated under Utah law. Thus commenced the Mormon practice of purchasing Indian children. Over the next two decades, hundreds of Paiute, Gosiute, Shoshone and Ute children found themselves as servants and/or family members in Mormon homes. These children were caught between incompatible cultures. Dr. Cannon's presentation will explore the circumstances surrounding the purchase of Indian children, the children's reactions to their new circumstances, the household relationships that developed between Indians and Mormon pioneers as a result of these living arrangements, and the social and economic status of these detribalized Indians who remained in Mormon communities throughout their lives.

Brian Cannon is an associate professor of history and the director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University. For the past fourteen years he has taught courses in western American history, Utah history, and twentieth-century U.S. history at BYU. He has been honored for his teaching with an Alcuin Fellowship in General Education and has received awards for his research and publications from the Mormon History Association, the Western History Association, the Agricultural History Society and the Society for History in the Federal Government.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B2.

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