Updated: Jan 8
Wild Man (and Wild Woman) stories show up in the folklore of many cultures throughout the world. The Chinese have their Yeren, the Basque have Basa-Juana, and the Medieval Europeans had Woodwoses.
Left to Right-Yeren, Basajuan, Woodose or European Wild Woman riding a Unicorn
When early immigrants settled in places like Idaho, they brought these stories of Wild Men with them. An early mention of a Wild Man in Idaho is from 1867 and described the creature as Half Man and Half Bear (no half pig). Unfortunately, the original newspaper with the details of this story is not available. (Idaho Statesman Feb 28, 1867)
On October 10, 1882, the Wood River Times reported a story that would become known as the “Wild Man of Idaho”. According to the Times, two cowboys were out looking for lost cattle on the Camas Prairie when they spotted a creature standing over six feet tall, with long and muscly arms, reaching down past its knees. The body was covered in dark matted fur. It was “dark and swarthy”, and had a long, curly beard. The “beast’s” fingers had long, sharp, nails - and it acted like an animal that had rarely, if ever, seen humans face to face. The two cowboys dismounted and chased the Wild Man on foot, but lost it in the lava fields. The paper claimed this creature had been sighted several times by both natives and settlers in the area. The story reported by Wood River Times would be reprinted all over the nation and the Illustrated Police News in Boston ran the story on December 2, 1882 that included this illustration of the Wild Man of Idaho. A few weeks later a rival newspaper reported that the Wild Man had been shot and killed by a bird hunter, ending the reign of the Wild Man of Idaho. Most people felt that the Wood River Times had completely made up the story to sell papers, but what is interesting is how well the description of the creature in the paper, and the illustration fit with what we know of Wild Man stories.
Illustration: Illustrated Police Weekly Magazine (Boston), December 2, 1882
In 1885, a real Wild Man was captured in Alturas County, he was bathed, shaved, and given clothes. Someone recognized him as an old prospector named Riley, and he was taken before a judge and determined to be insane. They shipped him off to the Oregon Insane Asylum. The mentally ill Wild Man would later become typical of Wild Man stories in the West. (Idaho Statesman October 20, 1885)
In 1892, Teddy Roosevelt published a book called “The Wilderness Hunter” where he presents a Wild Man story that he seems to feel was credible. This Wild Man was spotted between the Salmon River in Idaho and the Wise River of Montana. This Wild Man was aggressive and territorial, scaring two trappers and possibly killing one of them.
There was one Wild Man that really brought the lore into the modern era. George Pettingill was a Civil War veteran who came out west to mine after the war. He settled in Butte, Montana for a time before he just became sick of society and decided to live on his own in the wilderness. For more than 40 years, George survived by himself between Salmon, Idaho and Butte. Before he died he made a few friends in Butte, and he was photographed for the local paper. You can imagine coming across a man like this in the wilderness and how one might mistake him for a sasquatch or true Wild Man. Pettingill might also be the Wild Man mentioned by Teddy Roosevelt. The time and the place were correct.
George Pettingill and Professor Knaub, who convinced Pettingill to reenter society just before his death. (Photo-Montana Standard September 7, 2004)
Wild Man stories throughout history, and especially in early Idaho represent the conflict between primitive chaos and civilized order. As humans encroach into the wilderness, the wilderness encroaches back into humans. Even though the Wild Man of Idaho was likely an invention of the editor of the Wood River Times, he represents a hope that some bits of Idaho will always remain in their natural, wild state.
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