In 1958, journalist Andrew Genzoli of the Humboldt Times highlighted a fun, if dubious, letter from a reader about loggers in northern California who’d discovered mysteriously large footprints. “Maybe we have a relative of the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas,” Genzoli jokingly wrote in his September 21 column alongside the letter.
Later, Genzoli said that he’d simply thought the mysterious footprints “made a good Sunday morning story.” But to his surprise, it really fascinated readers. In response, Genzoli and fellow Humboldt Times journalist Betty Allen published follow-up articles about the footprints, reporting the name loggers had given to the so-called creature who left the tracks—“Big Foot.” And so a legend was born.
“There are various wild man myths from all over the world,” says Joshua Blu Buhs, author of Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend. In western Canada, the Sts’ailes First Nation have the “Sasq’ets,” the supposed origin of the word “Sasquatch.” However, the modern U.S. concept of bigfoot can be traced quite directly to the Humboldt Times stories in 1958.
“People later go back and dig through old newspapers and stuff and find scattered reports of a wild man here, a wild man there,” he says. “But it doesn’t coalesce into a general discussion until the ‘50s.”
Even though loggers blamed acts of vandalism on Bigfoot, Allen thought that most of them didn’t really believe in the creature. It seemed to her that they were just passing along stories with a “legendary flavor.” Still, the story spread to newspapers all over the country, and the TV show Truth or Consequences offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove the existence of Bigfoot.
“Who is making the huge 16-inch tracks in the vicinity of Bluff Creek?” Genzoli wrote in one of his columns that October. “Are the tracks a human hoax? Or, are they the actual marks of a huge but harmless wild-man, traveling through the wilderness? Can this be some legendary sized animal?”
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Once Bigfoot’s story went public, it became a character in men’s adventure magazines and cheap trade paperback novels. In these stories, he—for Bigfoot was definitely a “he”—was a primal, dangerous creature out of the past who lurked in the modern wilderness. By the 1970s, pseudo-documentaries were investigating his existence and films were portraying him as a sexual predator.
In the ‘80s, Bigfoot showed his softer side. He became “associated with environmentalism, and a symbol of the wilderness that we need to preserve,” Buhs says. One big example is the 1987 movie Harry and the Hendersons, which portrayed Bigfoot as a friendly, misunderstood creature in need of protection from John Lithgow and his family.
So why has the Bigfoot legend persisted for 60 years? “It takes on its own momentum because it is a media icon,” Buh suggests.
Just as no one really needs to explain that characters who turn into wolves during a full moon are werewolves, no one needs to explain who a hairy man-ape walking out of the woods would be. “It’s just something that’s easy to refer to,” Buh says. That would be Bigfoot.