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Media Article # 415

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Wildman of the Navidad: Truth or Tall Tale?

By Randy Reese
Victoria Advocate

The strange footprints began to appear during the steamy summer of 1834 along the banks of the Navidad River at Beaty Point in Jackson County.

At the same time, sweet potatoes and corn began to disappear from area fields.

Early Texans on the river bottoms near Edna were baffled: Was it Native Americans, a runaway slave - or maybe even some kind of strange creature?

No one seemed to have the answer then, and the questions still baffle historians today.

That's the way the legend of the Wild Man of the Navidad began - or Wild Woman, depending on which version of the stories people tend to believe.

Eventually, even pigs came up missing, and legend has it that the mysterious character would even go into houses in the middle of the night and steal half of what was found in the cupboards.

Jackson County Judge Harrison Stafford says that since it's been more than 150 years ago since whatever it was purportedly roamed this part of Texas, these days there is little talk about the stealthy character.

"Some of the older folks still talk about it and we usually have something about him every year in the parade. But other than that, all we know is what we can read in the books."

What may be the most complete recap of the legend is chronicled in "The Cavalcade of Jackson County," a historic report written by Ira Thomas Taylor, who served as school superintendent in the 1930s. Taylor championed the Wild Man theory and even went as far as to say that the man was eventually captured and died in Victoria County.

The other in-depth journal on the legend came in 1938, when Texas folk author J. Frank Dobie published his book, "Tales of Old-Time Texas." Dobie concluded that the phantom figure had to be a woman because several well-documented sightings had said it had long, flowing hair and facial features more like a woman than a man.

But no matter who or what the notorious bog dweller was, enough information has survived to this day to uphold at least portions of the folk legend.

One report was that the wild man arrived in Jackson County after escaping a slave transport ship in Galveston in the early 1830s, according to Taylor's book.

"He escaped with a gun and a knife and crossed the Brazos and the Colorado before settling into the bottoms of the Navidad because of its abundance in fruit and wildlife," Taylor wrote.

First signs of the footprints came in 1834 and were fairly active for two years. At first there were reports of three sets of footprints, sparking speculation that the man may have had a woman and a child with him. But Taylor said no official sighting of them was ever reported.

The Rev. Samuel C.A. Rogers, a circuit-riding minister in the area, was quoted in Taylor's account as saying that he first saw the three prints in the spring of 1845 and continued to spot them for several years before all but the largest disappeared.

"A few years after that time," Rogers wrote in his journal, "a hunting party near Morales found a peculiar pile of leaves and sticks covering the skeleton of a man."

Rogers said he spent many nights trying to catch a glimpse of the wild man, but never saw anything else.

In Taylor's interpretation of the story, he said the first time the wild woman idea began to surface was in the latter 1840s, after the man's body was found.

In that decade, Rogers said the strangest episodes of the wild man saga were reported.

"In the fall, about the time to butcher hogs, the wild man would creep onto farms and ranches, take the fattened pig and replace it with a smaller, lean one. No one could figure out how a man or a woman could get past fierce dogs while carrying a pig and get away with it."

Another account Taylor reported was the wild man's affection for knives and saws. "People throughout the area told of times when their saws and knives mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear weeks later shined and sharpened to perfection."

In 1842, Rogers reported that a traveling cowboy found a camp with a workshop, a snare, a Bible and many stolen tools from the area.

Rogers wrote that in 1850, the largest hunt for the wild man was organized, and the hunters did trap a man in a tree, surrounded by baying dogs, horses and men with guns.

"They told him to come down, but he could not understand, so one of the hunters climbed the tree and brought him down," Rogers wrote. "He was a black man and the size of his feet matched the ones that had been found during the past 17 years.

"They kept him in jail for some time as news of the capture reached all over the country and into Europe. He must have been one of the most famous men of his time after that."

While in captivity, a trader who reportedly spoke the African dialect of the wild man talked with the jailed man and reported that he said he was the son of a chieftain in Africa and was sold to slave trader Monroe Edwards for a knife and tobacco.

"When he arrived in Texas, he escaped with a companion and made his way to the Navidad bottoms," Rogers wrote. "He said he was able to get into the houses at night to steal supplies because his tribe knew of certain hours of the night when dogs would not awake when they heard sounds."

The story says he was eventually sold in Victoria as a slave to P.T. Buckford [Pelitiah Bickford] of Refugio County and given the name Jimbo. He was later sold to Zebrian [Seabourne, Seabron] Lewis in Victoria. He was freed after the Civil War and reportedly died in 1884 on a ranch along the San Antonio River. [Pelitiah Bickford was son-in-law to Seabourne Lewis.]

Dobie's main dispute with the wild man theory comes from two different angles - a reported sighting of the woman and the fact that the old slave caught in 1850 was not capable of the acts of stealth and strength he had been reported to have accomplished.

Dobie describes in his book a near capture of the wild woman during an intensified hunt for the creature in 1846.

"Presently the breaking of small sticks and the hurried rustling of the brush near one of the lasso men announced the approach of something. A minute later it bounded with a light and flying step into the open prairie in the bright light of the moon.

"It was the wild woman. She ran directly across the prairie in the direction of the main forest. The man nearest her rode a fleet horse and it needed all the speed it had to keep up with the object of pursuit. As the figure neared the dark woods, the rider was able to throw his lasso. But, as the rope neared the woman, the horse shied away and the lasso fell short. The figure darted into the woods never to be seen again."

Dobie said one fact had been gained from the event. The rider who had almost roped the fleeing figure said it had long, flowing hair that trailed down almost to its feet and wore no clothing. He said her body seemed to be covered entirely by short, brown hair.

"As she fled to the woods, she dropped a club to the ground that was about 5 feet long and polished to a wonder," Dobie added.

"Of course all of this happened many years ago and in the telling you can always guarantee some build up in the information will take place.

"If these things did happen, I cannot explain how," Dobie said.

Victoria Advocate

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